I have been warned many a time by many a friend that Amazon reader reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. I suspect this is good advice. These reviewers are unknown to me and their credentials suspect, even if their screen name is “Professorofeverything”, “books4life”, or “LiteraryWizard”. Who knows who these people are, their backgrounds, beliefs, and everything else they bring to their readings of a text? However, there is an industry of Joe Schmoes parcelling out advice for the Amazon Vine program– high-rated reviewers selected by Amazon and who receive benefits from said company– to the community who make up GoodReads. Obviously, there are those who are taking this with more than a sprinkling of salt.
But like the explorers before me, I use the stars as my guide, and it is with some star snobbery on my part that books that garner only three and a half give me pause. Are these books that I really want to read? Those that couldn’t muster an average of a four-star review? At this point I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and puff away at my pipe to determine if these reviews written by strangers to myself about a book I have yet to read are valid. Some questions that I think about as I read are: how well does the reviewer know the subject or the author’s work? How balanced is the reviewer’s tone? What biases does the reviewer reveal? Like Sherlock, I also look for the telling details such as the smudge of jelly on the reviewer’s tie that discredits everything he has previously said. Jelly smudges in writing include words that are not capitalized, like “I”; or words that are in all-cap; or rampant misspellings; or the use of “gonna”, “wanna”, or “I seen”. Poor use of grammar undermines the message, no matter how balanced it is. The last thing I look for is the prevalence of the one-star review.
Finding a one-star review worth its salt is a particular (and peculiar) quest of mine. Mostly it reveals that I need a new hobby. It is easy to give a book a five-star review, but it takes a certain amount of bravura to award it with only one. This means the reviewer better have solid evidence as to why the book is THAT bad, why it doesn’t even deserve a “mercy” two star rating. Giving a book a one-star means that the book is not worth being read; the book is worthy of being ostracized. It draws a hard line. While the five-star review is superlative, the one-star is dogmatic: “Do not read this!” it warns.
However, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what the one-star is for, and it seems that they should be peer-reviewed before they are instantly published to the web. If a one-star review fell under any of the following categories, it would would be kicked back to the reviewer for revision:
1. It’s a complaint about the Kindle edition. If it didn’t download fast enough, cost more than the paperback, or was full of grammatical errors, learn the lesson, drop the technology, and move back to reading paper books. The author who slaved over the writing of the book should not be punished for something outside of his or her realm.
2. It’s a complaint about the UPS driver. Contact UPS.
3. Misuse of literary terms. I have read reviews of non-fiction texts where the reviewers complained of there being too many facts, too many characters, a non-linear story line, and all of this makes the plot really hard to understand.
4. You’re rooting for who? Reviewers who complain that a book made Hitler or Trujillo “look bad” or that Abraham Lincoln “deserved to be shot” should have their reviews kicked back with a nice note suggesting “soul-searching”.
5. Inability to determine good writing. One reviewer of Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain suggested that Stegner learn how to write. He then posted an example of the passage he found difficult: “The train was rocking through the wide open country before Elsa was able to put off the misery of leaving and reach out for the freedom and release that were hers now.” This is the first line of the novel. It went downhill from there.
6. Inability to determine context of writing. One review of Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure decried how Osa and her husband, Martin, treated animals in the wild; they didn’t use today’s standards. The Johnson’s traveled the globe in the first part of the 20th century. Today’s standards weren’t invented yet.
6a. Using evidence against a writer without first determining its validity. This most recently came up when I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. There are 17 one-star reviews of that book– which surprised me because it’s Bill Bryson. Who picks a fight with Bill Bryson?! But when the topic is language, specifically, the English language, people can get a bit truculent. It also doesn’t help that the book was published in 1990, and the information is more than 20 years old. Some of what we know about language has changed or expanded since then. But instead of reviewing all of Bryson’s work, which is cited, reviewers picked at his credibility through the use of small examples. One criticized his etymology of the word “petroleum”, which he said that “petra” is a Latin root and “oleum” a Greek suffix. The reader took offense and stated that it is in fact the reverse! Therefore because of this and other mistakes like it , Bryson’s work should not be taken seriously, and definitely not as a work of scholarship at all. However, if one looks up the etymology in the dictionary (and the internet provides many dictionaries to choose from), one learns that “petra” is Latin, and so is “oleum” (a half point for the reviewer). But upon further study, one finds that “ole” is a Greek root for oil. Bryson’s point was that words are created by making Latin and Greek hybrids. Maybe he should have used the term “hypercorrection” as an example instead.
What I think bothers me the most about one-star reviews is how close to life they are. We have all received such reviews in our lives, and they’re based on spurious reasons. They’re unfair, and mostly (unless we’re major screw-ups) we earn them through no fault of our own. It’s hard to deal with someone who misunderstands you, willfully or otherwise, and does not seek to understand. Or one who could be corrected, but lets the rating still stand. Or one judges us using different criteria (“Yes, she gave a knock-out presentation, but did you see the bags under her eyes?!”). Like authors on Amazon, we cannot do much about what other people say about us. Some reviews can be changed; our merits shine through and our reviewer sees the light. But for those who dig in their heels, there’s no budging them. It’s not necessarily the Amazon reviews that we should take with a grain of salt, but it’s the one-star reviews about ourselves.