All about book reviews and personal opinion

One of the things that happens these days with ‘book reviews’ of the Amazon variety is the intrusion of personal opinion as a way of judging the book.

One of my bookshelves...
One of my bookshelves…

You know ‘I liked it, so I’ll give it five stars’. Or ‘it didn’t appeal to me, so I’ll give it one star’.

The point being that there’s a difference between personally liking something, and the abstract quality of the work. Somebody else might like something you dislike and vice-versa.

That also intrudes into the professional ‘essay-style’ reviews of the traditional world – on my own experience, typically at the hands of academics who view the work they’re reviewing as an intrusion into territory – either by subject, or by an interpretation of a subject – that they use to validate their personal self-worth. It’s a bit scary. The professional analysis of an abstract topic by a stranger becomes a personal invalidation attack on them that has to be ruthlessly avenged in kind.

I’m certainly familiar with it in my little corner of the writing world. There are academics and intellectuals who I know in New Zealand solely on the basis of the profound malice they have shown me as a result of books I have written in their particular fields or ideologies. From my perspective this conduct is unprovoked and at the hands of total strangers. None of those doing it have ever had the personal integrity and moral courage to approach me for a civil discussion. Not one. Although they quite happily take the full-time university salaries and grants that I am paying them through my taxes, while their conduct is to the detriment of the commercial income I am trying to earn on merit (so I can pay them through those taxes).

There are words for this kind of behaviour, however those doing it might try to intellectualise their conduct. And it seems to be endemic to the academy – certainly in New Zealand.

But quite often books are properly assessed by reviewers, in abstract fashion, for their merits and their likely appeal to interested readers. As just one example, I got to write a review essay for a national magazine a little while ago, for a book which tackled its subject very differently from the way I’d have done it, were I writing the same thing. But of itself the approach the author took had great merit, and there was no doubting the huge labour that had gone into producing it. To me that was something to be admired, not run down because it differed from my approach. What the author had done in all respects, and by any measure, was really, really impressive.

That is the point. The real question reviewers have to ask is whether the author made a good job in terms of what they were doing. And the question that then has to be asked is what will the reader get out of it? Remembering, of course, that everybody has different tastes – and somebody will, quite certainly, thrive on what they have read even if the reviewer doesn’t. That needs to be recognised. I kind of hope that more ‘reviews’ (comments, really) on Amazon and other sites follow that approach.

Lots of layer blending in this one, and I'm saying this about my own book!I don’t think it’ll happen, though, somehow. Thoughts?

And meanwhile, if you want to check out  – and review – one of my books, here’s Fantastic Pasts – a wild comedy adventure in alternate New Zealand history. It’s free to Amazon Prime customers in 2016.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


13 thoughts on “All about book reviews and personal opinion

  1. One of my very most favouritest of authors is the late Terry Pratchett. I’m currently reading “A Slip of the Keyboard” that I serendipitated across in the Invercargill Library last week. He says much the same as you …

    I eventually learned never to judge a book by its cover (for years I’d tossed aside Pratchett’s Discworld works because of those bloody awful covers. When I finally did read one out of desperation I was instantly hooked) or reviews.

    As for reviews, I make a point of never reading anything I cannot comment on or otherwise rebut. Sometimes there’s no other outlet than pins and a wax doll, so I just don’t bother.

    Your post above is music to my ears (I happened across you in GP Cox’s WP blog this morning).

    1. I almost managed to spend some time in a Wellington NZ pub with Pratchett a few years back – he declined because of jetlag and tiredness, which was fair enough. He was a nice guy and a very talented writer.

  2. This is very true and makes me wonder why Bookbub requires authors hoping to be advertised by them (for a considerable fee) to have a certain number of 4 or 5 star “reviews.” I have seen quite thoughtful reviews with a 3-star rating that were much more informative than a 5-star “Awesome! I couldn’t put it down!” (For the record, I’ve never applied to Bookbub. Not enough reviews or dollars).

  3. There is a reviewer on Goodreads who gives one star ratings without a written review. Nasty thing to do without explaining her reasons behind it. I think it is just to bring down the author’s rating. We don’t all like the same type of books. I believe in giving a fair rating and critique to all books I read even if I don’t particularly like them because they are not my favorite genre. Authors deserve at least that courtesy.

  4. The whole online review system seems to be in disarray at the moment. (TripAdvisor is coming in for a severe beating for its inaccuracies). Reviews are fine if you want to know if a particular brand of tumble dryer is reliable, but judging a book/film/album/plate of haddock and chips is less easy to quantify and prone to personal (unreliable) whim and mischief.

  5. Your comments intrigued me. Most often reviews are prone to personal whim; nonetheless, I enjoy reading the reviews of others, if only to draw my own conclusions. I have never been to New Zealand, but I admit I have considered the journey at some future point. Happy reading and writing to you!

  6. I think this post is so needed, and so well written. As someone who often has to help authors find reviewers for their books, it’s often really, really difficult to find readers who will give thoughtful reviews and critiques vs. ‘i liked it/i hate it’ comment-type reviews.

    I can see why places like Bookbub want a standard, but realistically, it’s the “good” reviews which are reflective, provide constructive criticism and often 3 stars that are the most revealing and important for potential readers to see.

    Personally, when I’m deciding what to read next, I read the 3 star reviews first. I also tend to put more weight on proper editorial reviews, vs. random reviews on Amazon.

    1. Thanks. The NZ part in the Pacific war was important in NZ but generally below the radar for the rest of the world. Good to know there’s interest now in the story.

      1. As far as I can see, the media didn’t really make it known in the US about NZ. They didn’t even hardly mention the US Army in the Pacific. Headlines were for Europe and the Marines. I’m trying to set the record straight. (it’s not easy when so often they are mentioned in with “the Commonwealth” forces attached to……)

        1. Thank you! It’s an important point here in NZ, where our place as the supply base for Halsey’s campaign into the Solomons remains part of local popular memory and culture. I suspect the wider issue was to do with Admiral King’s opposition to any but a US drive against Japan – a political issue that the US services of the day certainly opposed (I have a magazine article ‘in the wings’ now that refers to this in context of the British, meaning also Commonwealth, Pacific contribution in 1944-45).

          1. The answer is always Money, and so it was with the media back in the day and today, WWII is barely taught in the schools; certainly not in detail. The more I discover the more people I have to be thankful to!!

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