Non-Starred Review, or Where Is My Integrity

 

A while ago I decided to stop giving star ratings to books I am reviewing, unless the book is fantastic, 100% worthy of a five-star score, and I had nothing to do with it.

Before I begin: the examples below are all composites, unless I name them.

*****

A few years ago I have read a book that was objectively bad. The heroine’s job, which was so important she met a Scottish farmer at a related conference – the reason why he attended it was unclear – disappeared once she moved into his farm. She didn’t quit the (freelance) job, it just never made an appearance again. The evil ex seemed to pop up when the author remembered she needed to exist, so that the book could be marketed at certain audience.

I loved that book. I thought I wanted to read a Scotsman rom-com. It turned out that I wanted to read exactly what the author has written: a love letter to farming, and not a romanticised one either. It would have been much better, had it not been billed as a rom-com to make marketing department’s job easier.

The writing/editing would earn it two stars if I were in generous mood. And I was! I five-starred it because of how happy it made me. It took me a while to realise that was the same score I have given to the best book I have read in my life, The Hours by Michael Cunningham.

At the time I’ve been giving five-star scores to lots of books that I just liked. Not necessarily loved, just enjoyed. I’ll never go back to them – yet I re-read The Hours at least once per year. I should really change my rating scale – how, though? Post an explanation with each new review? Go back and adjust my scores? (“A year ago I have given this book five stars, however as of 11/03/2022…”)

Suddenly I understood why for many reviewers 4/5 (which means 8/10 – possibly 8.5/10!) is a very high score and 3/5 still means “really good” – after all, 3/5 still means more than half the possible points. Above average. I wish I realised that earlier.

I know authors who obsess about those things. They would notice if I altered anything about the rating or review. Some obsess about who added their book to the “want to read” shelf on Goodreads. Is the Important Person reading it quickly enough, are they posting updates, do they quote their favourite bits or just marking the page number? What if they hate it? I’m not above all that. I put myself in this situation twice, allowing another person’s opinion about my book to become more important than my own. Why I needed validation from those particular people so badly is still beyond me.

This is why I do not read reviews of my books, unless I specifically asked for them (like bloggers’ ones) or got tagged by the reviewer.

Others do, though.

 

Reviews matter

A lot of authors struggle to get any reviews at all. Not just indie authors. For an author who’s with a small press or, worse, with a big publisher who wants to recoup their investments, the number of preorders and reviews can make the difference between getting the third book in their trilogy published – or getting dropped and watching the first two books go out of print. (I’ll explain read-through and marketing budgets of Real Publishers some other time.)

So we – as in, #writingcommunity – hustle for those often elusive reviews, which is a feeling that someone with eight books to their name and 5,000 reviews within a week from the pub day probably doesn’t remember or understand. Here’s where the problem starts: since authors know what it’s like to get stuck at 5 reviews within half a year, sometimes they become a bit…too helpful to each other.

I’ve once ruined someone’s perfect 5.0 average by posting my honest 4-star review. The person no longer speaks to me. This might of course be completely unrelated to the no-longer-perfect-five. (I can’t really ask someone “have you ghosted me because I gave you four stars, or is there other reason?”) I like that person. Or maybe liked. I don’t know. Since then I’ve found it harder to say anything negative about people’s books, especially when I know those people and I like it when they talk to me.

****

When my first book, Storytellers, came out, I kept obsessively refreshing Amazon and Goodreads pages to see if there were new reviews. I dreaded the Horror Of One Star until it happened… and it was hilarious. “I got to page 70 and still NOTHING is happening! I don’t know who gives this book 4- or 5-star ratings, must be the hundreds of individuals the author thanked in the acknowledgments!” I cackled – “ahaha, joke’s on you, the acknowledgments are at the end” and…I stopped caring. If this was my first ever review, though, there would have been a chance I’d never write anything again.

I value every review I get, positive or negative. It means that the reader was affected enough by the book to take their time of day and write about it. I made them feel something! Obviously, I hope they loved everything about it. What really matters, though, is that they took time to read the book (or at least some of it) and then they took more time to review it. They didn’t owe me any of that. Time is a finite resource and I am grateful when people devote some of theirs to my work. Is it fair, though, when I don’t read what they had to share?

A few years ago I reviewed someone’s book. I didn’t like it and explained why, giving it two stars. The author clicked “Like” on my review. They read it. I was terrified. I felt I hurt their feelings – I felt like shit for being honest. I don’t want authors to eavesdrop on me! Reviews are for readers. That one click was what made me stop looking at my reviews. Well, that and Katherine Hale.

 

Integrity

I have made three mistakes I think about a lot, especially because they didn’t feel like mistakes at the time.

I have five-starred and enthusiastically reviewed a (very good!) book… which I contributed to. I haven’t co-written it, nowhere near that. Still, I helped shape it…to my taste. Of course I was going to love it. I should have never reviewed it, but it took me a year to understand this. That sound you just heard was my integrity cracking from top to bottom.

A while later I read a book that was…okay. The author, though, was a very sweet person with a lot of personal problems. I didn’t want to make them feel sad, so I slightly rounded the deserved 6.5/10 up to 4/5. That crash you just heard was my integrity going out of the window.

Third – I read a book that I really, really didn’t like. I would have never finished it if I didn’t know the author personally. In the unlikely case I did, I’d two-star it and be very clear why. Instead I quietly removed it from my Goodreads shelf, so that I wouldn’t have to admit how I felt. That sound you just heard was a steamroller turning the sorry remains of my integrity into dust.

***

As I mentioned, I know all of the authors above personally. I know they read their reviews. Sometimes they remain upset for months about something someone said. No matter how many times they’d assure me that they absolutely wouldn’t take my opinion personally, I know they would. And I think of that person who no longer speaks to me.

There’s another author I know personally, only I, eh, wouldn’t mind upsetting them. I remember praying “please be awful” when I read their latest book. It was incredible. A five-star if there’s ever been one. Everything about that book worked. If I tried to be super nitpicky I could perhaps lower the 10/10 to 9.5/10. I wrote an honest review – I would never lower someone’s rating or make things up because I don’t like them. The author noticed. They were surprised and delighted. And I realised that the only way I can avoid affecting people who care about those things is by hiding the fact that I’m reading their books at all…

…only then they might wonder why.

 

Tangled up

Authors don’t just network, we become friends (or not). I’m not just talking about indies (look up “bad art friend” if you don’t mind losing all respect towards Celeste Ng and Roxane Gay). We beta-read each other’s books, make suggestions that get incorporated into those books, serve as expert readers for each other. I know I shouldn’t have reviewed that first book I mentioned. I was too involved. Where is the line, though? Or rather where is my line?

Let’s assume someone asked me to expert read an autistic character for them and incorporated all my remarks. The character is now fully-fleshed, avoiding all the horrid stereotypes, and the rest of the book is awful. Or the rest of the book is a masterpiece. How do I write that review? I should probably mention that I had some influence on the book. How much do I disclose, though? Changing that character from a walking Wikipedia entry to an actual person must have affected the plot. So I probably shouldn’t review it.

What if the author only incorporated half of my remarks?

What if they haven’t incorporated any at all and now the book is a world-changing masterpiece with a horrid, flat, stereotypical autistic character? (I’m actually talking about a movie. Snow Cake with Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver. It’s an incredibly good movie which is also incredibly harmful to autistic people.) What’s the star rating from 1-5 for something like that? What if I was consulted and my name appeared in the credits?

How do I rate a book I haven’t read a word of before it came out, but it’s dedicated to me?

*

There is a well-known author whose editor – who is also a very popular book blogger – gave the book a glowing review, which the author then used as “editorial review” on Amazon. I cackle sometimes at how technically it is an editorial review. The editorial review, even. That’s so far away from my line that you can’t even see it due to Earth’s curvature. I suppose the other extreme would be only permitting reviews by a robot programmed by another robot, a 100% objective art-judging machine.

Can art of any sort be judged objectively in the first place, though?

Katherine Hale’s book averages 2.01 on Goodreads and all of the most liked reviews make it clear the person writing them has not read the book and doesn’t intend to do so. What exactly is getting scored then, and is it even slightly objective-adjacent?

I have read that book. It’s not very good. I feel my 3/5 rating is objective. I didn’t dare to write a review, though, because I was afraid that if I say anything positive about it, the people who reviewed Hale as a person would move on to reviewing me. (I wish I were joking.)

 

Authors review authors review authors

Book bloggers write books. Authors join book blogs. (I’m a contributor to Before We Go Blog.) They become judges in competitions. They take part on those competitions. I’m one of them.

Should I decide that as an author myself I won’t review any other authors’ books? Or only the ones I know personally? Or only the ones I’m close friends with? How close is “close”? When I mentioned that 6.5 slightly rounded up to 4/5, I might have focused on the strengths of the book (which it absolutely has) and I might have neglected to talk about its weaknesses. Could I absolutely guarantee that if I disliked this author as a person, I wouldn’t do the opposite? Maybe, since I gave an honest 5/5 to that one book by that one writer. Yeah, definitely probably, possibly, even.

Unless they turned out to be an awful person. Like, really awful, instead of somewhat awful.

Is it really possible to completely disconnect art from the artist?

I removed everything Morrissey-related from my house. I will never touch a Marlon Zimmer Bradley book with a long stick. If I were to review Michael Jackson’s Bad today, though, I’d throw all the stars at it and probably neglect to mention the allegations against him, which are not that dissimilar to ones against MZB. I’ve been obsessed with Taylor Swift’s reputation album because my life has, weirdly, taken a similar turn to hers – only a million times less. I know nothing about Michael Cunningham – The Hours simply is my perfect book. Would I be so saintly about not reading my reviews if I found out he wrote an essay about Children? Would I ever re-read The Hours and keep telling people how great it is if Cunningham’s essay was about how shit the book and its author are?

Am I wasting valuable time thinking about it at all when I could be asking my editor for an editorial review? (No point, she has no blog.)

 

Recently…

…I haven’t been reviewing or rating books I read, with very rare exceptions. The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang is a life-changing book for me – I actually tried to contact the author to tell her how important it was for me (her publicity person ignored my email, which didn’t make the book any less life-changing). I left a few “RTC” (review to come) notes – but haven’t been able to decide whether that review should come.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of whether I should go through my old reviews and remove all star ratings. I should probably delete the two reviews I mentioned earlier and I should probably write the third.

I asked an author of a book I loved to endorse mine – they did. They’re writing something new, apparently. It’s out very soon. Please be good please be good please be good.

Rating memoirs feels cruel – “so-so life, 3/5” – I did, however, rate a memoir of an alcoholic who talked about her struggles, then finished by announcing that she decided drinking’s great after all and raises a glass to those trying to quit.

I might be overthinking this a bit.

I wonder if I’ll ever find out why that one author stopped talking to me.