Let's Talk: Are Book Bloggers Too Critical?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Every now and again, there's an issue that comes up in the blogosphere either to me or some of my blog friends that gets me thinking, and I wanted to create an open forum of discussion for these issues. So, while this isn't a regular feature here, I wanted to open up this topic/debate for discussion to see what you all think about it.

Question: Do you think that reviewing so many books makes us too critical, or too biased to be fully objective when reviewing?

I've noticed lately that it's harder and harder for me to give five star reviews, and actually a few readers of my blog commented on my lack of five star reviews, asking why I give so few. It's not that I'm not reading good books. Trust me, I am. Here's the thing though...when I first started reviewing, I didn't really review based on the same principles that I do now. I reviewed purely on enjoyment and pacing, pretty much. Did I know what I was doing? Heck no! Do I know what I'm doing now? I like to think I'm being objective, though, as always, my reviews remain my personal opinions. I am a lot more critical now though because having read and reviewed so much, I need to separate my reads into the good, the bad and the ugly.

So, yes, I'm probably more critical these days when I review because I've seen a much broader range of writing - both good and bad. Do I think I'm too critical though? I really don't, though some might disagree. I think there is a fine line between critical and hypercritical though. I want the fundamentals of the story to shine. The extras (the excellent prose, the imagery, etc.) are the bits that make a book stand apart for me. For example - look at Raw Blue. Contemporary fiction was never my thing until this book. That gives me a five-star gauge for a book. Take the start of a great series like Siren for another example, then look at the sequel, Undercurrent, and that's why a sequel needs to exceed the first book. I don't like resting on laurels, so when I see a book exceed others and raise the bar, I long for the next book that's going to take my breath away (much like Legacy by Cayla Kluver recently did).

Yes, there are some series and books that stand in a league of their own in which none will ever really measure up for me, Harry Potter being a prime example, but for the most part, there is always something that can make want to read and re-read a book time and again. I just want to find that, which is why, yes, I think I've become a bit more critical. What do you think? Do you think book blogging has made you more critical, or do you think you've become to critical?


  1. I totally get what you mean. I just feel like, I simply can not give a book that I liked/sort of loved 5 stars right away, because that would be "too" subjective. I like to look at a book both as a reader and a reviewer, and both are very different! So while yes, I review mainly based on how much I enjoyed the books, I also review as a critic.

    Unless it turns out the book is a favorite, only then will I give it 5 stars.
    Now the HP series is a whole new league - that's beyond 5 stars! ;)

  2. I think I've always been critical. I don't give many 5 star ratings either. I may enjoy a book, but I know a perfect rating is something special to me. I gave 5 of those ratings last year. I think I've had 2 so far this year.

  3. I don't actually think it's possible to be objective when reading/reviewing a book. Your moods and experiences color your perceptions and opinions of everything you come in contact with.

    I actually prefer reading reviews where the reviewer talks subjectively about why they liked a book.

    I just read/reviewed Stolen by Lucy Christopher. And it's a very well written book, with a finely draw setting and believable characters. But that isn't what makes it such an amazing book. What makes it so incredibly amazing, what made it impact me so much is that it changed the way I view the world, it made me reexamine things about myself that I thought were unchangeable.

    Reading and reviewing more may make us more articulate in how we feel, and it might give us a broader range of comparison and discussion, but I don't think that's a bad thing at all. I think it's a very good thing.

  4. Yes, I totally hear you on this. After reviewing for a while now I definitely think more critically about the books I'm reading and I very rarely give 5 stars. Usually I can see some way in which it might be improved (even if it was still an absolutely fabulous read overall). I'm hoping to go into editing, though, so I'm thinking that this would be a good skill to cultivate! :D

  5. I feel as though I'm one of the newer reviewers that you once thought you were. And I feel that I judge on all of the wrong things. I actually think that your reviews have helped me to look deeper into the writing and become more aware of what to look for in a good book.

  6. Oh, they ask why you don't give 5s anymore? Yikes, then people sure must wonder what I am doing. I will never give out a 5, sorry books. And sometimes when I give 3s people think I hated the book. Nope, I would even buy the next book and sometimes not.

    Anyway, not the point ;)
    Some are very critical, and I read the same book, review and later read another review and think oh, could have been critical of that too. But then if it did not bother me so much when I read the book then why even mention it. I just always want to be better. But I should just be me. If it works it works, if not then I can mention it. Some books are ok and nothing really bothers me. Some are awesome, but something might bother me. I just read for fun

  7. Great post! Yes, I"m definitely critical now a days when it comes to reviewing a book/series and blogging has totally made me more critical.

    I miss the times when I could just read a book for the fun of it and enjoy it fully. I wish I didn't have to judge every single book I read but I do since I'm a book blogger.

    Recently I've been finding it almost impossible to rate a novel as five stars, sadly. Like you said, it's not that the books are bad, they're pretty good, but I always think the author could of improved something. When reviewing though I always make sure to point out the good even if it's something small like the cover design or a meaningful quote used in a beginning of a chapter. I try my best to balance out the goods and bads.

  8. Well stated post! My experience with reading and reviewing has been much the same, Melissa. For me, I don't think it has ever been about being more critical, but about being more selective because reading and reviewing takes time.

    With so many great books out there, I don't want to feel like I've wasted time reading a book that didn't work for me. Of course, the main issue with that is you don't know if a book is going to meet your expectations or not until you read it.

  9. Great post and topic!

    I think a book deserves the top rating only if it is really exceptional - not only fun to read, well-written and original but also able to change something in your perception, teach you something new about life. Difficult? Definitely so but not impossible.

    One more thing: the more you read the more demanding you become, a pretty natural process.

  10. I've just started book blogging, but after reading your post, I'm already worried that I'll start expecting more and more from books until nothing is good enough! But I think being critical isn't a bad thing actually (:

  11. I don't know if the number of 5 star results I give has changed that much. I've never given that many. It seems like bloggers are extremes. They either review books extremely positively or think it's awful.
    I tend to give books 3.5 or 4 ratings. I like most books I read, because I filter them relatively carefully before I read them. And sometimes I will excuse problems if there are things about the book or author that I like.

  12. I think if you feel this way, maybe get rid of ratings and just say how you feel about the book. I think ratings can be overrated at times. I tended to give a book I read and liked enough to want a copy to own a 5 star review. Everyone has their own standards. I've had people comment about how many 5 star reviews I give and its because I really enjoy a lot of books and maybe suffer from the opposite problem - undercritical. Just maybe. :)

  13. I don't think book bloggers are too critical. But with that being said, I notice a lot of book bloggers give blanket statements as to why they don't like a book, instead of explaining what they didn't like exactly, or how they think the author could have improved the story. I think this is the important part of not giving 5 star reviews. We have a responsibility to clearly explain why we thought a book didn't deserve the coveted 5 stars, since some authors actually read our reviews, and consider the things we say when they write their next book. ^^ Thanks for doing this post. I think this is a great discussion.

  14. Excellent discussion topic! We pretty much agree with what Ashley said in her comment -- that there are too many factors that affect a person's review for it to be called objective anyway, but that thinking critically makes us more articulate and broadens our scopes. All good things! :)

    We'd like to add a couple thoughts, though:

    1) We don't think most books are SUPPOSED to get 5 stars. That's like every kid in school getting 100s on their tests. That would just be weird. Maybe a nice weird, if it was really deserved, but the fact is, life is not that "fair." And that's okay. Because it takes ALL KINDS (of people, books, music, science, etc.) for our great big melting pot of existence to work.

    2) There are phases in the journey of a reviewer. Up and down, generous and stingy. It comes and goes in cycles. Don't worry about the phases, just ride them out. Eventually they start to normalize, until finally you find your equilibrium.

  15. Interesting Melissa...I was just thinking this morning that I may do away with using stars for a rating system because I don't think they accurately reflect everything that goes into my take on a book.
    I don't think I've become more critical over this last year, but I do think that my take on reviewing has changed. I accept that a book can be "good" but just not one that appeals to me, and that's okay. It's why, tho, trying to quantify with stars and such is somewhat misleading. That said, I have read only two books that I consider 5 stars, and I think that's probably about right. 5 stars has to blow me away, and not many books do that.

  16. I don't know if I'd say I've gotten more critical, exactly. I used to give any "good" book a five star because it was good so why not? This was when I was just posting reviews on Amazon and my reviews were more trying to get a handle on whether or not other people would like the book.

    When I started blogging, my review focus shifted to a more subjective approach. I feel a lot more comfortable with that. I'm not throwing out the five stars anymore though. A five star with my subjective approach has to be a book that I LOVED and that tugged at me personally some way. If it was just a good solid book, but didn't have that personal spark, then that's more a four star book for me now. I'm not sure I'd say I've become more critical, but more that I've become more specific in what I want to communicate with my rating.

  17. I'm not a fan of a star system because it's too black and white. I may not love a book because of the genre when it's a great book.

    I'm not a fan of reviews that are just a huge summary of the first half of the book with not much opinion. I'll read the book if I want to know what happens. Tell me if the book is worth reading and then I'll read the book.

  18. I feel the same way. I think my reviewing of books has change some. But I am glad that I am learning more now.

  19. It's definitely a good question. I'm proudly subjective in my reviews, although I always try to give reasons for LOVING!!! or HATING!!! the books I read. My reviews have changed since I started blogging, but only because practice has made me better at avoiding word vomit, which is a HUGE problem I have, LOL. If anything, I'm probably enjoying far less books than I used to ... not because I've become critical, but as a result of so many being essentially THE SAME these days.

  20. I can be quite difficult to please, so maybe I could be seen as being critical in my reviews, but really I'm just being honest. I fully give praise where it's due, but I won't give false praise to a book I didn't like. I will only give five stars to a book I absolutely adore. I remember when I first started blogging, there seemed to be a whole slew of bloggers around who gave five stars to EVERYTHING they read, or who refused to ever post a negative review. I guess each to their own, but I happen to prefer when bloggers post both positive and negative reviews. Negative reviews don't need to be nasty - as long as you are constructive in your review, then its always helpful.

  21. I don't think I am critical because I enjoy a majority of the books I read, and I give quite a few of them 5 stars. Yes, it is hard to objectively review a book after I have read an amazing one that I think about for days. Great topic for discussion!

  22. Yes, I think as reviewers we are more critical. We read more then the average person and then after each book we break it down into what we like and don't like. So our brains are just being more critical as we read. BUT I know I'm still too free with the 5 star ratings. There are some books that I think are really good and then there are those that are just AMAZING! So although both might get 5 stars I try to point out in my review when it really shines and stands out. I think rating is really a challenge, the review is easy in comparison.

    I like your review style and I think that I have a good idea of what you like and I know how to interpret your rating. If you give a book 5 stars I know I really have to read it! I know you've convinced me of a few just because your not as free with giving high ratings.

  23. Hmm. Sometimes I wonder (I don't give out too many 5 stars, either), but I think book bloggers are typically just the right amount of critical. I try to base my ratings on how much I enjoyed the book, but I also take flaws into consideration (if the main character is dull, but I still LOVED the book, it'd be 4 or 4.5 stars instead of 5).

    The whole point of us book blogs is to deliver our thoughts...If we're critical, it's still our honest opinion. :)

  24. I've definitely gotten more critical since I've had the blog, I think that just naturally happens when you read as many books as we do and have to take the time to explain our reactions to each one. I think there are times when I'm more critical than others, I think a lot of it depends too on the books I've read before the current read, that experience can really color the book I'm reading as I naturally compare my reactions to both.

    Just like you said, I like to find that "something" that makes me want to read the book over and over again, and while there are a ton of good books out there, not all of them inspire that fun, near-obsession that I would say causes me to give a 5-star rating.

    Fantastic post Melissa:)

  25. I think I am more critical/analytical when I read/review books now. However, I don't rate the books that I read and I feel that takes the pressure off of me. It helps me continue to love reading and blogging.

  26. I think I've become more critical too. When I first started blogging, I gave a lot more five star reviews than I do now. In fact, I haven't given one (from what I can remember) in a long time. I just feel like unless I liked every aspect of the book, then it's going to be a 4.5 or less, which maybe is a bit too critical, but I'm stuck like this now! And a 4.5 is still a great rating, so I feel I'm quite justified in being picky with my five star reviews. I also completely agree that nothing will ever compare to Harry Potter :p.

  27. This is such a fantastic post!!! You know, even if I give a book a bad review, it doesn't mean the book is trash. Hey - it was good enough to be published in the first place. It's already overcome so many obstacles - that has the mean something, right? And I totally understand what you mean about the good, bad, and ugly. For me, I need a way to compartmentalize the books I read for future reference. That's what the rating is for. The review is usually for me to go into more depth about the rating and explain to my Future Self (and I guess fellow blog readers) why I liked or disliked a book.

    For me, not every book I read will get a five-star rating. Five stars is a big deal to me. Books with five star ratings will be good enough to be standing next to Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. Or at least close enough.

  28. Great question.

    Are bloggers more critical?


    But so what I say?

    I want to read different types of reviews from different types of people. Reviewers read more and therefore naturally will develop a tougher scale.

    Keep up the good work!

  29. Personally I don't use any sort of rating system when I post my reviews on my blog as I'm not a fan of trying to fit what I think into such a small potential scale. Some of my ratings aren't integers but maybe 3.6 but not quite that 4, for example.

    I do think we are more critical as a whole but I think that's because book bloggers are people who will think more about the book to try and dissect what about it made them like it and how well the story and characters were developed. Thinking about these things really helps me decide how I will feel about the book overall. You really hit the nail on the head about how reading a certain book within a genre will set the benchmark for others with a similar theme. I had never read a fairy book before Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series and now that's my idea of what an amazing book in the genre should be. I'm not going to let it hold me back from appreciating other books, but I will use it to analyse what I like and what I don't, if that makes sense.

  30. I think a lot more about books these days than I used to. I used to just read them and not think about it, whether it was good or bad. Now, I'm more interested in my reactions to the book and POV and if there were any unanswered questions. Did I enjoy the book? Did it make me uncomfortable? Did I learn from it? Questions I'd never ask myself before blogging or in the beginning when I first started blogging. I don't give ratings. I just recommend or not. I usually like what I read. I take time picking out what I read. I pick my reads from reviews from other bloggers and from upcoming debut books or sequels. Still, if I don't like what I read, I try to tell why.


  31. I'll be honest, I don't even think I really know what I'm doing. I mean, at times, I feel like I can give a really good review. Like for example, Matched, The Replacement, and Shine, but other times I feel like I fall short and I'm always afraid to give a book less than three stars because someone told me that giving a book less than that was bashing for unnecessary reasons and that there was no need for negative reviews. Of course, I'm still pretty new to the book blogging world, and I'm still trying to learn some things.

    Until just a couple of months ago, contemporary books weren't exactly my thing. Not that I hadn't read a few here and there along the way, but that I didn't actually seek them out when I walked into a store or the library. I would usually go straight for the paranormal and go from there. And I really didn't give a fig about romance either, but now I'm finding that my tastes are changing.

    There are times when I can really write a thought provoking review and then there are times when I can't figure out what to say in a review, like for example I am struggling with what to write for He's So Not Worth It which I just recently read. I'm like, what do I say about this book. I like it, it was fun. I read the series backwards, starting with the second book and have yet to read the first. The character's and the plot, while being light were still engaging and fun to read. lol. I mean, that's like all that I can say, unless I say that they were well developed. But, I can't really build off anything else and I keep finding myself stuff.

    And yeah, I've rambled too much, sorry.

    Suz @ A Soul Unsung
    Follow Me Friday + Blog Hop!

  32. The more you see, the more nuances you start to pick up in writing. So, it just stands to reason you become more discerning. It's not a bad thing, but a natural process. Great post!

  33. I keep wondering to my self what is a 5 star book. And then I come across a book I just love, can't put down, full of action, mystery, story line, and amazing characters. Bam 5 stars all the way. This is what makes me give 5 stars. I always wonder what is the break down for me on why I give 4 or 3 or 5 or what ever stars. It's hard to say. But I try to use my enjoyment as a big factor as it is what the reading is about. But I look for other things as well and a story that flows properly with our major holes makes a big difference. :)

    I respect the whole scale you have and many other bloggers too. Thank you for sharing this as it makes me realize I'm not the only one thinking on it too. :)

  34. When I first started blogging, I generally gave most books four or five stars because I thought they were pretty good. Over time though, I've noticed that it is getting harder to give books five stars because I feel like I've gotten better at judging how much the book has impacted me and am noticing more of its weaknesses.

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  36. Honestly? Yes it am and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's hard being objective because you have to block everything else out and focus on that one book, and there isn't room for too many emotions because it gets in the way.

    It's for the better though which is why I have always stood by being honest. I don't know about being "too" critical although some others might think different. I gave a 3 star today to a book whose author I really like. It was tough and I felt crap doing it but I have to be honest. I can't give it a 4 star and say it was a great read when it wasn't. That's wrong.

    You get people who aren't objective and I'm sorry but if you're going to be biased then why should I even read your review because it obviously can't be trusted. That's just my opinion though.

    With you Mel. I can come over, read a review and know that you are honest. That's what I look for. Let people say whatever, in the end of they day at least you speak the truth in your reviews, and they? Not so much.

  37. Many of the books I've read are because I really like them. When I begin a book if it has not grabbed me by the first 100 pages, I rarely bother finishing it, which means I do not review it either. One of the things I always tell my students, who I require to read all year long and to choose their own books for my independent reading requirement is; if you pick up a book that you obviously do not like abandon it and find something you do like. The are just too many books out there to waste you time reading one you don't like.

    Following this principal myself I think most of the book I read fall between a 3-5 although I have given a 2 here and there. The ones that I have not finished I never review.

    That being said I look at your reviews and know that they are providing an honest opinions of your thoughts on what makes a good book. While I may not always agree with you or other bloggers on a particular review, I respect your ability to critically provide your sights into the good and the bad. That is what I expect from all bloggers, and you always back up your thoughts with support that allows me to make a judgment of whether I want to read this book or skip it. So keep your writing reviews using your sharp critical eye because I love them.

  38. I honestly have read a lot of grumblings about negative reviews and I seriously don't understand it. Reading is subjective - as many other things are and I don't understand why bloggers (books or otherwise) are being criticized for their criticism. I come from an academic background and I can say that whatever we write is in no way comparable to the utter thrashing scholarly articles and their authors get. And I am glad you write critical reviews. There is nothing that annoys me so much more than having a five starred review of a book that is clearly undeserving. I find my trust in the reviewer shaken. And as for your comment about five stars being difficult to award, I do believe it is a clear reflection of the standard of books flooding the market today.

  39. I agree with thebookwurrm about the subjectivity issue, which always has been part-and-parcel of reviewing even before blogs appeared on the scene. When I've reviewed movies or music in magazines, I'm all to aware that it's my personal opinion that sways the judgment.

    I think where some blogs fall down is that they're part-time critics (doing it for the passion rather than the $$, which is amazing), so they have lives outside the blogging - and it's pretty obvious sometimes that they don't have time to read as accurately as they should.

    Just in the past month I've seen a handful of reviews of recent novels I've read, wherein the blogger made factual errors and/or had apparently been skimming when reading the book.

    Which is fair enough when you're busy.

    But when you then make a judgment call and give it 5 stars out of 5 - or only one - you really do have a responsibility to look more closely and fairly at someone else's art.

  40. I think I'm definitely more critical about the books I read now, for all the reasons you named. Before, it was just about the pure enjoyment of reading, and now, I'm more critical in that I look specifically at the different elements in the books that I read. But do I think there is such a thing as being too critical? Well, maybe. I hope I'm not too critical. Sometimes I just have to take a step back and think, is the criticism I'm giving this book too nitpicky? Would it have bothered me before I started reviewing books? If I think the criticism is too nitpicky, then I try not to make a point of it in my reviews.

  41. I noticed this even before I began blogging. I used to keep a list of the books I read in a year and then give a star rating. The first year I did this, I gave 5 books 5 star ratings. This eventually dwindled down until I was only giving 1 book a year 5 stars.

    I think it's just something you can't help. The more you read, the more aware you'll be of what a truly great book is and the ones that are just OK won't be enough anymore. I mean, does anyone remember seriously disliking a book as a kid? I don't. When I first learned to read long books by myself, they were all pretty fantastic. But it's just not that way anymore.

  42. I don't think I am biased. After I read a book I always have some kind of positive or negative feeling that helps me rating a book. Sometimes I compare great books to other great books, but in the end always think of it as an individual.

  43. I think I am slightly more critical than before. Being human, I cannot be completely objective. There are some authors whom I love so much that I tend to be very biased towards them. If I love a book, I willingly give out 4 or 5 stars. If I did not, I am honest about it.


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