Monday, December 1, 2008

"The most helpful critical review"

Now that I'm getting books from Amazon to review, I'm thinking about what a review is for. Most of the books and DVDs that I've reviewed on Amazon were highly subjective matters and I made a point of saying so. A dance instruction DVD has music I dislike so much that I can't listen to it may be someone else's sheer delight (those poor deluded fools).

According to Amazon, 88% of people who bother to click the little buttons on the screen think my reviews are helpful. I just discovered I have the most helpful critical review of Stephen Cope's "The Wisdom of Yoga". I like Stephen Cope and have found his previous books and projects to be of great value, so I was hesitant to write a "bad" review of anything he did, but if you read the review, you may see why I felt something of an obligation to do so.

Reviews are rated themselves, by "helpfulness". I have often thought that this helpfulness vote was really a vote for whether or not one agreed with the writer of the review. When the Wisdom of Yoga first came out, those who said my review was unhelpful was much larger, more like 70% of the responders. The fact that this ratio has gone down makes me wonder. Maybe because I now have this official "The most helpful critical review", it gives someone pause before dismissing my opinion.

I still am not sure what reviewing is "for". Now that I have to review a certain amount of books, I'm flummoxed. I've never written fiction reviews. I figure that like music, we all have such different taste. I don't like "chick lit" or romance novels, but others do. Why should I put in my two cents?

When I read a review, I want to know two things: 1. Personal opinions, just to get an idea of the range of reactions, and 2. Whether the product, whatever it is, delivers what is promised. If I had to write a review of a romance novel and discovered it was a book of science fiction, I'd say it didn't do its job. Fair enough (but an unlikely example).

Before I conclude, I thought of a third thing I'd like to know from a review. This would be applicable to food, or perfume (and other things I can't think of at the moment, I'm sure). Whether it's truly, objectively awful. If a fragrance smells like dog poo, please tell me. I mean that literally. People bandy around the phrase "That was sh*t" or some such, and the fact is, no it wasn't. Here's a case for using a little less cursing. Shucks. I never thought I'd hear myself say or write that (nor did I ever say or write shucks - maybe it's the fever talking).

Addendum: Since writing the post entitled "Lust", above, I've really wanted to read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, in which he says luck and priviledge have much more to do with success than other factors. On Outlier's Amazon page, I just read one of the longest negative reviews I have ever read (leaving out the dead tree variety).


jmcleod76 said...

I actually put a lot of stock in reviews on Amazon, though not unconditionally. I pay as much attention to why someone does or doesn't like the thing in question as I do to whether the do/don't like it. It;s usually a good indicator of whether I'm likely to feel the same. And, as with anything, a larger sample is better. I'm less likely to trust a lone reviewer than I am to trust that the fifty-some-odd people who like something may see sonething that the one person who doesn't missed or failed to appreciate. Of couse, ultimately, you're rght, any opinion is, by definition, subjective, but if youdo a little reading between the lines, some can be helpful.

Feel better soon!

Julie H. Rose said...

After I wrote the post, I thought "I know why I read reviews, like reading reviews and write reviews. . ."
And, not all reviews are purely subjective opinions, though the majority are. On Amazon, one needs to sift through a lot, though I do find this enjoyable. Interestingly, I have bought books that "EVERYONE" gave 5 stars to, from all sorts of perspectives, and found them disappointing.

kat - Three Cent Stamp said...

I also pay a decent amount of attention to reviews. I typically look for trends. If 90% of the people who read or bought something didn't like it and there are the same complaints over and over, I take into account whether I can live with what the complaint is. However, once, I was dumb enough to note that a book got high ratings, but I failed to notice that only 5 people had read the book. I hated the book and probably should have payed closer attention. I typically look at the high rated comments and the low rated comments because these people had strong reactions one way or the other and I think that's typically why reviewers will bother reviewing; either they really like something or they hate it.

But I agree with your conclusion in that it's pretty much subjective.

BitterGrace said...

I've been writing reviews for publication for years, and I don't know what reviews are for, either. I do think the best kind of review--on Amazon or anywhere else--is a document that has some value in itself. It should be an honest voice describing one person's unique experience of the book (or whatever.) That's an interesting thing to engage, even if the book in question is something you'd never actually want to read.

I know that's a pompous way of thinking of reviews, and sometimes you do want "just the facts," but I think John Leonard should really be the model for all critics.