Review Reliability

It’s somewhat ironic talking about the reliability of reviews as a person who writes reviews, but as a reader—of books, and of reviews—I think it’s important to bounce around the idea of how much weight we put on reviews, and how we allow them to sway our reading choices, especially when it comes to the inherent subjective nature of a lot of reviewing styles.

So, back before I was interested in blogging myself, I was first introduced to book vlogging, or booktube. The rabbit hole was deep, and some of my favorite videos ended up being reviews. When I started reading as a kid, booktube wasn’t a thing. Book blogging wasn’t a thing. Connecting to veritable thousands of other readers wasn’t a thing. Perhaps a little late to the discovery, I was fascinated that there were people out there who just… talked about books. Books they loved, books they hated, books that made them want to rip their hair out—

And oh, the snarky, salty, tea-drenched reviews were a plenty.

As much as I enjoyed reviews, I did start realizing something, both about how reviews were delivered, and how I received them. A lot of reviews presented their feelings as being objective observations about the books, and I fell into the pit of not only allowing said reviews to heavily influence whether or not I would read a book, but also my opinion on some books and their writers—even if I hadn’t yet read the book. (This is bad reading practice; don’t do this.)

To an extent, reviews settle into the marketing process of a book, generating either a positive or negative buzz around a book that either encourages or discourages other people to read it. But to think reviews should be the determining factor that shapes an opinion on a book for other readers is something that I think readers should consider when taking reviews—whether ranting or raving—one hundred percent to heart.

As an example, I became interested in booktube around the time it was popular to give scathing rant reviews on the Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas. Admittedly, I found the reviews entertaining, and took on the same opinions as reviewers based off their reviews—obviously the books were trash and not worth reading, LOL does SJM even know how to write?

Then, I made friends with a Throne of Glass/A Court of Thorns and Roses fan. She had vastly different opinions on the series, and I picked up Throne of Glass, being curious about the stark difference in the opinions that I was seeing.

On one hand, I did end up DNF’ing Throne of Glass. On the other… I couldn’t find the source to the outright hatred for the books. Neither could I find the brilliance that others raved about when I dug a little deeper and found more glowing reviews of the books. I was ambivalent, and that’s where my epiphany came in.

Reviews are useful, they’re tools, but they should rarely be taken as gospel.

Cue me ever being seen as a credible reviewer plummet like the stock market.

But hear me out. I’m not saying that reviews are useless. They’re waypoints. Guidelines. They’re there to give you an idea of what a book is about, what the reader liked about it, what they didn’t. And it’s easy sometimes to gauge if a book’s content will be something that you want to read for yourself based on a review, or a number of reviews. What I think makes it dicey, is when we get into habits of allowing reviews to determine wholly if we’re going to read a book by assuming that what the reviewer says will be accurate to our own reading experiences. I certainly didn’t feel that way in reading Throne of Glass.

Similarly, another book I read last year that had very poor booktube reception was Emergency Contact, by Mary H.K. Choi. The specific things that I gathered from booktube reviews was that there was a lot of slut shaming, bad mental illness representation, rampant toxic masculinity, and that a plot point involving a sexual assault was used for shock value. These are things I don’t really have a huge interest in reading about especially if they don’t go unchecked, and the reviews left a bad taste in my mouth because… ugh, why waste my time?

I’m incredibly glad that I eventually bit the bullet and read Emergency Contact for myself.

The reviews that I had seen or read were nowhere near the experience that I had with that book. I loved it. I wrote an entire glowing review and a full discussion on it. It blew me away and guaranteed that Mary H.K. Choi could have all of my money in the future. I couldn’t see where a lot of the hyper-critical reviews came to their conclusions, much like I couldn’t see where the hyper critical reviews of Throne of Glass were coming from. It’s not just with long-time established YA authors like Maas, either. My partner has read Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, and is currently reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. Their opinion on both of those books is entirely different from a majority of the reviews that we’ve seen scattered between booktube, general book bloggers, and Goodreads.

So… if reviews fall through sometimes, what’s the damn point?

Diversity.

While reviews, in my opinion, should not function as the end-all-be-all say in whether a book is good or not, or deserves to be read or not, there’s an inherent level of diversity in the discussion surrounding books when people are reviewing them. The more people read and review and talk about a book, the more voices get to have a say in the conversations surrounding a book, and there is never a downside to more voices talking about books—but there can’t be more voices generating more conversations if we’re allowing a single review to lower the hatchet on our reading choices.

The reason that reviews aren’t fool-proof reliable is because at the end of the day, reviews are largely opinions, and everyone has one. Rare is it a review only speaks on objective qualities, like syntax or grammar, and even things like style, plot, and characterization are up to subjective tastes as to whether or not they were successfully executed. Some people will have the same opinion; some will have the opposite. Some will completely tangent into another stratosphere of ideology altogether. There are millions of people who love Harry Potter, a book that has been praised for world building, writing, and characters, and there are millions of people still who think it’s poorly-written garbage. Neither of these opinions are right or wrong, they just are. As a reader, it’s important to realize that and understand that, and even with reviewers that we love for their style of reviewing, or how much our opinions on a book match, we shouldn’t always let the discussion of a book end with our reading (or viewing) of a review. 

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