The 5 Rules of Book Reviews

Photo © 2009 Trevin Chow CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Authors and publishers, in my opinion, spend way too much time sucking up to literary critics, which is why I decided to become a book reviewer.

Of course, no critic actually deserves the respect he gets (myself included), not for his opinion in any case. And I dare say, publishers wouldn’t give critics the time of day, were it not for the fact that bad reviews can severely hurt sales of a good book, and that good reviews can severely boost sales of a mediocre one. That’s why it’s more important to pander to the tastes and whims of the critics, than to publish books that would actually please ordinary readers.

Authors are not much better, because most authors believe, on some level, that literary critics actually know what they’re talking about. So when a critic doesn’t like the book she wrote, she believes that there’s something wrong with her, because the critic said so. Fortunately, there’s a simple antidote to this line of thinking: the 5 rules of book reviews, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Some years ago, a critic reviewed a piece of my work. He mocked and derided, not just the work, but me personally. In his opinion, I was a hack and a huckster, who couldn’t put two words together to save my life. And in his view, I should go back into the hole whence I came, only coming out after I had actually proven my value to the literary community. Moreover, he made all these pronouncements—and he plainly admitted this in his review—without reading a single word of the work in question, based solely on the back-cover blurb and other marketing materials.

It was then that I realized three things about reviewers—and this part is actually true: Firstly, they are writers in their own rights, with fans of their own. Secondly, their job is not to give an honest evaluation of your work, but to pander to their own readers’ desires and prejudices. Thirdly, if they can do so without actually reading your book, they will, and with impunity.

If I sound a little bitter at reviewers, that should tell you something about how I feel about myself (since I too write reviews, sometimes very opinionated reviews). Factor in the fact that I’m also an indie publisher who is genetically incapable of sucking up to literary critics, and you’ll finally understand why I should probably be in a mental institution.

The reason I’m not in a mental institution is because I have discovered and follow the 5 rules of book reviews, which all authors and readers alike should memorize, for the benefit of society as a whole:

  1. If the reviewer gives the book one star, he’s an opinionated jackass who would have condemned Tom Sawyer for being too trite, Huckleberry Finn as too racist, and Mark Twain for having a stupid pseudonym.

  2. If he gives the book two stars, he has no passion, can’t get worked up enough even to condemn the book. (Two stars is the worst rating a book can receive: at least the one-star reviewer hated it; that’s something.)

  3. If he gives the book three stars, he’s saying he’d like to rate it lower, but he would feel bad about doing so; so he pads his review with tripe about the author being a good writer, even though he didn’t like this particular book and doesn’t plan to read any more books by that author if he can help it.

  4. If he gives the book four stars, he’s trying to appear diplomatic, knowing that the publisher expects a 5-star rating, but also that his readers would suspect foul play if he didn’t find at least something wrong with it.

  5. If he gives the book five stars, he’s probably pandering to the author’s ego, hoping that the author will in turn recommend him on her blog to her fans, or mention him in an interview, or—best yet—when he writes his book, give it five stars in return. (Some reviewers don’t even review books that they can’t rate favorably, knowing that what goes around comes around.)

So while I still read, and I still comment on and review the books that I read, I give little weight to reviews by others, knowing that they say more about the reviewer than they do about me. (And that is also actually true.)

Instead, I find books to read that I think I myself would enjoy, and to hell with what the literary critics say!


P.S. This piece was supposed to be funny, and I guess it is, in a sardonic, “funny ’cause it’s true!” sort-of way. If you find it angry or bitter, I apologize. I’ll try to post something better next week.

P.P.S. Please also note that there are some reviewers out there who actually do give unfettered, honest opinions about the books they review, regardless of what their fans think (or whether they even have any fans). Their reviews still say more about them than about the book, but at least they’re not trying to suck up to anyone in the process.