CONVERSATION: What’s Important to You in a Review?
Janine: As a reviewer I think a lot about what I want to see in reviews. I try to notice what kind of information I appreciate most or least in other people’s reviews because it helps me craft my own. I think that what we value in reviews is a good topic for a conversation, but since there are almost an infinite number of things that can go into reviews or be left out of them, rather than starting with a few more specific questions, I’d like us to start with just one general one, and then (hopefully) begin a conversation that flows from there.
So, DA contributors, with the understanding that most people who write genre fiction reviews do it for fun and not for money, and therefore don’t owe us anything, this is my question: As a reader of reviews, what’s important to you in a review?
Jennie: My first thought, and I will hopefully have more in response to others’ contributions, is that I like it to be clear (in a casual, non-“literary” review) what a reviewer’s prejudices are. Like if they are reviewing a road trip story, it’s helpful to know that they really like road trip stories; conversely if they are reviewing a book with tropes that they don’t generally like, such as reunited lovers, it’s good to know that they may be coming into the book with some reservations. I try to be clear when I review if there are aspects that I have prejudices for or against. I just think this is information that can give some context to the review.
Janine: Yes, that kind of transparency is certainly helpful in a review.
The thing that’s most important to me in a review (and this is so basic it should go without saying) is honesty. If a reviewer isn’t honest, for example if the reviewer just wants the ARCs or doesn’t believe in saying anything critical about any book, then the review is pretty much useless to me. If I detect a pattern of no criticism whatsoever in someone’s reviews then I get to a place of not knowing if the reviewer genuinely liked the book or is just focused on being polite to the author or genuflecting to them to get free ARCs. At that point I write off the reviewer as having very little to offer me besides a plot summary. None of the other information there can be trusted.
Another thing I find helpful is multiple metrics. Here I have to state clearly that I have different standards for a reader review on Goodreads or Amazon vs. a review at a major review site. If I’m on Goodreads and see a review where the reviewer was irritated or offended by one thing and that’s all they want to talk about, then while I want more information, it doesn’t bother me as much. However, I’ve had it happen that I go to a major review site and read a review that does almost nothing except point out a single issue. That can be valuable information but it’s still frustrating not to have a fuller picture of the book. If all you are going to tell me is only that the pacing was slow or only that the book wasn’t diverse or only that the characters annoyed you, well, I’m glad to know that, but it’s still frustrating to know only one thing. I want at least three or four metrics in a review. They don’t have to be the same ones every time but I want more than one.
Jayne: Yes to what you both said. Years ago I was excited to see a new review site focused on books that weren’t getting much coverage then. Then I started reading their reviews and noticed there wasn’t a single one graded below a B with most being B+ and A grades. I didn’t last long reading the reviews on that site.
When I read a review, I want to know the book’s pros and cons (if any of either). Just a quick recap of the plot and then announcing “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” isn’t a review to me. That’s just the beginning of a review. I want to know what worked or didn’t and why.
Kaetrin: I agree with what you’ve all said so far. I want honesty – both in terms of what the reviewer thought of the book and what the reviewer brings to the book. I want to get a sense of the reviewer’s taste so that I know how it fits with my own. Some reviewers tend to love books I love and some hate them – in either case that’s good to know and helpful to me! That’s what I aim for when writing a review – that people will get a sense of what I like and don’t and be able to fit my opinion into their own taste metric in a way that’s useful for them.
The other thing I try and do is make it clear that it’s my opinion and other opinions are welcome. What I mean is that I’m not holding myself out as the arbiter of all taste – this is what worked for me or didn’t and why. Mine is just one opinion in the mix. That’s even more important when it comes to aspects of books I’m not qualified to judge with any specificity – such as the representation of identities not my own. I might say that it seemed okay to me (or not) but that I welcome comment from and defer to members of that particular community for a more reliable take.
I also try to say at least one thing I liked about a book I didn’t enjoy, and (less importantly) something that I would have liked better in a book I did enjoy. I try and stick to the book and not get personal. I’m reviewing the book, not the author.
One pet peeve I have is that I hate when a review says “You will love this book!” or “This book will make you laugh.” I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself occasionally but I really hate being told what to do or how to feel by a reviewer! LOL.
Janine: That’s a great point about wanting a sense of the reviewer’s taste, Kaetrin. I find reviewer bios that mention a reviewer’s favorite books and/or likes and dislikes very helpful with that. I try to update mine every few years since my tastes evolve over time.
It’s also important to me that the grade reflect the content of the review. I’ve read reviews where the reviewer said they loved the book until something ruined it for them, and then they gave the book an F. My reaction to that is one of “Really? Not even a D-? None of the stuff you enjoyed in the other 95% of the book merited even a fraction of a grade point?” I think it’s reflective of the fact that some readers and reviewers see books in binary terms, as all good or all bad. The percentage of books I read that strike me that way is tiny. I have given even books that triggered me C grades. But the real problem for me with that kind of review is that when there’s a mismatch between the content of the review and the grade, I’m confused about which to believe.
Sirius: I actually have very few things that are important to me in other people’s reviews. I agree that I want to know reviewers’ likes and dislikes. This actually is the most important thing to me. If I know that reviewer’s tastes run close to mine and the story in the blurb grabs me, I may buy the book if the reviewer just says I like the book. This is when I read reviews for the purposes of book recommendations. However, I very rarely consider recommendations from reviewers I don’t know.
When I read the reviews for the purpose of discussing the book, I usually read the review after I read the book and then I like the review to be entertaining and fun. I certainly want to know what worked and what did not work in the book, especially if the book touched me in the positive or negative way.
When I write my own reviews, I write about story and characters, what worked and what did not. I guess the only thing that I try to follow quite strictly is to avoid spoilers UNLESS I have massive problem with something in the plot or characterizations. Then I have no choice I have to talk about it, but otherwise – if it is not in the blurb for me it is a spoiler and I try not to talk about it.
Funnily, I love spoilers and that’s another thing that I often seek out in the review if I am trying to decide if I want to buy the book or not, but because I know that many people are not like me and hate them, I try to be strict with those.
Layla: So I have a few thoughts about this topic. I read reviews to get book recommendations but also often I read them to check what someone else thought about a book after I have completed it—I’m not sure if anyone else does this!
I also wanted to say that I think of the purpose of book reviews traditionally as being twofold–on the one hand, it’s about marketing, i.e. granting awards, helping situate authors in a larger landscape, and helping to sell books. On the other hand, reviews place books in a particular context. I love reading the NYT review of books not so much for the book recommendations, but for the way the critics and writers situate particular books within larger contexts–historical, geographical, literary. Maybe this doesn’t apply as much to romance as a genre, but what I love about romance reviews is a sense of critique married to an unabashed enjoyment. I love to read a glowing review where you can see that the reader enjoyed it as a reader. As someone for whom criticism is part of my profession, I like to read things uncritically sometimes just to enjoy them. If I have to don my critical eye or lens, it can mar the enjoyment of a thing for me.
I also enjoy really clever reviews of bad books—it’s a very delicate art to critique something bad without being malicious.
Finally, just wanted to say that I really love a sense of humor in a reviewer and love reviews in particular when they make me laugh.
Janine: Hmm, as far as the purpose of reviews, while for the publisher and the author it has to do with marketing, I don’t see it as the main purpose of the reviewer. I mean, I love book pimping–when I love a book then I want to enthusiastically let everyone know. But when I write a review, I actually try not to think about the author at all because if I did I would be paralyzed. In that regard the letter-to-the-author format we have at DA gave me fits for years before I got used to it. I don’t want to imagine the author reading the review.
One of the #1 things any writer has to do is keep in mind who their audience is. To write a book for romance readers is a very different art from writing one for readers of horror, or of literary fiction, or of poetry. Even if you put elements of these genres into your romance, you have to make sure it’s pleasurable to romance readers and that it works for them. In the same way, I keep in mind that reviews are for readers, not authors or publishers. If I start writing for the authors then I’m no longer serving readers well. I see a reviewer’s main purpose as to let readers know what they thought so that readers can decide whether the book is worth purchasing.
Jayne: Layla, you’re not the only one who reads other reviews of a book you just finished. I try to wait until after I’ve completed a book – or I’ve reached the stage where I’m fairly sure I know I’m not going to finish it – in order to avoid influencing my final take on the book. Then I seek out other reviews to check that I’m not the only one who felt this way or thought that about it.
Yes to enjoying an unabashed enthusiastic review if there’s more to it than just “I LOVED THIS AND YOU WILL, TOO!” (I’m with Kaetrin on disliking people who tell me how I’m going to react to something.) A well-done critique of a bad book is great fun, too. As you say, Layla, there is an art to doing one that critiques only the book.
Sirius: I don’t really have much to say on this but just wanted to say absolutely I read the reviews on the books I finished too!
Jennie: That’s actually a real pleasure post-read. I’m curious about people who agree with me and even more those who disagree with me (particularly if I liked the book more than them; glowing reviews of books I didn’t like are less interesting to me for some reason).
Layla: I have a hard time assigning grades (and I’m a professor!!). I feel like I have two grades— an immediate one that’s more emotional and a rational one that often comes after some time. Sometimes books move me or I feel the author did a lot of work, but there were lots of things that failed me too. An example is the most recent book I reviewed the Evie Dunmore book Portrait of a Scotsman. I really loved her previous book. [With Portrait of a Scotsman,] I admired her writing and character development and historical richness and detail but the heroine was too stupid and too annoying and I hated the ending. I gave it an emotional grade right after reading it but in the way of the world, as time went by I thought about it and thought, I should have assigned it a lower grade. One criteria of a good book for me is whether I will reread it—and I realised after that I never would. I feel like I graded it based on effort.
On the one hand as a writer myself, I try not to be too critical because I also know how hard it is to write and that there’s no such thing as perfection. But again I’ll turn to my academic grading for an example— if I gave every student an A (and there are plenty who make good effort!!) then an A becomes meaningless. With reviewers who don’t give out high marks easily, if I see they graded something an A I really pay attention!
I read reviews in order to find books worthy enough of purchase or borrowing—it’s essential to my practice of how I find new books to read. So I agree with you Janine. Also, I agree with all of you—I need a discriminating reviewer. Someone who loves everything or is very uncritical isn’t for me.
Last thing— sometimes I read reviews for fun not ever intending to read the book. I read Kaetrin’s review of Gabaldon’s new book for example and found it highly entertaining. I enjoyed reading it because while I won’t read this last instalment, I have read Gabaldon’s Outlander series and I found Kaetrin’s review to be really interesting in light of that. Plus sometimes you want to know what the buzz is about new books!
We’d like to turn the topic over to you now, readers. What about you? What things are important to you in a review?