Are Book Reviews Worth Reading?
It probably sounds hilarious coming from me who started off with a blog focused entirely on book reviews before I expanded to writing advice. This whole blog post idea came about however, from a conversation I had with a fellow talented writer as we were picking through our brainstorms for 2018's writing goals.
"Are book reviews even worth reading?" It was a legitimate question my friend asked me that got me thinking. Of course I excitedly explained to her why I thought so and directed her (back) to my blog to look over what I had reviewed. Self serving as this was, it did get me thinking when she expressed to me why she had doubts.
"It's like movie reviews, Rotten Tomatoes is a good reviewing website...but sometimes they hate the films I love."
And a legitimate concern to boot. It was something I never really considered before because I simply am not one to let another's opinion of something decide mine for me. That, by the way, is something I highly discourage by the by, always determine whether you enjoy something for yourself and don't let the bandwagon do it for you.
Pep talk over.
This does raise an important question: are book reviews worth reading? How much should you mind them when an impressive cover on the shelf has caught your eye enough to read those first five sentences on page one? Should you consult another's opinion, whether positive or negative, before you take that impressive covered book to the register? Well, there are a couple of answers to that, which is obvious to say, there isn't one straight forward answer. Interestingly enough, we read reviews more often than we realize just by peeling open that interesting cover before you leave the bookstore.
To begin, a lot of us will pick up a book through word of mouth or because there are books that have been arranged on a table with a "best-sellers" sign. Well, if it's a best seller it must be great, right? Sure, mostly. I've had mixed reception with picking books up just because they're best-sellers, but to each his own.
Point is, word of mouth is its own review of a book even if you're hearing a simple, "This was an awesome book." Ditto for those books that make it on the best-seller's table, someone's reviews had to put them there.
"Yes," you say, "but I was thinking more on the topic of book reviews on blogs and such."
And you're not wrong to consider this difference, but remember how I referenced Rotten Tomatoes earlier? I linked both instances it has been mentioned for your convenience because it's a great example of my point. Whether the review comes from a professional reviewer or a casual friend, it matters little to you as the consumer because the book has been reviewed all the same.
In a new tab, or window, click on the link for Rotten Tomatoes for a moment. Let's search one of your favorite movies or tv shows, any one will do. Now take a look at those reviews. Yes the percentage is impressive (or not, not what we're really looking for right now), but notice in that yellow box with the tomatoe there are two percentages that have been generated. One reads, "Average Tomatometer," the other reads: "Average Audience Score."
What does that mean? Well, I'll tell you. Rotten Tomatoes has ingeniously figured out something the novel industry figured out some time ago. There are professional critique reviews, and community critique reviews. It's all fine and good that the trained eye can sit in a movie theater and declare that they loved the noir detective story on the silver screen, but guess what? It means crap if the audience (or untrained eye) hated the convoluted story they couldn't follow.
It's a bit of a revolutionary idea, to not always leave the decision of the quality of a movie/book/television show entirely up to the "professionals" because the power of marketing just can't control human opinion. Nowadays, as you've no doubt seen, word of mouth is becoming just as good as say, The New York Times review in terms of getting you to buy a book off the shelf (or blasting it to your kindle). It's funny however, that despite this change in what reviews we find authoritative, that we still equally turn to both.
Just because I don't always let the best-seller table decide what I should read doesn't mean I won't look in those first few pages of a book that's been recommended to read the praise it's received. Even doing that is technically me reading a book review, even if it is just one line of praise.
Maybe it isn't so obvious at first, but whether you've been recommended a book or an author, it has been reviewed to you simply by their being recommended. Well then if that's the case, book reviews are always worth reading...right?
Well, here's where I do acknowledge what can be particularly dangerous when it comes to book reviews, despite all the praise I've given it. The concept of having review sites like Rotten Tomatoes is a stellar idea, especially since they can also be cost effective in terms of paying the theater price for something you're seeing others really didn't like.
Technically, books have their version of this in Goodreads. The "technically" was tossed in there as a cautionary warning. Here's where we get into how these review sight, who are created with the best of intentions, can be abused and used the wrong way. You may have heard recently of some form of scandal going on with Goodreads and the quality of their reviews. Tragically, it is true and such a shame when this was the Rotten Tomatoes of books, and of course still is, but with a following that is rather reluctant to defer to their reviews. Why is that you ask? Well, in truth, it's all due to mean-spiritedness.
This was a bit of an underground operation that, thankfully, is starting to be addressed more and more, but you had a gang of people logging into Goodreads and harassing authors for their own amusement. This involved terrible reviews being left on books in attempts to target the author and, tragically, this ended several writing careers. It came to light at some point along the way that these very aggressive, non-specific reviews were simply harassment from groups of people simply wanting to harass writers. We're not talking about a book getting a bad review, you can give a legitimate negative review and simply say you did not enjoy what you consumed. This was something else entirely, and sadly still is. Goodreads is doing what it can to control this harassment, and I think the website could still do more good than harm (provided they get control over this harassment somehow), but this is a friendly warning for you to consider when you're looking up book reviews. You can read more about it all from this article from The Huffington Post if you want to know more.
Unfortunately, this counts as the prime example of how book reviews can be harmful. This isn't just limited to websites that supposedly specialize in good-quality reviews. Blog posts from personal blogs can be offenders as well. There's wisdom in avoiding book reviews to formulate your own opinion because reviews shouldn't make the decisions for you. Even though that's true however, we do depend heavily on reviews to steer us towards our next read, whether we do it consciously or not.
So I suppose, at the end of this elongated answer, the only one I have is: yes, book reviews are worth reading so long as you read them wisely. There's always going to be a community that will abuse reviews and try to steer you the wrong way, but from the opinion of one who loves mixing reading and writing with community, I'd say reading reviews are definitely worth braving the occasional risk.