In Praise of Reader Reviews

A book critic on what she learns from the masses on Amazon and Goodreads.

Miller in praise of reader reviews.

Luke Howard

It’s been a while since a reporter has called to ask if I’m worried that Amazon reader reviews spell the death of my own livelihood as a critic. That used to happen all the time. Over the past 20 years that I’ve been at this job, professional book reviewers have turned out to be an endangered species, but for reasons having little to do with opinion-dispensing customers on Amazon or Goodreads. (Blame the economics of newspaper publishing!) So I’ve had few occasions of late to trot out my handful of stock quotes about the very different purposes served by professional and amateur reviews.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to dislike Amazon reviews. Every author has a war story about absurd one-star reviews written by dolts complaining that the shipping package was torn or ranting that the Kindle version ought to be priced lower. Even when these grousers stay on point, customer reviews sometimes seethe with inexplicable contempt. The literary site 0s and 1s runs a regular feature, Thick Skin, in which they interview authors about their negative notices; a disproportionate number of particularly withering reviews seem to come from Amazon and Goodreads. “Wow, that’s pretty harsh. Ha!” Michelle Gable, author of the best-seller The Paris Apartment, replied when informed of the review that characterized her writing as like “that of someone whose second and very new language is English.” “I do think people are unnecessarily rude on that site.” At a panel a few years back, the distinguished critic Morris Dickstein noted that Amazon reviewers, while occasionally ingenious, were more often “banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated.”

But here’s my semi-shameful secret: I like reader reviews. I often make a point of seeking them out. When reporters used to interview me on the subject, I’d feel obliged to note that you can find reviews on Amazon and (even more commonly) on Goodreads that are as considered, thorough, and well-written as anything that used to appear in your local newspaper. But actually I don’t care much about those reviews. I already know how people like me, people who read books professionally and with a particular set of aesthetic values, respond to a text. I go to reader reviews to see how the other half reads.

The great thing about the internet is that it has the potential to expose us to every kind of opinion in the world, and the awful thing is that this abundance mostly leads us to construct comfortable bubbles of self-validating input. Those bubbles resemble nothing so much as the pre-internet literary world, where “everyone” agreed on which books were important and good, and the fierceness of the debates between, say, New Criticism and Structuralism masked just how similarly the combatants thought. (Not to sound like one of them myself, but this is what Freud described as “the narcissism of small differences.”) But if you’re willing to escape your bubble, the internet can teach you the infinite variety of ways that a person can experience a book. The novel I regard as brilliant never quite wins the audience I feel it deserves, while the one I wave away as mawkishly overwritten strikes the reading public as wonderful. This happened before the internet, of course, but now, thanks to reader reviews, I stand a better chance of finding out why.

Crucially, the internet has made it simply impossible for me to kid myself that there’s a widely shared agreement on what constitutes good writing or a good book. This, I realize, will be viewed as the violation of a sacred trust by some of my fellow critics, who see our role as that of knights defending the citadel of Literature from barbarian hordes waving Fifty Shades of Grey. But I can’t help it: Not only do I think the citadel can take care of itself, but I always want to know what the barbarians are so worked up about. Besides, some of them are not actually barbarians at all, just tired, overworked women who have finally found a bit of recreational reading that hits the spot. I want to know why: why people devoured The Da Vinci Code by the millions, what they saw in The Help, why they fell for Twilight over hundreds of other vampire romances. True, I seldom end up loving the best-sellers myself, but I always learn something from them. And more often than not, with the help of reader reviews, I’m able to ferret out the source of their appeal.

I’m especially intrigued by reader reviews written by people unfamiliar with the vocabulary of literary criticism. They aim to describe experiences that most of us recognize but that can be hard to articulate, and they have to make up the language for it as they go along. Sometimes they acquit themselves pretty well, as in the following review, of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, posted by one Jesse Messerli:

To me it seemed like the author had a few ideas for completely unrelated stories, and because none of them were really that good on their own, he decided to combine them all and try to connect them in some way in order to reveal something about the nature of man. After reading the previous reviews I kept expecting it to get better. I kept waiting for some magical revelation that would make it all worth it. I felt as if I was trudging through piles of garbage in hopes of finding the treasure at the end. However once I got halfway through I find that there is no treasure, but I have to turn around and trudge back out of all the garbage and see if there is treasure back at the start. When I finished that I realized that there is no gold nugget hiding anywhere, just miles of trash.

Chances are, if you’ve read the very popular Cloud Atlas, you don’t agree with Messerli. Still, you’ve probably felt this way about some other acclaimed book. Few professional critics could get away with such a passionately querulous outburst, not to mention that comparison to trudging through piles of garbage—it’s so over the top—and yet isn’t that exactly how reading a frustrating book feels? While I enjoyed reading Cloud Atlas myself, my heart goes out to Messerli. I’ve been there, pal.

In perusing reader reviews over the years, I’ve noticed two words cropping up approvingly again and again, words that rarely appear in professional reviews: “fast” and “flow.” These, I’ve concluded, refer to much the same quality, something that violently disgusts my most discriminating literary friends: cliché. A “fast read” is a book that “flows,” in prose that calls no attention to itself by virtue of being utterly familiar. You can swallow it in huge gulps and finish in a few hours, if you’re not too picky. Eventually, I’d discover C.S. Lewis’ astute explanation of the appeal of clichés for readers who consume books solely for their diverting plots. They like this kind of writing, he writes,

…  because it is immediately recognizable. “My blood ran cold” is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

“The story flowed effortlessly and keep [sic] the interest going,” wrote Martha Silcox of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a book whose hackneyed prose makes me grind my teeth. Fiction that flows never calls upon its readers to slow down and contemplate or admire any of its parts. It also doesn’t feature narrative gaps that oblige the reader to puzzle out what’s going on. When reader reviewers dislike unconventionally structured novels like Cloud Atlas or A Visit from the Goon Squad, they typically complain that the book is “disjointed.” On the other hand, the fastest-selling novel for adults ever published, Paula Hawken’s The Girl on the Train, has sold over 3 million copies by not taxing its readers overmuch in this department. I found it uninspired, but Amazon reviewer Kcorn declared it a “stunner”: “Chapters alternate between the first person point of view of each woman. This isn’t at all confusing and everything flows together seamlessly.”

I’ve learned to accept that a good number of the books I adore are in some part simply unintelligible to many readers. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, a ghost story narrated by a doctor obsessed with the local stately home and the decaying upper-class family that possesses it, is one of my recent favorites. Reader review after reader review complains that “nothing happens” in The Little Stranger, which is manifestly untrue. This dissonance, however, illustrates something important about how plots work.

The lament that “nothing happens” in a novel often means that the main character or characters don’t drive the novel’s action or events; things happen, but they happen to the characters rather than being caused by them. People want to read about characters they like and identify with, which often means characters who take charge of their destinies instead of passively moping around being “whiny” (another common complaint). Unlikable characters take a close second place to boredom (“I just couldn’t get into it”) among the top reasons readers offer for dunning a book with one-star reviews. What literary critics seem to most prize–beautiful sentences–barely seems to count at all. Reader reviews will occasionally praise an author’s style, but so many of them describe The Da Vinci Code as “well-written” that to me the phrase has come to seem meaningless.

If I were one of those citadel defenders, I’d probably consider this development dispiriting, or even enraging. Instead, I’m interpreting it as a call to Zen-like acceptance and a clarification of my vocation. It isn’t my responsibility to make as many readers as possible think and feel the right way about the right set of authors so that all will be correctly ordered in the literary pantheon. Rather, my job is to give the best possible account of how I think and feel about the books I read, and then hope that my own readers recognize a bit of common ground in what I have to say. That’s exactly what Jesse Messerli did instead of just grousing or throwing Cloud Atlas against the wall. It’s inevitable that some of them will disagree with me, and every time I come across a reader review that carps about the critics who mendaciously praised the title at hand—often a book that I have in fact touted to the skies—I confess that I wince.

Reader reviewers often take critics to task for praising a “bad book” simply because all of their peers do. Often they seem to believe that critics have conspired to sell the public a bill of goods on hopelessly pretentious writers with nothing of interest to say—or at least to overinflate the work of their own impenetrable darlings. But reader reviews also offer lovely instances of serendipity, when some naïf encounters the work of a much-touted modern master with no notion of the author’s renown.

One of my favorite reader reviews ever is for Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell, published in 1980. Literary insiders are aware that Birdwell is a pseudonym of Don DeLillo, the revered postmodern novelist, who apparently wrote this manifestly fictional “memoir” solely for money. Every reviewer comes to a new DeLillo novel knowing that he’s thought to be a genius, and once an author’s reputation is that exalted, I’ll level with you: It can indeed affect your response to the book. But had no inkling of this in 1998, when he wrote on Amazons’ Amazon page:

a friend of mine found this book in hc for 75 cents in k-mart when i was around 13. she got it for me because i was a huge ny rangers fan & wanted to play hockey. the book turned out to have little to do with hockey, but was truly different & funny in a seinfeld kind of way. there are certain moments & phrases from it that i will never forget. i lent it to one friend who loved it as much as i did, and then another who was not impressed and eventually lost it. i have never ever seen another copy, and it appears that she never published anything else. cleo birdwell, where are you???

I sometimes think that may be the most honest rave Don DeLillo has ever gotten.

So I’ll never denounce the abundant proliferation of reader reviews, not even the ones that lambast my own book. One-star reviews testify to a loss of faith, and they wouldn’t get written if that faith didn’t keep rising up in the first place. Each review represents an instance of someone taking a chance, opening the covers of a book and allowing an author’s words into her head with the hope that something magical might result. And I just can’t see anything bad about that.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.