Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Star Reviews

The skeptic’s approach to selecting a novel to read from among those that have been hyped to death and promoted by their irrepressible publishers? Look at the one star reviews (on Amazon) first.

These reviews certainly provide a lot of wildly subjective takes. But you learn to read them, and must practice a subtle discernment to tap the sincere ones (if anyone giving a book in a review one star can be sincere), and if nothing else, the general consensus offers an honest and straightforward take. A smattering of one star reviews by a bunch of general readers tell me more about a book than a lofty drubbing by Michiko Kakutani.

My approach could apply to any novel, usually one I’m on the fence about. This is not counter-intuitive, as the novel in question may be from an author whose previous book did not excite me, which almost justifies in my mind the one star reviews I’m curious to read.[1]

I read one star reviews as a way of finding a book to read that I might ultimately come to love. I find I often want to read a novel because it has many one star reviews. In fact, because of my prurient curiosity, I’m probably more inclined to consider reading it if no one likes it. If it’s a book I’m certain I’m going to read anyway, good or bad reviews, I’ll likely only read the one star reviews hoping to glean some essential truth of the work. Here I will point out that when I refer to one star reviewed books, these are the ones in which the number of positive reviews (five stars) are relatively balanced by the number of negative reviews (one star) of the book. These books tend to be the ones that I really like, which must say something about my tastes. Maybe that I’m the text book demographic that follows the latest literary hype.

One star reviewed books tend to speak to me as a possibly misunderstood genius (Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: 40 one stars, 40 five stars), intentionally interesting snobbery or unappreciated intellectualism (Norman Rush’s Mating: 19 one stars, 34 five stars--I recall that it had more one stars--maybe Norman Rush fans came to the cause), typically brilliant and air tight prose in the service of what-was-the-author-thinking (Philip Roth’s The Humbling: 12 one stars, 9 five stars), or not reaching the bar set by their hype (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which has an almost equal split: 306 one star, and 304 five star).

What would be very helpful for readers, though horrifying, I’m sure, for most writers--would be a search option for number of stars reviewed. Because if a book only has five star reviews, then it is safe to say no one is being honest about it, or no one is willing to speak of what might be wrong with it. I like a bit of flaw, a little weird, some character imperfection. I don’t think any book is perfect; I know no book is perfect. If the reviews are predominantly five star reviews, the book in question is most likely the literary equivalent of milquetoast. There are the books that have been around awhile with NO one star reviews. If I do read one of these only high count starred review novels, I read it with a strangely skewed, cautiously skeptical eye.

I’m not sure negative reviews matter. If anyone wants to read it, they will, no matter what critics say. I think now you could rarely find a novel that is so bad it’s received only one star reviews, and maybe a few sad two star reviews, and a paltry one or two three star reviews, but I could be wrong. There again, I’d say maybe the consensus is generally accurate. I’m sure some writers secretly fear this happening to their work. I suspect just this kind of speculation can make a writer with a lack of self-confidence pretty much never dare offer their work up for scrutiny.

This reminds me of the flap with those writers who were posting positive reviews under pseudonyms on all of their friends’ fledgling novels (Of course this behavior is not privy to just writers). As if the presence of the positive reviews would cancel the negative reviews. But those one star reviews are there for a reason, too. On the other hand, the more voices, good or bad, the more that people are talking about the book. In which case, the truth of the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity. After all, you have to sort out the overly strident and bone-to-pick one stars from the frank, I-just-didn’t-love-it one stars. Though I do think the honest ones might sting a little.

And sometimes, no matter the reviews, I just don’t like the book. Or I love it. I read it, at least.

[1] This novel might be one that has been out long past its shelf life before I can expect it to go to paperback (when I’ll more willingly shell out to buy it and test my theory). And thus, in spite of negative reviews, the book must be selling well, or the publisher is trying to unload the extra copies they unwisely produced and recoup their losses. It seems that this is a tactic publishers use when the book isn’t any good.


  1. Really nice post. No author likes to get a one star review, whatever the reason. But reading this post makes one feel as though that one star is some kind of badge of honor. Works for me. Thanks!