Why I Don’t Read Reviews*

Mpepper/ April 21, 2021/ Think Pieces

*Of my books, anyway

Once, while at a writing conference, I heard author Charlene Harris say: “Never read your reviews. That is a poisonous pit.” And I agree. Over time I’ve learned that, if I read a good review of one of my books, I’m happy for a little while. But if I read a bad one, it stays with me forever. It saps me of my motivation and can spiral me into depression. So for my own mental well-being, and also in order to keep writing (which is something I also need to be able to do for my mental well-being), I don’t read reviews of my books.

Always forward, never back, right?

I can hear howls of protest like wolves in the wild:

“If you can’t take criticism, you shouldn’t be a writer.”

This is probably true. But I also prefer to be judicious about who I listen to. I get feedback from fellow writers before I publish. I use beta readers. And then I decide how much of that feedback to implement when I edit. At the end of the day, I have no one to blame but myself if my book is no good. But at the end of the day—to my way of thinking at least—I also only have to satisfy myself with the final product. If others enjoy it, so much the better! If they do not, then it may be that I did not get good advice, or that I didn’t accept good advice, or simply that I don’t write things that many people enjoy. Any and/or all of these things may be true simultaneously! But there is little benefit in weeping and gnashing my teeth over it after the fact. And taking criticism from every person who might feel the need to leave a review is not helpful either.

“But even if it’s too late to fix that book, reviews might help you with the next one!”

They might. But again, it’s a matter of being selective in who to listen to. Everyone has a right to an opinion. But, when it comes to any art, opinions are subjective. (Mostly. If readers are pointing out grammatical errors or some other objective problem, well, I’ll surely hear about it from other channels outside of reviews.) In fact, many reviews will contradict one another. One reader will love Character X and another will hate Character X. One will think the story is slow, another will think the pacing is too fast. In the end, readers have to decide whether I am a writer whose style and work they want to read. I cannot be all things or suit all tastes. Instead of my trying to write to, well, everyone… It’s up to readers to filter themselves and choose whether to read more of my work or not.

“Writers who aren’t willing to read critical reviews of their works aren’t willing to learn from their mistakes and/or get better at their craft.”

This is similar to the above. I am absolutely willing to learn and hone. I don’t find reading reviews to be a useful way to do that. I will clarify that what I’m talking about here are reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. I do sometimes read reviews of my work on book blogs, online literary magazines, etc. Once again, it’s all about selecting who to listen to.

“If you don’t want to read reviews, you must not respect the people who read your books and take time to write reviews of them.”

I absolutely respect my readers and am grateful for them! But I also don’t want them to feel like they need to be performative for my sake. Some reviewers, if they think an author may read the reviews, will curb their honest opinions. And I do really believe reviews are for other readers, not the author. Reviews are meant to tell other readers whether a book is good (in that reviewer’s opinion), whether others should read it, and why or why not. If a reader really, truly believes I, the author, need to hear how they feel about my book, my contact information is available on this site, and I’m active on Twitter as well. (@sh8kspeare)

“You’re one to talk! You also review books!”

Yes, I do. And I try always to remain courteous and thoughtful when I post a written or YouTube review. Nor do I assume the author will see or read said review (but if they do, I want to be sure it’s not traumatizing for them). I actually have a formula for reviewing any text:

  • Position myself in relation to the subject – I explain why I chose the book (or movie, or whatever), whether I’m familiar with the author or genre, etc.
  • Summarize the text – ideally without spoilers, though I try to put a warning if I do need to spoil anything
  • Talk about what I liked and why
  • Talk about what didn’t work for me and why (including any possibly problematic elements)
  • Say whether I recommend the book and/or who I think would be the primary audience for the text (if not me, then who might like it even if I didn’t)

I’ve found this to be a pretty solid format that, I think, is fair to both the text itself and anyone considering reading or watching or what have you.

Another issue, of course, is the inconsistency of star ratings on many sites. Because reviews are subjective, each reviewer has their own personal way of applying stars. Goodreads suggest what the five stars should mean, but it’s different for everyone. Many authors become upset if their books go below 4 stars, and I used to feel the same, but… I’ve come to realize there is just so much fluctuation in how people rank things that the stars matter far less than the content of the reviews (I say this in regards to browsing other authors’ books and trying to decide whether to read them—what I’m saying is, the star ratings are not reliable for that). If you ever look at how I rate things on Goodreads, you’ll see that I give many manga 5 stars. This is because I find most manga very enjoyable, and I also have a lower personal standard for manga than for, say, literary fiction. In general, for prose my rule of thumb for star ratings is:

  • 5 stars – one of the best things I’ve ever read OR an all-time favorite; something that impacted me
  • 4 stars – an enjoyable read with few to no problems or things that bothered me
  • 3 stars – average; good but not great
  • 2 stars – below average; this may be a good story poorly written or vice versa
  • 1 star – something very wrong with this book, either in content or execution, possibly both (grammatical errors, poor editing, problematic subject matter, etc.)

I will admit that even I sometimes do not follow my own rules for ratings. Sometimes I’ll finish a book and feel like I love it, then go straight to Goodreads and give it five stars, only to look back later and wonder… Which only goes to show that reviews, while helpful and even important, shouldn’t be given too much weight in the big scheme of things.

In screenwriting we had another rule: If one person doesn’t like something, that’s just one opinion. If two people don’t like it, you should probably take another look at it. And if three or more people point out the same problem, it really IS a problem. In reviews, you’ll also sometimes find a running theme in which many readers like or dislike the same thing(s) about a book. That’s when your own discernment needs to kick in. You have to decide for yourself whether that thing they’re all angry about is something that will bother you, too. Or do you risk it and read the book anyway?

The great thing about reading books is that you can always stop if you discover you don’t like the book. (Unless you have to read it for school… In which case, get vocal in class discussions! That always makes class way more fun.) You don’t even have to write a review for a book you don’t like, though if you feel strongly about “warning” other potential readers, that’s up to you.

And if you’re warning readers about my books, well… That’s also your right. And it’s my right as the author to never read your review.

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