I have stepped over an invisible boundary into an alternate reality I didn’t even know was there. Behind seven novels you’d think I would at least have suspected, but frankly I never paid much attention to my reviews. I wrote books and the publisher did everything else, including getting them reviewed and then quoting the reviews in other reviews. Somebody loved one of my books? Great! Somebody else (and this actually happened) complained that she had to read them with a dictionary? Well, dictionaries are good, right?
But now, in addition to the scramble to get my backlist scanned and converted to countless incomprehensible formats that then require heroic levels of proofreading, I have a new book out there. My backlist already has tons of reviews, but new-baby Bone Blind needs reviews of it’s own and will not get a peep out of anybody unless I acquire some knowledge of a strange new world. Until this week I read the NYT Review of Books and the other traditional reviews, but never realized there’s a whole complex and fascinating book review system quite apart from the one with which I’m familiar. It’s been around for years and is crawling with intelligent, bookish people; I just didn’t know about it. So of course I had to research it to death, starting with a (subjective and slapdash – don’t quote these findings!) content analysis of the reviews themselves.
First, it’s important to point out that reviews by actual readers are now the “gatekeeper function” once served by the several “gates” of the traditional publishing sequence – agent to acquisitions editor to editorial board to editor to copy editor to professional reviewers. At any step along that path a “gate” might crunch shut on a book’s spine, and it was all over. Dead book. But with indie publishing there are no gates! Anybody can publish anything, which is refreshing and chaotic, but leaves the reader-reviewer with a Sisyphean task – the sifting of an exponentially -increasing tsunami of books for those worth reading. As never before, reader reviews are crucial.
ONE STAR *
And voilà! – there is an infrastructure for this. Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, countless blogs and many other venues provide a bully platform from which readers may determine the fate of a book. But how does it all work? With stars! One to five stars, accompanied by reasonable commentary, and a book will flourish or sicken. It cannot perish, as of old, but a couple of one-star reviews can leave it forever gasping and febrile in a wasteland of apocalyptic ruin.
To make things worse, there are bandits, “trolls” who for no apparent reason spend their lives going from venue to venue giving toxic one-star reviews. Why? Who knows, but they’re there. Recognize them by lack of any evidence that they’ve actually read the book. Then there are those nasty situations in which someone unwholesomely fond of an author covertly posts vile one-star reviews of the work of that author’s competitors or peers. After a while the reviewing community catches on and alerts the server. The posts are pulled, but the damage is, alas, done.
But lost in this shuffle of evil intent will be the legitimate one-star reviews, written by readers who absolutely loathe the book in question. In my research I started with them, reading carefully for the gross data they contain. Said data often is more telling of the reviewer than the book, but nonetheless useful. “I don’t know why (author) has to use such dirty language,” lets you know somebody in the book will say “fuck” at some point. Irrelevant unless by the time you get to the four-star reviews of the same book, you’re reading that “… (author) seems unable to distinguish between the speech patterns of widely varying characters, resulting in what sounds like 456 pages from a compendium of Anglo-Saxon terms connected to livestock breeding. However, this in no way detracts from his brilliant depiction of…blahblahblah.”
One-stars are also likely to nail immediately and in graphic terms the fact that a book is a stealth religious diatribe, or composed of such atrocious spelling and grammar as to be unreadable, or just universally so stupid and awful as to insult the reading world with its very existence. One-stars are popular with no one and serious reviewers routinely won’t review a book at all rather than give one, but the truth is – one-stars do not mess around.
TWO STARS **
Two-star reviews are almost as rare as the pariah one-stars, except under two sets of circumstances. The first involves responses to the disappointing sequel to a first book that everybody loved, or the response of a reader who didn’t realize this book was a stand-alone and not the next in a series s/he was following. Heartfelt bitterness there! The second, and more interesting circumstance, is that in which a book has been hyped to high heaven and then failed the promise of the hype. (What a relief – I do not have to worry about this!) If The Witch of Harvest Hill (with great cover art featuring a beautiful young woman dressed in low-cut Puritan black doing something in a moonlit cornfield) got advance raves from Stephen King, Barack Obama and the Archangel Gabriel, plus a trailer on YouTube with a to-die-for soundtrack and voiceover by Matt Damon, and then turned out to be egregiously unspectacular – two stars. The second star probably reflecting nothing more than that nobody wants to sink to the one-star level. Especially when it would mean contradicting Stephen King. But these two-stars tend to be detailed and cogent in their analyses, if only to justify being there at all. I suggest reading two-star reviews before buying any book backed by a promotional budget equal to the national debt.
Another, rather peripheral two-star review seems to reflect an unspecific rancor toward the book’s genre, or its author, or something. These often contain little or no text and may be dismissed as meaningless. Perhaps they’re just trolls who are slightly less mean-spirited than the one-star trolls.
THREE STARS ***
Not unusually there may be no three-star reviews at all on Amazon, more on Goodreads and Shelfari. If present, they may be interesting for their tendency to rather personal analyses. A reader whose Ph.D. dissertation entailed years of research on Virginia Woolf might assign three stars to an otherwise terrific book in which Woolf is inaccurately referenced, for example. (I find this sort of thing captivating and would be likely to read the book in order to find all the inaccurate references, but that’s just me.) Three-star is the realm of famous glitches that enjoy endless retelling by writers. The jacaranda trees in Cleveland, cactus wrens nesting in Corpus Christi’s saguaro cacti, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s remarkable snake in “The Speckled Band” – a trained snake with the hearing of a mammal, who also likes milk! More often, a three-star review will suggest the widely-read reviewer’s weariness with standard plot devices while nonetheless lauding the author’s skill at using them. “The attraction between Penelope and Seth, the brooding fireman who rescued her cat, seemed like every other romance I’ve ever read, but I was carried along by Seth’s complex relationship with his aunt who runs an orphanage in Sarajevo.”
Three-star reviews may be mined for specific reviewers’ reactions to specific material, but are usually just where they are – in the middle.
FOUR STARS ****
Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff. I particularly like four-star reviews because they’re most like the old, professional reviews to which I’m accustomed. Four and five-stars tend to follow the traditional pattern – intro, with protagonist’s name, reason for involvement in the story (she’s a cop/neurosurgeon/sociopath), and setting, followed by a short recap of the plot. At roughly this point the four-star reviewer will insert the issue which resulted in the shaving off of that coveted fifth star. “While I’ve never been to Cluj-Napoca, (author’s) obvious intimacy with the city and with the life of artist Nicolae Grigorescu transported me to another time and place. The inclusion of Romanian folklore added color and depth to this compelling tale of art restoration, but a forbidden boundary was crossed when Magda began to believe in the ‘entity’ existing for centuries in the catacombs beneath the city. A Spectre in Paint tries too hard to meld the rational world to a specious supernatural one.” This will be followed by a glowing conclusion urging everyone to read the book anyway.
A four-star review indicates a good, competent book, but offers juicy additional information about its flaws. These may be flaws only in the eyes of a particular reviewer, or may be generally obvious. In the fictional review above, it’s clear that the reviewer is not attracted to supernatural/folkloric themes in serious literary fiction, but hey – I am! I’d buy this book in a second, eternally longing as I do for intelligent, grown-up literary novels in which the “uncanny” is treated seriously. But if the book got its four rather than five stars because “professional editing could have diminished a daunting, 783-page read to more manageable levels,” I might get it for my Kindle, but I wouldn’t buy the book. Too big, too heavy. Four-stars do not have to do a murderously hard sell and so can admit dimensions of honesty, ambiguity and charming reviewer pique that make for a fun and informative read. However – alert here! – at the four and five-star levels there is a rigid convention involving Niceness.
If at one-star a reviewer may say, “I despised this piece of sloppily-written, puerile crap and ran it through the shredder for use as hamster bedding,” four and five-star reviewers cannot be so blunt and must struggle for a certain level of erudition. Four-star may say of the same book, “An intriguing story hampered by technical and grammatical problems which in no way obscure its piquancy…” while five-star will fall back on far-flung constituencies and insist, “Highly recommended for wheat germ enthusiasts and those whose first language is not English!” The Niceness convention is why it’s a good idea to read the one and two-stars, as they often function as translating devices for the four and five-stars.
But the most significant function of the four-star is its realistic buffering of the five-stars. With any extremely popular, mega-selling book, I suggest skipping the five-stars altogether and going straight to the fours, wherein will be found equally enthusiastic analyses that nevertheless don’t gush and also don’t shy away from acknowledging a book’s inevitable imperfections.
But why, you may ask, would a reviewer give five stars to a bad book she then has to disguise in tortuous verbiage? Well, the reviewer may be in thrall to the publisher and paid to do exactly that, or may be a supportive friend of the author trying to help, or just one of those wonderful people who believe in brightening up all corners. Which brings us to….
FIVE STARS *****
The importance of five-star reviews cannot be overstated, although their cachet is statistical and entirely unrelated to content. For a book to thrive, at least fifty per cent of its (many) reviews really ought to be be five-star, with four-stars accounting for another thirty-five per cent. This is not negotiable and remains uninfluenced by variables such as whether or not the book is all that good. A huge stack of five-star reviews is simply essential, like having a liver. It means nothing more than that a lot of people liked the book a lot, which will encourage other people to think, “Okay, I’ll like it, too.” We are social animals, intensely sensitive to social stimuli.
The downside of the five-star frenzy is that the actual reviews can do no more than rave, which renders them indistinguishable from each other. You only need to read one; the others will sound exactly the same. Thus there is no point in a reviewer crafting a well thought-out five-star essay about an excellent book, since the Niceness convention achieves its zenith here – a five-star book is perfect! It has no flaws, will disappoint no one in any regard. This is a crying shame, since the intelligent, bookish, exhaustively-read people who take the time to write these reviews with no recompense whatever, are quite able to assign five stars within a literary context (the individual book) that cannot possibly seem perfect to everyone. The reviewers, having read thousands of books, possess the advantage of a wide field and can say with authority that this nice-vampire-teenage-romance is superior to the thirty-six similar books s/he has read in these regards despite its failures in these, and so is deserving of five stars. The reviewer’s experiential base is not allowed employment in the five-star, which makes the whole endeavor, brutally essential as it is, an exercise in number-crunching, not book reviewing.
There appears to be no way around this, although I wonder what would happen if reviewers giving five stars just went ahead and revealed a few problems inherent in the books, within their reviews. The star assignment wouldn’t change, just the content of the review, which would then be similar to both four-star reviews and traditional reviews. At the very least it would make those “best” reviews readable, give them character.
Finally it’s necessary to acknowledge the amazing devotion to books and the experience of reading embodied in the many who, unpaid and unsung, care enough to write reviews at all. Thanks, reviewers! A technological shift that’s changing the publishing industry forever has also laid a huge responsibility on your shoulders. You’re doing a great job.