The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Did I Miss Something?

Another inevitability of reviewing books is that the time will come when you read a book that everyone’s praising to the high hills, and by the time you’re finished reading it, you’re left with one overwhelming impression:

didimisssomething

Maybe you found the characters flat, the dialogue atrocious, plot holes you could drop a cartoon piano through. You start to wonder if maybe you got your hands on some secret pre-edited copy and you’re actually reading something completely different from everyone around you. You can’t imagine how what you’re reading is actually being so highly praised by so many people.

Or maybe it’s the other way, and people are generally giving a book negative reviews but you actually enjoyed it. Where people are saying the plot was trite and the characters shallow, you actually found it to be fun and engaging.

So what do you do about it? You feel weird writing a review that’s so drastically different from the majority or all the other reviews. Are people going to send you hate mail over this, tell you that clearly you’re reading the book wrong if you think the way you do? Are people even going to read it if it doesn’t match popular opinion, skipping right over it when they see that it doesn’t say what everyone else is saying?

Well, maybe. It happens. But that doesn’t mean your review shouldn’t be written.

Divergent reviews can actually be really beneficial. From the standpoint of the reader, if everyone’s saying the same thing about a book, then one review is pretty much exactly like all the others. No diversity, no differing opinions, no real need to pay any more attention because you’ve already got the answer. A review that differs from the norm, though, can catch attention and bring a different perspective, one that may ultimately may sway a potential reader in one direction or another.

It’s an oft-quoted thing that when a book has nothing, absolutely nothing but good reviews, something’s a bit suspect. The same isn’t often said about universally negative reviews, but it makes sense that the same could hold true. A book can’t appeal to everyone, and chances are it can’t appeal to absolutely no one, either. Somebody out there likely has the same reading tastes as you, and if you don’t say something about your opinions on the matter, then how are they going to get a better idea of whether they’ll enjoy a book or not?

This is something that gets overlooked in reviewing a lot, I find. A lot of us get it into our heads that we’re reviewing a book for 2 groups of people: ourselves (because we read the book and have opinions on it), and the author (to boost publicity and sales). But there’s a third group that doesn’t get considered as often: readers. This group tends to overlap with the others, naturally, but there are people out there who read even this blog who don’t also review or write, and this blog being a relatively small one, I can only imagine how many read larger blogs. There are people who rely on reviewers for good recommendations.

So if we thought something about a book that was different from what most are saying, undoubtedly there’s somebody out there who can benefit from that opinion being stated. Maybe it’s someone who was curious about a book because they thought they’d like it but everyone else is saying it’s terrible. Maybe it’s someone who has a particular negative trigger that you addressed but nobody else did, and they’ll be thankful for your comments and your aid in avoiding potentially hurtful reading.

But aside from that, aside from any benefit your review may be able to offer and who you’re able to offer it to, it comes down to this: your opinion is your opinion. And unless you’re being paid to say a specific thing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t say what you believe.

There may be backlash from it, depending on what you say and how you say it. That’s one of the great joys of stating what you think on the Internet, or anywhere, really.

Maybe you did miss something in the reading, something that makes a book click for you or not click where hundreds of others felt the opposite. But that doesn’t make your experience less valid than theirs just because it’s in a minority. The experiences you talk about in your reviews are yours. And if you review on a blog, that blog is your place to talk about them. Discussions are boring if everybody has the same opinion.

It can be intimidating. Or at least, it is for me, but I’m an anxious person by nature and am intimidated by going outside sometimes, so take that statement with a grain of salt. But standing up and saying, “I know you all love/hate this, but I feel the exact opposite,” takes courage, even if it is just words on a screen. It can be tempting to just let it lie, to let that one slide and not talk about it at all, to let the majority go on unchallenged and to not offer a dissenting opinion. Especially when you think that your review could mean the a sale does or doesn’t happen. Geez, do you really want to have that kind of influence over something so important?

But we do what we do because we love it, right?

The choice, ultimately, is yours. To post or not to post, that is the question. But from where I stand, I’d rather read a dissenting opinion than another instance of what everyone else is saying, regardless of what sides are taken. Dissenting opinions often bring things to light that don’t get addressed elsewhere. Maybe the characters were flat and formulaic; the fact that it bothers you and doesn’t bother others doesn’t mean that you’re wrong and they’re right. And maybe you found the fundamental idea behind the story to be very creative and interesting, and even if others say it wasn’t carried out very well, it still got you thinking and appealed to you.

A coin may land with one side facing up and so that’s all we see, but that doesn’t mean that the other side doesn’t exist. It’s still part of the coin.

18 comments on “The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Did I Miss Something?

  1. What’s more problematic and what I’ve faced is when I’ve reviewed a book that others have found *problematic*. That’s made me extremely uncomfortable when a book has a fail on the level of sexism, cultural appropriation, etc, and I *miss* that.

    Yes, I’m human, but it makes me question myself as a reviewer.

    • I’ve encountered that before. it’s damn awkward. And when I reread the book with those thoughts in mind, I often end up wondering how I missed those problems in the first place!

      Or conversely, when I see those problems but nobody else seems to, I wonder if I’m being oversensitive about an issue, or needlessly picky.

    • I’m running into this right now. A book I just finished, I loved everything about it. Have not fallen this hard for a magic system in a long time (also: awesome characters. Also: hella fun plot). All the main characters and main bad guys were dudes. Regardless of my opinion, I know a lot of readers will not be okay with that. Do I say in my review that i noticed it but it didn’t bother me? I do I make excuses or apologize for it? Do i gloss right over it?

      • “All the main characters and main bad guys were dudes.”

        Kinda brings to mind some of my thoughts while watching Supernatural. All the female characters are either enemies, brief romantic interests or one-episode wonders, or die so that the male leads can go on and be heroes. It actually gets painful to witness sometimes.

        Doesn’t stop me from loving the show, though, even if I have to facepalm a few times during the watching of it. And sometimes I feel like a bad person for liking something that portrays women in such negative and stereotypical roles. :/

      • “And sometimes I feel like a bad person for liking something that portrays women in such negative and stereotypical roles”

        Me too. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  2. Good timing on this Ria! I struggle with this at times as well. When I reviewed ANCILLARY JUSTICE and later THE GOBLIN’S EMPEROR, I felt like I was the only reviewer who didn’t care for either book. With each book, after I post my reviews, i realized there were a decent number of like-minded folk who had the same or similar issues with each book I had.

    So in that respect, putting up those reviews helped me realize I didn’t miss something and that rather, those books were “just not for me” in the same way they weren’t for some other people.

    • I’ve been told numerous times in various classroom and training settings that for every 1 person who speaks up, there are 10 people who aren’t. Can’t say those are the exact numbers in reality, but it’s one of those things that I keep in mind when I ask questions or give dissenting opinions.

  3. I laugh at the differences of opinions a bit, and at times wonder how I can be looking at a book so differently from the tide, but I don’t think it really bothers me that much. Like Red I do at times notice things that make the books problematic despite enjoying them immensely. When that happens I try to remember to point this out even while gushing.

  4. I am not a reviewer, but I like reading reviews. The thing is, I would prefer reviewers to be honest with their reviews and I am intelligent enough to know that what I am reading is your opinion. I take different things from each review. If you have something negative (or positive) to say I am capable of deciding whether that thing will impact me in the same way if I then choose to read the book.
    Just my humble two cents worth. I appreciate the job you do :-)

  5. I think negative reviews are important – as a reader and sometime reviewer, I’ve read books that are universally liked, only to not like them at all or to find them mediocre, which can be frustrating – it makes me feel like either I’m the only one who sees something (unlikely) or that the people who didn’t like it aren’t talking about it.

    As a reviewer, I kind of think you have to say what you think – you can’t please everyone. What I’ve often wondered is if I should talk about the books I’ve put down (The Drowning Girl, for example) because I disliked them. Do I talk about that? Or books that failed to engage me after 25-50 pages?

    • I’m actually going to be writing something next week on the topic of negative reviews and Did Not Finish reviews. I know a lot of people dislike DNF reviews, but I personally find them really useful. The reasons a person didn’t or couldn’t finish a book are as important and valid as they reasons they did finish another book, I figure. Sometimes things just rub a person the wrong way, and make them not want to continue, and there’s no point in forcing oneself to sit through a novel that the reader finds little to no redeeming value in. So I like reading why people didn’t finish certain books. Gives me another piece of the puzzle so I can make more informaed decisions about my own reading.

  6. I look forward to reading it – I’ve never read a DNF review (or am I forgetting?), but I’m very interested in them, because that’s part of why I stopped reviewing – too much putting down of ARCs, and too little time. In the case of The Drowning Girl, I didn’t enjoy the POV – a lot of people disagreed, and that’s fine. Incidentally, I wrote about this myself a few weeks ago (http://stevenmlong.com/fandom-culture-criticism/).

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  9. I’d rather read a dissenting review for a book thats popular than to think that the first few reviews can set the tide and no one will have the guts to go against it. The thing is, if you didn’t enjoy it chances are others may not as well. I think its better to share that than to worry what other reviewers will think. And honestly, they shouldn’t have a problem with it, every reader can have a different experience and reviewing gives us a chance to share that.

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