Even though I don’t give ratings in my own blog reviews, I always look at the one-star reviews of books I want to read on Amazon or Goodreads and sometimes wonder what compels people to write them. The number or proportion of these one-star reviews and the amount of venom contained within them – justified or otherwise – can often determine whether or not I am likely to buy the book. As with the purchase of any product, it seems natural to seek out what the worst case scenario might be in order to evaluate the risk of potential disappointment.
Occasionally, the book blog Biblioklept posts collection of quotes from one star reviews written by Amazon customers for books generally considered to be classics. Some are entertaining (sometimes intentionally ironic but often not), others are offensive and/or ignorant while others are just plain weird. One reviewer summed up ‘The Great Gatsby‘ by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “IT IS VERY COMPLICATED TO UNDERSTAND AND THERE ARE A LOT OF CHARACTERS. I AM STILL READING THE BOOK SO MAYBE IT WILL GET BETTER.” Who says capital letters don’t add emphasis?
In terms of non-fiction, it doesn’t surprise me that ‘The Purple Revolution: The Year That Changed Everything’ by Nigel Farage has some of the most polarising reviews on Amazon with 356 five-star ratings and 277 one-star ratings out of a total of 674 to date. However, it turns out that some of the five-star reviews haven’t been written by UKIP supporters with one simply stating: “Really great for getting a fire going on a cold night”.
Amusing, yes, but insightful? Not really. The author Matt Haig commented last year in a Waterstones blog post and on his own website that there is a crucial difference between hatchet jobs and literary criticism. The examples above have great comedy value but one-sentence one-star reviews (or fake five-star reviews) on Amazon often say more about the misguided expectations, sense of humour, impatience or trolling tendencies of the reviewer rather than the content of the book or quality of the writing itself.
Moreover, criticism by nature is objective. Personally, I would only award a book one star if I thought it was completely, irredeemably flawed in all respects and would wholeheartedly recommend that everyone should stay away from it at all costs. However, there is no universal definition of how bad a book has to be to deserve a one-star rating. Even Amazon and Goodreads provide different definitions for their star rating systems. The Goodreads definitions of 1, 2 and 3 star reviews correspond with Amazon’s definitions of 2, 3 and 4 star reviews respectively:
1 Star: Hate it Did not like
2 Stars: Don’t like It was ok
3 Stars: It’s ok Liked it
4 Stars: Like it Really liked
5 Stars: Love it It was amazing
Haig also commented on the “overwhelming amount of unthinking positivity” in the book blogging community. The decision taken by Buzzfeed’s books editor Isaac Fitzgerald in 2013 to no longer post negative book reviews on the site is a very extreme example of this. I haven’t come across any blogs which share this policy explicitly – although that’s not to say that utopian book blogs where everything is deemed to be awesome don’t exist. However, while Haig encourages healthy literary criticism and debate, a small minority of authors haven’t been quite so understanding about negative reviews of their own work and perhaps some bloggers choose only to focus on the books they enjoy or are deliberately less scathing in their reviews for fear of public shaming or just because they want to make the Internet a nice place.
It’s true that the vast majority of my reviews are positive ones, simply because I read for enjoyment and I blog for enjoyment. I am not a professional reviewer paid to review specific books I wouldn’t otherwise read so there is no (financial) incentive for me to spend more time on this than I feel is necessary. I read books I think I would enjoy and usually I make good choices but this doesn’t mean that books never fall below my expectations and I blog about these too. There have been plenty of books I didn’t really get on with or failed to finish such as ‘Cloud Atlas‘ by David Mitchell or ‘The Last Lover‘ by Can Xue. However, I don’t think either of these books are badly written or deserve a one-star review for poor quality; they just didn’t engage me and I wouldn’t find it upsetting if others found them enjoyable.
The success of the Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year Award suggests that writing a really damning review which fully justifies why a book should be avoided can be a credible artform in its own right. Last year’s winner was A. A. Gill’s exquisitely written review of Morrissey’s autobiography in the Sunday Times which, somewhat ironically, has reminded me that I really ought to bump it up my TBR list to find out if it truly is “a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness”.
In a nutshell, there are different ideas about what constitutes a “fair” one-star review. Perhaps it’s all about getting the balance right. Reading negative reviews all the time is extremely depressing but then so is insincere praise. The occasional eloquently written explanation about why a book wasn’t enjoyable which steers clear of launching into a personal attack might be the way forward instead.
What do you think? What was the last book you read worthy of a one-star review?