Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short Reviews Are People Too

EDIT: I've changed the title of this post. Originally, it was "The Longest Review is the Worst Review" after I discovered that, while eye-catching, it probably wasn't the most accurate portrayal of the post -- or my thoughts. Carry on.

I've been sharing my books and stories with readers for a while now. As a writer, it's both hard and gratifying to get a review. Like books themselves, sometimes the reviews are a rave, sometimes they are luke warm, sometimes they are downright mean and hurtful. But, unless they are written by clueless dummies, we nearly always appreciate them.

My question is, why are readers so reluctant, or even fearful of sharing a review?

Now, I'm not talking about the rating of a book: those arbitrary stars, usually out of a total of five, that readers slap on a book or a movie or song at sites like, and iTunes. We're obsessed with star ratings, as a culture and don't want to waste our time with something that routinely gets a one out of five. It's against our nature to spend time on something that others didn't like, even if we ourselves might like it just fine. Sure, those numbers provide an overall sense of how much the reader generally liked or disliked the story, the execution, the characters, the feeling they had when they absorbed it.

But the written part of the review is much more subjective, and to me, much more important about telling me whether I'll like something or not. This review is an opportunity for the reader to tell the writer --and, most importantly-- every other potential reader what they bring to the table in reading it. And, what they took away. Now that's counter-intuitive, isn't it?

But think of it this way. A reviewer gives a book one star then explains, "I stopped reading this book because the profanity was so excessive." If I don't much care about profanity, or want to make up my own mind about what I feel is excessive then I can probably go on to the next review, by someone else who read the whole thing and wasn't bothered by the four letter words. Maybe I'm not either so this next review will have more to do with me. If, on the other hand, I have a thing against profanity too, well, maybe I file that in the back of my head and say, "Naw, this one ain't for me, mister." Then I try another book and look at its reviews.

So, in essence, a review is an opportunity for one reader to connect with another, based on their own experiences, biases and level of openness to a new book. It's almost outside the writer and his influence. He had his chance with the jacket, his other books and the synopsis, book trailer and other marketing. He can put forward reviews that he thinks are really good, or well-put or touch on what he feels are the strong points of the book. But he needs, to some degree, to get out of the way and let reviewers and readers connect. Granted, of course, that they are not clueless dummies. Then he can, as I do, track them down and kill them in the middle of the night.

But back to the topic at hand. Reviews --even short reviews-- can be a great opportunity for very specific language about the story and how it touched (or didn't touch) the reader. Or, it can be a squandered moment where we don't learn anything.

I've given it some thought and I have a few ideas about why readers don't share more reviews after they've read a book, a short, or a collection.

First. So many readers think they need to recap the book in their review. 

They've read book reviews in the newspaper or on websites by professional writers whose job it is, is to fulfill a word count. They have it in their heads from book reports in the fifth grade that a plot re-telling is a requirement and, well, they just don't have it in them for five paragraphs of this. I don't blame them. I read for pleasure, not to spend my life giving Cliff's notes for everyone else so they can cheat.

I know that some will disagree but I hate seeing a plot re-hash. It's the writer's or publisher's job to give a good synopsis that spells out enough of what the book is about to draw me in. After the fact, the reviewer's job, whether at the New York Times or on a fansite, is to explain whether those goals were met, not to tell me how they were met.

As a reader, I want my reading to unfold for me as the storyteller intended. I don't want to know that, two thirds through the book, the main character's sister dies of cancer. Then it becomes more than a spoiler. Then it's just plain mean.

Second. Readers believe reviews need to be long.

Uh, no. They don't. Two or three sentences is perfectly okay. Tell me that it was exciting and just exactly the kind of book you'd like to read on a dreary Sunday when you can't go out and about. Tell me it was heartfelt because the characters felt like people you know. Tell me the themes touched you because you recently went through a divorce and you could relate to the nagging feelings of the main character.

And that's it. You don't need much more. You could even get away with less if you're pressed for time. In all honesty, when I'm reading reviews, unless I'm already enamored with the writer, I'll probably glance at the long reviews, skip over the bulky parts and try to get to the gist of whether the reader liked it or not and what they had to say about that. For me, the longest reviews are a stumbling block and I look for shorter or mid-length ones that are well-written.

Third. Readers believe they owe the writer.

Well, this one's tricky because I feel that if you liked a book or any work of creativity, you could probably find three or four minutes to share that you liked it. It's nice. It's pleasant. It's helpful. But it's not a requirement. This goes both ways, of course. If the story was awful and the writing was bad, maybe you want to ward off others from wasting their money or time with it.

But, hey, you've bought the book (presumably). It's yours. You paid for the right to read it or not to read it. You've also paid for the right not to share your opinion if that's your gig. You don't really owe the writer a darn thing. As Stephen King has said, paraphrased of course, "You bought the book. I hope you like it, but you can wear it as a hat for all I care."

True. Though, he's in a much more luxurious position than many writers. Those of us without millions of copies in print would still love your review. Short or not, we live for them.


  1. I especially like your point about reviews not re-hashing or spoiling the plot. It's true not just for books, but for movies and TV shows. Not enough reviewers think about that when they write.

  2. Oh dear, I am a dreaded long review writer! (but usually just out of an abundance of appreciation). Good food for thought, thank you :D

  3. Hey, Tyler,

    Yeah I try not to do the re-hash because, as you know, I don't like anything to detract from my enjoyment or discovery...and wouldn't want to inadvertently do that to someone else, even if they don't take it as seriously. I also think it's a waste of time. If you want a re-cap there are ways to get that. Each reader or watcher (in the case of movies) doesn't need to bother duplicating that effort.

  4. Bookspersonally, thanks for your comment!

    I don't hate long reviews. If you're passionate about a book then you should, by all means, write a "War and Peace" -length response to it. The odd time I've gotten those (as the writer) I've nearly wept with appreciation. Seriously.

    It's readers like you that make me keep going. I say that with sincerity.

    This post is more about identifying what I think holds reluctant reviewers back. It doesn't NEED to be a long and arduous process for them if they don't like writing or attempting to identify positives and negatives. They can take solace in the fact that even a short review is appreciated AND useful to readers and the writers.

    But keep writing your longies! (And thanks for stopping by)

  5. This was an incredibly therapeutic post and I'll go so far as to propose that we make it required reading for everyone who wishes to write a book review! (Note to self: write Congressman about urgent book review legislation...)

    Reviewers: Tell me WHY you liked (or disliked) it, not WHAT it was about!!!

    Spot on, as always! Thanks j!

  6. Well, Ms. Mauren, lie down on the couch and tell me all your review-related woes. I suspect there are a few.

    Oh, and I agree! Let's lobby our government officials to have this post placed in the curriculum of every school and book store from coast to coast.

    Thanks, Ann!

  7. I think you're right, Jason, people are probably put off writing reviews because they think they have to be long and in depth summaries of the book.
    As a reviewer, I do write quite long reviews, although I'm always careful not to include any spoilers. As a writer, I love all reviews, short and long, (except the ones by the clueless dummies that you murder -- that's given me an idea for our next joint novel LOL).
    So yes, I think it's great that you've written something about this. And for any book fans that are reading this, please, please review our books if you like them; it only takes a couple of minutes and it is guaranteed to put a smile on an authors face!

  8. Yep, lots of really bright readers with perfectly acceptable points of view on a book don't bother sharing them. Little do they know we would bake them cookies and rub their feet in exchange for a five star review and a few sentences about why they liked it.

    And, as for your idea about another joint novel. Dish, Maria! But in private. We don't want the dummies to hear of it juuuuuust yet.

  9. I feel a series of books coming on, something like The Reviewer Murder Trilogy... Cutting The Fat being the first in the series, of course, followed by Murder of The Dummies... :) Then we'll have to think of who else we can murder...

  10. Ooh, a trilogy. My sickle's in the shop getting a new handle. I'll call shop keep and make sure he sharpens it that I'm ready for all the murdering.

  11. Jason--Amen to your dislike of the "reviews" that just rehash the plot. That's not a review, it's a book report.

    Love your site--been retweeting it. Peace!

  12. Cheers, Alex! Thanks for your comment and tweets!

  13. I think you may have missed one last, vital aspect, Jason. Most readers are not writers and feel embarrassed expressing themselves in written form. I've had conversations with people who have read my novel and have loved it, but when I popped the big question, they shuddered: "Oh, I couldn't do that. I'm not a writer." And book reports bring forth a primal fear for most humans.

  14. Yes, Mark, you make a good point. I've come across the odd reader who says the very same: "My writing is awful and I couldn't even string two sentences together. It would be too embarrassing." Or something to that effect.

    I've also come across readers, while they are fine writers, who have this strange feeling that their opinion is invalid or less important...that what THEY thought about the book couldn't possibly be correct or valuable.

    To that I say, PFFFFT! I'd love to hear it! Whatever your opinion is, you might shed light on something important. You might hit on something no other reader was able to see! Post it! Share it!

    Thanks for your comment, Mark, as always.

  15. Amen brother, Enjoyed this post! When I write a reveiw it is about the personal impact the book has on my life. Some books keep me up until 4 am, some I am embarassed to read in public. I'm not the New York Times, I'm not published (yet).I just write what I feel. I'm a crappy speller, but my opinions still counts.

  16. Phyllis, you're right! Your opinion counts and everyone's does. Even if spelling is lousy or you just write on run-on sentence. My feeling is that your impression of the book is part of the tapestry of that book.

    Speaking of which, thanks for YOUR input here on this topic. All comments are welcome!

  17. Fantastic post, Jason! And quite well timed, might I add, as I'm wokring on my own review for THALO BLUE as we speak.... Pressure's on, huh? ;)

    Oh, and your revised title reminded me of Horton Hears a Who: "A person's a person no matter how small." It made me smile, so thanks. Love me some 'Suess!

  18. Haha, Genna, that's a great way to think of it: "A reader's a reader no matter at all!" Everyone has a valid point of view.

    (oh, and no pressure at all! I'm sure you don't need any of my novice tips about writing a solid review. My ideas are primarily aimed at the average reader anyway -- mostly for folks who don't do it every week and are a little apprehensive.)

  19. sooo, Im going to review the blog about reviews..It does go against my nature to review. If I love it, I might just say "love this" because I don't want to spoil anything or seem like their relative. If I hate it, I generally don't say anything as I figure who am I to judge? I always worry about hurting someone's feelings...and that it's my opinion. Everyone has one. I also tend to notice all the mistakes of the negative posts..and think "you shouldn't talk trash bucko" From now on I will try to get past my own issues and review a little more often. Lord knows I have an opinion. lol

  20. Kimba, you make some very good points here. I don't offer a rating or review if I hated a book. I usually just whistle as I leave the room. My feeling is that there's nothing constructive in telling someone you hated their work.

    If I mildly disliked it, I *may* offer some constructive criticism. But truthfully, I probably won't finish a book or movie that I dislike. And, rating a book that I didn't finish is close to sacrilege in my opinion.

    I think a review of "loved it" or "really liked this book" or any other short thing is perfectly fine. Maybe a reader isn't the wordy type. That's fine. Saying *something* about it is a great addition to a star rating.

    The converse isn't true, however. Saying "Hated this." or "Not my thing." or "Didn't finish it." and then giving a lousy star rating is not cool.

    Of course, everyone has the right to review or not review in the manner they wish to do it. These are just my feelings on the matter.


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