Thursday, 22 September 2011

What Makes a Good Review?

I read Andrew Wheeler's post on this topic a few days ago and, as I write book and movie reviews, thought it was an interesting topic.  I also want to point out the New York Review of Science Fiction's Guidelines, that someone recommended I read back when I started reviewing books for SF Signal.

First off, what's the point of a review?  To give enough information so that readers know if the book will be interesting to them.  You can use many methods to achieve this: stars, pro/con sections, comparisons with other books, etc.

I personally find some of these more useful than others.  I don't generally rate things with stars because I've noticed different sites give different star ratings different meanings.  And it's easy to assume a book is better/worse than it is based on the rating.  Here's a comparison chart based on several popular sites:
I tried adding LibraryThing but couldn't find their rating chart.  While the ratings are fairly close, there are definite differences between what 3 and 4 stars mean.  I had someone ask why I rated a book so low on GoodReads and had to point out that according to their system, 3 stars is a pretty good rating. (And if anyone would like to friend me on GoodReads and see what I'm reading now, rather than learning it when I post the reviews several weeks or months later, feel free.)  I'd also argue that there's a difference between saying a book was bad and saying I personally didn't like it.  Some books can be well written with lots of good elements and simply not appeal to me as a reader.  I'd hate for people to read one of my reviews and dismiss a book they might like because I rated it a 3 or below.  Everyone has different tastes, and ratings don't give you the information you need to decide why a book 'wasn't good' or if YOU would like it.

That's why I borrowed SF Signal's pro/con idea.  Not only is it a good way to get my thoughts in order when reviewing, I feel that it's helpful to know what elements the reviewer did or didn't like.  If you like slow reads and I don't, well, my con is your pro - you can use that information when reading the review proper to see if other aspects of my taste are similar to yours.  If they're not and I gave the book a negative review, maybe it's a book you'd like.

As for comparison books, I'm on the fence with its helpfulness.  If you've read the comparison book(s) then it's helpful, if you haven't...  And what aspects of the books are similar?  When I do my New Author Spotlight posts I make 3 comparisons.  I generally have to pick one element (character, subgenre) and find other books that match that, even if they don't match in other ways (like tone, pacing, etc.).  For example, when doing Will McIntosh I picked other books that had a soft apocalyptic feel to them (or at least, books that showed the world in the midst of a collapse - of which there weren't many to choose from, most authors preferring to do post apocalyptic or war style apocalyptic books).  When it comes to comparisons there's an element of guesswork, as even if the themes and genre are similar, you may love one book and hate the other.

Ultimately, if reviews I write help you decide if a book is for you, then I'm doing my job correctly.

What aspects of reviews do you find helpful?  How do you decide if a reviewed book appeals to you?


John D. said...

One reason I use the format I do (star ratings, Pros/Cons) is that it keeps me from being a lazy reviewer.[Well, more lazy than usual. :)]

Oftentimes, when I read someone's review, they list what they liked and what they didn't, but there is no way to judge whether they like the book overall. Or, they talk about the book, but it's hard to tell whether they thought those were good or bad qualities. Using my format forces me to organize my likes/dislikes and assess the book, and forces me to back up my assessments as best as I can. (That is, there is not a pro/con that doesn't have an explanation in the larger body of the review).

The negatives of using this system (people using different scales, or people reading the summary and moving on without reading the full assessment) are things that are simply outside my control. I can't force someone to read the entire review (summary or not) and there's no way the entire reviewing community will agree on a consistent rating system, much less use it. But that's not a big surprise, is it? Don't review readers (or readers of any article) have the obligation to ask about the writer's subjective frame of reference? if someone says a book is the best thing they ever read, I wanna know how well read they are, or the claim is meaningless. Over time, review readers come to either trust reviewers or distrust them. The best I can do as a reviewer is give an honest assessment of my reading experience.

Jessica Strider said...

I think SF Signal has a good reviewing format (hence, why I stole pieces of it for my blog). As you say, the mix of techniques helps readers decide what's right for them and forces the review to be more than just, 'that was awesome' or 'worst book ever'.

I was actually wondering this morning if I do readers more of a disservice than I thought by not posting more negative reviews. Again, just because I don't like a book doesn't mean others won't. The problem here being that if I dislike it that much I probably won't finish it, and it's hard to give an honest assessment of an unfinished book. On the other hand, the reasons I couldn't finish might be the same reasons someone else will love the book... Something to think about.