Reader Reviews

“I couldn’t do it.’ Those are my wife’s words every time I talk about reading though reader reviews of my books. Many authors won’t do it. I’m one who does, grudgingly, very grudgingly, because I’m still a reluctant optimist, but I believe that you can learn something from anything — even reader reviews.

Unfortunately, maybe those other authors are right, because I don’t much care for what I’m learning, and it doesn’t seem to be of much use, not if I want to keep trying to become a better and better writer. At first, I thought that I was imagining things, but then, because I do have a background in economics and analysis, I decided to apply some basic analysis — and I used The Magic of Recluce as the “baseline.” Why? Because it’s been in print continuously since 1991. It’s not a perfect baseline or template, because the reader reviews I used [Amazon’s] don’t begin until 1996, but it gives the longest time-time of any of my books. Over that fourteen year time period almost 35% of readers gave the book a five star rating; 25% gave it a four star rating; 18% gave it three stars; 8% gave it two stars; a little more than 15% gave it a one star rating [and yes, that adds up to 101% because of rounding]. More interesting, however, was the timing of ratings and the content of key words in those ratings.

To begin with, for the first two years or so of ratings, comprising roughly 20% of all ratings, all the ratings were either four or five stars, and not until 1999, eight years after the book was first out, did it receive a one star rating. Not just coincidentally, I suspect, that was the first review that claimed the book was “boring.” More than half the one and two star reviews have been given during the last five years, and virtually all of the one star reviews use terms such as “boring” or “slow.” From the wording of those reviews, I suspect, but cannot firmly prove, most come from comparatively younger readers.

The fact that more and more readers want “faster” books doesn’t surprise me. Given the increasing speed of our culture, the emphasis on “fast-action movies” and faster action video games, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. What does bother me is the equation of “fast” to “good” and the total intolerance that virtually all of these reviews show for anything that takes thought and consideration. The fact that more than twice as many readers find the book good as those who do not, and that a majority still do indicates that there are many readers who still appreciate depth, but the change in the composition of readers, as reflected in the reviews, confirms, at least in my mind, that a growing percentage of fantasy readers want “faster” books. Again… no surprise, but the virulence and impatience expressed is disturbing, because it manifests an incredible sense of self-centeredness, with reader reviews that basically say. “This book is terrible because it didn’t entertain me in the way I wanted.” And terms like “Yech!”, “Yuck!”, “Such Junk?”, “its [sic] horrible”, and “total waste” certainly convey far more about the reader than about the book.

As an author, I understand all too well that not all authors are for all readers, and there are authors, some of whom are quite good, who are not to my taste. But there’s an unconscious arrogance that doesn’t bode well for the future of our society when fifteen percent of readers state that a book is terrible because it doesn’t cater to the reader’s wishes — and throwing the book through a window because it doesn’t [yes, one reviewer claimed to have done so].

I’d say that they need to grow up… but I’m afraid that they already have, and that they’re fast approaching a majority, at least among the under 30 crowd. Two recent articles in other publications highlight the trend. The latest edition of The Atlantic Monthly has one explaining why newspaper articles are too long and basically gives what amounts to a variation on the USA Today format as an answer — quick juicy facts with little support or explanation. And what’s really frightening was the conclusion of an article in the “Week in Review” section of The New York Times last Sunday — that youngsters who are now 4-10 will make today’s young people seem like paragons of patience.

Newspeak, here we come.

11 Responses to “Reader Reviews”

  1. dd0029 says:

    I'm not sure I really buy the generalization that fantasy reader's wanting faster books.

    I believe you can look at the popularity of people like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson. The last two in particular seem to come up all of the time when I see people discussing fantasy in general.

    The "maturity" of the medium might have more to do with the advent of negative reviews. Amazon reader reviews were new and the idea of the internet was still fairly new in the mid '90s. By '99 the whole deal had become more commonplace and comfortable. I can recall old online discussions where I saw negative comments, particularly in regards to the sound thing that you used to do. Which shows up in a number of those one star reviews. Anyway, the places where I ran across these comments were "comfortable" settings, everyone knew everyone else.

    And now for something completely different. A blog post when a new book is published would not be a bad idea. While I enjoy the surprise of finding an unexpected gift on the bookshelves, I generally prefer knowing I should be looking for a new book by a favorite author.

  2. j says:

    I would second dd's comment above. Some of the more recent popular SFF books, e.g. Erikson, Martin, etc., are easily slower than anything Mr. Modesitt has written. Though on the other hand, Erikson and Martin probably still sell less than video game tie-in novels. But I would be very hesitant about guessing at the future of literature based on some of these bizarre one-star reviews on Amazon.

    One interesting feature of the Amazon reviews, as you may know, is that you can find a reader's other reviews by clicking on their name. Some readers just give everything five stars or one star, with nothing in the middle and no attempt at objectivity. One of the one-star reviewers for Recluce had reviewed almost nothing else but video games, and according to him, one of these was too complicated.

  3. Nate says:

    I think that fiction in general is getting much faster (and particularly so for the fantasy and horror genres). My sister persuaded me to read "Twilight", and I was astounded to realize that I had read a roughly 500 page book in slightly more than three hours. I've always been a fast reader but that seems ridiculous. I know this is an extreme example but it is far from the only one.

  4. L.E. Modesitt says:

    My point wasn't that "my" books were singled out for one star reviews and thoughtless reviews, but that those kinds of reviews are endemic. According to Amazon, 13% of the reviews of Jordan's Eye of the World, which came out less than a year before The Magic of Recluce, were one star reviews.

  5. Caitlin says:

    Many of the readers in my age group (early twenties) that I have met are interested in books that are more action based, graphic or indulgent (where the protagonist is extraordinary lucky in every way without a logical reasoning). I think some readers expect books to gratify their hopes and dreams rather than tell a logical story.

    I have noticed more people reading books that are targeted to a younger age group and are easier to read. I am unsure if this experience is unique or if this is a trend.

    In general I think there is an expectation that books should be multitask friendly. Concentrating on a book is difficult if you are using internet messenger, scrolling through Facebook updates and being constantly interrupted by text messages. This seems to translate to the worrying idea throw away anything that does not fit into these activities.

    Personally I prefer books that require the characters to work for their success and enjoy reading the reasoning behind their actions. This is what I most enjoy about reading Mr Modesitt’s books.

    The article in the Atlantic Monthly is concerning as how are younger readers expected to know the historical significance behind certain events if they were not around to experience them? Sure they can use the internet, but it is only useful if you know what you are looking for.

  6. dd0029 says:

    Well look at me failing to get the point. I spent a while trying to find a way to counter the basic idea. But, I got nothin'. Judging the merits of a book on solely your enjoyment of it is off.

    I do believe it's more than an age/arrogance thing. It points more to the way many people view everything in win/loss terms or maybe black and white is a better description. Look at any of the big topics of the day, they are all being structured and fought that way.

  7. Izac says:

    Unfortunately, the reviews posted on Amazon.com are not book report material. It may be comforting for a review to say "I like the book because it was great" or disconcerting to read a review saying the book was slow. However, the only value of a review comes with an analysis explaining what makes the book great or boring or slow.

    Amazon's stars are great for surface thoughts. Roughly 78% rated The Magic of Recluce with 3-5 stars (good review). But the reviews are diamonds in the rough. I have to dig through most of the negative reviews to find an opinion that can adequately analyze the product and explain its failures.

    Adequate analysis may require something closer to book reports. So, as much as readers may have opinions, there is not much stock in a reader's review that lacks analysis and explanation.

  8. hob says:

    This isn't very thought out on my part, but I've found that Mr modesitt's stories concentrate on ripple conflict/resolution effects from protagonist to the people around the protagonist to the larger society and vice versa. He spends a lot of time/thought on explaining why conflicts/resolutions have ripple effects and how societies don't feel that effect until its too late and end up blaming conditioned/known enemies or in the resolution ripple, too far away from the people resolving problems to know how much they suffer for their efforts or how thankless it is for them–enforcing an idea that individuals should hold high ethics/dreams and be willing to suffer/sacrafice for them.

    Now for most part fantasy/sci fi stories are about showing the fun/drama/adventure one has with high tech–in the fantasy settings magic being the equivalent of high tech–it is in a way putting people in likable situations so that they are encouraged/want to reproduce similar settings in our world. harry potter/star trek merchandise is a good example.

    Maybe the people who are giving good reviews are in proplem solving situations/roles(likely married have children/spouse
    ) and can relate or maybe can apply Mr modesitt's insights–the bad reviews might be from those who are not in problem solving situations(most likely young, not married, no children)

    Mr modesitt does your publisher collect data from online site reviews–demographics etc and if so is the data made available to you as an author?

  9. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Publishers are way too understaffed and low budget to collect demographics of that sort. They collect print reviews and a few online reviews. That's why I do as much as I can; it helps that my background overlaps in those areas.

  10. Michael says:

    Well, if my own reading experience is an indication, my tastes change over time. So if I wrote reviews for books they would change as well.
    As for the comments about readers enjoying faster reading, I agree with other posters that there are other successful slow authors.
    Also author style changes can affect reviews. I noticed that when a fairly consistent author branches out and tries something different it can affect the reviews. Basically the core audience gets shaken up and some of the population adapts, some leave, some criticize, and some new members join.

    Also hopefully enjoying a book that eventually gets to the point by the end of each edition is not a sin. Some of the "slower" authors don't finish their work in 15 books and that is a long wait indeed.

    Most of the L.E. Modesit, Jr. books I have read have mastered the art of telling a relatively complete story in each edition while allowing for a larger continuity. I appreciate this style of writing but I understand other tastes may vary.

  11. SirTificate says:

    This may be part of the Harry Potter effect. Long books for a child but appealing to readers of all ages. The books are an easy and relatively quick read with lots of action. Individuals who are first introduced to SF or Fantasy via J.K Rowling tend to expect the same of all authors.

    Some authors make the reader work harder. I find that those authors who make me work harder are the ones whose books are lining my shelves. Your books seem to take up a lot of room. It is still a pleasure to start at the beginning and visit my friends.