As many of us know, there have been some issues recently regarding Amazon’s new policy on reviews. Going forward, any reviews that seem to be obviously deleterious (especially by a ‘rival’ author), or any reviews too positive where the reviewer has ‘a direct financial stake’, will be deleted.
You can argue the merits and faults of such a policy until the cows come home (just where have those damn cows gone, anyway?), but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about reviews that should be deleted because they’re just really terrible reviews done by people who shouldn’t be reviewing anything, anywhere, anyway.
Example – here’s a review I found on Goodreads (I will not name the book or reviewer to protect everyone’s anonymity):
First, let me start off by saying that I adore *********** – at least what I know of her. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her, and she is charming and lovely. She has the most beautiful laugh I have ever heard, bar none.
However, I do not like her books. Oh, don’t get me wrong. They’re well-written, which is why I’ve given this three stars. But ********** is a very bloody-minded (in the older meaning of the term) writer! This book gave me nightmares.
In some ways, her subject matter is similar to that of **********. She writes of young people in circumstances of neglect, abuse, addiction, etc. I don’t shrink from reading of such things, but ************ takes it to a level beyond what I can stomach – bordering on horror. One of the stories reminds me of … (a torture case in the local news).
**********’s writing is stark and effective. Her brief descriptions are rich in mood. (e.g. “The sun crawled up the sky.”) Her stories tell of life’s underbelly and are probably more true to live than I care to think. But there are some aspects of life I simply don’t want to examine that closely.
Let me make clear that I’m not doing this to be mean or spiteful; I’m really trying to point our how we, as readers and potential customers, have to be just as critical of reviews as the reviewers are attempting to be of the books they’re reviewing. Hopefully you’ve already determined for yourself everything that’s wrong with this one, but I’m still going to run through it:
1) The part about how the author is a really nice person who laughs well. Okay, that’s great. Does this have anything to do with the book? No.
2) The reviewer declares the author’s books are “well-written,” and her style “stark and effective (with) her brief descriptions … rich in mood,” which is all pretty positive, and, you know, relevant, but then the reviewer says she only gave this book three stars out of five because it’s “very bloody-minded” and “gave her nightmares.”
Okay. Just because a book’s subject matter may be out of your comfort zone, that has nothing to do with the quality of the book. The book is not worse because you got scared. It would be like if someone said that Carrie was a bad book because there was too much pig’s blood. It wouldn’t make sense.
If you believe there’s a lot of gratuitous blood or gore that’s only there for the sake of it, and it actually detracts from the story, then that would be a valid reason for lowering your critical opinion, but you can’t subtract from your rating total just because you chickened out.
3) The part about “there are some aspects of life I simply don’t want to examine that closely.” Again, just because the subject matter of a book is unsavoury or uninteresting to you, that doesn’t mean the book is bad.
You may think I’m just being pedantic, and that I’m just picking on this person for lack of anything else do to, but given that many authors basically live or die by their reviews, the difference between 3 and 5 stars is pretty significant. Imagine an aspiring writer putting a book out there about some important social issue, and s/he being swamped with low reviews because the reviewers all said ‘well, I thought that was too unsettling,’ without at all grasping the point of the book. Any potential purchasers would take a quick look at the reviews graph, see a low rating, and move on.
I also have a bit of a personal stake in this issue given that my protagonist is pretty unlikeable as a person, and I just know that eventually someone is going to give me a low review and say something like “well, it was well-written, but the guy is such a jerk!”, which would totally miss the point. I know he’s a jerk – the question within the book is, why?
How to solve this? Can’t, really. You can have obviously malicious reviews that violate the guidelines removed, but there aren’t any easy options for ones that are just poorly conceived. There’s the option on Amazon to say whether ‘this review was helpful or not,’ but even if you click ‘no,’ while the text of the review will be moved down and eventually hidden from the main page, the star review still counts toward the total. That person’s stupidity will forever haunt you and your book, and if other people do actually read the review and they aren’t wearing their ‘intelligence’ hat that day, they may just take at face value what that reviewer said and repeat the same misguided allegations on their own. Dumb breeds dumber.
Unless Amazon adds the function to flag reviewers based on ‘unqualified to review due to lack of critical acumen,’ I think we just have to live with it and hope that no one’s literary dreams end up getting killed in the process.
(BTW: I’ve read the book in question here, and I gave it 5 stars – it’s a phenomenal piece of writing).