Friday, March 11, 2011

Happy Gay Friday & My Thoughts on the Art of Reviewing

The past couple of weeks I’ve read quite some blogposts, tweets and discussions about ‘the art’ of reviewing and book ratings, that were supposedly bad or negative ones (even if they were 4 stars or higher). There were a few little riots in blogland in which some authors and readers/reviewers sort of became ‘opponents’. Everybody seemed to have an opinion and I read it all with fascination and admiration for the bravery and intelligence that spoke from some of these blogposts and discussions. Personally, I’m never good at voicing my opinion on matters of such topicality. Simply because I’m not eloquent enough in English and, more importantly, I rarely stick to one opinion after hearing other arguments, so in the end it’s very likely that I want to change my earlier comment, while that’s not possible once you put it out there. In general I need sufficient time to process it all and organize my thoughts and by then the discussion thread is already ‘dead’. Yeah, I’m slow like that, lol.

Anyhow, on the topic of reviews and ratings: It’s an explosive subject, apparently. And I don’t want to add fuel to the fire in any way. But I’ve given it some thought and I want to try to say something about the subjectivity of the art of reviewing. See, I’m of the opinion that ‘objective’ reviews don’t exist (as some authors are demanding). A reader/reviewer can’t help but bring his/her own preferences and personality to the book s/he is reading. However, it’s his/her responsibility - or if you wish ‘job’ - to be aware of the personal values s/he uses when judging a book (and -in a perfect world- to point them out to the readers of the reviews). I admit this is difficult and I am guilty myself of presuming mine to be known. But since I’ve actually never uttered them clearly and separately on my blog I think it’s time to give it a try…

To keep myself sharp and aware of my preferences and prejudices, I go back every now and then to the list below of seven most common arguments that we use to form our opinion on a book. And I attempt to get clear again which of these arguments are more important to me than other arguments (because this can change over time and with the genre I’m reading).

The seven arguments:

Realistic argument
A book is good (or bad) when it’s projecting the world (un)realistically, when the story’s reality is (un)believable.

Moral argument
A book is good (or bad) when it contains certain ideas about sex, religion, morals or politics.

Structural argument
A book is good (or bad) when its structure is (not) solid, when the story is (not) built/paced well, when there’s (no) consistency.

Stylistic argument
A book is written in a good (or poor) writing style.

Innovation argument
You can learn something from the story. The book contains original ideas and provocative thoughts.

Emotivistic argument
A book has to touch you emotionally. It has to entertain you, move you and captivate you.

Intentional argument
The reader/reviewer assumes that the writer has a certain purpose/intention with his story and assesses whether the author has managed to achieve that goal.

Of course, I try to consider all of these aspects when I’m writing a review but I’m fairly sure none of my reviews contain all these arguments with detailed examples to prove the point *g*. I’m pretty certain though that most of my reviews say something along the line of the emotivistic argument. When reading romance books the emotional argument is very, very important for me, and I’m guessing for most other romance readers too. And especially this argument is one of the most subjective ones. A lot of factors can influence the emotional experience of a reader, including external ones (like the level of distraction while reading, your age and reading experience, the recent events in your life, etc).
Personally, I’m also rather focused on the structural argument and – especially when I’m reading Dutch books – on the stylistic argument. The more I read the more unforgiving I become when structural elements aren’t solid, for example when the plot has holes or the choice of narration isn’t consistent.
On the other hand, I’m not looking for a lot of thought-provoking ideas in my romances (innovation argument) although a little originality won’t hurt, and I’m quite good at suspending disbelief (realistic argument) as long as things don’t pull me out of the story and the characterization is done well (with more showing than telling). I’m not easily offended (moral argument) when a novel showcases somewhat extreme sexual, religious or political ideas, although I can’t stomach injustice, hate and inequality very well.

I guess, you can say that I’m quite easy to please, or at least that’s how I like to think of myself. ;) I give a lot of 4 star ratings and according to Goodreads my average is 3.74 stars (Kris and Kassa's recent posts gave me the idea to look at it). But when I look back at the books I first read in this genre (a little over one and a half year ago) I see that I was much more generous with the five star ratings than I am now. Simply because I hadn't read a lot in the same genre to compare these books with, so I was easily awed. (And somehow I’ve never felt the urge to compare them with the general fiction books I read and reviewed until then). Now that I have read a few more books in the romance genre though, I’m way more economical with handing out the five stars. Lol.

Okay, time to round up. You’ve probably fallen asleep by now anyway. If not, I’m curious which of the above arguments count most for you when rating (or reviewing) a book. Are #6 en #3 outweighing the other arguments for you as they are for me? Or are different arguments more important for your judgment?

Happy Gay Friday!


  1. Hi Janna-- I really enjoyed the post. I missed all the fur flying about reviews and reviewers, hiding out here in writer world, but i will say that i regard all reviews as subjective. I recently received a very good review and i was delighted, but i had to tell myself that this review was no more "right" than a bad review. It was a fortuitous meeting of a person who happened to love my writing style and my characters and she happened to be an influential reviewers. (Of course, i did cheer pretty loud! LOL) On your list, i'd be a heavy #6 with some solid dashes of #4, #3 and #1. #5 is darned good too. Thanks again for the great post. : )

  2. Definitely #6, if I don't care about the characters and they don't touch me in some way, then it's meh.

    I don't care about #7, #5 or #2 so much. Obviously I don't want to read a book about a child molester who's the hero, but I don't care for books with religious themes or where morality is a big factor because more often than not that's a negative thing.

    #3 I guess, it has to make sense, characters not turn from simpering wusses into tough he-men and back again for no apparent reason. Murderers that have no rational reason for doing so, not even insanity or endings that have no connection to the rest of the book.

    #1 sometimes. If the book is a straight contemporary, meant to be set in the world I currently live in (more or less), I don't want to see a 20 year old high school drop out getting a job as a vice-president of marketing or an unemployed waiter living in a 3 bedroom apartment with a bathroom the size of my house in Manhattan. However if it's a paranormal or even if it's meant to be taken a bit lightly I can live with story lines that are hugely wild or coincidences that would NEVER happen in real life. The author's intention makes a big difference to me.

    #4? Well, I expect some decent grammar and sentence structure and spelling. I hate when the wrong word is used. "He just couldn't except the answer." Arrrghghh. Accept, accept. Sigh. Not so common thankfully.

    Great points to think about when reading a book. And I think you're right, certain things will be more important to us at times than others. Sometimes I want realism, other times I want good guys and bad guys very clearly defined.

  3. @Tara Lain: It's quite understandable that you cheered, lol! In general though there can of course be a difference between a 'good' review and a 'positive' review. ;) A good review can be negative at the same time.
    Yeah, #6 is quite an important one, isn't it? I think it's what makes you remember a story even when you read it a long time ago, don't you agree?

    @Tam: What you said about #7, #5 and #2 is exactly how I think about them too.
    "I don't want to see a 20 year old high school drop out getting a job as a vice-president of marketing or an unemployed waiter living in a 3 bedroom apartment with a bathroom the size of my house in Manhattan."
    LOL, yep that's exactly what would pull me out of the story. In PNR or SciFi or other worlds I don't know much about I'm less easily distracted by these sort of things or coincidences like you've mentioned.
    #4 is only to a certain extent important to me. Since English isn't my first language I'm very likely to miss a lot of the poor writing examples others can see instantly. But things like your example I do see and I find them just as annoying as you do.
    Thanks for your thoughts, Tam!

  4. #6 is most important to me. I almost always need an emotional connection to the characters, or nothing else matters. Then I'd say #3 comes next.

    I'm like you...when I started writing reviews a year ago, I was more generous with the 5-star reviews. Still, I read books for pleasure, so I tend to grade higher than most.

    I love your new blog name!

    Diana @ Book of Secrets
    & The Forbidden Bookshelf

  5. Great post, Janna. SO going in linkity next week. :)

    1, 3, 4, and 6. Possibly the others, too, depending on how the book hits me. But... since I write 1-3 sentence reviewettes, I'm pretty sure I rarely cover those arguments!

  6. Great post, Janna!

    For me the most important is #6 followed by 4 & 3.

    I've also noticed my ratings were more generous when I first started. I see books that I rated as 5 stars two years ago that I know I'd rate 3-4 now. Not all but definitely some are overrated.

  7. Happy Gay Friday, Janna!

    I'm a #6 gal - I can forgive or brush off a lot of stuff if I fall in love with the characters. But #4 and #3 are also important - if the book is written poorly or has a lot of glaring holes early on, then it kills any chance I'll become emotionally invested in the characters.

    Some of my fav books were books I read when I 1st started reading m/m. I'm almost afraid to go back to some of them - what if I don't love them as much now that I've read so many other books? And then there are the others that I have gone back to and still love to pieces, so I have hope I wasn't too easy of a reader back then ;)

  8. I had something like 2,90 on GR, oops! But I am not easy to please. I have actually gotten nicer lately. But a 2 is still good there, a book that is ok can still be read :)

    Oh the dilemmas when it comes to reviewing. We are all so different

  9. I find that I'm a very forgiving reader so maybe tend to rate higher than some people. But when book hits a button with me the negative's hard for me to climb back out of the black hole I've fallen in to if that makes sense. The rest of the book needs to be damned good in order to save itself. :)

    I definitely think #6 is a big one for me - on both sides of the coin.

    I also believe that we as bloggers/readers tend to figure out who those other bloggers/reviewers are that are out in the universe that we agree with on books and we know we can go to them for sound thoughts on a book. It may be just their preferences but that's why we like their reviews. We enjoy their opinions as well as the way they write their reviews.

  10. Janna, awesome post!!!! I've been lurking at all the brou ha ha online too and these clashes happen every now and then online *sigh* Sometimes I do get a bit tired of them :( Anyhoo... of course #6 is my #1 as a reader/reviewer as well, if I'm not moved in one way or another then it's bad reading for me. Not to say that the book is necessarily badly written though!

    A personal hot button is also #1 I don't care what the author throws at me in terms of world building but it has to make sense, otherwise it will cause all forms of bump and grinds that will make it hard for me to lose myself in the storytelling and the journey the characters are taking :(

    #3 is also something I can trip over when I'm reading, if it is well done I can read the entire story in one afternoon, if not, again I will struggle.

    #2 can be a pitfall as well IMO. The author can fluently insert certain ideas that can explain and enrich the story but if not done well it can become very - I don't have another word for it - preachy :( Which annoys the crap out of me.

    I hope you're having a great weekend hon, I'm in a re-read mood and YAY I haz bought some M/M books to keep me company this weekend ;)

  11. PS: Oh yeah, this makes sense -

    I'm in a re-read mood but I bought some M/M books to keep me company this weekend *shakes head at self*

    I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm re-reading the first three books from the BDB series from JR Ward and then going to dive in to some new M/M books LOL

  12. @Diana: I think #6 is very important for us romance readers. Especially when I'm reading erotic romance I need the emotional connection or else it feels like I'm reading/watching pron. ;)
    Glad you like the new name! :D

    @Chris: Really? Linkity? Yay, yay, yay! :D *sings 'lala, Chris thinks my post is linkity-worthy, lala*
    Ahum. So, all the arguments are equally important for you then? Lol, yeah, you don't have much room to cover them all in your reviewettes. Yet, I value your opinion very much, but that's because I know you and your book taste for a long time now.

    @Lily: We have exactly the same priorities, except #3 is a wee bit more important than #4 for me, instead of the other way round.
    I think some of my 'early books' are probably overrated too, but I'm too lazy to re-read them, lol.

    @Ava: We're all #6 gals! It probably comes with the genre, for me anyway. When I read general/literary fiction #4, #3 and #5 are much more important than #6. Or at least I'm more critical with #4, #3 and #5 than with #6.
    Yep, I have a few favorites among the books that I read in the 'early m/m period' as well. Those made me fall in love with the genre, so I think they deserve to stay on my fav list for that alone. :)

  13. @Blodeuedd: Oops, 2.90! Lol! But you're right that a 2 star rating still means it's an okay book. For me to give a two star rating it says that I had some serious issues with the book. An okay book will more likely get 3 stars.
    But like you said, we're all different. And that's a good thing. :)

    @Tracy: Like you, I'm probably giving higher rates than some peoples. I'm forgiving as well, and I always try to look at the other aspects in a book even if #6 hits the negative side of the coin for me.
    You raise an interesting point about figuring out other reviewers. How they write their reviews can help so much to see their preferences. When I don't know a reviewer very well but s/he covers most of the 7 arguments in her/his review it does help me a lot to interprete his/her rating and to value his/her opinion. In other cases you just need time to figure out the reader's taste. This makes the bloggers community so interesting for me. It's never boring. :)

    @Leontine: I know, these clashes are coming and going and I get a bit tired of them as well.
    Ah. See, your hot button #1 isn't that important to me and now I suddenly can explain why you didn't like a few books as much as I did, lol.
    You make me curious now which m/m books you've bought to keep you company! But better don't tell me, because I already went wild last weekend with the shopping thing. I first need to read a few before buying more. Have a good reading weekend, hon! :)

  14. LOL, Janna! I think which argument is the most important really depends on my mood and on the book.

    And I agree that knowing how the tastes of the people whose reviews I follow fit with mine is the most critical thing for interpreting ratings and reviews.

  15. I think my #1 hot button is especially in PNR/UF and romance fantasy and I've got the least troubles in contemporaries :)

    Of course I've got to mention the good stuff i got *cheeky grin*

    A Promise Kept by Stormy Glenn
    A Promise Given by Stormy Glenn
    Luke by Jan Irving
    Nothing Ever Happens by Sue Brown
    Oracle by R.J. Scott
    Wings Of Love by Cade Scotty

    I iz in heaven :)

  16. @Chris: LOL! That makes perfect sense, coming from you. :)
    And yes, knowing the tastes of other readers/bloggers helps me to spend my money much more efficient too. ;)

    @Leontine: *g* That's a nice batch of books, hon! Now I have to be strong and not run to the ebook shops... ;D

  17. Janna - how do I say this? Keep starting and erasing...I appreciate your reviews. There is an honesty about them. You discuss what works and what doesn't work for you and you tell us why. That's how it should be. What works for you may not work for me - but that's also the impression I want a reviewer to leave me with.
    It is always a matter of opinion, just like a movie review or a restaurant review is really and truly a matter of opinion. To pretend you can achieve objectivity? Who sets the standards for objectivity? God? I mean, seriously? Who is the ultimate arbiter of objectivity? He or she doesn't exist.
    Keep doing what you're doing. You're fine.

  18. @Julia: Thank you, Julia. That means a lot to me. I always feel like I'm just doing something without being too conscious about it, lol. So I'm glad it's working for you. :)
    You're right that it's impossible to achieve objectivity, all we can do when writing a review is try to explain as clearly as possible how we came to our opinion, which arguments played a role. I just regret that I don't have the time to write long, detailed reviews for every book that I read.

  19. Great post Janna!

    A reader/reviewer can’t help but bring his/her own preferences and personality to the book s/he is reading.

    Definitely. I'm always dragging all my baggage into a book :)

    Those who review are...amazing IMHO.

  20. Woah, apparently I missed something, but then the last few weeks I didn't have much time to keep up with the blogs.

    You probably already know this, since we talked about it, but reviews are personal. It's hard to be objective. With science, it's easy you just back up your opinions with examples, but with reviews it is always subjective. If I were to reviewa Remco Campert book it wouldn't be good.
    Sometimes with books I can say that the book is structurally sound with a good plot and good dialogue, but the story wasn't my thing (like with Rachel Haimowitz' Anchored). But it's not always easy.

    So if all the arguments that are most important I would go with 3 or a combination of 3 and 6.

  21. @orannia: LOL
    "Definitely. I'm always dragging all my baggage into a book :)"
    That's another way of putting it. ;)

    @Lis: I agree, reviewing is personal and objective. Although, I'm also convinced that it is possible to reach a certain 'scientific' level when you know what to look for when analyzing fiction. There's something called 'narratology' (which studies/analyzes stories) and Literature is an actual academic course. There you learn how to look beyond your own interests in topic and personal identification with the subject. You can certainly look at technics and other skills. As you know, I'm saying this from experience, since I studied Literature. But my point in the above post is not about that, it's merely an explanation of why I read (and love) this specific genre -romance- and how I approach it. It differs from how I approach general fiction for example.

    PS Remco Campert's books are very good actually. ;)


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