Monday, January 19, 2015

I Gave a Bad Review and I’m Feeling Guilty

So, theoretically

I see Amazon reviews as a means to help readers choose from the infinite number of books out there. They should be good gauges as to whether or not the story is something that will appeal to you, and whether or not it will be satisfying all the way through. Ideally, they would help authors sell their books based on what the masses really like, rather than what one closed-minded critic thinks.

P.C. enough?

But, practically

I do use Amazon reviews to pick out books, but not as they’re intended. I go through and read bad reviews for entertainment. In the same way that it’s fun to see a stand-up comedian flip out about forks at the airport, reading someone’s rant about a love triangle can be immensely interesting. I do not, however, believe these reviews very often. It’s really not about their opinion.

The bad reviews give more detail than the summary offered, and more so than the five-stars. They do end up spoiling a lot, but most of the time those spoilers are exactly the reason I would want to read it in the first place. Most books just sum up a quick plot (Joe Smith’s wife has been kidnapped and he has to save her!) rather than giving away the good parts. The bad reviews, however, will discuss scenes that, yes, are now not surprises, but the entire reason why you’d actually want to read the book.

The rating system on Amazon is screwed up. Everything has a four star total. In reality, it’s more about the number of them than the kind. I’m more likely to buy something with one hundred reviews than two. Part of the problem with the system is there are too many five-stars and not enough threes.

So, I’m conflicted. A part of me thinks it’s important to leave bad reviews if you don’t like a book because without them the rest of the reviews are useless. It’s also just as important to leave mediocre ones. The system can only be fixed by people being more willing to say what they really think of something, which would indicate that I should follow my own philosophy and leave a one-star review when I feel the book deserves it.

So what’s the problem?

Three parts:

1)      I don’t believe in quality of writing.

If a book is out in the forest and no one reads it, can it be good?

Over the years I’ve tried to identify universal rules behind “good” books and “bad” books. My conclusion is a long and ranting one, but essentially I’ve determined that while you can’t just say something is good and have it be true, it’s not a concrete value. The quality of a book is based on perception, desire, experience, and comparison. There is no such thing as a good book.

It’s an important definition for every author to come up with (What is a good story?), but I’ve long decided that evaluating them on a linear scale is foolish. A book can be commercially successful, it can emotionally stimulate the majority of its readers, it can effectively accomplish a goal, and it can be relatable to the highest number of people, but it’s not just “good.”

I find the concept of the rating system actually useless. I do use the stars to organize the reviews, but that’s more for the type of information rather than the readers’ opinions.

One-stars give me more information about what the reading experience will be like (what events will happen, the writing style, etc.) I read three-stars to determine how many actual mistakes there are as well as a more objective view of what the stylistic choices will make me feel. Five-stars I read to “fact check” the opinions of the lower stars. Do the five-stars love what the one-stars hate, or are they completely inconsistence with each other?

So, even if I hated a book, the label of “one-star” doesn’t feel accurate.

2)      I don’t like making people feel bad.

Bad reviews and criticism are necessary evils. And, honestly, the more people criticize you, the less it hurts. It’s not as though I don’t understand that. But it doesn’t mean I want others to feel that way, or that I want to be the one to do it. I think part of the reason I feel so guilty is that this short story only had two reviews, and I’m pretty sure I’m the first critical response he’d gotten, except for maybe in a class session, but then it’s to be expected. My bad review was on a work that had been published a while ago, that hadn’t been getting a lot of an audience. I can empathize with him coming onto Amazon and finding that review to his shock, the unexpected pain he’d feel. And though I tried to be as palatable and objective as I could, as much as I tried to say things in a way that were useful, the vicarious feeling I got for him was sickening.

I’d left two-star reviews before, but those were on books with a lot of reviews, that the author probably wasn’t even reading anymore, or at least had a bunch of positive feedback to counteract my disinterest.

3)      But I kinda wanted to make him feel bad.

This is the point that rests heaviest on me. I realize I contradicted myself, which is why I think why I’ve been bothered by leaving this review so much. The desire to make him feel bad intensified my belief that I was doing more good than harm.

I’ve wanted to give him a one-star for months now, but I didn’t. I just didn’t feel it was worth it. No one was buying the book anyway, no one would be reading my review but him (in all likelihood). I don’t believe Amazon reviews are the best place for authors to take feedback, nor do I think that should be what I’m trying to do as a reviewer. Why make him feel bad?

Let me clarify, I do, 100%, still believe that it was a fair review. Not only did I choose my words carefully, not only did I focus on helping potential customers, but I made the effort to give him the benefit of the doubt every step of the way and gave credit where I good. A big part of me leaving the review was my conviction that the bad reviews bring meaning to good reviews, whether that be the ones by me or as a whole. If I won’t leave a one-star, the five-stars are meaningless.

But, also, a big part of me wanted to knock some self-awareness into him.

Here’s some quotes off his website to clarify why he makes my skin crawl:

“Here we go guys, first promo of the year; I’m offering my bestselling work [redacted] absolutely free!”

(It is a self-published, 39-page series of short stories. It has one five-star review on it. The reviewer has reviewed nothing else. The author’s other work is a self-published short story with three reviews, by two reviewers, with one review each, and me. Yet, he claims “bestseller” in several places. By whose standards?)

“In this collection from one of the fastest rising authors on the market you will find talesof [sic] terror, love, inspiration and madness.”

“I have been blessed with what some tell me is an incredible talent. God has allowed me to write with the ease and prowess of some of the greatest authors of all time.”

“Experience the first two self-published works that are sweeping the nation and leaving their readers in awe. Get these great works from the author who is fast becoming a household name.”

“This is amazing advice for everyone who is passionate about anything!!” (Post from his personal Facebook page onto his professional.)

His blog posts are writing tips, which I can’t really blame him for, but are obviously in aspects he’s not successful in. Either it’s untested or it’s unsuccessful, either way he really shouldn’t be saying it. Add that with the condescending tone, and I just want to slap him.

“What is networking,some of you may ask.” [sic] How old do you think your readers are?

Taking into account his obscurity, imagine why, after finding his short story unbearable, I think he may just be a little disillusioned.

The problem is, I don’t think these things should bother me.

Making him self-aware isn’t my job. Not a single part of my life’s philosophy believes this kind of vigilantism is a good approach. When it’s important, when it’s someone close to you or someone affecting you, helping them obtain self-awareness can become your burden. But leaving a succinct, anonymous review isn’t the best way to do that, and if I chose to walk away and never visit this guy’s site again, I would effectively stop being annoyed. Or at least I should be. I shouldn’t want to leave a review to try and “change” him, especially when I know it will do nothing but make him defensive and hurt.

That’s the part of me that didn’t want to leave the review. I felt my motivations might be skewed by my desire to counteract his unbelievable head-up-the-assishness, and as someone who also can have her head up her ass, I felt the golden rule applied. This is not how I would want someone to tell me I was being an ignorant egomaniac, and I do fear karma.

There are times when I don’t like a writer and times when I’m not sure if that’s why I don’t like his writing. In these cases, I grab a friend, bitch about it a while for a catharsis, then shut the hell up and leave it alone. If it’s a situation where I have to give feedback, I am as clear as I can be about things I know are legitimate reactions and try to leave out anything that might be biased. I do not believe my pissed off rants help anyone but me and maybe a few objective listeners getting a kick out of my bitching.

In most circumstances, I wouldn’t have reviewed him, knowing that my bias made me not the best person to do so. But it wasn’t just mediocre. Unlike most of the writers I’ve had conflict with (there’s not a lot, sheesh)—in which there was a possibility that I just didn’t like it because I didn’t want to—it was honestly bad. I rarely find a story completely without merit even when I’m bullshitting myself, but this one had so little effort put into, so little awareness of the other kinds of stories being produced, and so little of a point that I couldn’t imagine he’d ever read through it a second time. He just didn’t try.

I have nothing against self-publishing. But I do have trust issues. And in order for me to trust a self-published book, either the authors need have higher standards or the reviewers do. Or both.

I guess it was that he had two five-star reviews that sounded suspiciously as though they were written by him—“Even though this is a short story it is a great read! Totally worth the money, I would definitely be willing to spend more on it or buy more stories from this author, recommended!”—and that being exactly what I think is wrong with the system that made me go through with it.

After so long of debating, of believing I shouldn’t review it, I finally did.

I’m not going to tell you exactly what I said to help keep this poor bastard anonymous, but I know you’re curious, so let me just say this:

The one-word title didn’t fit the storyline. The definition of that word contradicted the actual setting of the story, making it look like the writer only chose it for ambiance (which it was successful at) rather than meaning.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel after the story was over. It was eerie, but not scary, not really sad, not really a relief, not really disturbing. There seemed to be no philosophical meaning in the story, which I don’t always need, but in this case made me feel something was missing. The story just ended.

Because it’s told from the P.O.V. of the monster, and the monster wants nothing more than to eat things, it was hard for me to be invested. We didn’t meet any humans with real motivation or development until the end, and they died too quickly for me to care about them. After the first paragraph, I knew what was going to happen all the way until the last; the story repeated itself with larger and larger prey until it died. Nothing in-world seemed to change.

The concept was unique and disturbing, the first description of the eating process effectively visceral. If I had been invested in the characters or the world, been worried about their safety, had hope and doubt as to their survival, I would have been scared.

There was also the typos and overused words, but I decided to leave that out. Any reader would see it from the sample page.

I never said anything I didn’t believe, and I tried to say it in the most palatable way possible. While I think it is an effective review, it doesn’t make me wonder any less about whether or not I should have written it.

As a writer, I want criticism to be private with someone I respect and I can discuss and clarify things with, not some stranger who’s annoyed with how I pitch myself. But as a reader, I want to trust reviews, I want those before me to tell me what they truly think and for Amazon not to be filled with ego-stroking praise.

Objectively, people should leave bad reviews. Personally, I’m not sure if I should.