Writing Book Reviews

I’m so far behind in transferring reviews from this blog to Amazon and Goodreads, it’s not even funny. I promise I will make an attempt to do that soon. The problem is, I always have to edit reviews as I cross-post them, and that takes a certain amount of time and attention. And I have to do it from a real computer; I can’t do it from home. Still, I need to do it, and I will.

But this post isn’t actually about that. It’s about how readers sometimes write reviews.

This is a post from Book Riot: THE WORDS “I WANTED” DO NOT BELONG IN BOOK REVIEWS

And immediately, my reaction is, Yes, that’s probably true. I mean, we all know what this post is probably focused on, right? The kind of review that says, “I really wanted a coming-of-age story, and this isn’t that. I was very disappointed. One star.”

Or even, “This novel was well-written, but I wanted a happy ending. I hated this ending. Four stars, I guess, but I was really disappointed.”

On the other hand, now that I think about it, there’s a biiiiig gap between someone who says, “This isn’t what I wanted, one star” and someone who says, “This wasn’t what I wanted but it’s objectively good, four stars.” It seems to me that the former is an example of a bad review (I mean, a low quality review), while the latter might well be fine. It depends, I suppose. If the only criticism is “I expected something else,” then I think I agree with Book Riot. However, if the criticism includes “I expected something else” but also includes a thoughtful critique of why the book led the reader to expect something it doesn’t offer, that’s different. Or I believe it’s different.

Let me just take a look at the Book Riot post and see if this is the focus.

Scrolling back through my Goodreads reviews, I [the author of the post] eventually come across ones full of “I wanted” sentences. Some of them are vague, as in: I wanted more. Some are specific, as in: I wanted to know more about X character, but the book is about Y character. Or: I wanted the author to focus more on plot and less on description. Or: I wanted this book to be a love story, but all of this other stuff kept getting in the way.

… there are two kinds of “I wanted” statements that appear in reviews, both of which I used to employ with some frequency. The first is the kind Alameddine is talking about, statements that have nothing to do with the book at all. These statements are usually about the reader. They’re not even about the reader’s experience of the book — they’re about the reader’s experience of the book they wish they’d read. …

The other kind of “I wanted” statements that I see all the time are actually valid criticisms or observations clouded in this vague “I wanted” language. These statements are even more infuriating to me because the vast majority of them could be rewritten into thoughtful reviews.

Oh, now, that’s interesting! This is an assertion that using the phrase “I wanted” is a signal that the review lacks thoughtfulness. Maybe it is!

But in a lot of cases, these “I wanted more” sentences are actually getting at something the author is or isn’t doing. Whether that thing is good or bad (or, more actually, whether it works for you and why) can help other readers figure out if that book is going to work for them.

Years ago, I would have written a scathing review about how I wanted answers, closure, a tidy resolution, and rated it poorly because I didn’t get any of those things. Happily, I’ve gotten better at writing reviews and thinking critically about books. So instead of writing, “I wanted closure and there wasn’t any, this book sucks!” I wrote: “I loved the first half! But then my brain started doing that “explain! explain! please explain!” dance, and the lack of explanation was just too distracting. So, for readers like me, who crave explanations, maybe know that this is a book that explains nothing. If you prepare yourself for that, and can manage your expectations, it’s a beautiful story about grief and transformation.”

This is a really good point! The author of this post has done a great job of pulling me around to pretty much agreeing with her, when I don’t think I leaned that way at the beginning.

On the other hand, I do think the first version is perfectly fine as long as you leave off the final clause. I wanted closure and there wasn’t any is a perfectly fine sentence that ought to indicate to anyone who reads the review: and if you also want closure in your novels, you’ll probably hate this too. The trick is to leave off the concluding “This book sucks!”

I will just add, there are obviously possible exceptions. If a reviewer writes: “I wanted a book that was basically readable, that showed some degree of facility with the English language, that wasn’t chock-full of typos, and that had something resembling a plot, or at least coherent events that were somehow tied together. Unfortunately, this book lacked any of the above. One of the worst book-shaped objects I’ve ever wasted time reading.” then that seems pretty fair to me.

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3 thoughts on “Writing Book Reviews”

  1. I think it’s perfectly valid to talk about ways that an author misset expectations, or to point out a missed opportunity. The problem is when someone came in with incorrect assumptions about what they were about to read.

  2. “I wanted” at least makes it clear that it’s a personal reaction, which may be wise.

    Sometimes they don’t even rate the book on that ground.

  3. I have no problem using the phrase “I wanted” in reviews! I write my reviews first for my blog and, like you, later cross-post them elsewhere, so I’m interested in my subjective reading experience… and I do think that “I wanted X but this is Y” IS about the reading experience, insofar as it affects that experience. And that sort of comment can put the rest of one’s review in context, too.

    I don’t always cross-post more subjective parts of my reviews, but generally I figure it could be useful for another reader to know what the novel does/doesn’t do. At least I find that sort of information helpful, so I can approach the book with the right expectations or make a more informed choice about what I read when. I recently read a great book which didn’t have the happily ever after ending I expected it to, and if I’d known that I wouldn’t have read it when I was in the mood for comfort reading.

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