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Ratings can only ever reveal so much: a reflection on book reviews

Like all cultural mediums, book reading is inherently subjective. While society over centuries has created the literary canon, determining which books are great and truly classical is based on an individualistic view of what is exceptional. Similarly, the classics section in bookshops, like Waterstones, are selective in what literary treasures deserve to receive attention and financial payments. For marketing purposes, the newest releases and bestsellers will be allowed the most prominent displays whenever anyone enters a bookshop. If a book has sold well, booksellers have reason to believe that this success will continue. 

This subjectivity applies just as much to literary criticism. In the modern world, this takes all kinds of forms. Writers and critics will be commissioned to review the latest releases for broadsheets and magazines, offering long essays on what the books achieve and where they fall short. Papers like the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books exist because there is a solid, niche readership for the in-depth analysis of literary treasures.  

Someone can voice their opinion on a book without writing any words at all. How so? The star rating, of course!

Of course, everyone can voice their opinion now in just 280 characters. The universalism of Twitter provides the opportunity for all individuals to offer their ‘hot take’ on the latest bestseller and demonstrate whether it’s up to scratch. Similarly, there is a greater platform for providing criticism of more historic writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, questioning whether their writing is as excellent as it’s made out to be.  

And, obviously, someone can voice their opinion on a book without writing any words at all. How so? The star rating, of course! Whether on Amazon or Goodreads, just a star rating can suffice in order to express an individual’s judgement on the latest literary sensation. Naturally, when a large number of people do this, it can skew the book’s ratings towards being highly popular or unpopular, therefore determining the reading community’s attitude towards the book.   

While the memorable reviews are negative, the best reviews are authentic and honest about whether a book worked or not

It is questionable whether this would influence a prospective individual to buy a book. Such ratings can often be understandable and justifiable in certain contexts. I don’t want to buy a product from an Amazon user that has a terrible record in actually delivering the product. However, for books, I think word of mouth is more important. People who regularly read will speak to other bookworms and get ideas of what to buy (and what to avoid) from them. Similarly, book club programmes will provide an opportunity for exploration into books worth reading. There are multiple sources for how people can access literary ideas worth exploring.  

Can there ever be a set of rules, dos and don’ts if you like, with regards to reviewing books online? From simply putting a star rating to writing a long essay about a book, I think there are a few rules that are worthwhile. Clearly, nobody should ever rate or review a book they haven’t read. Whatever their vendetta is against a particular author, such a practice is dishonest, skews voting and presents misinformation to individuals trying to understand which books are worth reading.

Part of reviewing a book often involves comparison. What a reviewer is aiming to compare the said book to is important and vital. For example, are they aiming to compare the book to the greatest novels ever written? Is it instead being compared to previous books by that author? What about other texts in a similar genre? The parameters at which an individual is framing their review is vital for understanding the context and meaning behind the writing.

Evidently, all reviews will be personal. Part of that personal nature is simply being as honest as possible about why the book did or didn’t work for the particular reader. It may not be a problem with the book as a whole, but just the inability of the reader to personally connect with it. Such honesty with regards to any review gives the writing more authenticity and means that the reviewer is more likely to be taken seriously.  

Authors and creators should not transform their literary visions to please their readership. Do this, and neither the readership nor the author will be impressed with what has been created. While authors should engage with their readers, and often do when promoting a book on the festival circuit, that is distinct from tailoring their books to please the largest audience. If an author is writing purely for an audience, the quality of the novel is likely to be lessened dramatically.  

While the memorable reviews are negative, the best reviews are authentic and honest about whether a book worked or not. Though leaving just a star rating can only reveal so much, it can provide insight, interest and engagement as to what books worked and which books were of a lower standard. Reviewing is an intrinsic part of the process of being able to make a judgement on artistic creations. Authors can decide whether or not to listen to reviews. What they should keep in mind is that the loudest voices – whether of praise or scorn – aren’t necessarily always the correct ones. 

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