Monday, 1 September 2014

Warning: Follies Past was not actually written by Jane Austen. Also, it is not a Margaret Atwood book.

I recently read a post on book blog Reading-in-Bed which spoke of author's rights to express their views, and in particular to respond to reviews of their work. This inspired me to share my own views about book reviews generally, or actually I should say book ratings. Hopefully it will spark a debate and ultimately a scandal on social media, in turn making me into a household name. Wouldn't that be nice.

Let me begin by thanking anyone who has ever written a review of my book, however brief or critical. There is no greater gift to an indie author than to leave a review of their book, on your own blog, on Goodreads, on Amazon, anywhere, and I assure you, I feel the gift of every review posted of my book. My comments, I hope, do not detract from my gratitude.

The trouble with open-source book ratings that I have observed is that everyone has a different approach to rating. There are no objective standards. I think, and I could be wrong, that the purpose of a book review is to aid potential readers in deciding whether it is worth the investment of both the purchase price and the time and emotion required to read it.

Everyone reacts differently to books, and if you follow a particular reviewer whose tastes you generally share, you know you can rely on their reaction, and trust their judgment. This is why book blogs are great, because you get to know the blogger, their tastes and preferences, and you know how your own opinions compare with theirs, and this is helpful in deciding whether a book is worth reading. Also, many book bloggers list their criteria and rating scheme for books they review, so you can look that up and get an idea of what they mean by their rating. But this requires some work and is focused on the reviewer rather than the book.

As a reader, if I look up a book on Goodreads and/or Amazon, I just look at the star rating. Provided it has enough reviews that the rating seems a fair reflection of public opinion, I probably won't read it unless it has 4 stars or more. There are so many books out there, that I only want to read really good ones. 3 stars to me just doesn't seem like a really good book, regardless of the genre or subject matter.

I don't have a personal relationship with all the dozens if not hundreds of people who might rate a certain book, and I am not going to research each one to see whether their tastes accord with my own so I can assess what their particular rating means. I want to be able to rely on reviewers to give a rating that fits the book, to consider the potential reader above the reviewer's own personal tastes when rating a book on a public forum. I also don't like to read reviews before reading a book, because I find it colours my reading experience. I do enjoy reading reviews after I have read the  book, because I often find others are able to articulate what it was that I either loved or didn't love about it. But this means that I take the average rating at face value without looking to the reviews for the reasons behind the rating.

Therefore, I say, ratings should be based on how well the book fulfills its promise to the reader. That is my thesis statement.

When reviewers give a rating that does not actually reflect the quality of the book, I call this a false rating. One false rating, and likely the most common, happens when someone rates a book in a genre they don't enjoy. I, for one, do not enjoy horror. If I rate a horror book in accordance with how much I enjoyed it, I will give it a false rating of zero, most likely. I have to rate it in accordance with the kind of book it purports to be. This is sort of like authorial intent. What matters is what the reader expects and wants from that kind of book. I wouldn't rate a horror book because I have no idea what readers enjoy about that genre. I could leave a review, and that might offer some insight, but a rating would be wrong, for me.

Imagine, for example, that you go to a restaurant and order the duck, either because of the recommendation of the waitress, or because it is the special, or for whatever reason. The duck has n ice crispy skin, the meat falls off the bone and melts in your mouth and the sauce is delicious. You then write a review on Yelp giving it 3 stars because you don't really care for duck that much and you kind of wish you had ordered the lamb. Would you have given it a better rating if the duck had tasted of lamb? I should hope not! Duck is supposed to taste of duck. Don't defame the restaurant because you happen to prefer the lamb that you didn't order.

No let us take a literary example: my own book. Some reviewers have said that my book was exactly like Jane Austen, but they didn't really like Jane Austen, so they gave it 3 stars. The obvious flaw in this approach is that people looking up the rating on my book DO like Jane Austen. My book purports to appeal to lovers of Jane Austen, for all the reasons they loved the originals, so ratings ought to reflect the extent to which it achieves that end. If a reviewer doesn't share that sensibility, or thinks all books should be like Margaret Atwood's books, then they should not be rating my book, in my opinion. I don't mean to be snarky, but I didn't write a Margaret Atwood book. I never promised that. I promised a book that satisfies the Jane Austen craving. (Nobody has actually compared me to Margaret Atwood, by the way. I just made that up for illustrative purposes. And many Jane Austen fans have left very appropriate and much-cherished 5-star ratings, as well as a few lower ratings that were supported by appropriate criticism. I speak here only of the misguided rating.)

This raises the question* of what to do if you are a book blogger with followers and a reputation and you are reviewing a book outside of your usual genre. You want to give a review that your own readers can rely on as consistent with your usual tastes, but the book is not in your usual taste, even though it is good for what it is. I will not go so far as to tell the revered book blogger what to do, but I think it worth considering the difference between ratings on a blog and public ratings on an open-source review site like Goodreads or Amazon.

I did get one rating of 2 stars from someone who said they thought my book was well-written, consistent with Jane Austen's style and characters and plot and era, etc. but she just couldn't get into it because it wasn't actually written by Jane Austen. That is the ultimate false rating. By that logic, all fan fiction should get 2 stars or below. Readers can all see that it isn't written by Jane Austen. They don't need a 2-star review to warn them that it isn't.

Was that too opinionated?

(*It doesn't beg the question. See my earlier, highly pedantic post.)

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice.

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  1. No comments?? Let's see if we can stir up some controversy :) Thanks for responding to my post!

    The way people (reviewers, authors, normal people) rate books, and interpret those ratings, is very personal, in my opinion. At least, the way I rate, the reasons I rate, and the way I interpret ratings is quite different from they way you do! I like to look at star ratings for individual ratings, because it gives me an idea about the tone of the review - positive, negative, indifferent. I put very little stock in aggregate ratings on Goodreads or elsewhere, because everyone interprets the 1-5 scale differently, and even if they didn't, everyone's taste is not my taste.

    I wouldn't hesitate to read something with fewer than 4 stars. Star ratings is not even part of my consideration set. I usually get to a book through a blog post or recommendation or *something* that's made me interested, and a 3-star avg. rating won't deter me. A lowish rating might make me even more interested, to see "what's wrong" or if I agree with it. Plus, like, The Great Gatsby has under 4 stars on Goodreads :)

    I have actually `rated up` by half a star on Goodreads, in a case just like you mentioned, and also an indie author. i.e. a 2.5 on my blog became a 3 on Goodreads. That`s also because you can`t do half stars! I felt a little weird about it though. I could have easily gone for a two, but decided not to "do that" to the author. For authors who are either well-established or dead, I wouldn't bother.

    I don't think your thesis works outside of "genre," if you know what I mean - I feel like I can guess the authorial intentions of a genre author, but not so much a literary or general fiction author. Ugh I feel snobby even saying that. Do you think certain genres have a set "promise" to the reader? What about genres that don't?

    Here's the only part of your post I take issue with: " to consider the potential reader above the reviewer's own personal tastes when rating a book on a public forum." One thing you've missed (well, probably not, but didn't mention here) is that book bloggers don't just write about books to be part of the marketing machine. It's part of it, especially when you're accepting review copies and such, but part of it is just the joy of reading/writing, creative outlet, participating in a community, and other touchy feely things. My blog is about my personal tastes. I think that's okay. My Goodreads account is a reading journal first and foremost - what did I read? when? did I like it? - and a public forum or review aggregator second.

    PS thank you for raising and not begging the question. Ever since I learned this rule I see it misused everywhere!

    1. Thanks for being the first to post, and for the controversy. After all, what good is an opinion if you can't even disagree with it? And what is better for notoriety than a scandal?
      I actually totally agree with you, though, especially with regard to reviews. I often enjoy book reviews more than the book itself. It is an art unto itself, really. Many bloggers are better writers than many authors in fact, and are often more read. I just think that ratings, specifically, are so flat. They may be complex to give, but to view, they only offer a number declaring, in basic terms, how good the book is.
      There are many ways in which a book can be good, and I feel that there is most justice in a rating that judges the book in its own terms, whatever those are. I don't think this is limited to genre fiction. Some literary fiction is very dark, some very inspiring, poignant, gripping, etc. I am a sentence-lover myself. I live for a well-turned phrase, but I have would give a high rating to a book that has a very simple writing style if the story was good enough, the characters compelling, etc. I just don't think a book has to be all things to all things to all people to deserve 5 stars.
      And I am totally with you on going easier on lesser-known writers. For myself, I love to rail against what is popular. I confess I love Harry Potter, but I am always bashing J.K. Rowling, like her characters and Hogwarts deserve to be written better, forgetting that she actually created them. And I do tend to bash Margaret Atwood a lot too, in no small part because it is such a blasphemy for a Canadian author.
      Well, this will never do! There is hardly any contention in this controversy. (I love to say conTROVersy, like my husband does, with an English accent. It is so much fun to say that way.) I must learn to be less conciliatory. And together with the postscript below, this comment threatens to outstrip the original post. This really is shocking.
      P.S. What ARE we going to do about this begging-the-question travesty? Do you know how many times I have had to hold my tongue in the face of someone who should know better, like a judge, or a fellow lawyers. "I object, your Honour! Counsel is misusing the phrase begging the question. How can this court rely on the arguments of one so ignorant in the basic phraseology of rhetoric. I rest my case!"