Monday, September 7, 2009

Weekly Geeks: On Reviews and Ratings

This week's Weekly Geeks asks us to consider this intriguing post from author Shannon Hale about reviewing and rating books and how much our own personal liking of a book should count for in that process. For the Weekly Geeks task, we have a choice of three options to respond to it. The last option is to answer the 6 questions that Hale poses at the end of her post in letter format, and that is the option that I've chosen.

Dear Ms. Hale (May I call you Shannon?),

I've read your post on reviewing and rating books and am admittedly intrigued. Before we even get to the questions, I'd like to say that I wholeheartedly agree with what you say here:

Even "bad" books, even books I just couldn't love, or even like, can be fascinating to me. They change the way I see the world too. Just like the old adage--what you dislike most in other people is what you dislike the most in yourself--I believe that what I dislike most in books highlights some of my own fears, insecurities, worries, and prejudices. (from her post of course)

On more than one occasion, I've found that I've finished a book and would never lay claim to having liked it. On a few of these occasions, I found that my motives for disliking said books were not that they were "bad" books. They weren't poorly written. They didn't fail to engage me as a reader. They didn't lack good characterization or interesting plot points, and even weeks and years later they stuck with me. These are books in which I found the characters and the situations and their actions so well-drawn and so frustrating to me that I could barely stand to keep reading them. Ultimately I kept coming back to them knowing they were good books about negative situations that prevented me from having a good feeling about them when I came to the end, but leaving an indelible impression on me nonetheless. Thanks for calling attention to this. It's definitely something I'm mindful of as a book reviewer now because of these books

Now, to the questions.

- Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?

Absolutely. Knowing that I plan to review a book when I come to its end actually helps me to focus in on the book and really think about what's working and what isn't working for me. It makes me want to keep an eye out for particularly good passages that I can include that will illustrate the book's prose or its theme. The prospect of reviewing a book definitely has made me into a more thoughtful reader.

- Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?

About 50% of the time. I accept and occasionally seek out ARCs and review copies to review for this blog. Given that I have them and have committed to reading them, it certainly makes me pick them up when I might have picked up something else otherwise. However, I've made a conscious effort of late to balance my ARCs/review books with books randomly chosen from my own collection or read for book club or some other such purpose. I try to have one ARC and one other book going at all times.

- Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?

Yes. Not always, but often. Sometimes writing the review reinforces my initial observations and feelings about a book. However, I've found that on a few occasions analyzing a book and what works and what doesn't for my review has helped me to hold my initial gut reaction to the book at arm's length and instead focus on the author, what they were trying to accomplish, and their success (or not) in that endeavor. I give you, for example, my review of Augusten Burroughs' A Wolf at the Table. It's not a likeable book in the traditional sense. Lots of dreadful things happen and you don't really leave the book on an enjoyable note. During the writing of the review, though, I discovered that despite my not exactly "liking" the book, I recognized that it had many merits and that the bad things hit so hard was a credit to Burroughs as a writer even if I didn't leave the book feeling warm and fuzzy.

- Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?

I try to wait until the end, after I've reviewed it. Sometimes I really think I'm enjoying a book, but after it's sat a few days waiting for me to sit down and write the review, I find that it didn't really stick with me or I just don't have much to say about it, and I can trim off a half a star or even a whole one for that. On the other hand, sometimes with a few day's distance and a more objective viewpoint I can see more good in a book, as with A Wolf at the Table, and that might earn it at star.

- What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?
If you review a book but don't rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?

I'm combining the last two questions. They seem to fit together so well that I hardly think I'd be able to answer them seperately. First of all, it's not my inclination to give a book a star rating. Admittedly, I do it on LibraryThing, mostly because I use the star rating as an indication of whether or not I've read a book in my collection, rather than using tags for this purpose. As I noted before, I do try to wait until I've thought over and reviewed a book before I commit to a star rating, so they're always subject to change between when I finish the book and when I write the review and even sometime thereafter if I found that the book stuck with me (or didn't) for whatever reason.

I don't carry over the star ratings to the reviews on my blog, however, and wouldn't consider doing so. I think there is more nuance and discussion involved in reviews and that a star rating just can't capture it. To be quite honest, I don't even think it particularly matters if I personally "like" or "don't like" the book. I think my job as a reviewer is to summarize the book in short so that people know what it's about and then to analyze how the book worked - whether the characters were well-drawn, whether the writing flowed, whether the plot was engaging, whether the descriptions were stunning or lacking, etc. and allow other people to make their own decision about whether they might like the book. Maybe they prefer a plot-driven novel or a character study. Maybe they enjoy lengthy descriptions that create atmosphere or maybe they find too much description to make a book drag. My job as a reviewer, I think, is to prepare people for what they may find in the book and base their decision to pick the book up on that, not on whether I thought it was super great (or not).

Some bloggers and reviewers that I trust and know I share a common taste in books with, I would pick up a book simply because they liked it. Heck, maybe some others feel that way about me and my reviews, but for those that don't know me or have any reason to trust me, I'd rather just lay out the finer points of the book, let them know what to expect, and let them decide for themselves if it's the kind of book they'd like to try. Certainly I'll say whether I ultimately liked or didn't like a book, but I won't do it without a good idea of why or why not because, hey, not everyone likes the same stuff I like for the same reasons.

Thanks again for writing this post and giving us reason to consider and discuss the thought processes behind what we're writing in our reviews. It's definitely been a rewarding experience for me, especially this year, when I personally find many of my own reviews to be a bit (and this is a technical term) blah. It helps to consider again what I believe to be a good review and re-center myself on those points.

Best Regards,



  1. I totally agree - I focus more when I'm reading a book for review. I don't give ratings on my blog, either.

  2. I agree with Kathy and Kristen--very well said, Megan!

    I especially like what you said about how the writing process can impact your view of a book. When I began my book journal six years ago (pre-blogging days), it was, in part, to debrief after reading a book. It was a way for me to sort out my impressions of a book and sometimes my initial opinion of a book did change the more I thought on it and made sense of it. I think that is a benefit, really. Journaling or reviewing the books I read has definitely made me a more careful reader, that's for sure.

  3. I can't quite decide how much the knowledge I'll be reviewing affects my actual reading. I review almost every book I read so maybe I'm just used to it now. Great post!

    Mine's here.