Not too long ago, while browsing through my virtual bookshelf on Goodreads.com, I became inspired to go back to some of my favorite books and see what other readers & reviewers had to say about them. The result was a surprisingly unpleasant experience, which lead to my making a comment on Twitter about the need for effective reviewers to be empathetic readers. The response I received to that Tweet was unexpectedly overwhelming, with replies in agreement and confutation.
As book bloggers and reviewers, we all have an obvious passion for reading. Why would we spend our free time and our own money building up our blogs, buying books, organizing events, and giving away books, swag, etc., if not out of love for the material and the industry? But with that passion, there comes great responsibility.
We must recognize that the book blogging world has expanded exponentially over the past few years, particularly with the advent of electronic reading devices. The landscape of the reading and reviewing world has shifted – how many average readers pick up a copy of The Paris Review or the New York Times Review of Books? Not many. Instead, they subscribe to book blogs or browse for reviews online, which inevitably lead to book blogs. Like it or not, we have become the new critics – and we need to take that responsibility seriously.
So, when I encounter reviews on Goodreads.com, LibraryThing, Shelfari or similar websites and these reviews are obviously biased or incomplete (such as 1-star ratings of books the reviewer clearly didn’t understand, or 5-star ratings of books the reviewer has never read but would like to) there is a serious disservice being done to those who are browsing titles and searching average ratings for recommendations and, perhaps, an even greater injustice to the authors who deserve honest, specific feedback on their work – be it positive or negative.
Roof Beam Reader is committed to providing comprehensive reviews of quality, without bias or coercion. The following passages provide thoughts on how I aim to achieve this, consistently and under varying circumstances.
First, let me clarify what I mean by being an empathetic reader. I do not mean that we need to try to like books that are simply not very good (or, let’s face it, downright bad). What I mean is this: our reviews should be constructed based upon the literary merit and/or entertainment value of a book, depending on its intended audience and purpose. Of course, whether it “speaks to us” personally is important, particularly if we are reading the book for pleasure; however, there are countless books whose subject matter, narrator, or characters were beyond my realm of experience, yet, as a reader, I could empathize with their situations and emotions. If you find that you are reading a book that is not wholly relatable to your life and experiences, ask yourself: “But, how would I feel if I were dealing with this particular situation?”
One of the reviews I came across on Goodreads.com was written by a woman in her twenties, who was commenting on a book narrated by a teenage boy. The story involved sexual situations and experiences with drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, the reviewer gave this book a 1-star rating, stating: “When I was 15 I would have never engaged in things like this, and neither would any of my friends.” So, because her personal history was different, the book had no merit?
As a male reader, it would be easy for me to remain disconnected from female narrators. How can I, as a man of the 21st Century, feel any connection with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Zenobia, from The Blithedale Romance? The answer is simply this: because I imagine it is so. Yes, it takes a great writer to create characters and situations which allow the reader to feel s/he could be a part of the story, but it also requires an active reader to make the effort, to let go of contemporary restraints, be they temporal, socioeconomic, cultural, religious or otherwise, and just feel. I do not know what it would be like to live in a world where women are used as biological vessels and nothing more, as Offred of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale does; but I can imagine myself in that world, and I can reflect on how it would feel to live in a society that would force my mother, my sister, and my friends into sexual servitude. I am not a woman, that particular world does not exist, and my society is unlike the one created in the book, but that does not mean the book is irrelevant to me.
I recently found a 1-Star review on Goodreads.com for one of my favorite books, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was flabbergasted that anyone could dislike the book so much as to give it the most negative rating possible, particularly since my experience with it was the polar-opposite. Still, I was curious and approached the review with an open-mind and a desire to learn how this book spoke to others (having already known how it speaks to me). The reviewer essentially rated the book so low not because it was poorly written, nor because it had lack of character development or depth, nor because it was meaningless or inaccurate; instead, the review, summed up, came to this: “The main character was a 15-year-old who didn’t know what masturbation was and who cried a lot, so he wasn’t believable and I couldn’t finish the book.” Astounding.
Reading further into the comments on the review (not in the actual review itself), I discovered that the reviewer had not read more than 40-pages of this 200+ page book. How can one make a judgment about a character and about an entire book, when they have read less than 20% of the text? Had the reader given the book a chance and read through to the end, she would have soon realized that two major events in the main character’s life, which are revealed later in the story, have much to do with his introverted personality and his seemingly extraordinary sensitivity.
So, what should we do when we choose not to finish a book, whether because we do not connect with the story or its characters, or because it is so poorly written that the effort doesn’t seem worth the outcome? I think, in both cases, it is perfectly appropriate to write a reflection post about the book. It is necessary, however, to explain in your response that you did not finish the book and clarify just how far into it you got before you stopped reading. People out there are reading our reviews for guidance – so, to rate a book poorly and then not explain that you did not finish the book or elaborate on why exactly you chose not to continue, is misleading and irresponsible.
That being said, it is perfectly fine not to finish a book – there have been a few books that, try as I might, I could not see through to the end (I still have to try Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho again); but those books do not get reviewed on Roof Beam Reader. It is an issue of fairness and, in fairness, I believe a book should be completed before being reviewed. That is not to say, of course, that I won’t mention why I stopped reading it – that, too, my readers deserve to know.
Years ago, when I first joined Goodreads.com (it was still in beta version, believe it or not!), I spent much of my time searching through reviews of the books I had already read, to get an idea of how people were organizing their thoughts. The idea of reviewing and rating books was still very new to me at the time, so I was looking for some direction. Imagine my surprise when I came across a 1-star review for The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (who, incidentally, is the inspiration for the name Roof Beam Reader).
Do I know that there are people out there in the world who did not like or connect with Catcher? Yes, of course. I have had my fair share of conversations with readers who found Holden Caulfield to be bratty and unlikable (which is fine and even true, and which, ironically, is why some people hate the book and why some review it so highly). This review, however, one of the first I ever read, went something like this:
“I haven’t read this book, but I’m giving it one star and will never read it, because the guy who shot John Lennon loved it so that creeps me out.”
To me, this type of review – this type of thinking– borders on blasphemy. Yet, even now, from experienced book bloggers, I occasionally stumble across books that were given positive or negative ratings, but have never been read! Some bloggers will give 5-stars to the next book in their favorite series (like the new Cassandra Clare book) but advanced reader copies haven’t even been released because the book is still in the editing phase. Conversely, as with that review of Catcher above, some book bloggers will give the lowest possible rating to a book they have never read, simply because they do not like the author or premise or a previous book by the same writer. There have been times, too, when I have seen negative reviews based on an earlier/unfinished version of the book and while the reviewer may have had valid reasons for disliking it in its initial form, this is not that book and thus deserves its own judgment.
If we take ourselves seriously and if we truly believe in what we are doing, we need to restrain ourselves from making these snap-judgments. For instance, I strongly dislike Orson Scott Card as a person; I disagree with him philosophically and his positions on social issues make me cringe, but readers will never find me leaving one-star reviews on his books simply out of spite. In fact, I have read some of his books and, much to my chagrin, have absolutely loved them. It is hard, sometimes, to separate the author from the book – but unless the primary purpose of your book blog is in fact political punditry or something similar, then we need to judge books on their own merit and not based upon our feelings about the writer(s).
One of the most difficult situations a book blogger can find him/herself in is having to write a negative review for a book they received from an author, agent, or publisher. There have been countless posts and articles about the back-and-forth between industry representatives and book bloggers who write negative reviews, as if agreeing to read and review a book on one’s blog guarantees for the author a positive review and free publicity.
There are two effective ways to handle this sticky situation. The first is not to accept any books for review from anyone directly involved in the marketing or publication of the book. Simply buy your own books, read them, and review them. The second is to make it clear, in disclaimers on your blog, on your review request forms, and in your e-mail agreements (or Facebook/Twitter communications, whatever the case may be) that you will accept the book for review, you will review it honestly, good or bad, and that you have the right to post it wherever you want to post it (your blog, Goodreads.com, Amazon.com, etc.). This is not only courteous to the agent/author, but it could also save you headaches down the road. If you make it perfectly clear to everyone what your review policy is, yet someone still gets flustered about a negative review, know that you have your disclaimers and agreements at the ready.
The policy for review requests at Roof Beam Reader is clearly outlined on a page of its own. Does this limit the number of requests I receive? Maybe – but it also means that the majority of requests are coming from professional sources who understand the true nature of book blogs and expect only honest thoughts and reviews in return for their provided book(s).
Of course, there are many book bloggers who are paid reviewers – whether they disclose that fact or not. We cannot be so naïve as to imagine there are not people in the world who are willing to accept cash in exchange for a glowing review on a book or books that, in reality, are quite terrible. These reviews can be found all over the web. Sometimes the more ethical of folks will disclose their relationships up-front (as they should), but oftentimes the fact that a review was provided for money/gifts is never made clear; thus, inaccurate ratings and mislead readers, once again. This is perhaps the greatest deception and darkest mark on the book blogging community, after plagiarism of another’s ideas (which will be left alone for now).
So, as “professional” book bloggers, what do we do? There is no easy answer. People use book review websites in many ways. Some rank books they’ve never read based on the order in which they want to read them (giving 5 stars to the books they want to read first, 1 star to the books they might read someday, etc.). Others rank books without providing thoughts at all, and still others intentionally try to sabotage ratings for popular books and authors, simply because they get irritated by the hype. And, of course, there are those who copy/paste reviews from others’ sites or who are reviewers-for-hire, posting inaccurate or misleading information about a book and receiving compensation in return.
Personally, I have decided not to use these types of websites for review or recommendation purposes. Instead, I visit seasoned, trusted book blogs and suggest the same to my friends, co-workers, and family. At least, in visiting a responsible book blogger, I know that although they may disagree with my opinion on a particular book, they will at least support their decision with a thoughtful, honest review.
For this reason, because I expect so much from other book bloggers, I can guarantee my readers that they will always find the same quality here at Roof Beam Reader. As a lover of books, my commitment is to the reader, which means a promise that visitors will always get my honest opinion. You will find here books that are rated based on a comprehensive system, with clearly expressed thoughts about how and why a particular book appealed to me, or not.
If I receive books for review from publishers, agents, or authors, that will be indicated up-front and the fact that the book was received with a review request will in no way impact my thoughts about it. I will never, ever rate/review a book that I haven’t read or that I haven’t finished, though I might provide a response on why I started a book but couldn’t continue with it.
I believe in this community and I believe in what I do. The thoughts and opinions you find here will always be mine and no one else’s. I hope that I can continue to be a trusted and reliable source on books, and I look forward to the continued growth and success of our little community, come what may.
A Small Sample of my Most Trusted Blogs:
I love this post! I still can’t fathom people that post reviews on Goodreads for books they’ve never read or books that aren’t released yet, that they clearly have no intention of reading. It just seems pointless.
Agreed – I’m vewing Goodreads and the other sites as more of a social media type venue than anything else. There are just too many people doing too many different things (some harmless, some intentionally destructive).
Very thorough and thought-provoking post! I agree with so many of your thoughts, especially regarding empathetic reading. I cringe a little when I see reviews that start, “I never read chick lit but thought I’d give it a try . . .” and then conclude with something along the lines of, “As expected, this book sucked and people who like it suck, too.” I mean, really?
Like you, I tend to trust bloggers’ opinions far more than anything I would ever find on Amazon — or even Goodreads or LibraryThing, though I love both communities. When we’re spending our hard-earned bucks on books, we want to know we’re not wasting our time. And money. Finding reviewers who “speak” to us and/or share our tastes is such a wonderful boon of being involved in the book blogging community, and being introduced to books we might not “normally” read because a trusted reviewer recommends them is even better! I’ve picked up so many books I’ve absolutely loved after a friend sung their praises, and I might have stayed cocooned away in my shell without their encouragement to branch out.
And thank you very much for including me above — I’m honored! Keep fightin’ the literary love fight. 🙂
I agree with you – one of the greatest things about book blogs and book blogging “friends” is that they tend to convince me to try books I would have never picked-up, otherwise. A thoughtful review about a book whose blurb would have made me say “pass” to can make all the difference in the world.
A wonderful, thoughtful post, Adam. I absolutely agree. I do “review” Did Not Finish books–but I don’t rate them. I simply mark them as DNF. I do think it’s important to explain why I didn’t finish, but it won’t be for any of the trite reasons you list above.
That makes sense to me – write up some thoughts, but keep the ratings for books you actually finish (because, who knows, the ending you missed out on could have completely changed your mind about the book! It has definitely happened to me, i.e. Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt).
I can’t rate a book highly that I didn’t personally enjoy but can see it has merits. I’ll state the reasons why but if someone gets angry that I gave 1 star to their favourite book then that’s their problem. My blog is my personal opinion and I think I’m quite fair but I don’t want to be unhappy blogging in a style that isn’t me. I know a lot of non bloggers use amazon and goodreads to check out reviews so it’s worthwhile to post there otherwise it will just end up completely useless. I have about 200 friends on goodreads whose reading tastes I’ve got to know. I look at their reviews and don’t bother reading down to the community ones. A lot of amazon reviewers annoy me but I still repost there because it’s beneficial to the readers that use it.
Of course, I’ve rated books poorly as well (one in particular I remember finding little to like about, but it has a huge following). I’m just talking about being honest, thoughtful, and thorough – if you have a cogent argument for why a book is bad, that’s great. But to rate a book poorly based on superficial reasons (or without having read it at all) – that’s where I take issue.
Bravo! I agree wholeheartedly. My blog is an extension of me, and I’m proud of it, and I work hard for it.
I often wonder about the Goodreads phenomenon (I call it such because it really is sort of unbelievable), and I think much of it comes from regular readers. People who aren’t necessarily plugged into the book world except for GR. There’s a lack of consciousness as to what they are doing and why and how that affects others. Honestly, I’m not sure why Goodreads doesn’t require users to mark the book as “read” before being able to rate it, though maybe they do, and I’m just not aware. I’m hardly a superuser.
And thank you for discussing the negative review. I have said again and again how much value I find in them, specifically because I don’t recall ever writing an entirely negative review. Much like I grade student papers, focusing on the areas which need help and highlighting the good, I review books with problem areas and great writing, books with annoying phrases but great plots, etc. I’m a critical reader. I can’t help that, and I don’t want to. In fact, I even hesitate to call it a negative review anymore. I review critically. Period.
And I know this comment is already ridiculously long, but AMEN about DNF. I get that people DNF. I do so rarely, if ever, but I understand not wanting to waste time on a book. But you can’t review it. You have no clue if any of the issues are resolved or if the story picks up after the first 60 pages – you shouldn’t have to keep reading, no, but you also shouldn’t judge the book entirely on a portion of it.
Great post. Thanks for fleshing this out so well. I hesitate to post about these sorts of things because my thoughts and opinions are constantly evolving, and I work to hone in on the specifics of what I think and why, but it can be difficult to get it all down. There ARE so many book blogs out there, and I think that the larger the community gets, the more of these issues we will all face whether it is because of the lack of awareness or the intentions of the blogger.
I love that you made the connection to grading papers. I feel that way too. Sometimes one student does something lovely and wonderful, but not so good in another area. Where another will succeed in the place the first student failed. I always try to seek out the positives in addition to the negative. “_
This is a wonderful post! You’ve eloquently summed up everything a book reviewer should try to be — something we sadly need to hear amid the drama lately. These are the standards that I try to live up to as well, and I’m honored to be listed among your trusted blogs 😀
It makes me so sad to see people rating books with 1 star after not finishing them over nothing but close-mindedness. That’s the same attitude that leads to banning books in schools, and narrow-minded articles like the ones we’ve seen in major news outlets lately. I think this would be a great read for anyone new to the blogging world — especially your thoughts on review policies — so they don’t find themselves in a messy situation. Really stellar post.
I completely agree with you Adam. This is such an articulate and thoughtful piece that you have written. Book blogging has opened my eyes to the way others’ read in a profound way. I have learned more about reading styles and preferences through blogging than I did while teaching! And I found out that there is a large group of people unwilling to suspend disbelief or even to try to imagine what it would be like to be the narrator (if the narrator is someone different than themselves). This astounded me for one main reason — escaping into worlds and experiences that are not my own is one of the main reasons I read. How else are we going to experience life through different lenses if not through art?
Thank you so much for mentioning me on this list – truly an honor!
What drives me crazy about reviews on Amazon (I’ve not seen this on Goodreads so far) are the people who give a 1 star rating to a book they bought by mistake. For example, a lady bought a book thinking it was from a series she liked but it was from another series by the same author, so she gave it one star. She didn’t rate the book on its own merits. It made me livid! That was her fault she didn’t pay attention to what she was buying not the author’s.
I take GR and Amazon reviews with a grain of salt. Most of them need a thorough reading to make out what the reviewer is actually reviewing. I have a DNF shelf for those books I haven’t finished instead of marking them read. It’s easier for myself as well as other reviewers to see I didn’t finish them.
I’ve seen a few people with “DNF” “Stopped – Try Later” shelves on Goodreads. I think that’s a great idea – I only have a few books that I’ve put down without finishing, but it’s smart to keep track of those too, so that whenever I’m in a slump or an adventurous mood, I can go back and try to finish one.
Excellent post. I have often thought about many of these points myself. Often I will click on a 1-star review of a book I adored to see what that individual disliked only to find no review.
I often post my reviews on Amazon and there are what appear to be a lot of spiteful people out there. Occasionally my reviews get “unhelpful” votes and I can only believe it’s from people who hated the book or author. And that is sad.
I absolutely agree with you about Orson Scott Card. I liked him much better when he kept his political and philosophical opinions to himself. However, his Alvin Maker series of books is an all time favorite of mine, and I would never downgrade my rating of them just because I disagree with the author personally.
The Alvin Maker series and the Ender Wiggin / Ender’s Shadow series’ are all fantastic. Much as I hate to admit it. 😉
Thanks for the mention in the blogger list. And yes, the Ender books are great too!
Terrific post! You really explain the difference between an objective professional review and an ‘it’s all about me and what I know and like’ review.
Thank you. Of course, there’s a time and place for both but, in my opinion, if you present yourself as a book reviewer or book blogger, you should err on the side of professionalism.
Wow, this is a great post! Thank you. So much. I just started blogging a month ago and I feel guilty because I may have written biased reviews. Sorry. :s I would definitely keep this in mind when I write future reviews. Thanks again! Very helpful.
Welcome to the community! It takes time – we all make mistakes and we all approach things in unique and indivudalized ways (part of what makes the book blogging world so great). There are definitely some standards to observe, though. I’m by no means the Godfather of the Book Blogging world, but I do try to always be honest, fair, and open-minded… I think that leads to the best reviews and fosters mutual respect between readers, bloggers, and the industry.
Wonderful post Adam. 🙂 And I’m honored to be on that list with so many wonderful bloggers. Thank you for the warm fuzzy.
I agree with everything you say. I don’t understand rating books that aren’t out yet. That simply doesn’t make any sense to me. If you haven’t read the book, how do you know that you’ll even like it? Mind-boggling.
I always try and see the good in everything I read. I rarely don’t finish a book, even if I’m not a fan. I always look for the good, and I always try and see the positives. And just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean that someone else won’t…(don’t know if I worded that right. I’m a little on the exhausted side).
Anyway, fantabulous post. Lots for me to think over.
Great blog post. I try to follow those principles as well. As a librarian, I recognize that different books have different audiences, and that doesn’t make them less of a good read. I am careful to avoid spoilers, and review a book based on its intended audience and its success in appealing to that audience. Come to each book with an open mind.
Love this post and totally agree with you Adam.
Wonderful thought provoking post and thank you so much for including me on that list! I love that you have also stirred up some great conversation with it as well! It really gets people to think about what goes into a review and use their critical thinking in what to take away from the wide array of them you can find out there. It’s even got me thinking about ways to improve my own!!
Thank you!! 🙂
What a well thought out post! You’ve really hit the important points of why what we do is so important, and why we therefore must be conscientious about the choices and decisions we make. It is a responsibility, and I quickly lose respect for fellow bloggers that refuse to see it that way. Yes, it’s also supposed to be fun, but why do those things have to be mutually exclusive? They don’t, and the trusted blogs (and you) listed above are perfect examples of blogs containing both professionalism and spirit.
I could not have said any of this better, and thank you so much for posting on this topic.
First of all, thank you for such a thought-provoking post, one that so succinctly sums up the responsibilities of a reviewer/book blogger. Secondly, I am in complete agreement with you!
On the topic of reviewing books that have stories that are outside the reader/reviewer’s experience, I believe that there are no stories like that out there. If we cannot “imagine” the experience that a certain tale brings us, and enjoy it, it is merely due to the constriction of our own imaginations. I’ve read books on child abuse, and have never been abused as a child – but that does not mean that I cannot empathize with it. On the flip side (something happy), I’ve read books on epic romances and happy marriages, I’ve experienced neither, and yet, I can rejoice in their happiness. So why is it that people say they can’t relate to a certain time period, or a certain subject?
As a simple rule, if I pick up a book, I will read it to the very end. Even when I do not much care for the style of the author’s writing, or care very much about the characters of the novel, I feel like a novel can take a turn for the better (or for the worse), at any given time – thus the only way to thoroughly review and judge it, I must go to the very end of the book, even if I have to drag myself there. Even in books that I rated very low (below 3 stars), I tend to make sure to highlight any good points there may be, in addition to why I believe they merited such low ratings. For example, I wrote for a mystery/horror novel from an author who is well known in the genre, I wrote, “The language is unsophisticated yet punctuated with intelligent commentary, clearly indicating that the author is capable of better writing, yet, dumbs down the characters to merely make them entertaining.” And for another suspense/military thriller that was RIFE with Islamophobia, to the point that I almost gave up reading it, I wrote “There is mystery, there is intrigue, and it moves at a gut-wrenching pace – if you can deal with its eccentricities, you may come to enjoy this novel more than I did, though – so don’t let me stop you from trying it out.” Also, there are books that are written merely for the purpose of entertainment, and books that are meant for serious, and contemplative, reading and very seldom, there comes along a book that entwines both. Most readers/reviewers, however, tend to mix those two things up – expecting profundity in everything that they read. I tend to limit my consumption of YA novels BECAUSE I know that after a few reads, I become very critical of some of the “teenage” decisions made by the characters – if I don’t allow myself that break, and branch out into contemporary or classic fiction, I will begin judging those characters, and thus that narrative, from an adult point of view and end up doing a disservice to that narrative, the author, the book and it’s readers. I’m not a chick-lit fan, and yet I’ve come across some really beautiful novels thanks to being a blogger/reviewer, so my advice to all those who read (and review) is to always keep an open-mind.
Also, as a rule, I never review a book that I have never read. And lastly, I make it very clear to the publisher/author/PR agent who may send me a book that I will only provide an honest OPINION, in the form of a review, on my blog, and on other various book sites. Half the reviews I read on blogs, and Goodreads, are just a REGURGITATION of the summary of the novel – I tend to lean towards writing a review highlighting the style of the narrative, the build-up of the characters, and (most importantly), how the book made me feel or how it appealed to me as a reader. If a summary of the novel is all that I wanted, merely reading the jacket or the back of the book would suffice – what I am looking for, in a review, are honest opinions and commentary based on the merits and pitfalls of the book. A good review, for me, consists of both the good and the bad – without that juxtaposition, a review is incomplete.
Again, thank you for bringing these issues to the forefront. I believe many a reader/reviewer could, and would, benefit from this wonderful article/post. Your posts never disappoint. Thank you.
While I can understand being flabbergasted that someone would dare give a book you loved 1 star or vice versa, I’m really confused as to why you care so much what other people write about a book. If a “reviewer” on GoodReads or anywhere else is up-front about not having read a book or why they’re giving such-and-such a rating, and you obviously don’t agree with their reasoning, so what? Move on with your life. I’m sure most people are capable of the critical thinking necessary to sort out valid opinions and make their own judgments.
Thanks for your thoughts! I agree with you – if they are up-front about why they rated a book a certain way and that they didn’t finish the entire book, that’s one thing; but, as I said in my post, that particular reviewer did not disclose they hadn’t finished the book (until much later, in a reply to another comment) and they also did not support their low review in a meaningful way.
I wasn’t outraged that someone had a different opinion than I did (also, as I mentioned, it happens all the time). What bothers me about the situation is rating/reviewing books poorly, but without supportive reasoning and/or without having actually read the book.
The “so-what” of it is simply this: I am a book review. I care, because it is what I love to do. I care because I know people come to my blog looking for thoughts on books and because I often visit other blogs for the same reason. I care because I try to write reviews with integrity and well-reasoned opinions, leaving my off-the-cuff thoughts for general conversation, but not in the place of a solid review. The point of websites like Shelfari, Goodreads, etc. (and of book blogs) is to find recommendations for books, based on genuine thoughts from readers of the books. If overall reviews/ratings are skewed by smatterings of nonsense comments/ratings from people who haven’t actually read or finished the books, then the system is let down and inaccurate and people can be mislead.
I love that you care, Adam.
I’ve thought about the ratings issue at sites like Goodreads and Shelfari, too. I actually look at it from the opposite side of the book blogger coin – because I don’t consider myself a reviewer and don’t write my posts as reviews. My blog is just a journal of my thoughts in progress, and while I love that people read it, I never put the people who read it first. I put myself, my exploration and my truth first – and if that truth invites discussion or offers someone a new perspective on literature — great. But I would die a little inside if I wrote for an audience and put my own journey into the passenger seat.
That said, I believe I am fair and professional in my responses to books. I’m certainly an empathetic reader – so empathetic that, when I cannot like an author many commend, I become frustrated with myself and go on a quest to understand what I am missing.
I think (part – certainly not all) of the problem with sites like Goodreads is that there are varying perspectives about the site’s purpose. You see Goodreads as a place for readers to find recommendations about books; I see it as my personal library which happens to be connected to everyone else’s. I do tend to post a brief synopsis of my thoughts on what I’ve read at Goodreads and link it to my blog post, but I do this more to contribute my thoughts to the great conversation – than to attempt to offer a service to fellow readers in search of books. In all honestly, I don’t consider my viewpoints on literature finished, refined, or professional enough to count in the “review” conversation. They are all half-finished, like a sentence that ends in ellipses.
I do want to say that I 100% applaud what you say here and understand “why you care.” I’d hate to do anything to disservice authors and wonder only: what is a book blog? Must it be about serving readers, or can it be more introspective and still considered valuable in the great conversation?
Some readers rate and slash titles at Goodreads out of spite. But I honestly believe that many simply see the site differently than you: as a personal library that is plugged into other libraries.
Defining “book blogging” and “Goodreads” is an issue that I fear may not go away in the near future. What would be excellent is if sites like Goodreads offered a space for two ratings: one for our personal reaction to the book (which can be purely reactive), and one in which the reader merits the work based on its literary quality. This might help separate the two divergent scores – though I don’t imagine it will do much to alleviate the potential for a mess.
As for me? I tend to rate at Goodreads by my personal reaction to a book, and rarely go under 4 stars because I like most of what I have read. That this is an issue is disappointing, but I don’t know that I have the literary education yet to score on a book’s merit. I can only say how “I” reacted to it. And for me, “I” is the most important voice I can share in literature and is, I daresay, valid, given that there are clearly two different perspectives on the purpose of sites like Goodreads. What I can say, and I do this with deepest respect, knowing that you value candor, is that Goodreads offers readers in every stage of the reading journey – from all over the world – a place to speak their truth about literature.
I value that freedom.
I seem to always stand on the border when it comes to “what should book bloggers do.” I would be the one standing on the street shouting – READ! Read whatever you want, say whatever you want, but read something and say something.” That’s how I look at Goodreads. It’s a space for people to SPEAK. For you, it’s a space for people to seek, yes – to seek clarity on books, fair reviews, supportive arguments. You are Elinor Dashwood to my Marianne. 🙂
Your post may help change my viewpoint, because I do respect your passion for this book blogger world of ours, and I value your opinion – as much as you and I seem to be opposites sometimes. 🙂 I have recognized that there is a confusion of purposes at Goodreads. I’ll be watching for more clarity on the topic.
If what you are saying in this post is that readers (book bloggers or otherwise) should slow down, take their time with literature, get into the shoes of the character/author, see it through to the finish if temerity permits, and judge the work in its entirety rather than in snippets jaded by a spiteful, close-minded perspective – then you have my 100% agreement. I think all readers should do that – to better their reading experience. If the point of literature is to crack a whole through our bias and see the world in a different viewpoint, then refusing step #1 in that process (recognition of accountability) is a great way to get only the lukewarm in literature. For me, realization that I am only one perspective in the world is the most important part of improving the great literary conversation.
Thank you for the mention of my blog, Adam. I’m honored and value your words at this blog as well, because you so often pry open my mind by seeing a point from its opposite corner.
Cheers – and good reading to you! You better finish Clarissa! (My copy has grievously met its doom under the heel of my boot.) 😉
Thanks for your thoughtful, thorough response, Jillian. This kind of dialogue is EXACTLY what I’m talking about, and your response is exactly why you are one of the people I most “trust” in this sphere of ours.
And, oh boy. Did you really just compare us as Jane Austen characters? Didn’t I just get done telling the world that I’m a MAN! 😉
I have but one word: HOLLA!
Really great post. I found myself nodding in agreement through most of it.
Adam, what a great post! You said so many things that I have always thought. I hate the rating system on Goodreads and frankly feel that people abuse it or just plain don’t use it correctly. Rating a book 5-stars because you want to read it? Ugh??
I appreciate you including me in your trusted circle of bloggers. I see my blog as being an extension of being a librarian. I try my best to give the best reader’s advisory I can give. I realize I’m older than the rest of you kids and try to put myself in a teens shoes when I read. When I have issues (and my cranky old lady voice comes out), I let my reader know. 😉
You are a rockstar. Thank you SO much for writing this. It is a much needed post with a ton of depth and passion.
I stopped rating books last year (thought I do rate a few if I they blow my mind). I kinda just hate the rating system as a whole, because everyone’s idea of crap/mediocre/great/fantastic varies greatly. However, it is true that the rating is the first thing people see and it immediately has an impression. I rarely bother with the rating and read a few reviews of trusted bloggers instead.
BTW, I am honored to make your list. I love how much we support each other even though our genres of choice are very different. At the end of the day, we are lovers of the written word who can come together through our passion. ♥
Thanks for the well-thought out, insightful post. I had to go back on my Goodreads list to see if I’d actually rated any books I hadn’t finished. There was one, but it was marked unfinished, so I cleared the rating — maybe I just need to give it another chance.
The one book I left unfinished with a one-star rating was The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. I read about 80 pages of it, and it was so awful I couldn’t continue. However, I have read other books by him so I feel that I was justified in giving it one star. (And I have to admit I gave The DaVinci Code 3 stars for being a great page-turner. It’s a potato-chip book, but a clever one, and I enjoyed reading it, so I give it three stars).
I do also admit to giving good ratings to a couple of books that I haven’t finished. One was a book that I liked, but got distracted and never finished (Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope); and the other is a book of short stories. I really liked the ones I read, but I suppose I should go back and remove the rating until I’m actually done with it.
And I would never rate a book that hasn’t even been published yet! That’s ridiculous.
Great post, Adam! It actually made me take a look at my reviews and how I read. I don’t rate books I don’t finish or anything, but I sometimes get lost in my own feelings about a book and end up gushing rather than writing reviews that others will actually find helpful. I should really try to keep that in mind when I’m writing.
I once heard someone say that books should be thought of as more like doors and less like mirrors. I think this is pretty appropriate for what you’re describing here, and I agree with you. It’s definitely a lesson in empathy and imagination on the readers’ part.
I appreciate this thoughtful and passionate post Adam. Personally I leave books i don’t finish unrated and don’t rate or review books I have never read. I try to give an honest and balanced opinion about what I read, no matter the source, in a way that is meaningful, personable and diplomatic, with varying degrees of success.
I understand your frustrations, and I agree with and admire your ideals, but of the more than 7 million members of Goodreads for example, only a fraction are readers who take sharing their thoughts seriously, just as there is only a fraction for whom reading is a adjunct to the social experience of the community. The bulk are simply readers who have a varying ability or need to articulate their experience of a book. A variety of ‘reviews’, even those considered spurious or misinformed, gives the community a richness it would lack if there was only a scripted format of opinion allowed. I feel you are perhaps unintentionally insisting people relate to books only in a prescribed manner and that’s not what i would want, despite the fact I may disagree with how they do it. The diversity of Goodreads et al, indeed of the book blogging community, flaws and all, is what makes it so interesting.
I completely understand what you’re saying and I agree with you – the primary frustration started with experiences on Goodreads, but I am more concerned with the folks, like me, who consider ourselves book reviewers/book bloggers. Massive websites like GR, Shelfari, etc. can’t help but be used in a variety of ways – book bloggers, though, while being individuals and presenting themselves in a unique way, should, I think, take the process a tad more seriously than what one might leave in a general rating on a corporate website.
I actually praise diversity of opinion in reviews – whether it be liking a book for different reasons, disliking it for different reasons, or completely disagreeing about the whole thing (this happens even with me and some of my personal favorite/trusted bloggers all the time) – but when each person really takes the time to explain their position, it makes the other think just a little bit more – maybe not enough to change our opinion of the book, but certainly enough to appreciate how someone else might see it in a different light.
I salute you, Adam! Really great post.
I came across a lot of reviews in Goodreads that are totally biased, and not-facts-supported. The main reason they would tell us – in case we made them aware of their mistake – is that, that is their opinion and opinions are neither right nor wrong. I clearly would disagree with that. Maybe we can classify opinions as Reasonable Opinions and Unreasonable Opinions. Our opinions should not just come from our emotions or initial reactions but must be based of facts. I really would like to email some Goodreads reviewers that are totally unreasonable with their opinions.
With your example about the Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is also one of my favorite books of all time, I’m really annoyed with that kind of “review.” Not because Charlie is 15 and doesn’t know what masturbation is would give her the right to criticize the book. After all the reviewer hadn’t finished the book yet.
I totally agree, thumbs up, that we should be more aware of our situations. And we should grow up! Many opinions in Goodreads seems like they came from a mouth of an infant. Like there was no “intellect” at all.
I’m really happy you made this post. At least more people would be aware.
Rumpelstiltskin and Co.
Pingback: Smash Attack Reads
I’m only on Librarything (not on Goodreads) and I have a book-review-blog (Moonplanet), but I never give star-ratings. On Librarything, some people give a 1-star rating when they think a book is really good and a 5-star rating when they think the book is really bad (so the opposite of what you’d think, but I heard that in some countries, getting a “1” is like getting an “A+” or a “10”, so really good). Then you see a very positive review with a 1-star-rating…
When I’m looking for a new book, I do look at the reviews people write on LT, more than at the star ratings (because of the reasoning above). Though on book-blogs, the reviewer specifies if he uses 1 star of 5 stars for the best rating 🙂
When I have read only part of a book, I’ll put that in my review as well (though that’s mostly the case with course books for which only a few chapters are required reading, as I almost always finish books I read for fun – in my entire life there are only a few books-read-for-fun I have not finished, but that might be because I don’t really “randomly” buy or borrow books).
This post describes exactly how I feel at times. I have a review blog of my own and sometimes my friends tell me that I should just write reviews for films/books that I haven’t read or watched just to save time and this always makes me rather angry. I completely agree that we have a responsibility to our readers and followers to be honest and truthful. Thanks for the advice about the disclosure policy – I have often been sent products to review and whilst waiting for them to arrive I always pray that I will genuinely like the product so I don’t end up in that awkward situation. This reviews irritate me a lot but I think they also inspire me to be a better blogger. By seeing how unhelpful some people out there are, it makes me all the more determined to delivered high quality reviews.
Anyways, thank you very much for putting thoughts that I, myself, have had down in writing. This was the post of yours that I’ve ever read and it has given me a high level of respect for you 🙂 I will definitely be consulting Roof Beam Reader in the future 🙂
I think it makes no sense to write reviews for books/movies you haven’t read/seen, because then you are spending time on thinking up stuff! Time you could better spend on reading/seeing books/movies you’d read/see otherwise anyway 🙂
But then, I think most people commenting here won’t see the use of writing reviews for things you haven’t read/seen – it’s the other people that might need convincing!
I really enjoyed reading this. I’m always honest. Sometimes too much so. I dont understand reviewing something you haven’t read.
I enjoyed reading your post. I am a heavy user of GoodReads (over 1300 books recorded as read). When I started using GR all I had was a list of books and the date I finished it. I gave all of these books 3 stars (because if I finished it must have been at least good enough for that) but wrote no comments. Since 2007, though, every finished book gets entered with at least one sentence of comment, but usually much more. I think some of my one-star comments for books I finished and really didn’t like are some of my best. Also, sometimes I read a genre because I “have to” as a library worker. I don’t like Romance novels, but will read them so I can serve my patrons better. I do usually give these a lower rating, but I’m very much up-front about why.
I enjoyed this post so much that I added all of your favorite blogs to my Reader so I can check them out. I’m always looking for insightful, well written blogs to broaden my knowledge of all of the books I will never have time to read. Thanks for this post.
Thanks so much for including The Blue Bookcase on your list! You’re the best, and by far one of MY most trusted blogs. 🙂
Very thought-provoking… I have to ask, though, with regards to Goodreads: I frequently give classics one star – why? Because the star system asks you to rate on whether or not you liked the book, which allows Goodreads to come up with suggestions for further reading. On my blog, I’ll talk more indepth about *certain* books, but on Goodreads – if I didn’t like it, I only give it one star. I do appreciate your point, however.
Yes, I can understand that argument (much more so than rating a book that hasn’t even been read). As many comments have pointed out, Goodreads is much more person-specific, meaning the ratings are more helpful for those who are just keeping track of their own libraries. My problem is that all of those ratings then (which are used in different ways by different people) are compiled for recommendations and such. As I said near the end of my post, though, I’ve recognized that these sites are playing a different role & have decided to keep them wholly separate from what I consider to be actual book reviewing/book blogging. It just makes more sense to go to book blogs/reviewers for thoughtful commentary… of course, that’s assuming that the said book bloggers are reviewing books in a thoughtful way (professional/critical/unbiased/etc…whatever the particular reviewer’s style/situation calls for).
I’ve been thinking about this since I read your post (will blog later) – I’m not sure if the blogger *does* have a responsibility beyond the reasonable expectation that she or he ought not to deliberately upset, trigger, or cause any kind of harm or upset to a reader. My only guide for blogging is not to ruin someone’s day 🙂 But it depends on the level. I think people are more likely to go to, for example, *you* for a review, and you do have a very high standard that I admire. But then there’s little ol’ me who goes on tangents and doesn’t always concentrate and is fairly changeable. If someone read my post on Middlemarch, I hope that they would see at as my own experience, maybe see how important it is to concentrate, maybe realise that *I* don’t always do the book justice and therefore shouldn’t be praised for reading vast amounts. I would hate for someone to decide not to read it because I didn’t enjoy it, especially as I was so candid iin taking responsibility for my lack of enjoyment.
Final point, and I’ll keep it brief because I don’t want to hijack your thread – I completely understand your frustration in people who review without reading. But for me, it’s quite intriguing. I studied religion in university and am interested in the sacred and the profane and the relationship between the two. I quite like coming across examples of this in the book world, when some people feel a book would “dirty” them, and others won’t read “Catcher” because *it* killed John Lennon. I like seeing the power of books in this way. On the other hand, if it was my favourite book I might feel a bit of frustration.
Finally (I mean it this time!) I keep seeing reviews of Clarissa being boring, repetative, “too long” etc and I LOVED that book and there’s a part of me taking it personally. I tell you that so you understand I do know where you’re coming from and I very often feel it too.
I’m not sure if the blogger *does* have a responsibility beyond the reasonable expectation that she or he ought not to deliberately upset, trigger, or cause any kind of harm or upset to a reader.
Yes! And the fact that they understand they are a public figure (and there’s one way to correct that – go private!).
I think, however, that many people who are individuals will, like you, be turned off by or become defensive over the idea of a “responsibility” to the community. When I say responsibility, though, I do not mean that we need to cater to anyone else’s opinions, nor do we need to feel pressured to sway a review, publish our thoughts in a certain style, or meet anyone else’s timeline, etc. I tried to cover that in my original post, but I think that element of the message go lost. What I mean by responsibility is just this: know that our blogs are being read. From there, we take us wherever our consciences will lead. For you, it might be one direction and for me another. But I think we do have a responsibility to keep in mind that we are publicly displaying our thoughts & opinions, and with that should come a certain degree of professionalism.
Anyone can say “my blog is for me,” but the reality is, if your blog is published online, open to the public, available for subscription, open to comments, etc., then it is not just for you. It has become a public forum and you are welcoming/seeking feedback, thoughts, dialogue, suggestions, questions, engagement, etc. A blog that is “just for me” is one that is private or written in a physical journal, locked in a drawer. There, by all means, write anything and everything, in absolutely any way, without regard to accuracy or impression, because the writing there is not intended to be read by anyone.
Ultimately, I think you are right when you say you need to satisfy and please yourself, first. Most, if not all, of our blogs started as very small, personal journal-type places. If we had been paid/sponsored blogs, our quest for personal fulfillment might need to be sacrificed, but that shouldn’t be the case in general. Ultimately, there is a way, in my opinion, to stay true to one’s self and to satisfy one’s personal goals while also serving (not catering to) the larger community.
This is such an awesome discussion that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading. So thanks for that.
I suppose I feel a little bit conflicted about “my responsibility as a blogger” or as a Goodreads reviewer. I joined GR in 2008, two years before I started blogging. I was unaccustomed to writing about anything, much less composing meaningful thought-out reviews. I’m sure that I wrote some pretty shallow stuff back then full of unsupported opinions. But I haven’t removed any of it. It’s part of my process, my journey. I’m not entirely sure what inspired me to take things to the next level, but I like to think that I’ve improved a lot since those days. I also know that I still have a long way to go. While I can’t promise that every review that I write will be insightful or meaningful or inspirational, I can promise that I’ll keep trying to get better and that I will do the best that I can with the time and ability that I’ve been given.
I guess that’s where I feel conflicted about a “responsibility” to provide meaningful content. What’s meaningful to me might not be to someone else. My profoundest thought might be the shallowest for another. Insight, inspiration, value, is all very subjective. I’d love to say I’m a “reliable source” but that would ring false I think. I’m still finding my voice. I’m still a work in progress.
As for goodreads, as others have pointed out I think it’s a tool that serves different purposes for different people. I save my more in-depth thoughts for my blog and use goodreads for cataloging purposes, though it does also provide some valuable tools for connection and getting a brief look at what other bloggers are thinking about reading, have read, etc. I have a hard time giving books star ratings – sometimes my personal experience reading a book conflicts with the level of appreciation I have for what the author was doing, or the value that I recognize in a book. I stopped rating books on my blog a while ago but I still rate them on GR and those ratings tend to reflect only my personal experience (i.e. level of enjoyment) reading a book and not any literary, cultural, historical, social value.
I do completely understand feeling stung when reading blatant comments from others about a beloved author. I feel this way about Hardy, and yes, I do feel a little sting when I see someone else write him off as merely “depressing” and can’t seem to get past just that aspect. Part of me wants to try and make them feel what I feel about him, see what I see, and appreciate what I appreciate about his humanity and depth and beauty and style. But he’s not for everyone. I get that too. And I also understand not feeling compelled to dissect those works that don’t “speak” to us. So I don’t know, like I said, I still feel a little conflicted.
Sorry, I’m starting to ramble so I’ll stop there.
But I wholeheartedly appreciate the passion and enthusiasm behind your post and the ensuing discussion. And it’s something I’ll continue to ponder. . . .
I think the problem with responsibility is it is so daunting and so… serious. This is why I’m quite “into” this topic – I don’t want to feel any kind of seriousness or responsibility with something I regard as a hobby. You are right – it is easier to say “but this is just for me”, in which case you rightly say, then lock it away in a diary. I can’t knock what you’re saying 🙂 at the same time, I wonder how many people would be intimidated by it. Blogging is so regulated now, by the police, government, and perhaps more depressingly by our peers. Whilst this *is* an important discussion (and I hope you don’t for a second think that I wish people wouldn’t discuss it), it does make me self-conscious and want to hide away a bit until it all dies down. I won’t (for one thing I’ve got a burning desire to share some thoughts on Zola, and I can’t not!), but last night I finished a little book of extracts by Schopenhauer and I HATED IT and it did make me hestiate before I clicked the “one star” button.
But yes, sometimes, we *do* need reminding. When I wrote on the topic last night, I could not escape the fact that I am not in complete control. If I write about the things I think about, I cannot control how people read it. If I write that I hate your favourite book, or proclaim that Clarissa is the best book ever written, how can I not expect people to form their own opinion?
Whilst it’s uncomfortable, this really is a fascinating topic.
I agree with you – it’s overwhelming and sad, at times. Although, in general and outside the blogging world, I tend to think about what I say and how my statements might come across, so I guess I carry that into my work here, too. A lot of people will speak whatever is on their minds and not worry about others’ feelings or the possible consequences of their words/actions – those tend to be the bloggers who fervently “do what they want.” Most of us, I think, are somewhere in the middle… we want a personal place of our own, to conduct in the way we see fit, but also understand that tact and professionalism should play a part in our presence and presentation.
I don’t worry (too much) about bad reviews – if I hate a book, I hate it. I wrote a scathing review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (a loathsome book!) ..but I think my not worrying has less to do with an “I don’t care what you think” attitude and more to do with the fact that I know I spend time thinking about what I want to say and tryign to get it across the right way – if I hate a book, I hate it.. but I’ll try to explain why (and point out any positive elements I did like about it).
*applauds you* I do believe your post on the benefits of writing fair and balanced reviews is much more eloquent than mine was! Though I agree with you on every point. What is the point in reviewing if you don’t do your best to look at both the good and the bad and how these things affect the novel as a whole?
Pingback: On the fence as a book blogger… « A Room of One's Own
I’ve read your post twice, and I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. I do agree with your sentiment that if your blog is up, public, and open for comment, that you, as the blog’s author does have a responsibility to post their thoughts/reviews honestly, whether you complete your reading of the book or not. It certainly is disingenuous if you rate/review a book if you haven’t read the book in its entirety. But if you haven’t finished the book, you should say why.
On my blog, I mainly discuss my thoughts, sometimes they are critical, other times, not as much, as I’m a bit more like Jillian, where I’m more journaling my thoughts. However, I am completely honest in those thoughts, even if sometimes they aren’t too critical. 🙂
I agree with you 100% about goodreads. I tend to use it more along the lines to categorize my book library and what I want to read. It’s very rare for me to use it as a tool to read reviews of a book to determine if I’m interested in it or not. I think any review site such as goodreads, shelfari, etc, and reviews on amazon/BN need to be taken with a grain of salt. Usually most of the books I read, I’m able to discover other authors/works either from other book bloggers that I’ve come to know and read over the course of the last year, or through the recommendations that goodreads may be able to provide.
I feel that as long as you’re honest with yourself, and what you’re posting, generally speaking I think you should be fine. Great post, you’ve given me some food for thought as I continue to blog about my reading!
Pingback: A Blogging Manifesto . . . sort of . . . | Every Book and Cranny
Pingback: Clock Rewinders #2 – Once Upon A Time
Adam, really interesting post. I agree with being disheartened when seeing reviewers give something one star and flat out state that they never read the book/didn’t finish it. Personally if I don’t finish a book, I put it on a did-not-finish shelf on goodreads and don’t put a rating. I don’t believe my inability to finish a book should negatively effect a score that is based on others who have read it.
I won’t jabber on here, but wanted to tell you again, great post!
Pingback: Positive-Negative: How I Review Books… « Rumpelstiltskin and Co.
Pingback: Who can write a book review on Goodreads? « Deb's Answers