How the Internet is Killing the Book Review

Now that I own a Kindle, my ever-raging thirst for new reading material can be assuaged with a few finger swipes. Because I have wide-ranging taste and am relatively choosy about which books earn the swipe, I rarely regret a purchase. But last week I regretted not only buying a particular book, but also the time I invested in reading it. The book was a memoir, written by a non-writer with some help from a published author, with a highly compelling story at its center. I bought the book after it was mentioned favorably on several blogs and Facebook feeds, including some by writers whose work I admire.

The story was indeed compelling, but the writing was not. I’m not talking about writing that was good but just not to my taste. I’m talking about dull, predictable, repetitive writing. I’m talking about scene after scene that did nothing to move the story forward. I’m talking about imprecise language, such as the author’s penchant for using the word “emotional” as a stand-in for every…well…emotion the author felt (as in, “I got emotional when I thought about…”). I’m talking about far too many unnecessary details in many scenes, and not enough details in others.  (I inferred that this lack of detail was often due to the author’s not wanting to share sensitive information about other people. This is a worthy goal, and one that a more skilled writer could handle without leaving the reader frustrated by getting snippets of tantalizing information that are never developed.)

I finished the book, hoping that the “page turner” I had read about on other people’s blogs would be revealed. It never was. I googled the book title to see if I had misread all those great reviews, or if the good reviews were  outnumbered by reviews that noted the same weaknesses that I did. Nope. All I found was gushing review after gushing review.

That’s when I realized that the Internet is killing the book review.

That the Internet democratizes the giving and receiving of opinion is usually a good thing. For example, with Yelp I can vet nearly any restaurant (even a local pizza joint or deli) by reading reviews by regular diners like me. In pre-Internet days, only select restaurants would be reviewed by professionals whose palates were more sophisticated than mine (and who might not mention whether arriving with a toddler and his sippy cup will lead to evil stares or a warm welcome from a waiter with clean high chair in hand). But the democratizing of book reviews, such that even self-published and low print-run books published by small presses can garner dozens of reviews by promoting “blog tours” or sending copies to readers with the expectation that they will post an Amazon review, has led not to better information for readers, but to a preponderance of inaccurate gushing.

Perhaps the gushing is due to people feeling obligated to say nice things about a book they got for free. Perhaps it’s because publishers and authors often send review copies to writers and bloggers with whom the author has a relationship, which makes it awkward for the recipients to say anything negative. Some of it, of course, is due to differing tastes. I’m sure that some of the folk who gushed over the book I didn’t like really did love it. Is it reasonable for someone to love a book because it had a compelling story at its center, even if the writing wasn’t very good? Sure. Is it reasonable for a reviewer to say a book is a wondrous page turner that deserves a wide audience when it’s poorly written? I don’t think so. I’d bet that most people who review books professionally—that is, people selected by editors to review books because an editor has faith in their judgment of what good writing looks like—would agree that terrible writing ought not be trumped by an interesting story. But professional book reviews are few and far between for small-run and independently published books that can easily rack up dozens of online reviews by casual bloggers and Amazon users. So a book like the one I just read, which was self-published and is only getting reviewed by self-selected online reviewers, garners effusive review after effusive review, and readers like me who take those reviews at face value waste our money.

One way that less formal online reviews differ from professional reviews is that Internet book chatter is often personal to an extent that formal book reviews usually aren’t. As I mentioned previously, authors frequently rely on friends and professional acquaintances for reviews. In my online writers’ group, we recently strategized about how to honestly review a book by someone whose feelings you don’t want to hurt because you both write for the same publications or will be on the same panel at an upcoming writers conference. (Hint to readers: If a book review is mostly plot summary and/or is more about the reviewer’s experiences that relate to the book topic, rather than the book itself, the reviewer probably didn’t like it but doesn’t want to come out and say so.) I once asked a writer friend whom I respect a great deal why she gave such effusive praise to a book that featured confused arguments and botched grammar. My friend said she admired the author’s intentions and wanted to support the good that the author is trying to do in the world. I imagine that same desire, to support an author’s good intentions, lies behind much of the praise for the memoir I recently read and disliked. But isn’t it possible to support and praise someone’s noble intentions without praising a book that doesn’t deserve it?

The personalizing force of online reviews also means that anyone who pens a critical review—even if the criticism is mild—can expect a backlash from readers crying “unfair!” I recently reviewed a book that I thought was well-written but not outstanding. I explained why in the review. I got several irate comments, including one from someone representing the book’s publisher (!). I was apparently not merely wrong, but also jealous because someone else wrote a book that is better than mine. In the overpersonalized world of online book reviews, any negative critique of a book is suspected to arise from the reviewer’s warped psyche, rather than his or her actual knowledge of what good writing and good books look like. (To her credit, the author of the book I tepidly reviewed did not comment publicly, and thanked me privately for the criticisms, saying she will keep them in mind as she writes her next book. As my first editor drilled into me, it’s rarely a good idea to respond to a negative review of one’s work. My correspondence with that author was a lovely caveat to an otherwise unsavory episode.)

I love books. I want books to be praised because they are excellent, not because the author’s life story is interesting or the author is well-intentioned or the author knows two dozen bloggers who are willing to say nice things. I want my own work to be praised because it deserves praise. Criticism is hard, really hard, to hear and graciously accept—but it’s also absolutely necessary to a robust, long-term writing career. Talented authors and excellent books will sometimes be unfairly criticized. But well-informed, honest book reviews are good for authors and for readers. When we write (and share and become influenced by) gushingly positive reviews of a book that doesn’t deserve them, we may make an author’s day, but we are failing to help him or her build a sustainable writing career. I recall one first-time author whose friends penned lavish review after lavish review. When a formal review pointed out the book’s muddled thinking, she was utterly baffled, asking, “Why did no one tell me about these problems before now?” What we have is a kind of grade inflation* that fails to tell some writers that they need to work harder and get better, and fails to reward other writers whose work is truly excellent but is devalued by an overabundance of five-star reviews.

I think of those American Idol contestants who sing their heart out for the judges, only to be told bluntly that a singing career is not for them. “But….” they cry, “my family and friends are always telling me what a great singer I am!” Just as with singing, writing that pleases your mom or your spouse or your friends is not necessarily great, publication-worthy writing. A story that makes for inspiring vignettes to share around the dinner table or in a sermon doesn’t automatically make for an excellent book. Readers always deserve the very best, most honest writing we can give them. That’s true when we’re writing a book, and it’s also true when we’re reviewing other people’s books. Writers owe it to one another, and to ourselves, to reserve our highest praise for truly excellent work.

*With thanks to my friend Karen Swallow Prior for the grade inflation analogy.

Author’s Note: I have deliberately left out titles of and links to the books and reviews to which I refer in this post, because I do not intend this post to discredit particular books or authors.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Erin Bartels

    I am so happy to read this post, Ellen. You say so many important, true things it’s hard to know what to highlight in a tweet! I have (anonymously) written a fairly tepid review for someone I know. I was careful to praise strong points, gently point out areas for improvement, and end on a high note. But the vast majority of the reviews for this book were those gushing, ecstatic reviews you speak of. For every one that I read I kept saying to myself, “Did we read the same book?” It is so hard, for Christians perhaps especially who are taught to be so NICE, to have the courage to be honest. Thanks for your thoughtful words.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m glad it struck a chord, Erin. As I mention in the post, there will always, of course, be differences of opinion. Some people will like a book that someone else doesn’t. But the rampant gushing that I noted, and that you mention here, is something beyond differences of opinion. I’ve asked that question–”Did we read the same book?”–so often that I started really paying attention to what all these online reviews are saying. And I’ve concluded that differences of opinion cannot completely explain this phenomenon. Your noting that we Christians also want to be “nice” is another contributing factor, I’m sure. Thanks so much for reading and responding.

  • Jeannie

    I think you make some great points here. (The “You didn’t like the book; you must be jealous” argument is baffling.) What I find frustrating is when I want to find online reviews of a book before deciding to buy/read it, and end up having to sift through a hundred Goodreads “reviews” such as a 5-star review that says, “This book looks really good; I hope I’ll have time to get through it before my exams start.”

    Your American Idol example reminds me of Diane on Cheers saying, “I’ve always wanted to sing really badly!” — to which her friends reply, “Well, you got your wish.” I guess many of us want to write really badly and review books really badly, and the Internet can help us do just that. :-)

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I don’t remember that line from Cheers, but I love it! Thanks!

  • Brenda Funk

    Good post. As a fellow Kindle-owner, I am also frustrated by the glowing reviews, only to find great disappointment as I read the same book! I have learned to do careful checks on the author and book before I click. To me, it is very important that the book be well-written (which means to me well-researched as well as words that are beautifully put together), and a joy to read. I have deleted many a book from my Kindle after reading the first few pages/chapters. Thanks.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I try to be honest with reviews, but also find something positive to say especially for new/independent authors. But sometimes books are just awful. And sometime it is the reader as much as the writer. There are just books that I love that others hated and vice versa.

    But I think your comment the end of the post is a good example of how hard it is to give honest critique. I realize that the point of the post is the system of reviews. But people are reluctant to post negative reviews because of negative feedback.

    I have a small book blog and there are authors I won’t read anymore because of their reaction to my reviews. I am happy to be wrong if I am wrong about a fact. But my opinion is mine.

    I know that negative reviews on amazon tend to get votes for unhelpful. Which affects the ranking of reviewers. So there is a feedback loop that encourages only positive reviews.

    And as a Christian, I have seen more than several give the opinion that the only right way to review a book is to speak positively or don’t speak at all. I disagree with this as a policy. But as I said at the beginning, I do try to find something nice to say. After all someone put a lot of time into a book.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I also always try to say something (or many things!) positive when I’m reviewing a book that, overall, I didn’t like. That’s part of why it is so frustrating when people get up in arms over a less-than-stellar review, because I make concerted effort to name the good things about a book in addition to its weaknesses. So part of the problem, as you say here, is that if you are honest and say you don’t think a book is great, you then have to deal with the backlash.Perhaps if a reviewer is not willing to deal with that backlash, they shouldn’t be reviewing books! (And just as authors should rarely, if ever, respond to a negative review, book reviewers should avoid responding to those backlash comments. It just reinforces a negative spiral.) Thanks for this response!

  • Pete Morin

    Excellent essay, with which I could not agree more. All those gushing 5 star reviews DO make it harder for a writer to accept the value of an accurate criticism.

    [You wouldn’t be related to Pam Painter, an MFA writing professor at Emerson, would you?]

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      No, I’m not! I’m always surprised to find Painters around who are not relatives. I think of it as a less common name than it really is. “Dollar” Isn’t exactly common either!

  • ReadWriteThinkPlease

    Sunita at Dear Author wrote a similar post a few weeks ago: “Is genre fiction creating a market for lemons?” http://dearauthor.com/ebooks/is-genre-fiction-creating-a-market-for-lemons/ The subsequent discussion in the comments goes off the rails more than once, but I believe both you and she make a very valid point.

  • http://kinga-thebooksnob.blogspot.com Kinga

    I don’t think it’s the internet that’s killing book reviews. It’s self-publishing. It has removed any quality control that a traditionally published book goes through. After initial enthusiasm I now very rarely read self published books (and ALWAYS read the sample first). Other than that, I think the internet actually helped me read more fantastic books. The mainstream newspapers have only so much space for their reviews, so lots of great but more obscure stuff never gets any publicity. It is great we can read more reviews of more books, the trick is to do a background check on the reviewer. I curate my own list of bloggers and goodreads users whose recommendations I can trust. Sometimes of course I come across a book that has not been reviewed by anyone I know and trust and then you just need to do a background on the reviewer itself. Does the review itself is well written ? (A person who can write well is likely to gush over a badly written book) Does it seem generic. What else did this person review? What did they love, what did they hate and why?
    You have to proceed with caution and not trust anonymous reviews any more that you would trust the blurb from the back of the book.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree that vetting the source of a review is vital, although lots of people won’t do that. And while I agree that the growth of self-publishing is part of the issue (several of the books I mention in this post were self-published), I have also read inappropriately gushing reviews of traditionally published books. And then there have been instances when I have trusted the source of a good review implicitly, such as the vignette I share here about the friend who said nice things about a terrible book as a way of supporting the author (something that she now says she won’t do any more). So it’s not quite as straightforward as you describe it, but I completely agree with your points in general. Thanks!

  • Rhonda

    I highly recommend the book Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett, about a talented writer dealing with a modern world of media. Wonderfully written and very funny.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Thanks for writing what I’ve been thinking on and wondering about, EPD. I have been asked to review a few books here and there, some of which are beautifully written and some of which are written well enough to recommend.

    Happily I have not yet been asked to review a book that’s a real stinker, but if I ever find myself in that spot I think I might just dispense with the review altogether. I am more interested in reviewing a book for its ideas than its prose, but unbearable prose is enough to make me give up on any book. (I feel the same way about Bible paraphrases, which is why I wince whenever someone quotes from The Message.)

    When I blogged about your book, I did it uninvited and without receiving a complimentary copy. If I thought it not worth writing about, it never would have made its way into a post. Your writing is excellent, though, so I had little danger of facing that prospect. Coupled with a fascinating topic and personal story, your book made beautiful blog fodder for me.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Remember when Kisses from Katie was all the rage? I felt the precisely the same way after reading it as you described in reading the highly favored book you downloaded on kindle.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I certainly appreciated that unsolicited (and positive) review of my book, and would much rather get that than to get dozens of 5-star reviews on Amazon but wonder how sincere they are! Also, this: “I am more interested in reviewing a book for its ideas than its prose, but unbearable prose is enough to make me give up on any book.” Yes, precisely.


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