The Uneducated Reader

I'm not an admirer of anonymous reader reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other forums where "readers" can anonymously "critique" a book. Occasionally I will look at these so-called reviews, not for information purposes but for their amusement value. What struck me during a recent perusal of reviews of a book that I think highly of, Shayne Parkinson's Sentence of Marriage (for my review, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) were two particular reviews. The first review gave the book a 1-star rating, anonymously, of course, with the statement that the reviewer hadn't yet read the book. The book wasn't discussed in the review and if the reviewer's words are taken as true, he/she had yet to read the book but still rated it, giving a rating that was deliberately designed to lower the overall rating of the book. If you didn't read the book, why rate it? And why give it a 1-star rating?

The second review that caught my eye was one that several other readers found "helpful." This review raked the book over the coals. The review gave the book a 1-star rating and was titled "Disturbing, sick, just plain bad." Rather than summarize the review, I reprint it here:

The main character is stupid, for lack of a better word, and her innocence and lack of instinct when it comes to "Jimmy" is unrealistic, she's 15, not 8, just clearing that up. This is one of the most disturbing, sad books I've ever had the misfortune of reading. I only got about 600 pages in before I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions; It doesn't get any better, in fact, it gets worse. I'm not referring to the writing, that was good enough, but the story in general is just depressing and it serves no real purpose that I could find. This is a Warning, this book was just sad, it helps you fall in love with the characters and then it screws them over in the worst possible way, it's [sic] doesn't even have the benefit of being a horror story. There's no suspense, no action, just plan [sic] and clear depression, it kind of made me want to kill myself....and the characters....

The above review was immediately followed by what amounts to another 1-star anonymous review, this one titled "This author is a sadist."

To me, these reviews illustrate the problem of what I call the uneducated reader. The reviewers are upset because there is no suspense, no action, no Batman coming to the rescue. The reviewers think that 15-year-old girls in 1890s New Zealand were as streetwise as 10-year-old girls in 2012 New York City. The reviewers apparently lack familiarity with either the genre of the book (not all historical fiction is Vikings on a rampage raping and murdering innocents) or the social mores of the time depicted in the setting of the story.

These reviewers are the type of reader that is the bane of authors -- the reader who is clueless and draws baseless and unwarranted conclusions and loudly trumpets his or her uninformed opinion on the Internet. More amazing and sad is that other readers claim to find these "reviews" helpful!

A scan of other anonymous 1-star reviews of Parkinson's Sentence of Marriage convinces me that either these people never read the book or do not understand what they read or have no familiarity whatsoever with history. If they are writing about a book that they actually read, then they certainly read a book that was much different from the one I read. This is not to say that every reader of Sentence of Marriage has to agree that it is a 5-star book. But at least be honest and fair with any criticism.

Complaints about poor editing, for example, which was the subject of several 1-star anonymous reviews, simply isn't true. You may find the characters standoffish, the story not compelling, or myriad other things wrong that are important to you as a reader, but in this instance, it is not legitimate to complain about the editing, which is excellent.

Although I have focused on the reviews given Parkinson's book, the problem isn't limited to her books. As I said before, the problem is giving free rein to anonymous reviewers who are unknowledgeable about the book being reviewed. This is not to suggest that to review 19th century historical fiction one must have a doctorate in 19th century history; rather, it is to suggest that a reader should be familiar enough with the general subject matter and history so as to not make false comparisons and thereby draw incorrect conclusions -- or, if you insist on making comparisons, state what the comparators are.

I have often wondered about the need some readers have to "review" a book. It is not that I think if you have nothing good to say you shouldn't say anything. Some books deserve negative reviews, but when you give one, be constructive, not just negative, and be factual, don't make up false reasons.

Personally, I think anonymous reviews and reviewers whose identity cannot be verified should not be permitted to post reviews. I also think that negative reviews that are negative simply because of price should not be permitted. I also think that reviews that state upfront that the reviewer hasn't read the book should be deleted because they unfairly distort a book's rating.

Reviews serve an important purpose and reviews that are clearly unfounded or that are based on superfluous items, such as pricing, undermine the credibility of the review process. Perhaps this is why I so admire and enjoy the reviews I read in The New York Review of Books. They have credibility in a world that doesn't seem to care too much about credibility (this is the disease of the Internet -- the demise of the value of credibility).

The online reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like should be challengeable by other readers and by authors. For example, one should be able to challenge a review that gives a rating and the comment that the reviewer hadn't even read the book. If the challenge is upheld, the review should be removed, especially if the review is anonymous. It is unfair to prospective readers and to authors to let such reviews remain.

The review quoted above that some readers found "helpful" is so far off target that it is ludicrous, yet some, if not all, of the readers who found the review "helpful" won't have bought the book and read it, thus missing out on what they well may have found, as so many others did, to be a compelling, well-written novel. Such reviewers should be challenged and made to defend their review. More importantly, reviews should be only accepted from verifiable sources, sources that can be flagged if they abuse the review process. These uneducated readers who write anonymous, scathing reviews that bear no relation to the book being reviewed make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to indie-authored books.

What do you think?

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23 Comments on The Uneducated Reader

  1. I am in complete agreement. Along with camping by groups of like minded thinkers I avoid amazon and bn for reviews. I look on goodreads and sometimes shelfari.

  2. I can only agree with this. I have had some entirely irrelevant and unreal “reviews” on a few of my books on Amazon as well. Worst thing that happened to me was a kind of hunt that some folks set up, calling in all kinds of people to comment on the same thing over and over again which was completely off topic and not even related to the book, leaving lots of 1-star “reviews”. That of course brings down the ‘quality’ of the book in review perspective. Very sour.

  3. I think, at least I hope, that people take reviews on Amazon and other places like that with a grain of salt, or perhaps a very large block of salt. We’re all familiar with trolls and idiots online; often it seems the stupider someone is the more they feel the need to get their comments out there (so here I am commenting, hah). And just because someone’s reviewing books doesn’t really mean they’re that much smarter. I generally ignore any review that has grammatical and spelling errors (such as the one above). And if you consider the dreck that regularly ends up on the bestseller list (Twilight, anyone? 50 Shades of Grey?) a good rating on a site like Amazon is almost a disincentive to buy a book. I read book reviews in the New York Times and other places and I tend to read the reviews on Goodreads, but what I really use to decide about a book is reading the first few pages. On a related note, a friend pointed out to me the other day that bestselling children’s chapter books are almost always very good, and yet bestselling adult novels are generally awful. Why is that?

  4. The thing is, any obstacles to posting reviews will tend to diminish their number. It is hard to get people to buy books with no reviews and it is also hard to get people to write reviews. Certainly the uneducated reader can be a terrible reviewer; for that matter, so can the over-educated reviewer, who drops a star off a review of a novel set in the 18th century because the hero’s waistcoat had the wrong number of buttons for the era. All I ask from reviewers is specificity. If you like or don’t like a book, say why. If you think there is a mistake in the plot, bad characterization, errors in grammar, give actual examples. I have bought books after reading “negative” reviews because I could tell the things the reviewer was ranting about would not bother me at all. Likewise, I have passed on books a reviewer gushed about because the parts the reviewer quoted as gems left me cold.

  5. Do you really think someone who found that review helpful would actually enjoy the book? I think the “uneducated reader” is likely only steering other uneducated readers away. I know I’ve become adept at parsing through reviews to find if any are useful to me.

    • Good point, Laura. Reading your comment, I realized I do the same thing: Scan through reviews and filter out the ones that are obviously based on cluelessness (and cluelessness is pretty much always obvious).

  6. Part of being an educated consumer is knowing how to parse and deconstruct reviews.
    The movie critic in my local paper used to be as reliable as a grandfather clock; fun action flicks were “bad” and talking-head tearjerkers were “great”. More, she had a set of pet peeves and likes. Depending on her mix of peeves and likes I knew whether the movie would satisfy me or not.
    When it comes to book reviews on Amazon or Goodereads (and I’ve seen my share of howlers there, too) I just apply a bit of common sense: nobody knows my tastes as well as I do and I know exactly what traits appeal to me. Between that and the sample chapters I can usually find my way to the “good” stuff.
    I no more accept an annointed expert’s opinion as gospel truth than I accepted it from a clueless nobody, yet both serve a purpose.

  7. I only read those “reviews” when I’m bored and could use some cheering up. Too often I came across reviews which gave me the same thought as you described: did they read the same book?

  8. Holding reviewers and readers up to a certain standard is a terrible idea. If a book is really good, these reviews will be buried sooner or later. Getting reviewers to justify their personal tastes. I think it is utter madness.
    If this is just a rant, go ahead, but if you are serious, I think you need to reconsider. Actually doing any of the things you mention will kill all reviews on any site that tries to do this. I am a blogger, and I would definitely stop reviewing if I were challenged about my reviews.

    • I think that the point of the blog is that you should fully read the book in question and carefully articulate a review. That might be literally a “certain standard” but not a high bar for sure. You make it sound like a question of elitism which it is not.

  9. I have for years read Amazon reviews before buying books, cameras and other things. They give a very good impression of a given product. I don´t worry about 1 or 2 star reviews as there will always be people that hates even excellent products and that will not influence my decision. Many 3 star reviews will worry me and make me look deeper.

    With books I suppose I look for what the books is about and check that it is not of a type I am not interested in etc. With goods, I look at other people´s usage and warnings. Going through Amazon´s reviews is a great help if you read the reviews the for you right way.

  10. you should read a book called The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen, it deals with this very subject but drills deeper, talking about uneducated blogs, people posting their (usually horrendous) songs (Bieber anyone?), and a myriad of so called ‘Artists’ posting their sepia filtered photo’s to instagram. It’s slowly destroying, or at least decaying, what it means to be a professional.

    • Only if by “professional” you mean “broadly available”.
      On the other hand, if Professional is taken to mean, “paid for your effort in proportion to it’s market appeal” then there is no danger to fret over. True professionals that deliver a quality product on time and within budget will always be in demand and rewarded appropriately.
      Mediocrities, on the other hand, can expect serious disappointment.

  11. Seems like someone is making too much of the reviews. Even when properly used, the reviews aren’t intended to be expert criticism of the literary value of the work, but rather the honest reaction of the reader to the work. The proletariat choose to read fiction for entertainment, and if they’re not entertained, they won’t like the work. As has already been pointed out: if you’re not a prole, look for the reviews written by others who appreciate literary writing, and ignore the ones written by the ignorant peasants. [Me, I’m with the peasants.]

    Also, book reviews are for the benefit of other potential readers, not for the benefit of the author. Artists must learn to either ignore reviews of their works, or to learn how to mine them for what little is of value to the artist. However, in the case of most art, including books, there is usually nothing of value to the artist because the work can no longer be revised. But then, revising art based on public opinion is rarely a good idea.

    I’d also note that there’s an amusing “fanboy” ethic at work, at least on Amazon, where less-than-positive reviews are routinely marked as unhelpful no matter how good they are as reviews, and no matter how accurate they are. The reviews of the reviews are even more bizarre than the reviews themselves are.

    • Precisely. In addition to that, the reviews aren’t anonymous — they’re posted under pseudonymous Amazon accounts, which allow a person to glance through other reviews the individual has left and very often use a handle that the person has used elsewhere online.

      Valid, high-quality opinions also tend to rise to the top regardless of who writes them (and regardless of whether they please fanboys), which is precisely the way a system like that is supposed to work and the Internet’s greatest strength. People that wish to rely on a fame-based hierarchy instead always have the option of reading the publications or blogs that feature those individuals. Individuals that are overly impressed with their own “fame” within their hobby or field and resent that their opinions aren’t automatically regarded as superior can similarly try to have their reviews published in relevant publications. (You might also consider that if everybody only paid attention to the reviews of well-known individuals, people never would’ve paid you any heed, either — and many geeks would reject your opinions about anything unless you’re actually an experienced programmer, circuit-board designer, or similar.)

      I’ve read plenty of truly bad reviews, but the quoted case doesn’t appear to be one of them: the reviewer calmly explains what he/she disliked about the book, doesn’t make sweeping generalizations, and doesn’t resort to personal attacks. To the contrary, if a friend recommended the book to me, and I looked it up on Amazon before spending my limited funds on it, I would have most likely rated that particular review as helpful, as it would have given me vital information to help determine whether I would regret purchasing the book. In case you’ve forgotten, most people don’t have an abundance of money to spend on their hobbies, so we have to make sure we’ll greatly enjoy our purchases, which means finding out whether a novel has elements we adore or loathe.

      As a side note, I earned my bachelor’s degree in literature at U.C. Berkeley with an A+ on both my junior & senior theses, and helped a close friend at UCLA figure out the primary theme for his doctoral dissertation in US history. Most liberal-arts alumni and profs from top-ranked campuses enjoy or even prefer popular works, just like “uneducated” people; in fact, not recognizing popular ‘genre’ fiction as an equal form of literature worthy of analysis is a red flag that an individual likely didn’t graduate from a liberal arts department at a top campus.

  12. On Amazon, if you come across a review that’s clearly off-topic and doesn’t address the book/product at all, you can click the “Report abuse” link, describe the problem, and Amazon will probably delete the review. They’re pretty conscientious about that. Probably an admission by the reviewer that they haven’t read the book would be sufficient grounds for deletion.

    I looked at the 1-star reviews of Sentence of Marriage and saw a pattern that’s interesting in its own right: Most of the haters were reacting to the fact that the book isn’t a “romance novel,” which is what they were expecting based on the book’s tags and categorization in Amazon. I’m in the middle of reading Thomas J. Roberts’ excellent “An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction” at the moment, so this point was especially striking to me. People who are fans of particular genres have very specific expectations of their chosen reading matter. These reviewers were complaining that Sentence of Marriage is “mis-shelved” by Amazon, and that complaint may be perfectly valid. It’s just a shame that it ends up in something that’s supposed to be a review of the book.

  13. The point of a review is to tell the reader two things: a) Is the reviewer anything like you? and b) Did they like the book? If the answer to a) is “No” then the answer to b) is irrelevant. The only bad reviews are the ones that don’t answer those questions.

  14. I could only agree. Something..better needed. Like ‘enter your education+interests'(=LinkedIn or at least Facebook account linked) and Amazon just doesn’t even show(and don’t account in score shown for you) bad reviews from people with significantly different than you

    Except one small issue where I think ‘not read book. think it deserves 1-star right now’ – it’s situation where no kindle edition exists even while amazon has printed version and other places have electronic one(yes, I like Kindle Store a l ot).

  15. I had to chuckle when you commented about a review from someone who had not read the book. A few days ago, a Digital Reader article by Nate Hoffelder pronounced the tapatalk app for MobileRead unnecessary and not worth the price despite not having used it. Seemed pretty much equivalent to that kind of one star review to me.

    • Except that all my statements were in the first person (I hope). I didn’t say the app was worthless; I said it had no value to me. There’s at least a small difference between the 2.

  16. I do not read reviews. I read the synopsis about the book and go from there.
    I tend to leave a review on B&N if I really like or dislike the book after ‘reading’ it.

  17. I think the solution is obvious. One must obtain a license to review a book. The license should have age, region/country of birth and then of current residence. There should be educational level with clarification of concentration of study as well as postgraduate school’s US News and World Report’s ranking. This license can have full contact information so that if there is a question as to one’s core beliefs and how that might pertain to one’s enjoyment of the book under review the reviewer may be contacted for clarification.
    My eyes have been opened. I always thought getting recs from real life friends, librarians, chance chats with people I meet through the course of my day, reading the blurb and first few pages was the way to make an educated guess as to how to find a book I will enjoy. Now I know there are rules to be followed in whether I should trust my own judgment. Thanks.

  18. You wrote “These reviewers are the type of reader that is the bane of authors – the reader who is clueless and draws baseless and unwarranted conclusions and loudly trumpets his or her uninformed opinion on the Internet.

    Yet you only show examples of negative comments. Why not the positive ones written by these same clueless idiots?

    Your selected comments are what many authors take personally and are emotionally upset by. They are the ones that some authors believe stand in their way of fame and fortune. The same kind of comments that will set off many authors to rant online and behave unprofessionally in defense of their precious baby.

    So do you or do you not support the same amateur and uneducated idiot reader/reviewers ‘squeeing” for joy to all of their online friends about how wonderful a book is? Do you or do not support these uneducated comments that generate great buzz among their friends, even when those reviews might be just as baseless? This is OK, right?

    I get the impression that what you are really saying is that the authors feelings and career opportunities should be the most important criteria when a stupid, uneducated reader voices their opinion anywhere on the internet.

    So, exactly how do you propose to enforce this strict policy of your on all readers across the entire Internet?

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