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 Goodreads.com, Amazon.com 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.
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.
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.