Sarcasm & Stars; The Lowest Form of Reviewing?

I was writing up a review post, because there haven’t been many on this blog for a while (I am working on it), to go live today but as I was updating it two things kept making me stop and ponder. I decided I would hold fire on the review and talk about these things instead, and a few other little bits and bobs about reviews while I am at it.

One of the things that I think has been missing in the last few months on Savidge Reads with regard to my reviews, and maybe even some of my posts, is that I haven’t felt my personality has quite transmitted or translated into them. If you listen to The Readers you will possibly (slight understatement there) have noticed that my sense of humour is quite dry, occasionally a little bit immature (invariably leading to giggles/cackles) and rather dark. Yet I have always held back, especially recently, from having this incorporated into my reviews as I worried it might not look professional and might alienate people by accidentally offending them – either readers of the blog or possibly the author.

It was this that was the first real issue that was holding me back from finishing updating and then posting a review earlier today.

The second thing was a conversation/debate/vent that started on Twitter as I was working on the review. It was all about voice and I was having a small moan (only a small one) that book blogging seemed to be becoming more and more samey, not just in terms of the same new books being mentioned but also in terms of tone. Where has the distinction and individuality gone? It seems to have all become very polite, unless it’s some nasty person endlessly posting bile, and professional lately. Is this because people feel (now that all in sundry get free proof copies) that they owe the publishers a ‘fair and nice’ review or because people think a blog will lead them into reviewing books professionally? I am not sure, both could be possible.

Here I must admit that I do write some reviews and features for bookish magazines and the like; yet weirdly, and I am quoting my bosses here not just spaffing all over myself, the reason I have tended to get these gigs is because of the voice I have when I write. I got one job (way back when) over someone else once simply on the fact I was ‘cheeky and sarcastic’ and sounded ‘a bit out of the mainstream’. So why have I stopped doing that on the blog then? Fear of offending people is probably the main reason, yet how can I moan about everything getting a bit bland if I am part of the perpetuation of it?

On a completely different tangent, though still on the line of reviews, what do you make of star ratings? The reason I ask this is that I then had another conversation about the book I was reviewing with Gavin when we were recording The Readers and I discussed the review I was writing, the sarcasm involved and the fact I was going to give the book three stars. ‘Three stars, ouch’ was the response. Yet three stars isn’t bad is it? One is ‘crap’, two is ‘not really for me/not great’ three is ‘enjoyable’, four is ‘really rather good’ and five is ‘wow my eyes nearly fell out of my head at the bloody brilliance of the book’. No? I just thought I would squeeze this in even though it isn’t really relevant.

I will also add the fact I don’t really like blog posts that contain no pictures, alas this is one such blog post. What a hypocrite! Sorry about that – I should be punished, possibly publically. Anyway…

There is much to mull here but it safe to say I have decided to stop playing safe, though I am not going to suddenly become Captain Controversial either. Yet, just out of interest, I would love to know how you all feel about this? Do you find the blogosphere is becoming a bit samey and bland in book choices and in tone, or do you think I am looking in the wrong places? What are your thoughts on sarcasm and dark humour in a blog; could people take it the wrong way? Do you read book blogs just for the reviews or for the personality of the reviewer too? What are your thoughts on the star ratings system? Blimey, you’ve a lot to answer haven’t you?


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30 responses to “Sarcasm & Stars; The Lowest Form of Reviewing?

  1. gaskella

    Yes please! Blogs with personality are so much more fun to read and engage with. Use your voice.
    On points/stars – I use them – I tried to stop, but kept getting asked how many points I’d given something. Totally up to you.

  2. I’m with you on 3 stars not being bad! It’s in the middle somewhere between bad and amazing.

    I hope everyone feels like they can blog in a way that’s natural to them. Some people like to come across as professional and others like to ramble. I think as long as people are happy doing what they’re doing, they shouldn’t worry what other people think, although that can be hard. We’re strange social creatures after all.

  3. I was just thinking about the voice question yesterday. Lately I have undertaken a few film “projects” for my blog, but realized that having a project, or a book challenge, really changes how I write. I miss writing by whim on random cultural things and am trying to get that voice back. Note: I too got my last job (before becoming a freelancer) partly based on my blog writing.

    Re: Stars. I rate pretty much like you–substituting “f*cking” for “bloody” of course (bloody Americans!)–but get a lot of good-natured flack from friends for my “harsh” ratings.

  4. You don’t ask for much, do you…?

    I agree about stars. A book that gets three is (for me) perfectly readable, even good. Yet – and I think perhaps this is the influence of A***** where a three star review will come up under “critical” rather than “favourable” – it seems to get seen as a “bad review”. When I review there I sometimes find myself, defensively, saying “I did like this book, it’s not a bad review”. Personally I’d prefer to avoid star ratings.

    “Sameiness” – I don’t know, there are so many book blogs and reviewers and I haven’t found, or have found and haven’t had time to read, most of them. I do thing someone with a distinctive voice is easier to read, and more interesting (as long as it’s too negative) – even if they’re a different personality – at least you can get a view of where they’re coming from and calibrate that with your own tastes.

    Are people overwhelmed by the generosity of publishers dishing out advance copies, and unwilling to say anything bad? I wish I had that problem, but then again, I have such a backlog of bought books that the appearance of any more would probably just send me into a reading panic. No maybe better not…

  5. My reviews aim for irreverence, but more-often-than-not I probably over-shoot and just hit sarcastic. I’m not sure I’ve noticed a sameness of tone or a bland professionalism creeping into the blogs I read (especially not yours!), but maybe that’s because the majority of the blogs I like are so heavily stylised and niche in their subject matter as to never become well-known or heavily followed, and so perhaps there’s not that same pressure to clean up/conform etc. Not sure.

    As for star ratings / ratings out of 10: I find the whole idea of scoring a book to be total nonsense, I’m afraid. What’s the point of reference? What’s it a scale of? Literary “goodness”? Readability? Originality? When I encounter a review which ends with something like “I quite enjoyed Wuthering Heights. 4 stars.” I tend to groan and roll my eyes, it all seems a bit daft.
    Also: if you give a book 10/10, and then read a much, much, much better book, would you have to… give it the same score as the less good but still good book? Weird.

  6. David Nolan (David73277)

    At the risk of being bland and repetitive, I also belong to the school of thought that regards 3 stars as good, 4 as very good and 5 as excellent. With regard to tone or voice, I would also like to think there is room on the spectrum for more variety than either safe or controversial – although my personal taste leans away from the latter. With so much anger and bile flying around in cyberspace, I rather like the polite and cosy nature of the bookish corner of the blogosphere. Jackie (Farm Lane Books), Rob Around Books, and others were discussing nasty comments on Twitter a couple of weeks back. Judging by that conversation, if you want a more controversial take on books it seems that the comments on Guardian Books are the place to go. It sounds as though viscious contributions are quite common there (that is on the Books pages and not just where you might expect it e.g. the news pages). I made a point of avoiding comments on newspaper websites a while ago, so I wouldn’t know.

    Belated congratulations on your new job, by the way.

  7. I drastically changed the way I keep my blog last month. Now I’m only posting book reviews and only of books I can recommend. I’ve also stopped reading blog posts that are not book reviews, for the most part. What I’ve noticed is how few book blog posts are actually book reviews. Blogs that post every day, or nearly every day, only post one or two book reviews a week. To be honest, reading just book reviews has cut my blog reading time down by upwards of 80%.

    That said, I don’t mind sarcastic reviews, I’m a big fan of Dorothy Parker’s reviews which are often all about sarcasm. As long as people are passionate about books, let the sarcasm fly. But what I’m really looking for, even more than voice which i also like, is reviews with something interesting to say about the book. Somebody who brings something to the discussion that i’ve not thought of before will win me as a regular reader every time. Someone who makes me want to read a book I’ve never heard of before by an author I’ve never heard of before is someone I’ll come back to.

  8. “It was all about voice and I was having a small moan (only a small one) that book blogging seemed to be becoming more and more samey, not just in terms of the same new books being mentioned but also in terms of tone. Where has the distinction and individuality gone?”

    I understand what you mean and I would hope someone would tell me if my blog ever got like that. I don’t review new books generally – I don’t get sent any – which I am not complaining about, I enjoy being able to riffle through a history of books and pick and chose what to read and review. I’m lucky in that I follow, what I feel, are a lot of interesting book blogs – so I don’t just get a review I get a dive into the cultural, historical, emotional etc.. aspects as well. To be honest, the same-y ones I probably won’t visit again if I come across them, because their text doesn’t entice me.

    “Do you find the blogosphere is becoming a bit samey and bland in book choices and in tone, or do you think I am looking in the wrong places? What are your thoughts on sarcasm and dark humour in a blog; could people take it the wrong way? Do you read book blogs just for the reviews or for the personality of the reviewer too? What are your thoughts on the star ratings system? Blimey, you’ve a lot to answer haven’t you?”

    Personally, I love a bit of cheekiness, so I am ALL for you feeling comfortable injecting more personality into your posts; not that I didn’t love enjoy reading your blog before, but you have always seemed very professional. Personality, for me, is key when I am reading something – I don’t want to just know about the book I want to know what you think of it or how it makes you feel. You are always going to find some people will take whatever you say the wrong way – go dark! You can always install a footnotes plugin for disclaimers if you find yourself misunderstood.

    As for star ratings, this is the reason I don’t bother with them, everyone has a different take.

  9. If a blog doesn’t have a personality, I don’t read it. And many of them out there today are just little review factories. Boring.

    I kind of like the idea of coming up with a completely meaningless rating system. Like, I give it 32 stars out of 46. I don’t post ratings on my blog, but I do give books ratings in my books read spreadsheet. I have a scale of 10. Five is ambivalence, six is “almost liked it”, seven is “liked it”, eight is almost loved it, nine is loved it, and 10 is all time favorite. You can imagine how it steps down from five without me having to describe it. Thing is, I rarely finish a book that rates below a four so I don’t have many of those on my list.

  10. I agree with sameness even design wish some blogs very similar it’s hard to find a voice when you start I tried be one thing for a good while then became myself my own voice hopefully shines trough I do tend be a positive reviewer but that’s just me I don’t have a star rating as be same as my good reads where I tend score high
    All the best stu

  11. There are always going to be some people who are offended by sarcasm or dark humour, but really, who cares?! Lots of people will agree with you and enjoy it, plenty of people will disagree with you but will appreciate your opinion and engage in good-natured discussion, and anyone else can just go and read a different blog if they so wish! If you censor your individual voice to please publishers then blogging essentially becomes a sort of job rather than a hobby that you partake in for your own pleasure (not in any way meant to belittle the amount of hard work that you clearly put into this blog).

    You have prompted me to take a good, hard look at my own blog though. I am probably guilty of being a bit samey samey in my writing.

    As for star ratings – I agree, 3/5 equates to an enjoyable read. On the whole I try to avoid them though (other than on Goodreads), mainly because my ratings frequently change after time has passed and I’ve had chance to reflect on the book I’ve just read. Sometimes the books that stay with you and have a great impact aren’t always the ones you rate as 5 star reads when you’ve only just put them down.

  12. I like a blog to have some personality too. There are a lot of blogs reviewing the same book yes – that may be down to publishers doling out so many review copies. I don’t get too many review copies – a few but not many – I don’t really want them, I have my own books I want to read, and the blogs I like best are probably those where people are reviewing what they would be reading even if they didn’t have a book blog. However if I read a review copy and I don’t like it – I will say so – I will find hopefully a decent way of saying it – but I’m not going to big up a book I didn’t care for. I don’t believe that getting a book for free means you then duty bound to say its marvelous, there is no contract as far as I’m concerned. As for star ratings – I’m not bothered really – I use the stars on goodreads because they are there – but I also think 3 stars would mean a perfectly good readable book – just not earth shattering.

  13. JanetD

    I read blogs but am not a blogger. I love the quirky and surprising blogs and am not keen on the ones which only post positive reviews. Not all the books I read are good or better and I get through loads so I can’t believe/trust those who only post positive reviews. You need a balance to show you are not a push over.

  14. Louise

    Ok, so I’m not gonna lie, I never do..So, from the things you say, I imagine you to have oodles of personality and I actually don’t see that here, at all. Your writing is very, for want of a better word, straight. It’s almost as if this isn’t your hobby, more like work, and I think there should be a difference.

    I read a mix of genre, from general fiction, through to urban fantasy and I get my most entertainment from blogs covering urban fantasy etc. The blogs are punchy, packed with personality, snark and wit, without being rude to authors etc. The reviews are structured different, when you read a book and something happens that makes you go WTF!!… I see that, and I can see how that reviewer felt at that time.

    I don’t read all of your reviews, just certain ones. They are quite long (not quite as long as my comments, so it seems ha!) and sometimes I don’t want that much depth as It can make me feel like I don’t need to read the book as I’ve almost experienced it through your review.. but, a long review with your personality in it, would make me want to pick that book up more. This is why I like ratings, and a guide to how people rate. Oh dear, I sound like a right biatch don’t I?! I don’t mean to, at all. Language is another thing too, which can be a barrier on blogs. I have no problems with swearing. When I comment on some blogs, I’ll just type as I would speak in real life, without the asterix.. that annoys me.. we all now that f*ck is fuck, so why not just say fuck and have done with it already! Oops, tangent! Anyways, I think sometimes people do worry about what others will think if you let one rip, or you say something sarcastic. We spend too much time worrying about what others will think of us, when we should just be ourselves, whether people like it or not. I actually think it makes us come across more human, and I find I can connect better, because I’m not worrying about minding my own mouth lol! and what I say will come from a more true and honest place.

  15. I’m naturally quite reserved, even though I’m passionate about books, so it took me a while to find my voice in writing reviews. Simon, I like your balance of personality and professionalism. I use star ratings on Shelfari for my own purposes, but not on my review blog.

  16. I am by no means anywhere near being a “Professional reviewer” in my blog. I think a person’s personality needs to be in a review to get my interest. I like a bit of the person’s lifestyle to be a part of it. Like maybe you were sitting upside down in a chair with the cat playing nearby while trying to concentrate on War and Peace. I like to laugh. I don’t mind a bit of sarcasm. If you like a book I like to know why and the same if you thought it was really dumb. There are some really bad books out there that publishers are happy to flog and I find that irresponsible. Books are expensive, esp in Australia and I don’t want to waste money on a book where someone only picked out the good bits and sell it off to make a publisher happy. Personally I prefer to read book reviews of books publishers aren’t hyping at the moment. My favourite blogs review books they find from around the world from book shops to attics and everywhere in between. There are millions and millions of books so why should all the bloggers read the same book? I find many of the blogs I follow are from the Brits which I do enjoy but seems there are a lot of books from the 20’s, 30’s 40’s and 50’s being reviewed by the same authors again and again. I don’t mind a few of them but then I start looking for different books like the ones I might find on Winston’s Dad. You should be yourself with your own individual personality when reviewing a book and if someone does like it. So be it. Just have fun. Life is bloody short. My 2 cents.

  17. Use your voice, tell us what you think and don’t worry about people taking offence! I had noticed that your reviews had become less “interesting” recently less of you appears to be coming through. If this weblog is an outlet for you as a professional reviewer then craft it that way; if it is a much more personal activity then let your dark, amusing, sarcastic, loving, generous, honest personality shine through!

    Stars? No opinion on that really. On balance no.

  18. I rarely write a negative review because if I find the book to be so bad I couldn’t say something positive about it I would cast it aside, life is too short to read bad books. I also don’t read newly released books so am not really competing with bloggers who are trying to be up to the minute. But i do understand the need to be somewhat deferential: I wrote a review of Philip Roth’s ‘American Pastoral’ but then the following day on re reading what I had written felt annoyed at myself for being deferential to a ‘great’ writer and then wrote a postscript about the things I had found annoying about his writing. So agree with you that stars or scores are completely meaningless. Also don’t like reviewers who write out the blurb from the back of the book, I have frequently found them to be a bad introduction to the plot.
    Always enjoy your reviews, looking forward to what you think of ‘Flight Behaviour’

  19. Completely with you on the star rating system and I am always surprised when people scold me for my ‘low’ ratings. If everything were 5 stars, how could I distinguish The Great Gatsby or Persuasion or other of my absolute all-time favourites? I do try to find something positive in each book, otherwise I will just stop reading it and not review it. I could never be a Dorothy Parker type of reviewer, although I adore her barbed wit.

  20. Crikey, you want a lot from us today! Here goes ..on the question of stars, I don’t bother with them because it feels rather arbitrary. I might admire one aspect of a book and hate another but then have to give an overall score which wouldn’t truly reflect my opinion. On the issue of whether getting a review copy obliges you to write a positive comment, that seems rather pointless to me. If you’re always going to say something positive then what’s the value of your review? They are meant to be honest, independent, thoughtful responses not just words that give the publishers and authors warm feelings of being loved. So if I don’t enjoy a book I will say so, and try to explain why… As for voice – yes I do like people who have a clear style and way of expressing themselves,. Easy to say but i find it really hard to do myself

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  23. Look at you and all your comments!
    I think you must know that we all like the sarcastic, dark-humour Simon 🙂 But I haven’t noticed blogs becoming samey, particularly – the ones I go back to are the ones which have distinctive voices, and they don’t seem to have changed much.

    Star ratings – 3 is ‘ok’, I agree, but I don’t much care for star ratings – well, not for using them myself, anyway, because I know that I wouldn’t be consistent.

  24. I love to see personality in blogs and am quickly turned off if there are no personal stories along with the book thoughts. I know people want privacy, but I would like to know something about the person behind the blog or it just feels soulless. I’ve realized this with my own blog – I’ve decided to share a bit more about my life and my town on the blog so as to tie in how books affect my life.
    I don’t really like a ratings system, but I know that it helps to quickly assess a book for some people.
    I just think we should all be ourselves and show our unique perspectives. Too many bloggers try to fit into a mold and I am guilty of that myself, but it is the bloggers who step out and show vulnerability and authenticity that really have my heart.

  25. Elke

    I find star ratings very difficult. Do you rate within category, or overall? For example, if I were to rate Agatha Christie within the category of mystery novels, she would get four stars. If I were rating Tolkien within the fantasy category, he would get five. But how do you compare these with the Classics (yes, capital C) for example? I love Agatha Christie, but she would definitely get a lower rating if I were to compare her to Jane Austen or George Eliot. So, ratings within categories, to keep things fair? But then, how to define said categories etc.? To be honest, I just rate books by ‘I really enjoyed that’, ‘this book changed my life’ or ‘well, that’s x hours of my life I will never see again’.

  26. passporttorainbows

    If sarcasm is your distinct style then by all means use it. People may be offended by your quirk and they may not get your humor but pleasing them is not why you write. Or is it?

    Besides, who wouldn’t love people with your kind of humor? I know I do. 🙂

  27. Jen

    I absolutely do not read book review blogs that are strictly book-review centric, if you know what I mean (boring). Funny – I scanned your other posts today but read this post from top to tail because it was quite engaging – I like your voice! It’s evident here, and that’s why I kept reading. I kind of switch off when reading a review that tells me ‘blah’ stars and gives me a depiction of the story from start to finish or wants to say anything to avoid spoilers…and that’s about it. I love a post like this one – that talks about all the other things around the experience of the book itself – if I want to find out if the book is going to be any good, I’ll just go read it! But the experiences or thought processes that the book makes you ponder… that’s the juice. Rather than just solely: The Book Review. Hmm… Yep, voice is critical.

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  29. I definitely read a blog for its voice/personality. I’m pretty sure we’re all here for your dark humour most of all 🙂

    More seriously, my fear of being bland is one of the reasons I mostly review older books that I really really want to read and feel I have something to say about. But I probably do hold back in an attempt to sound more professional, which may be self-defeating. I’m not sure.

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