Every Award-Winning Book Sucks (For Someone)

As part of my occasional and hopefully instructive series of entries in which I try to make the point to writers that negative reviews are part of the territory and ultimately not something to get too worked up about or to let scar one’s psyche, I would like to present you excerpts of one star Amazon reviews of every single Hugo-winning novel of the last ten years (of which there are eleven, due to a tie in 2010). I would note that while I quote only one for each novel, in every case, there was more than one to choose from.

In chronological order:

2004: Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold:

I hate it when I see an awesome author seem to get worse as they move on and write other series. I pushed through the first one, and did finish this one, but had to complain about the writing and slowness at least once per reading session.

2005: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarke:

I just stopped reading this book on page 721. That’s right I stopped with only about 60 pages to go, after having read every footnote and every word up to that point. Why? I just couldn’t spend another hour of my life on this book.

2006: Spin, Robert Charles Wilson:

This book was boring and without a doubt a great waste of time. I stuck with this because I felt that just around the corner, or next page, a something of consequence would happen. No, nothing happened, page after page after page of nothing.

2007: Rainbow’s End, Vernor Vinge:

It’s just one of the most bland, uninteresting books I’ve read in a long time. The future world state is mildly interesting, but it’s nothing compared to the future worlds that Vinge has created in his other novels. And the character development and storyline is just atrociously uninteresting.

2008: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon:

I found the book to be completely nonsensical, overbearing and tedious. I nearly put this book down several times, but felt compelled and determined to finish. In the end, I didn’t think it was worth the time; it was an extreme disappointment.

2009: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman:

I am amazed that this book has won awards — I wonder about the judges who voted for this completely unsuitable book. The book revolves around graveyards, murder, ghosts and a child called Nobody. Being called nobody certainly would not improve self esteem. This is a horrible, highly negative book.

2010: (tie) The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi:

I can’t recommend this book. It was one of the worst I have ever read. The only character in this book that I cared the least bit about was Mai and she wasn’t even in it very much at all. I felt sorry for her but I really could have cared less if the rest of them died.

2010: (tie) The City and The City, China Mieville:

I thought this book would be amazing, instead it was tedious and boring. What was an interesting murder mystery story was wrapped up in a boring, vague, repetitive story. I understood, the cities were geographically together but politically separate. Interesting in theory, but would never work in practice. But I didn’t need to be reminded of it every 5 sentences.

2011: Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis:

This is very little reward for a long and tedious read. The three main characters are all very like, tiresomely guilt-ridden and apparently unable to think new thoughts very quickly, even when their lives depend on it. I would not drop this lot off in a mall parking lot far from home and expect them to live. 

2012: Among Others, Jo Walton:

Most of the book is filled with angsty recollections by a teenager caught in a (mildly) unpleasant situation, and pages and pages and *pages* of tepid one-line reviews of every golden-age sci fi and fantasy writer. I don’t know why I read this book to the end–it kept promising something interesting, but never delivered. 

2013: Redshirts, John Scalzi:

This is an onanistic shallow and very disappointing book. Little or no character development. What should have been an interesting short story based on a somewhat interesting conceit has been puffed out to novel length and suffers hugely from the increased exposure. Don’t waste your time or money… The only interesting element was the coda about writer’s block which, I fear, seems to be very close to home for him as reflected in recent work.

And should you be of the opinion that all this means is that the quality of Hugo winning books has declined in the last decade, I’d note that just about every Hugo winner has its share of one star reviews, including Starship Troopers (“a VERY dry read with nothing to grab your attention”), Dune (“Prose that would make a Dungeons and Dragons novel blush”), The Left Hand of Darkness (“I cannot avoid the feeling of its uselessness”), Neuromancer (“tedious and pretentious writing, unnecessary to illustrate intellectual concepts.”), Ender’s Game (“Most likely the worst book I’ve ever read”) and The Diamond Age (“it drags on and on and on with little concern for plot or characterization”). We could likewise do this for every Nebula, Locus and Clarke winner, as well as every Booker, Pulitzer and National Book Award winner. Or, to be honest, just about any book nominated or winning any award, from any time, anywhere.

The point is: there has yet to be a book — no matter how well-regarded or awarded — that does not suck for someone. No matter what is nominated for an award or wins, there will always be someone aghast at its presence on the list or its author at the lectern. And as this is the case for the award winners — all the award winners, every one of them — you probably shouldn’t feel too bad when inevitably your book starts racking up negative notes.

Likewise, should your work be nominated for an award, and then you see someone huffing and puffing about how your presence on the ballot is bizarre/outraging/proof of the decline of humanity, you can recognize that this makes you just like every single other person who has been nominated for or won an award, ever, in the history of the whole world. And that’s a perversely comforting thought.

128 Comments on “Every Award-Winning Book Sucks (For Someone)”

  1. I should note, strictly as a matter of context, that while each Hugo winner has multiple one-star views, the works each had a multiple more five-star reviews (and generally overall had more positive reviews than negative ones). But those one star reviews are there, which makes the point. Also (I’m adding this a bit later) unless you’re noting a one star review of your own work, don’t feel you have to chime in with more negative reviews. The point has already been made.

  2. I think that this expresses a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law as follows: Your 10% is not necessarily the same as my 10%. Or anyone else’s for that matter.

  3. No offense, John, but I’m only mildly influenced by awards. Wasn’t always the case. In my youth (even though I say it isn’t over yet) I was HEAVILY influenced if a book had a nice, shiny award on its cover. I came to realize that most critics opinions are no better than the average person’s and most people’s opinions about books and movies are irrelevant. Unless, that is, you understand what motivates that person’s likes and dislikes.

    I mean, while I found Roger Ebert’s view of politics pig-ignorant; his and only his reviews of movies mattered to me at all after my teenage years. No other reviewer mattered to me at all. That’s because he and I looked for very similar things in films, like cityscapes being a character in the movie (Dark City, The Crow, Batman Begins). He and I (if he were alive) could probably sit around all day discussing films since we share a lot of the same things in films.

  4. Scorpius:

    I’m not offended by you being minimally influenced by awards; many people feel the same. Others pay attention to some awards but not others, depending on which ones are closer to their interests and expectations. And so on.

  5. When I read most one star reviews about books that are otherwise well acclaimed, I see an amateur critic who can’t organize their thoughts in a systematic manner and who can’t write clearly about them. They’re pouting and whining because they didn’t “feel” entertained enough or “felt” that the author’s language was “too hard” to follow.

  6. Morgan Sheridan:

    To be fair to the Amazon reviewers, most of them are in fact amateurs who don’t do criticism on a regular basis. I tend to cut them a lot of slack, in terms of organizing their thoughts.

  7. Perdido Street Station:
    There was no redemption, no love, no honor, no respect, no “joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” There was not the slightest glimmer of humor or humanity. Anything beautiful was sure to be destroyed, every promise broken, every friendship ended in betrayal and death or dwindled into queasy duty. The Washington Post Book World review of the novel said, “There are scenes here that…are impossible to expunge from memory.” This is, sadly, completely true.

    If this is where Mieville’s mind lives, I want nothing more to do with it. This is the last novel of his I will read.

    This is great if you’ve never had the chance to read any philosophy. It’s right there on the surface in a superficial way only a comic book could hope to do. But, as most readers probably have more of a background in dungeons and dragons and magic the gathering, the comic looks pretty intelligent. Wow, that blue guy is pretty detached, huh. I suggest skipping this and getting a real book where you might actually learn something if you read it.

    Wuthering Heights:
    Dense, boring, overbaked, farfetched, unlikable, humorless.

  8. One of my Henghis Hapthorn books attracted eight five-star reviews and one four-star, then came this:

    I have read that Hughes is a worthy successor to Vance, and that his writing is reminiscent of “The Dying Earth” books. I found this book to be literally unreadable. Its main character is detestable and uninteresting, as is the writing and the description of the world he is in. This is a complete waste of time and money for everyone, including the fools who published it.

    Whattaya gonna do?

  9. I usually feel that bad reviews of otherwise well-received works just miss the point of the work, but that review of “Neuromancer” sums up my feelings pretty well. I wonder if that means I missed the point. I’d have given it more than one star, though. The story was good, and it was certainly inventive. It was just the style of writing that I didn’t care for.

  10. REAMDE was a huge, turgid, overlong, repetitive disappointment following on from the gripping genius that was Anathem.

    My point is that Anathem was my first exposure to Neal’s work and I expected more in a similar style from his next work, like I would an Asimov or Heinlein.

    Does that make Neal a better author than Asimov or Heinlein, or does it mean he’s more inconsistent? Were Asimov and Heinlein more cynical in giving consumers more of what has previously been successful (they both grew up being paid by the word) whereas Stephenson feels more free to experiment?

    Such an extreme departure from my first exposure to him and my second had made me wary of his work, so from a commercial point of view it pays to give people what they want (look at Terry Pratchett’s bank balance) but I guess I can’t criticise someone for experimenting. Unless the result is REAMDE, in which case it’s shit.

  11. Guys, unless you’re noting a one-star review of your own work, don’t feel like you need to add more negative reviews to the thread, please. I didn’t actually mean for the thread to be gripe session that way.

  12. I must admit that while “A fire upon the deep” is the definitive space opera,
    “Rainbow’s End” is definitely a bad idea; I really don’t understand why it got
    an award, whatever it was.

    Connie Willis kind of baffles me; for some reason I can’t analyse she gets
    the tone wrong in her WWII novels, and after a lot of looking I can’t understand
    how. Most of her other books are very good indeed.

    The rest of the reviews seem pretty much nonsense, as you’d expect. Adding
    to the negative reviews, though:

    “The covers of this book are too far apart.” Mark Twain
    “This book should not be put down; it should be hurled aside with great force.” Dorothy Parker


  13. ” I would not drop this lot off in a mall parking lot far from home and expect them to live. ”
    I laughed out loud at this line.

  14. I got actual hate mail. “I hope your computer blows up” was one of the milder ones. It took two days to realize that the readers who did this were so into my main character that they resented it when I appeared to kill him off (not everyone likes a cliffhanger!!!). Despite announcing via a series of blog entries when the story would conclude (book one of a trilogy) and to expect a cliffhanger, it caught readers by surprise.
    I went back and added an epilogue to show that yes, the MC survived; in the process I developed several threads that would be resolved in book two.
    You live and learn; in the process, I became aware that if you can provoke that kind of visceral response from readers, you’re a writer. I’ve been grateful for the comments since.

  15. The fact that no book is for everyone is all too true. At least one of the books listed above in this blog post I did not enjoy at all; at least one of the books listed above is one I am incredibly enthusiastic about. But a bad review to be useful should give enough information to explain why the reviewer felt that way, so the readers can judge for themselves if the book might actually be for them. (A good review should do the same for the opposite, but I find they do so a lot more often.)

    The reviews above seem to border on the edge of usefulness, but aren’t all quite there…

  16. I, personally (duh), don’t think of ‘Blackout’ + ‘All Clear’ as WWII novels. To me they are time travel books about grad students doing some hands on history research. Which is just as well to me; had I thought them grade A WWII novels I wouldn’t have liked them.
    And not much insult intended to grad students (or people younger than thirty ;-) “I would not drop [most of the ones I’ve known] in a mall parking lot far from home and expect them to live.”
    Three Willis books I can think of with the one I like most first:” ‘Doomsday Book,’ ‘Passage’ and ‘BO + AC.’

  17. Sometimes the frothing-at-the-mouth-with-hate one star reviews actually do more to sell the book than the 5 star reviews. Seeing people get up in arms about Chuck Wendig’s copious amounts of swearing comes to mind.

  18. Further to Simon’s comment. I tried desperately to read Anathem three times and couldn’t get past 50 pages. But I thought REAMDE was fantastic. Reinforces John’s intention in the post.
    I am disturbed by the fact that I do agree with more than half of the reviews above, and they represent some of my biggest reading disappointments in the past ten years or so. Not sure what that means.

  19. I value one star reviews. Generally, when I’m looking for a book on Amazon, I look at the little histogram. If the book isn’t dominated by 4 & 5 star reviews, you can guess there’s something wrong with the book. If the book is dominated by 1 & 2 star reviews, I generally quit there.

    It’s those awkward histograms that are mostly 3-5 star reviews, but the histogram is flat-ish, that the 1 star reviews really help. They (in aggregate, not individually) give you a picture of where the writer failed. Bad grammar, bad spelling, weak plots, riding hobbyhorses, etc. all show up in the 1 stars. Sometimes, I’ll look at them and say, “Oh, the Xtian/ Republican/ Democrat/ Grammar-Police/ Chomskian/ Burkean/ Pagan/ Historical-Revisionist, etc. Lobby doesn’t like this en-mass.” If it’s not one of my pet peeves, I’ll look further. I’ve found a few really good books this way. (Admittedly, very few, but still…)

    God bless you 1-star reviewers, your unsung curmudgeonliness guides us through trackless wastes in the dark of night!

  20. There were a number of the books in your list that I would not have given one star to but thought were not worthy Hugo recipients. But that is not to say I don’t enjoy other books by those authors or that I didn’t enjoy these books. It just means that I felt the novels did not achieve the level of writing I feel makes a Hugo novel. But thankfully for the rest of the world my opinion is not the only one that counts. That is not a bad thing.

  21. I learned this from the opposite direction. Figuring out where to spend my entertainment dollar through the use of written criticism. I learned that the critics in the local papers didn’t always like the things I like, that them telling me “That’s a great movie” or “That’s a terrible play” was useless. Tell me WHY you thought so. Particularly as I became familiar with critics, I learned how to read their work in ways that told me if I would like the movie/book/play/concert.

    You can’t please everyone, the trick is in knowing how to please some number of ones.

  22. Desire… to complain about one of those books that I hated… so strong…. RESISTING!


    The more a book is hyped and passed around, the more people read it (dur), upping the percentage of people reading it who never would have plucked it off a shelf otherwise and therefore may be left going, “Why did you recommend this to me…?”

    So yes. Nothing is universally loved. And it shouldn’t be! If there was one way to please everybody there would be no variety in writing. The trick is to be as good as possible at doing the thing you are aiming to do. If, through a combination of luck and perseverance, you find the audience best suited to your work, the next trick will be keeping their attention.

  23. Most books that I come across somehow were recommended by someone or by an author that I already read and enjoyed. I always look at the number of reviews – More 4 and 5 star reviews are good, but if there are no 1-star reviews I’m suspicious. Having a small number of terrible reviews validates the top reviews.

    On the same vein, I won’t eat in a restaurant that doesn’t have at least one 1 star review.

  24. I was interested to note that, although I did love most of those books and nominated several of them myself, I also had to agree with all of those one-star reviews: every one of them pointed to what I would agree is a weakness of the book. However, in most cases those weaknesses were not sufficient to make me dislike the book.

    My point here is that even Hugo-winning books have weaknesses, but those weaknesses are more or less important to different readers. (This is, I hope, a slightly different take from the original point, which is that even Hugo-winning books don’t work for everyone.)

  25. I also value one star reviews, the good ones give more information than the best five star reviews. I don’t look at reviews to see whether or not another person liked the book, I want the information that tells me whether I want the book. One excellent book I dislike is about a rich, whiny, self-indulgent teenager and it just makes me want to gulp rye whiskey. But I am more likely to buy a book that induces strong, well informed reviews whether negative or positive.

  26. I actually find one-star reviews some of the most helpful when I’m on the fence about a book. They tend to go into the problems that might annoy me, that people who liked the book more gloss over. As much as authors like five-star reviews, they tend to be kind of useless for readers to get a feel for the book.

  27. Pohl’s Law is either “No one is ever ready for anything” or

    “Nothing is so good that somebody, somewhere will not hate it”.

  28. I must say, I agree with several of these. These demonstrate why I normally read books from the library, and buy very few these days. No matter how much some like a book, it may be either treasure or trash to other readers. There is no reliable way to know whether or not I will like a book. Our host Mr Scalzi seems to be more consistently good than most, but even he wrote The God Engines.

    The Pohl’s law statement can also be “Nothing is so bad that somebody, somewhere will not love it and tell me I can’t live without reading it tomorrow.”

  29. I was ready to post something about people who make ‘those kinds’ of reviews and then I saw your post, David D. Levine. Very true. I tend to see these types of reviews as half truths in that they’re leaving a lot out of the actual picture, as it were. Almost clever in one way. On the other hand, some aspects of writing and storytelling may have so overpowering an effect on some people that it must turn an exploration into a witch hunt.

  30. What I found interesting is that some of the negative reviews contain a germ of truth (Frank Herbert could get a little clunky in his language) while others read like transmissions from Bizarro World.

  31. Avdi Grimm:

    I’ve gotten better at it but by the time I was publishing I was generally well inured, because I had been a professional critic for years beforehand, and I knew how the sausage got made. Plus, I had given written enough negative reviews at that point where I had internalized the idea that if I could dish it out, I damn well needed to be able to take it.

    To be honest at this point unless there are a statistically large number of negative reviews (and the negative reviews are the majority of the total reviews), I tend to think about the negative reviews as the usual noise regarding any book. I also think about the positive reviews the same way, albeit as a more fun version, because who doesn’t like to be told you’ve done a good job.

    Also and related, I’ve been a published novelist for a decade and have been fairly successful as one for all this time, so unless I’m seeking out one star reviews for posts like this, I don’t do nearly as much tea-leaf-reading when it comes to Amazon reviews and its book rankings as I did when I was newer in the field. Whether this is me growing up or just having less time to obsess is an open question, but I think maybe a bit of both.

    Finally, at the end of the day, I don’t put anything out there in the world I’m not happy with, and if I’m happy with it, I’m less concerned about whether other people like it less than I do. Because ego.

  32. I also find the negative reviews more helpful than the positive. Every book has flaws; the question for me is whether or not they’ll bother me. The negative reviews are also less likely to be faked (although that does depend on the book and the topic).

    After a certain point, though, you just have to take a leap of faith.

  33. I value having less-than-stellar reviews, even if I have to mentally hyperventilate a little to get over them, because it makes all the rest of the reviews of my book more useful. What I mean by that is there is less chance that a reader will assume that I’ve paid for a bunch of highly positive reviews, or that I opened sixteen fake accounts under other names to ensure great reviews. Call me a paranoid cynic (you wouldn’t be the first) but I’m always quite skeptical of books that have only 5-star glowing reviews.

    I’m also a little dismayed that the 1-star reviews appear to be written either very hastily (which I suppose is understandable), or by someone without the best writing skills. By that I mean, the universally have grammatical and/or spelling errors. Ah, well.

    The best reviews, by far, are when someone complains that one of my books kept them up until 3am. I regard that as the highest praise.

  34. Oh, the bitter irony! In the very sentence I complained about spelling and grammar errors, I myself made a spelling error (typo, anyway). Ugh! No going back and editing, either, a step I apparently require for everything I write.

  35. Reading one-star reviews of the books I love was a great consolation when I first started getting one-star reviews myself. For me, however, the surprise has been that even five-star reviews can hurt. That’s right, I am so talented at being hurt that there is no stick I can’t beat myself with. I have stopped reading reviews entirely, except for the very occasional one, vetted by my husband or a friend, who inisist, “No, really, this person GETS you.”

    The trick is not to take things personally. It’s so easily said, but you really have to be in a good, strong place to do it consistently.

  36. I didn’t actually mean for the thread to be gripe session that way.

    Scalzi, you didn’t know this was gong to happen whether you asked for it or not? :D

  37. Like David, I find a lot of value in one-star reviews of books I’ve enjoyed. A lot of the time, I’ll read them and think, “Yeah, that didn’t bother me, but I can see how it would be a problem for someone else.” It can give an interesting opposing perspective.

  38. Given that there is no International Standard for star ratings, I remain puzzled that anyone pays any mind at all to how many stars a work of art receives from an undifferentiated population of commenters in a low-barrier-to-entry venue. The comments themselves might point to something useful or interesting–though again I find a popularity-contest situation a nearly useless predictor of what I will enjoy or respect. A previously-calibrated reviewer, on the other hand, is a very useful bird-dog. I too learned to trust Roger Ebert’s taste in movies, and I know who to listen to in the SF/F world, and which of my acquaintances can be trusted with a music recommendation.

    (What I do find useful on Amazon is customer reports on practical products such as office supplies or even electronics. But even then, it’s the narrative rather than star-rating part that’s crucial.)

    A final BTW–For another example of strangely configured “reviews,” take a look at Ratemyprofessors.com and note the implicit and explicit values at play. (Hint: look for repetitions of “easy,” “boring,” and “fun.”)

  39. Russell Letson:

    “A previously-calibrated reviewer, on the other hand, is a very useful bird-dog.”

    When I was a film critic I had people tell me, “I go to the movies you don’t like,” and I said, “well, then I’m working for you.” Being able to calibrate off of a critic is indeed very useful.

  40. Onanistic! Hahahahahahaha! Thanks for the laugh of the day. I’ve had a few one-star reviews for the works I’ve translated, too. Not to mention the whole “I didn’t like it so it must be the translator’s fault” line, which shows up all the time, no matter how well I did the job. Like you, I’ve learned not to feel personally bashed by it. You do the best you can. Someone will hate it. That’s life.

  41. I tend to think of one star reviews as warning labels for certain books. If someone writes that there’s a lot of swearing I may pick it up because I like swearing in a book. If it has a triggers in it for me, then I thank the reviewer for the heads up.
    I’m not greatly interested in whether or not the reviewer liked it. That’s entirely personal and means nothing to me that they did or not. I’m only interested in what I might enjoy or dislike.
    I think authors should also keep in mind that reviews are not aimed at them. At least they aren’t supposed to be. The audience for reviews are other readers and I prefer reviews written in the “if you like…” style. Those type of reviews are far more helpful to me then ” this book sucks!”

  42. John, I love your writing. In addition, I recently listened to the Fuzzy Nation audio book and think it’s the best audio book I’ve purchased to date (the narrator was awesome!). I’ve been in marketing for twenty years and do my fair share of writing and editing. These thoughts are the sugar.

    Here’s the medicine.

    Stop trying to justify your Redshirts win–you don’t need to–it diminishes you. It was a delightful book. You won! You deserve it! Winning the Hugo for best novel means you won the most votes. Not every vote.

    Blog posts like this seem petty, and I feel a little dirty that you posted one-star reviews of great books and authors to prove an unnecessary point.

  43. I don’t like everything I read. Why should anyone else?

    I don’t typically choose a book *because* it won an award, but the book might get on my radar because of the award announcement. On the other hand, sometimes this backfires. I might cross a book off of my to-read list because it won a particular award that has an established history of honoring the types of books, subject matter, voices that just don’t appeal to me.

    Sometimes there’s something about a book – the voice, the characters, the subject matter – that I just don’t like regardless of the number of accolades the book has received. I’m sure that’s true for other people, too.

    I have received a handful of negative reviews on my book, but I find that I can mostly shrug and say hey, at least they gave my book a try.

  44. There should be an award for best worst review, as chosen by award-winning authors who are the targets. Honoring the emergent genre of longform Amazon criticism.

  45. I really understand where the reviewer of Spin is coming from, though I wouldn’t give it 1 star. Everything was futile and then unnecessary.

  46. Ken:

    “Stop trying to justify your Redshirts win–you don’t need to–it diminishes you.”

    Uh… yeah.

    Dude, I don’t know how to break it to you, but I’m not trying to justify the Redshirts win, nor do I need to. It’s a terrific book, it deserved to win, and I’m glad it won.

    Also, I’ve been doing the one star review thing for a while, now.

    Which is to say that you’re reading the impetus for this entirely wrong. I think you may be confusing my willingness to talk about and acknowledge that people don’t like the book, for various reasons, with being defensive about the win. It’s not the same thing.

    (Also, there’s the fact I’m delighted that the win annoys some folks, which I suspect may also come across as defensive. It’s not defensive, merely petty.)

    Your reaction to me talking about this stuff is exactly why we should be talking this stuff — acknowledging and discussing this is a good way to accept and deal with it and not be defensive about it, or have people assume you are defensive about it when you discuss it. The more you know that every writer and every book is up for criticism, legitimate and otherwise, the more you recognize it’s part of the territory, and can process it without freaking out about it.

  47. Agreed with those who say well-written and argued 1-star reviews are more useful than “I LOVE THIS BOOK/MOVIE/TELEVISION SHOW! 5 STARS!” I’m a big fan of the late film critic Pauline Kael, who could probably tell you more about a movie or the circumstances under which they were produced in a negative review than just about anyone. While I often didn’t agree with her, it was how she told you why she didn’t like a movie that not only told you where you may or may not disagree with her, but also got you thinking about why you did and sometimes even sounded an alarm for where a filmmaker might go wrong in the future.

  48. Indeed, it was Kael who used the memorable phrase “Bosley Crowther, a touchstone of a sort” to describe a usefully bad eminent critic, one who thought that Seven Days in May was far superior to Dr. Strangelove. I could count on Crowther’s pans to direct me to really interesting movies.

  49. Another lover of one-star reviews here – they can be useful, and sometimes hilarious.

    I think my favorites of all I’ve seen were a small cadre of people reviewing Tolkien, and complaining mightily about all the hoary, old fantasy cliches contained therein.

  50. Kevin Smith used to make the point that the movie you hated the most was someone’s favorite movie. I suppose that works for books, too.

  51. I’ve been having a good time reading the one-star reviews of books that I remember loving as a kid. Doesn’t make me think less of the books, and sometimes it’s interesting to get another perspective on something.

  52. One of the truisms of library science is “Every book its reader, and every reader his book.”(Raganathan) Books are definitely not one size fits all, and what one person considers shite, another person will treasure and reread again and again. This is also subject to change over a person’s life, with experience. I do a reread of my entire collection every few years in rotation, to see if my opinions of what I like have held up.

  53. This is why Ebert was such a great critic. You might agree or disagree with him, but you always knew where he stood and explained why, and thus his reviews worked, be they long-form, stars, or just the mighty thumb. His polar opposite nowadays, of course, is Armond White — at least for consistency, though NOT for coherence and taste.

    Amazon, etc. reviews are useful too. If they’re completely illiterate, that tells you a lot about the book no matter how many stars. If they complain that romances have too much sex and hard-boiled noir has too much cussing, here’s me clicking BUY NOW.* If alternating bad reviews claim it’s the most Commie thing since Marx and then the most corporatist thing since the Koch boys, I’m pretty sure it’s right down the middle. If everyone leaving a 5 star review!!1! is too young to drive and everyone leaving a 1 star eye-rolling review is old enough to be President, that’s useful info more than the average of all ratings.

    @David D. Levine has hit on another idea, perhaps even deeper than OGH. Those 1-star reviews do point out the flaws with each of those books (except Graveyard, huh?). Let it be known that of those quoted above, I agree with almost all of them, and my tastes lined up with the winners exactly ONCE and I have Hugo voting receipts to prove it. (2010, WTF???) So the Hugo nominees are a much more useful metric for me than the winners. And OGH does not give a single fuck that I personally ranked “Redshirts” third last year, though he’ll be happy to hear that NO AWARD came 4th, above the other two nominees which I didn’t think were win-worthy. Did I think it was the best? No. Do I think it deserved the Hugo? Sure. I did love it, esp. the codas. (Sniff.)

    And one-star reviews are just great fun to read with a slice of schadenfreude pie.

    *Honestly, people, that’s what Christian romance and cozy mysteries are for.

  54. @Lurkertype: I’m old enough to be the current President’s father and I’d rather watch American Idol than offer a 1-star “review”–though if you switched to The Bachelor, I’d post one and roll both eyes and throw in a nose-wrinkle. (In fact, only at the insistence of my editors do I even post a yearly recommended-reading list that is a subset of my already-reviewed titles.)

  55. For an author I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll usually look at a couple “voted most helpful” reviews (especially the 4-stars), a few 3-stars, and one 1-star. You can generally get a really good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of a book that way. Most of the 5-star reviews are actually completely unhelpful in deciding whether I’ll like the book. The 1-stars may be amateurish criticism, but the 5-stars are just plain uncritical.

  56. “The problem with opinions is that there is always someone with a different one.”
    —Jeremy Paxman, journalist

    “In literature, as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.”
    –André Maurois

  57. I haven’t read every Hugo (or Nebula, Stoker, Edgar, or British Fantasy) award winner. But I can say that I didn’t like every one of the ones that I have read.

    But more to the point, Amazon’s review system sets a specific expectation (1 star – I hate it, 5 stars I loved it). To that point, a bunch of 5 star reviews doesn’t tell me if it’s a well written book or of the sort I would enjoy. Neither do a bunch of 1 star reviews. Rather, it tells me that a bunch of people either unreservedly feel a particular emotional state about a book, or they are engaged in some kind of political thing over the book. And if the book is new and by Scalzi, it tells me that the Homophobic Bigot idiot and his flackey’s were the first to log into to Amazon that day.

  58. I wonder if a high school student will be inspired by John’s post. Go to amazon and find negative reviews of a book he is forced to read and write a book report and incorporate those reviews into his book report. I challenge any high school students who read this blog entry to fight the power.

    @Michael: They keep it simple. I find the 2,3,4 star reviews to be the best to read to get an idea if I’ll like a book. They tend to be more well thought out. I’ll usually glimpse at the 1 star reviews if there are a lot of them. When that happens its usually the same complaint. The last few years its been the ebook Nazis who are mad that an ebook version is too expensive or not out yet. Memory of Light got 100s of 1 star reviews. 90% were from people mad that the ebook version was not released at the same time the book was. Only about 10% were from people who just hated the book. That being said… John posted a picture of John Ringo’s latest book and people attacked it because they don’t like the authors politics. So it happens on all sides (I have never read one of Ringo’s books, for some reason Baen Book covers turn me off… yeah I’m one of the fiew who give them 1 star reviews most people love them. Nothing to do with Ringo).

    I generally will not try a new fantasy author without reading some reviews. I just can’t tell from the blurb on the book whether I’ll like it. I generally like fantasy where the author creates a new land and I generally like gritty fantasy, but the blurbs tend to all read the same. My favorite fantasy review site is elitistbookreviews.com Even they can lead me to an author I didn’t really like. This might come as a travesty, but Stephen Erickson didn’t do it for me… I’ll probably read his 2nd book eventually to see if I just missed something due to all the rave reviews.

  59. @drachefly: Spin is one of my favorite books. I didn’t like the rest of the series. I plan to read a lot more books by Wilson.

  60. About attacking a book because of an authors politics: Well, time to stop studying about 99.44% of history because of the guys wrote it. And the politics of some of those few hundred YAG mathematicians! I must stop balancing my check book or I’m a hater!
    I’ve a low opinion of people who misdirect their hate. Hate Ringo’s hairstyle?* Of no interest to me. Say that he sucks? Meh. But don’t spit on the the poor innocent little book. It didn’t do anything and worse? Attacking something that can’t even say “I’m just his brainchild! I can’t do anything!” is, uhm, _very_ /describable./
    *Does the guy have hair? And if not is bald a hairstyle? I know, probably real easy to check, but I don’t care except about whether bald is a hairstyle.

  61. About attacking a book because of an authors politics: Well, time to stop studying about 99.44% of history because of the guys wrote it.

    So how’s that review of Mein Kampf coming along? Okay, okay, Godwin’s law, etc; I apologize. But it’s probably a bit more complicated than “politics bad; hate books” and “politics bad; don’t care when reading books.” You know, like most things.

  62. The wit & wisdom of Steven Colbert:
    Opinions are like demo tapes
    I don’t want to hear yours.

  63. @DAVID
    Yeah, like most things. And?
    I trust that you 1) understood the connotations vis “99.44%” and 2) read all of my comment.
    If you didn’t please trust that I was waving “hello” with my palm toward me and muttering “Pick a finger.”
    Not @DAVID: Oh crud. I said “authors.” Should be “author’s.” Sane people don’t care.

  64. One of the things which strikes me about these excerpts is that many of them seem to confuse perception (“I didn’t like this”) with judgment (“This is bad”), and I wish to see more separation of the two. The same is true of positive reviews as well, of course — confusing “I liked this” with “This is good” — but somehow I find it more forgivable there. Unless my tastes are closely aligned with those of a random person on the Internet — and how do I tell? — a value judgment helps me choose a book not at all. It’s when the reviewer able to articulate something about why they liked or didn’t like a thing that the reviews become really useful.

    This is especially pronounced in the case of the “worse than the author’s other books” reviews. It’s impossible for me to tell, at least in these excerpts, as someone who hasn’t read the author’s other stuff, whether the books are genuinely worse (as much as there’s such a thing as an independent standard of quality), or if the author just did something different than their usual that the reader didn’t like as much. And I would like to support authors doing quite different things without needing to cultivate a small stable of pseudonyms.

  65. Shawn T: “Well, time to stop studying about 99.44% of history because of the guys wrote it.”

    You realize that this is a comparison that makes no sense whatsoever. The guys and women who write about history did not create it (at least not directly they didn’t.) Nor should they, one hopes, be putting their beliefs in their writing about it. (Also, I’m not aware of historians being particularly known for being a toxic group of people, at least more than any other group.) If I found out that a particular historian was a toxic person, that might be a different thing regarding buying that person’s books, but it seems highly unlikely that 99.44% of historians are. Nor did mathematicians make mathematics — they simply document their existence as they study mathematical relationships in the world. The people who do make history may in fact be toxic people and that may be why they are historic. But reading about them doesn’t mean endorsing them or giving them money.

    Whereas a fiction author creates a story and sells it. And if I buy it, I am giving that person money, money which he or she may then turn around and use to hurt other people with. So if I decide I’m not doing that because I don’t like it, that’s entirely my business. You’re welcome to judge that decision if I make it public and I to judge you as possibly callous for caring more about one story out of millions of stories than people who are actually getting hurt in the real world. But a fiction book for sale is not separate from the author, and further, whatever my politics, I have the right to not like or like any book and any author on any grounds that I please, and certainly firmly have the right not to buy or read any book on whatever grounds seem important to me.

    Once authors get that, bad reviews are a piece of cake. And the reality is that A) most people don’t read any book reviews, good or bad; and B) people tend to discount negative reactions of books far more than they do positive ones. Which is why it really doesn’t matter if people rant don’t buy this book because I think the author is a jerk. But in any case, this has nothing to do with history or mathematics. What it does have to do with is the relationship between artists and the art they make, some of which is very and deliberately political; a relationship that has been studied for a long time, along with the relationship of the author, his art and his time period culture, by historians and literature scholars.

  66. Oh, Kat Goodwin.
    Yes, I do realize that “this is a comparison that makes no sense whatsoever.”
    Please go to sleep as I should, re read what I said and swear at me when when I’m awake.
    please and OK?
    Kk please.

  67. Does the novel speak to you at the time you are reading it? … I loved Hermann Hesse as a young man but a bit busy to be indulging my inner demons these days, mores the pity. … Does the piece push buttons? A long list there but to pick one of my sillier ones, I can’t abide aliens having alien names. Don’t make me stumble over a long list of consonants. Is this fair? Noooo, of course not but it makes a difference in how I enjoy the story. How about complexity? MRAL mention Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. There’s a story that is technically brilliant but astonishingly painful to read. Sooo not going there again. The Windup Girl was another in this category… in fact, the review quoted by John was exactly in line with my opinion of the story. Brilliant scenery; characters you neither cared for nor hated.

    Redshirts was evil genius in that I found myself thinking the author was losing his touch until I reached the Codas and then had to jump back to the beginning to fully absorb just how fun it was. Had I not stuck it out, I may well have thought of it in terms of 1-2 stars but now think of it as a well done, though a decidedly underhandedly sneaky style of story-telling.

  68. I tend to pay attention only to reviews from people like myself, which critics rarely are. Though, for that matter, the public rarely is, either.

    What I want from entertainment and what critics want are very often entirely different. I appreciate pro critics’ perspective on whether a work was well-executed on a technical level, but beyond that, it’s all a matter of taste, and mine rarely dovetails with theirs. Things that the Right People tell me are stunning works of brilliance I often find to be little more than wankery from some middle-aged dude with too much money and too little humility. (Most of Alexander Payne’s movies, for instance. Can’t STAND them, and actually get angry when people tell me how great they are.) Navel-gazing ruminations on the human condition that only encompass the condition of someone with an assload of privilege make me want to take a vegetable peeler to my own skin. Conversely, the slumming-with-the-underclass flavor of tragedy porn that rich people like to see in their arthouse movies and literary fiction also makes me angry. I really, really dislike the pain of the oppressed being milked for “art” and awards that never actually trickle down to benefit the oppressed themselves.

    However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that reviews from the public work for me, either. I’m not into the shallow Id-tickling stuff that passes for most non-geek entertainment (plus I definitely don’t identify with the gender-role mummery and het-romance tropes that infest such things.) So, I’m not likely to care much that Dudebro2000 says Adam Sandler is a genius. I like escapism as much as the next nerd, but Adam Sandler is the type of person I’m trying to escape, so, yeah.

    Without those two common guides, what I’m left with is what’s worked for me so far: Word of mouth from people whose tastes I already know I share, and repeat business for creators whose works I’ve enjoyed in the past. This often means I never see/read/hear the stuff that “everyone” is talking about or that’s racked up tons of shiny shelf jewelry, but I don’t feel any great loss at that. Every now and again, I’ll bite the bullet and see something I’m “supposed” to like, and I’m usually disappointed, so I’m happy to stick with the stuff I know I’ll enjoy. This doesn’t at all mean I think my taste is superior to that of anyone else, objectively speaking. But subjectively? Yeah, it is. It’s my time, so I defer to my taste. Life is too short to waste any of it on stuff I know I won’t like just because someone else thinks I should tick off a box on a checklist somewhere.

  69. Like several of the other commenters, I find the 1-star reviews useful, and no always in making me avoid a book. Sometimes I’ll read the 1-star review and think that whatever it is that annoyed that reviewer so much sounds awesome to me, and go ahead and get the book.

    I read a lot of short ebooks, and the 1 star reviews that amuse me most on those are the ones that complain the book was too short. It is usually clearly indicated in the blurb that it is a SHORT ebook, and Amazon at least lists the number of page equivalents, so it always seems to me that those unhappy people could have seen their disappointment coming.

  70. Before my book came out, friends told me not to read reviews. For a first time author, that’s a lot like telling the rain not to fall.

    I read them, positive and negative. People tweeted review links directly to me, copied and pasted their reviews into email and sent them off. Even my agent, bless her heart, shoved reviews at me.

    I learned a few things from this experience.

    a. The more negative the review, the more likely the reviewer was to put it where I couldn’t miss it. Since these were total strangers, that baffles me.

    b. What one reviewer praises to the stars is the exact same thing another reviewer finds boring and/or repulsive.

    c. No matter how much research you do, or how much documentation you have, reviewers will decide you’re wrong about…something, maybe a hat…and the entire book, and you as a writer, become worthless trash.

    d. Pretty early on I twigged to the fact that the harshest, most negative reviews, reviews that flat out HATED the book, had almost nothing to do with what I’d actually written. Thwarted expectations and preconceived notions about what the book SHOULD BE are powerful stuff.

    Again, these were strangers, but their reviews read as if I’d personally offended them. Maybe I did.

    The unwritten rule is that writers aren’t supposed to engage with or challenge reviewers, and this comment is as close as I’ve come. I thought about posting quotes from some of my one star reviews, but that feels like tempting fate, especially since no other writers have done so. That says a lot to me.

    Maybe when I’m famous.

  71. I feel the need to point out that Vernor Vinge’s book is called “Rainbows End”, not “Rainbow’s End”.

    That is all.

  72. Mentioning, as I often do around such subjects: in my experience there’s a ratio between 5-star and 1-star — it’s about 4:1 or so — that is optimal for sales, of my books, anyway. Apparently I can’t really please any sizable number of people without really cheesing off some other (smaller) number, or if you like, to delight four people I must infuriate one.

    As long as I seem to be infuriating people that I would rather have not like me, it’s fun. But, alas, some of the p.o’d are people who are otherwise fans (and for that matter, I’ve gotten a lot of 5’s from people saying “this is the only Barnes book I can stand.”)

    Depending on what you are trying to do and how you are trying to do it, that Sufi proverb about “you can only spend what is in your purse” applies to a lot of artists; you set out the broccoli-havarti rolls, and some people swarm to your stall and some people run away holding their noses, and maybe you’d have done better with cinnamon-raisin, but if you had broccoli and havarti on hand, and you didn’t have cinnamon or raisins (or can’t stand them yourself), well, you bake your best and you sell what you’ve got.

  73. For those who were wondering how to evaluate the relative number of reviews, xkcd has explained it well:


    And I agree with John Samuel; this is merely the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law. Someone out there has tastes that make your crap their main meal; just think of them as the dung beetles of the soul and move on…

  74. @John Barnes: Do people really hate it or is it more your style doesn’t work for them ( I have read a couple of your books and like them). I think alot of it comes down to taste. I think the best reviews some down to people explaining why they like it or dislike it in a way that someone else can get an idea of whether the style of this book is for them along with the quality.

    For example there are quite a view SFWA writers that use a large number of viewpoint characters to give the reader a bigger picture of what is going on. I like this approach. So the style works for me. However, there is also a quality element. Some do a better job than others. When I see a review that says ‘too many characters’, this tells me the person does not like this style of book and prefers books that focus more on less characters and develops them more. What I find funny is they are unable to separate their personal taste from the quality of the book.

    I don’t like westerns. I just don’t care about whether yet another cowboy shoots yet another villain. Doesn’t matter how well written the book is. So my writing a review of something where I don’t like the style wouldn’t be very helpful to others.

    There are some good review sites that do a good job separating style from quality and explaining both.

  75. If you didn’t please trust that I was waving “hello” with my palm toward me and muttering “Pick a finger.”

    I did understand your point, I was just pointing out that things are more complicated, enough that it’s not really a useful point.

    But can I choose pinky for my finger?

  76. Oh man, I love that Gaiman review. Not as much as I loved the book itself but still…

    I’d really like to have a Tshirt with the cover of the GB in front and that review in full on the back.

  77. I want to add that I think the posts about writing get very interesting when other authors post. Some of the authors I know, but some I don’t. Would be nice if it was possible for this site to add an ‘author’ or ‘editor’ tag underneath their names. Not sure if this is possible. I think opinions by people in the business about writing issues is very interesting. Also, I have found some authors books by reading their responses to interesting blog posts (such as Laura Resnick on Jim Hines site). Might be useful to them.

    I’d also like to add, that it would be interesting if authors who have different political opinions that many people on this site could post their opinions about writing without getting attacked. I’d be interested in what John Ringo and others had to say about the business of writing. This is totally separate from their political views. It would make for a more lively conversation.

  78. I agree that’s an excellent point that David made upthread about the 1 star reviews (I wonder if you also picked some better quality ones, that had been written by someone with a grasp of the english language), because the review of “Windup Girl” matches my impression; of the book. I ultimately didn’t finish it because I didn’t feel like reading what seemed to be turning into something of a tragedy, and the characters weren’t as involving as I would have liked. Mind you I wouldn’t have given it just 1 star.

  79. When I buy something electrical or mechanical online, I check review sites, places like consumer report, blogs that talk about those sorts of widgets (a camera blog if I’m looking at a camera), and then I look at the 1 star ratings on amazon and such. If there are consistent specific complaints coming through the 1 star reviews (not “this sucks” but “autofocus won’t work”), then I look into review sites to see if the same problem is mentioned. Review sites sometimes say “this is great, that is great, I love this feature, and yeah, theres a problem with the autofocus, but this is great, and that is great too.” If you’re a camera review site and give Canon a shitty review, do you think Canon is going to advertise on your site much or send you free merchandise for future reviews?

    Generally speaking of reviews, I find that XKCD’s “TornadoGuard” pretty much captures the problem with gushing reviews missing the fucking point.

    I’ve found that book reviews have similar problems. People gush about a book because it was the first time they’d read a book about a “first contact with aliens” story, and it was an awesome new idea for them.

    As for politics of the book or writer versus reviews, I think its impossible on some level to separate the two.

    Heinlein said “Starship Troopers” was a pro-nuke pro-war polemic. It also mined the “life is hard” worldview with the “aint no such thing as a free lunch” nonsense. If you agree with either of those political views in the book, then you’ve got a good chance of liking the book and giving it a many-star review. I think both those political views are childish, and not surprisingly, I hated the book.

    “Ender’s Game” lets the reader identify with a morally pure protagonist who is beaten, lied to, and morally betrayed, by pretty much every adult who interacted with him. It then lets the reader ride along as the protagonist commits genocide while still remaining morally pure. It appeals to the “kill them all, let god sort them out” mentality, and it appeals to the “parents just don’t understand” meme. If the reader identifies with either of these, they have a better chance of giving good reviews. I thought bouth these views were immature and hated the book.

    This idea of separating politics from reviews, in my opinion, is silly. Politics and worldview filters are always embedded in the story in some form or another. And people generally like stories that fit their politics and worldview.

    So, when I read one-star reviews of a book, I’m usually looking for people reporting on the politics and worldview fo the book. I’d read enough reviews and critiques of “Starship Troopers” to get that it was a super-silly pro-war propaganda piece. So, I did some digging and found that Heinlein had admitted that he wrote the book in response to the nuclear disarmament movement gaining momentum at the time. So the one-star reviews pointed to political problems, and further research uncovered there was probably some truth to the thing the one-star reviews wrere pointing to. So I never read the book. When I’d get into conversations with people who LOVED “Starship Troopers” and told them why I didn’t read it, they’d invariably say that the only way I could say something bad about the book is if I read it.

    Apparently these same people would tell me that I can’t have a bad opinion about, say, the Pinto based on nothing but bad reviews and online research. No, according to these people, I have to buy the pinto, and then I can only complain about the pinto if it blows up on me.

    So, I bought the damn book, and read it. Twice. And, yes, in fact, the one-star reviews talking about fascism and pro-war propaganda were in fact true.

    The thing with politics is that for a lot of people, politics is what other people have. If someone liked Starship Troopers, they probably didn’t see its political message as political. They probably saw it as “just the way it is.”

    When I read book reviews, I’m looking for looking for political issues and worldview isses and Mary Sue issues and such that 5 star review people don’t generally report on. To them, they like it because the book fits their worldview and so they see it as representing the world just the way it is. For people with counter worldviews, they see the book forwarding what is see nonsense, and they’re more likely to point to the particular flavor of nonsense.

    One star reviews for books can be very very useful if they can report somethingthat the 5 star reviewers can’t even see..

  80. When I was in high school I took a class called “The Novel” in which we read I think 4 or 5 different books, mostly contemporary. One of them, the second one I believe, I hated. HATED. I came in to class and ranted at my teacher (who was a good sport) about how much I hated it and how I couldn’t bear to read another page. Hey, I was 16. He did me an incredible favor, he said I didn’t have to read the rest of the book if I could write a one page essay on why I hated it. However, I couldn’t just write one page of “I hate this, this is stupid.” The essay must say what it was I didn’t like – was it the writing style, the characters, the plot, all of these? And why I didn’t like them. Triumphant I went home that evening to write the paper. Only then realizing that I had to actually read the book – the whole book – to explain what I didn’t like.

    It really colored how I wrote and still write reviews for anything anywhere – be it online or an email to a friend. And it colors how I read online reviews. I pretty much dismiss the one stars, unless they seem well thought out. I also pretty much dismiss the 5 stars which also tend to run to “I loved this soooo much!” and little else.

    Now to learn to dismiss the one (and yes, probably the five) star reviews of my own stuff….

  81. One of the feeds I follow with glee is called “Least Helpful”, a collection of insanely stupid reviews — most bad, some good. The one-star review of “The Graveyard Book” definitely belongs there.

    The other reviews: I note a common trend of “I didn’t enjoy this book but I forced myself to finish it because REASONS.” I thank my (one) stars for Stephen R. Donaldson and Thomas Covenant: reading that in grad school finally taught me that life is too short to spend any part of it finishing books that are a loathsome experience.

    I’ve gained some fine and useful insight from bad reviews, especially a movie critic in Salt Lake City, whose narrow-minded, vicious reviews directed me towards many very fine works during my student days.

  82. Heinlein said “Starship Troopers” was a pro-nuke pro-war polemic.

    With all due respect, Heinlein never said any such thing. Indeed, he suggested almost the exact opposite.

  83. From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starship_Troopers

    According to Heinlein, his desire to write Starship Troopers was sparked by the publication of a newspaper advertisement placed by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy on April 5, 1958 calling for a unilateral suspension of nuclear weapon testing by the United States. In response, Robert and Virginia Heinlein created the small “Patrick Henry League” in an attempt to create support for the U.S. nuclear testing program.

    That’s pro-nuke.


    In 1961, as Guest of Honor at the Nineteenth World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, Heinlein would declare that with a certainty of 90% the future held just three possibilities: Russia would destroy us in a war; we would collapse internally and surrender to the Russians; or we and Russia would destroy each other, and China would be the victor. Whichever was the case, one-third of us would die. Heinlein advised his audience to build fallout shelters, stock unregistered weapons, and die gloriously.

    Any time someone talks of “dying gloriously”, that’s pro-war. War isn’t glorious.

  84. What do you guys think are some of the better SF/F review sites? I like review sites that explain their rationale for liking or disliking a book, keep it short, and I can tell from the review whether the book is of a style or type that I might like. My favorite is elitistbookreviews.com

    Can anyone recommend any others?

  85. Shawn:

    re read what I said and swear at me when when I’m awake.

    I was mostly just using your words as a jumping off point. :)

    “Depending on what you are trying to do and how you are trying to do it, that Sufi proverb about “you can only spend what is in your purse” applies to a lot of artists; you set out the broccoli-havarti rolls, and some people swarm to your stall and some people run away holding their noses, and maybe you’d have done better with cinnamon-raisin, but if you had broccoli and havarti on hand, and you didn’t have cinnamon or raisins (or can’t stand them yourself), well, you bake your best and you sell what you’ve got.” — John Barnes

    Now that’s a good comparison. Pay attention, Shawn.

    Jaime Lee Moyer:

    b. What one reviewer praises to the stars is the exact same thing another reviewer finds boring and/or repulsive.

    Welcome to the show, Jaime Lee!

  86. A ‘good book’ is the one I want/need to read when I’m ready to read it … The most helpful reviews are the ones that say ‘if you liked x, you might also like y’. So when looking for a new-to-me author, I tend to read across the different stars to see what type of mind/world these authors create.

    I’ve hated some of the most exalted novels (SF and lit-fic) and enjoyed some of the ‘worst’ (as per critics’ reviews). Much depends on my mood at the time. BTW, I read cover-to-cover 99% of the time – including forewords, afterwords, notes, etc. – and the books that I’m unable to read/finish the first time around, I usually try to again. For example, it took me about 5-6 starts before I could get past page 32 of LOTR. Then, for the next 10 years (at least), LOTR became my summer vacation/break must-read book.

    LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness – excellent book, glad I read it — but I will never read it again. Which is perfectly fine since LeGuin ” … generalizes the purpose of novels by saying that good novels are meant to change the reader in an indescribable way after they have completed reading the book.” Her book did that – in just one read – end of story.

  87. Greg, being against unilateral disarmament is not being “pro-nuke”. And saying that if there is a war, then you should do your utmost to make certain that your country survives (what Heinlein means by “die gloriously”) is not being “pro war”.

  88. Kat Goodwin
    Throw in some pickled jalapenos* and that broc/havarti roll sounds pretty good, but point taken. They are spitting on the book because the author is too far away.

    Thucydides. I just googled him, he was a general, so probably owned slaves. A bit pointless to chastise him for that now, but I wouldn’t want his writing judged by that. :) No surprises here, but I’m keeping my opinion.
    *Broccoli mac’n cheese with olives and beef. Well now, I’m gunna hafta get me some fresh olives and brine them with jalapenos. Might be better than hot ‘shrooms.

  89. JohnD: Greg, being against unilateral disarmament is not being “pro-nuke”.

    I said this earlier:

    If someone liked Starship Troopers, they probably didn’t see its political message as political. They probably saw it as “just the way it is.”

    Which seems to be exactly what you’re doing.

    This is the perfect example of why all books get some one-star reviews. Because not every book can appeal to everyone’s politics and worldview and philosophy. Even if the characters are amazingly well rounded, even if the plot is sufficiently developed and interesting, even if every other aspect of a book is perfect, every story has some political/wolrdview/philosophy payload with it, and if you don’t agree with the political payload of the story, it will smack you across the face as unbelievable and unrealistic and result in a one-star review, and if you DO agre with the political payload, you won’t see it as payload, but as an honest report of how the universe really worlks, and you’ll only judge the book on other merits. and if they’re good, you’lll give it a high review.

    Starship Troopers has interesting characters, has an interesting plot, but comes with a military fantasy payload that says “if you only let people who’ve served in the military the right to vote and serve in office, you’ll end up with a world where ‘personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb.’ .” If you don’t subscribe to that wolrdview, then reading it presented as undeniable truth is insulting. If you subscribe to that view, then you’ll read right through it without so much as a speed bump.

    Reviews for ST generally break down to (1) love it, agreed with or wasn’t against the political payload, therefore could enjoy the charactes and plot as they were, or (2) hate it, disagreed with the political payload, and therefore the characters and plot were irrelevant.

    A similar example is “Atlas Shrugged” reviews. People who are generally aligned with libertarian politics love the book. People who hate libertarian politics hate the book. And people are are more politically indifferent may ignore the politics and judge it based on other characteristics. Good narrative or overly long monologues, or whatever.

    You won’t see a book get all 5 star reviews as long as there are vastly different political, worldview, philosophical views among the readers.

  90. @Greg: This is not about ST or Heinlein in particular but about the model of reading, enjoying, and comprehending behind the proposition that “if you don’t agree with the political payload of the story, it will smack you across the face as unbelievable and unrealistic and result in a one-star review.” I’m an old lefty with a long-time fascination with and enjoyment of Heinlein. I read, enjoyed, and (I think) understood it, and did not agree with it when if first appeared in paperback. I re-read it years later with pretty much the same reaction. I’m a long-time fan of anything-but-lefty Larry Niven. I’ve read libertarians, Marxists, and theists with interest and (I am not shy to say) comprehension. I am none of those things, though I have learned valuable ways of thinking about the world from them. What the writers I follow have in common is that they write well (or at least adequately, with a pretty high standard of what’s adequate) and they articulate whatever worldview or value-set they possess in ways that mark them as not-nitwits or -nutjobs. One tell in your post is the word “payload.” For an alternate model of the operation of a text, I recommend Damon Knight’s “An Annotated “Masks”” in Those Who Can.

  91. So, wait. This thread is about JS’s need to justify the Hugo for “Redshirts” against the criticism that Connie Willis only wins in weak years due to Heinlein’s militant belief that we were all going to be nuked by the now non-existent Soviet Union?

    I gave “Redshirts” 3 stars. Does that make me for justification, for Connie Willis, or am I an unreconstructed Trotskyite due to the mediocre rating for something with “red” in the title?

  92. This thread is about JS’s need to justify the Hugo for “Redshirts” against the criticism that Connie Willis only wins in weak years due to Heinlein’s militant belief that we were all going to be nuked by the now non-existent Soviet Union?

    Ladies and gentleman, your thread winnah!

  93. I did the same exact thing with Jonathan Strange. My wife still makes fun of me for it. It took me damn near four months to make it within 99 pages of the end, I was finally in the double digits left, when I said screw it.

  94. DocR, BW – sorry; I wasn’t aware of that.

    Greg, it appears to me that you are conflating your political message with what the author wrote. Yes, Heinlein was against unilateral disarmament because he felt that it was the equivalent of giving in to a country that had vowed to bury us. Time has shown that Heinlein’s course was at least tenable; as proof of that, he was wrong (thus far) about the war with Russia.

    And if you truly believe that “every story has some political/wolrdview/philosophy payload with it”, then please tell me what the “payload” is for Aesop’s “The ass’s brains”.

    As for your derogatory remarks on the supposed message of Starship Troopers (“if you only let people who’ve served in the military the right to vote and serve in office, you’ll end up with a world where ‘personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb.’ .”), you have obviously failed to see what was plainly before you: the country that Heinlein referenced was the USA with one minor difference – instead of people losing their right to vote if they refused to be drafted (which was the situation in the 1950s), they gained the right to vote if they volunteered. And the statements that he made were true; at that time in America, personal freedom was the highest in history, there were relatively few laws (and those were mostly prohibitive and not compulsive), living standards were at an all-time high, and crime was relatively low. And the reason for that was (and still is) due in no small part to America’s military.

  95. @Guess: if you want to hear John Ringo on writing, go to Dragon*Con. He’s on writing panels there almost every year, and is usually hilarious as well as informative.

  96. Shawn:

    They are spitting on the book because the author is too far away.

    Not necessarily. First of all, they may not be spitting on the book at all. That’s a judgement call you’re making based on your world view. And second, knowing material about an author — old and dead or living and present — can effect how we view their works. The fact that Thucydides owned slaves, even though at the time that was common, can effect how what he wrote or what he did is seen by others. They regard the writing and a story in a different light from what they know and from what their own reactions, world views and beliefs are. That is a natural part of the process of art — how we see a work of art over time changes.

    This process also happens with regards to fictional characters — character reaction, motivation and decision making. If you know why a character does something, it effects your view of character, of the action. If a man shoots another man in a story, it can be seen as murder. If you know that the shooter did it because the man was trying to inject him with a syringe full of poison, it changes your view of the shooter possibly. Or possibly not.

    Writers write about people completely unlike themselves with views they don’t hold. And they also may be writing about views that they hold, may be deliberately making the story very political or ideological. Or they may not be. Each writer is part of his or her time period, culture and personal background — these all play a part and insisting that everyone separate the author from his or her time period and frame of reference is not practical, nor necessarily logical. It is also an argument that has been used to try to dismiss the work of authors in repressed groups, on the grounds that the world in which the author has to live has no supposed relevance to what the author wrote.

    At the same time, an author, even a very ideological author, may have made various plot, dialog and character choices not out of an ideological view but simply as a logistical method of moving things along. These are all things that lead to discussions about what an author meant or didn’t mean, the cultural background of the book, the reactions readers have and the subtexts they find for themselves, based on their world views in the books, the reactions of potential readers to the book’s existence, discussions about language, themes and the value of car chases. That’s how fiction works. That’s what art is — not an object bound in stone but an object seen in millions of different views and analyses and personal emotional reactions. We will not value all those different views the same, but the different views will exist — we cannot kill them off and insist ours is the only or the definitive, now and always, because factually that’s impossible to do.

    So an author cannot control the myriad different views that will be held of the book or his or her perceived views from the book or elsewhere and must let all reviews go. As Scalzi pointed out once, you cannot control how other people think of you, and you certainly can’t control their views of art. You can condemn it — with a one star review no less — and they can condemn you right back for your views.

  97. @dragoness: I have actually never been to a con. I live near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. I think there is one up near Baltimore each spring. I might go this year. Ill have to think about it. I’d have to leave at like 5:30 AM to beat the traffic for the Friday part of it, but saturday, sunday won’t be that bad.

  98. Shawn: About attacking a book because of an authors politics: Well, time to stop studying about 99.44% of history

    Politics is nothing more than how a person thinks people should behave in response to how that person thinks the world operates. Ayn Rand thought the world operated based in part on the communists seizing her father’s property and business when she was young. So she decided that the way people should behave is to NOT do anything even remotely collectivist.

    Sometimes the politics isn’t intentional like “I must tell the people”. Sometimes its just the author writing the characters doing things based on how the author thinks the world works, and as a result, the politics of the author come through the story. If the characters go to war against pure evil, if the characters themselves never stray from righteousness while at war, if the characters never suffer during the war, if the characters live happily ever after after the war, then that reveals something about how the author thinks war works.

    The thing about fiction is that a lot of it involves war because war is an easy way to give tension to a story. Like killing a parent in a disney movie is a good way to make kids feel sorry for the young charcters in the story.

    Sometimes its more simple stuff like how good versus bad the characters operate or whether the characters are more like a film-noir and everyone is some shade of grey. That shows something of how the author thinks the world works.

    Sometimes the “external” politics of the author are blatantly injected into the story. Orson Scott Card and Ender’s Game. Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. Heinlein in Starship Troopers. Sometimes its injected but more as a secondary component. Tolkein fought in the trenches of WW1, probably had some level of PTSD, and that shows up in Lord of the Rings.

    Sometimes it shows up as gender stuff. Some authors have the female characters there for fluff, or as a prize for the male hero to win at the end, and nothing more. Some have well rounded characters of all genders and orientations. And some go the other way have well rounded women characters and all the men are either assholes or cardboard. All of which reveals something about how the author thinks the world operates, or at the very least, could operate.

    Fiction, and science fiction especially, has to stay inside some level of believability for the reader to stay with it. Some scifi ends up mangling future technology so badly that some readers simply cant get past how silly it is. The way the reader views how the world works conflicts with how the author presented it, and the reader stops suspending disbelief, starts disbelieving what they’re reading, and puts it down. It can be something like a warp drive that operates in a way that makes no sense other than the author used it to move the plot. Or it could be something like genders are represetned in sexist ways. Or it could be something like how war “works” in the story or Ayn Randian thiings like all forms of people working together via a government must be evil.

    It all comes down to how the author thinks people behave because of what the author believes as to how the world operates.

    Most of the stories that get to the level of getting commercially published have decent prose, the words are structured well, the grammar is correct, there are some semblance of character development, and there is some semblance of plot. Which means that the thing that is left to throw the reader out of a story is unbelievability.

    I don’t like the Horror genre because the characters inevitably act like morons while the big bad picks them off over time. It is unbelievable to me. I think people would behave much diferently in that kind of situation given how I think the world and people work. And how you think people should behave based on how you think the world operates is a form of your own politics.

  99. I wouldn’t say it’s inevitable that the characters act like morons in horror. I can’t think of anyone acting uncharacteristically foolishly in Blindsight, for instance. But it’s true that I don’t read much horror, as I don’t care for getting nightmares. (Which is why I won’t be reading Lock In, because SHUDDER! I’m sure others will be more than happy to make up for my lack of sale, though.)

  100. @cally: you already gave John his first negative review of Locked In before it came out. He is hitting the ground running.

    This is a very good and interesting discussion.

  101. That’s not a negative review. That’s an I’m-afraid-it’d-give-me-nightmares because of how well written it is likely to be, and how horrific the premise is. If it were a negative review I’d a) have had to have read it, and b) have had to have said bad things about it. “I avoid that genre” is not a bad review.

  102. Cally: I wouldn’t say it’s inevitable that the characters act like morons in horror.

    inevitable may have been too strong a word. perhaps “high probability”.

    The really bad horror behavior has shown up in a couple of tropes worthy of mocking. “There’s a noise in the basement, lets send one person down by himself to investigate so he can get taken out by the big evil.” The “run, run, run, baddy slowly gaining, run, run, run, baddy is even closer yet character is going to run, run, run some more, and perhaps at the last moment trip to seal his doom”. Not all horror suffers these really bad tropes *inevitably*. But it seems that quite a few of them do suffer similar problems.

    I don’t care for getting nightmares

    I seem to have nightmares quite often even without watching horror, so that doesn’t really stop me from watching a good horror movie. I just watched “Alien” a couple weeks ago, and I’d qualify it as horror/sf. The only thing that throws me out of that movie is the 80’s rendition of future machine intelligence: huge banks of unlabeld, multicolor lights blinking for inexplicable reasons. Kind of gives me a chuckle.

    They do send the captain down in the “basement” (the ductwork) by himself. But it kind of made sense because he wanted the crew up top controlling the doors and stuff. And he does end up getting killed. So, kind of has the basement trope going on.

  103. Kat Goodwin: ?
    >>They are spitting on the book because the author is too far away.
    >they may not be spitting on the book at all. That’s a judgement call you’re making based on your world view.
    That’s my opinion, not my worldview. My world view is more than something like “Ain’t no new human action because we haven’t changed much in the past few hundred thousand years.” Other points I saw while skimming what I’m answering are valid, and I did not notice anything about [judging an author by the book is stupid], and perhaps I’m belaboring my point of, so I’ll shut up.

    Greg: “Politics is nothing more than how a person thinks people should behave in response to how that person thinks the world operates”
    I stopped reading at that. Politics is trying to get people to do what you want them to, often in exchange for your doing something they want you to.

  104. Politics is how humans interact with each other. We don’t like to call it politics when it’s at an intimate level, but every situation with more than one human being involved includes politics.

    Politicians say that politics is the art of the possible.

    Political scientists define politics as the authoritative allocation of scarce resources.

  105. @MR Xopher Halftongue
    Seriously? “Political scientists” do? Wow.
    “Politics is how humans interact with each other”
    Yes, that.

  106. “the authoritative allocation of scarce resources” is called “rationing.”
    I /do/ care about whether or not the bureaucracy that the UK set up in WWII is still functioning this century, and I’ve heard that it was going strong in about 1995. Or was that ’85. Mehh.
    I should say why.

  107. Heh. I think it’s funny that I love six of these books and either consider them very award-worthy or voted for them myself, I haven’t read four of the books, and I spot-on agree with the review of the other book.

    People like different things, and the wider audience a book reaches, the more likely it is that there will be a significant number of one-star reviews.

  108. I do wish more people would understand the difference between “it’s good” and “I liked it”, and would use the appropriate rating on the appropriate forum. For example, The Godfather is, in my opinion, objectively a great movie, but not my cup of tea. On IMDB, I’d give it eight or more stars (out of ten). On Netflix, I gave it two (out of five).

    Netflix and Amazon are places where you should assign stars based on I liked/didn’t like it, rather than it’s good/not good, because that makes the “if you liked this, you might also like this” system work better. People who rate things on objective standards, rather than the subjective “I liked/didn’t like it” are messing up the system on Amazon/Netflix just as much as people who think their opinions are objective fact mess up ratings elsewhere.

    So, authors, if I rate your book with five stars or one star on Amazon, that doesn’t mean that I think it was great/terrible. That means I loved/hated it for personal reasons.

    And since this is Scalzi’s blog, I’ll say that I think I actually liked Redshirts more than perhaps it deserved objectively–it’s very much to my tastes, and I might rank it higher on Amazon than on ISFDB (if ISFDB did ratings)–but I think codas were indeed what pushed it into Hugo-worthy territory.

  109. I suggest to call “every great book has got at least one 1 star review” the “Rule of Scalzi” and give the nastiest of them each year a prize, maybe “Scalzis Ruler”. I wish I would be that easy with criticism on my writing as John is (I am a scientist and have to write papers occasionally)…

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