Saturday, April 10, 2010

Integrity in Book Reviewing

I have been thinking a lot lately about the integrity of book reviewers. I spend entirely too much time exploring book reviews on sites such as Shelfari, Goodreads and Amazon. I enjoy reading reviews because they can often help me to decide whether or not I want to spend my money on a book that has been recommended to me or which I've had my eye on for a while. I've learned a lot of lessons about impulse buys lately!

The problem is that I often go to the reviews when I'm finished with a book, too, just so that I can see what other readers are saying. This is especially true when I find that I've just finished reading (or had to put down) a book that I really did not enjoy. Those very rare-for-me 1 and 2 star books give me pause for thought, especially considering that I try to find something good about everything that I read, and prefer to give a 3 or 4 star review (5 stars are only for the very best of books, the ones that go onto my "favorites" shelf. I am a harsh critic, but I do my best to explain why I liked or didn't like a book.

And even when I'm thinking it, I never imply that "if you're intelligent, you will like this book" or "smart people won't have anything to do with this one!" because I know that taste in books differs from one person to another. What one person can tolerate and stomach I may find repulsive, and what I find excellent may not appeal to another person.
Recently I picked up a book that I simply couldn't finish. It was a book that I felt was a mixture of poor writing and disgusting plot lines. I didn't care at all for the characters, but I can handle that: The lack of plot made me feel anxious and uncomfortable: even distrustful of the author. I had to put this book down.

A young Shelfari user reviewed this book, writing that "experienced readers" (what is that, anyway?) would enjoy this book and that inexperienced readers most likely would not. The implication here is that if you don't enjoy the book, you are an "inexperienced reader."

Now I'm not entirely sure what an "experienced reader" (or an "inexperienced reader" for that matter) is, but the feeling that I get from this review and similar reviews is that if you don't enjoy the book, you are of sub-standard intelligence.

Now please allow me to stress that this reviewer was very young (too young, in my opinion, to read the book in question) and probably a bit less experienced in writing honest reviews than someone who has been reading for 25 or more years. At the same time I felt a strange sense of hurt loss when I read the review, thinking to myself "If I don't like this, does that mean I'm of below-average intelligence?" 

I've run into this on several occasions, not just on Shelfari but also on sites such as Amazon, where reviews are also allowed. Written on the Body is a wildly popular book (though I will never quite understand its popularity!) and in some cases negative reviews have comments where the comment authors have name-called and questioned the intelligence of people who didn't enjoy the book.

I can tell you point blank that my reasons for not enjoying Written on the Body were entirely political and religious, just as the reason that many people enjoy it are probably political and either religious or entirely secular, depending on the viewpoint. I am a straight, conservative, Christian. Gay, liberal, non-Christian/Muslim/Jewish folks will probably love the book. It is just far too feminist for my taste, and I am not that kind of woman.

In short, my opinions have nothing to do with intelligence, or who is right and who is wrong: my opinions are based almost entirely on my personal set of values and on my personality. I am not any better than people who love this book any more than I am better than the people who hate either of my two favorite books (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges, and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield). 

We're allowed to have different viewpoints on books: I wish sincerely that people would use their heads when posting reviews: they don't do their favorite authors any favors by insulting the folks who didn't like the book. This only serves to start flame wars!

So let's be honest, shall we? Let's remember that our own reviews are as subjective as the reviews written by the folks of a differing opinion, and write our reviews as being subjective. It does nobody any good to insult one another.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's always best to respect the opinions of others. Just because I like or don't like something, doesn't mean everyone else has to feel the same or that they are less intelligent or experienced than I for having a different opinion. Thanks for posting this & "Happy SITS Saturday Sharefest"