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Can we really trust reviews?

ReviewerReviews: it’s what writers and publishers alike both love and dread. A good review can brighten anyone’s day, as it validates all the effort that’s been put into the work and rewards the faith that the publisher had in the writer’s talent. It can also lead to more sales, which is always something to be welcomed. But even a bad review can be useful, if it’s well-written and closely reasoned – letting an author know where they’re going wrong is just as valuable as praising what they got right.

Joe Public – Reviewer

The online book retailers Amazon have had the facility to enable Joe Public to upload their own reviews of books for a long while now. This can be seen as both a good thing and a bad thing simultaneously. Good because it means that the people who actually buy the product get to tell others what they thought of the books and whether it’s worth buying. But the downside is, as I’ve become increasingly aware, that judgement is a very personal thing – and that Amazon’s 5-star rating system is far too inflexible in its present form. Books that should never have been written, let alone have seen the light of day or thrust into the public arena, are receiving top ratings from readers, while there are worthy, well-written books that barely get a 2-star rating. Apart from questions of personal taste and preference, it makes me question the whole basis of these reviews, thus rendering them untrustworthy in my eyes.

What should a 5-star review really mean?

This, then, neatly brings me onto the subject of this month’s column, a subject which has given me particular cause for concern: the vexatious issue of writers receiving 5-star reviews from readers and any value said reviews may hold. I’ve noticed that quite a few writers get more than their fair share of these top ratings. On the face of it, this seems like that validation I was taking about above: if nothing else, it amounts to a serious boost for the writer concerned. But I think we should take a closer look at things.

Firstly, what exactly should a 5-star rating imply to a potential purchaser? For me, it means absolute perfection in every aspect – writing, pacing, characters and their ongoing development, as well as plot and treatment. It implies that it will tick all my boxes for a perfect, faultless read. In other words, that there is, in essence, nothing wrong with any part of the book – at all. But, as we all know, perfection, by its very definition, is nigh-on impossible to achieve, and lucky is the new or lesser-known writer who happens to even come near it. There are many well-established authors out there who are still trying to reach for such heady heights, and the act of striving for that elusive summit is what drives them on to write another novel in yet another attempt. I would venture that, without that level of dissatisfaction in their quest to improve their art, there would be quite a few authors who would have just given up long ago.

Swedish-natureHowever, according to the number of 5-star reviews on Amazon posted practically daily, literary perfection is being reached every single day. This suggests that there are hundreds, nay thousands, of stellar authors out there who are just waiting to wow the socks off the genre world. Thus, it follows that there should be a constant buzz on the grapevine about these authors and their work. However, this is not the case.  Yes, occasionally one does hear about a superb writer who deserves all the positive press they get, but the number we’re talking about is very small. So, patently, the idea that there are so many incredible authors is nonsense. I have no doubt that there are great writers in amongst them, the odds would necessarily indicate so, but for so many to exist without them being noticed by the world in general just beggars belief. Surely, if it were the case then we would be hearing about them a lot more, across the full spectrum of media.

Depressingly, reading through the previews only serves to underline the fact that most of these books contain anything but great writing – in fact, quite the opposite. The dissonance between a great many (but not all, it must be emphasised) of the reviews and how the book itself reads leaves me thinking that, revolutionary paradigm notwithstanding, the e-book phenomenon is not necessarily as wonderful as some of its champions make it out to be.  And with the sheer volume of being upload to Amazon on a regular basis, the ratio of worthy writers to talentless hacks is heavily weighted toward the latter.

This state of affairs infers several things: firstly, that Amazon’s system is faulty, as it appears that people’s perceptions of what is good on an objective level isn’t taken into account by that system and therefore isn’t to be trusted. In my view the 5-star system is completely inadequate to the task of encapsulating the nuances of a reader’s reactions to a book. But then again, it could just simply be the case that readers don’t possess enough critical nous to offer an objective view of what constitutes good or bad literature, which isn’t their fault. Most people know exactly what they like to read in a book and if it ticks those boxes then they’ll inevitably give whatever they’ve just read the top rating, regardless of the author’s writing ability or any other facet of the book. This is why, presumably, some terribly-written books receive 5-stars.

Identity crisis and a distrustful system

Over and above that, there’s the very real problem of the authors themselves reviewing their own books under numerous aliases, which has been known to happen on more than a few occasions, as well as the author’s friends being enlisted to big up the work. Apart from being downright dishonest and unworthy of any writer serious about their literary efforts, it also skews the public’s perception, leading to the false notion that the book might be worth them parting money for. In too many cases, it isn’t, and the planted reviews exist solely to generate sales by underhand means. The net result is that this further undermines the trust that can be placed in the system.

‘Like’ it even if you don’t like it

There’s also a new game in town, to do with tagging and liking an author’s book. I’ve seen authors blatantly request these, and then friends and colleagues responding in droves, without actually bothering to read the book first. This particular aspect leaves one with a nasty taste in the mouth, as it once again skews the overall perception that any chance purchaser might have of an author/book. There’s nothing inherently wrong with supporting an author’s work, far from it. However, whilst it superficially appears to be an innocuous request, underlying it is a species of (mostly inadvertent) dishonesty.

filmsWhat I am not saying is that there aren’t honest reviewers on Amazon – the majority most definitely are, it’s just that the inadequacy of the system as a whole, plus its vulnerability to being exploited, tends to put even the good ones under a cloud, which is completely unfair. It is, however, typical of the human habit of exploiting a system to one’s own advantage. If the temptation’s there, then people will grab it with both hands.  Whilst I fully sympathise with the desire to see an author’s work selling healthily, there are means by which this can be achieved without having to resort to anything devious. There are hundreds of book bloggers out there who will give your book an honest appraisal. Whilst feedback from friends and relatives is good, it’s as well to bear in mind that they are close to you so therefore their motivations are completely different to strangers. I’m not saying that their opinions are worthless, just that in the grand scheme of things the positive assessment of a stranger carries far more weight than that of a family member or a mate.

The same thing applies to an Amazon review, given its current inadequacy. Be very discerning when it comes to deciding whether or not to take a chance on an unknown writer’s work: look for the views of others first before going ahead. Generally a consensus of opinion, tending either way, is a good indication of a book’s merits or otherwise. You’d shop around when looking for a new car or house: why wouldn’t you do the same when choosing a new book to read?


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    • Colin Leslie on May 3, 2012 at 6:12 am
    • Reply

    Great post Simon and while I agree with most of your points I disagree slightly with your comments on five star reviews. I would suggest that perfection in writing is impossible and that a piece of writing should be judged on it’s impact on the reader rather than judging it from what we percieve as “good” writing. As an example I recently gave Alex Miles a five star review for Glory and Splendour his first collection yet within the review i pointed out a couple of criticisms which meant that surely the book should be a four star at best. Well my point is that there were moments in that book which transcended any issues i had, there was some of the best writing i have read in a long time and in order to make that point I gave it a five star review. My definition of a Five star review is simple, it is a brilliant read, it may have flaws, it may not be perfect but for me if it’s an enjoyable, fascinating, original story it deserves that acclaim.

  1. I’d never see a “consensus of opinion” or “mass approval” as an indicator of quality, On the contrary, Oscar Wilde said that a work of art that split the reader/audience into love and hate equally was probably the mark of true success! The Artist, a mediocre film IMHO, was adored by millions. The Road, a truly fantastic film IMHO, was ignored. So, as regards my own tastes, I would rather go by the recommendation of a select few friends than the great unwashed.

  2. What he ^ said 🙂

    I’m always highly suspicious of something that has EVERYBODY loving it, especially as often it’ll snowball into a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Regarding Mr Volk’s examples, I did like The Artist, but I only liked it. That may be because novelty aside it didn’t really offer much, or it might be because all the hype meant I expected too much of it and ended up with a poorer opinion as a result. (The Road, though, was excellent, and one of the best adaptations of a novel I’ve seen).

    As for writing your own reviews – well that’s terrible, and shame on them.

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