Sunday, March 30, 2014

Of Beer And Books

As a writer who knows a lot of other writers, I have seen and heard a lot of reviews on books. As a writerit may be damaging to me personally to say this—but I have seen a lot of stupid reviews. I’ve seen the book named The Three Little Kitties That Saved My Life get a 1-star review because the reader didn’t care for cats. I have seen other books get panned because the reviewer’s e-reader broke halfway through it. I have seen many a review that did not like the book they read because they were not fond of the genre it belonged to. Think up any stupid reason for giving a bad review and chances are you will find it mentioned by some reviewer.

I have been told that it will do no good to complain because those are the rules of the game; reviewers can say whatever they want to say. But that is only true because nobody is holding up a higher standard. As well as books, I also like beer. I will often go to Beer Advocate, a site for people who appreciate beer. They have a beer rating section at their website where anybody can give their rating to any beer they have tried. You would think that of the two, beer reviews would be less well done than book reviews, but you would be wrong. Almost to a one, the beer reviews are thoughtfully done, expressing the reviewer’s knowledge of their subject rather than their biases. The reason that beer is rated more fairly and intelligently on Beer Advocate than books are on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, etc. is that Beer Advocate has a system for rating beer and both the site and the community hold reviewers to certain standards. It’s really that simple. With that in mind, let’s try to set some standards for book reviews based upon Beer Advocate’s system for reviewing beer.


Respect brewers
Behind each beer is a person with feelings and pride. Beer might be their passion, livelihood or entire life. Even if you don't like a beer, at the very least have some respect and be constructive with your criticism.

The same should hold true for authors. The vast majority of them are working really hard to create something they are proud of. Respect that.


Keep style in mind
Say you don't like light beers. We suggest that you do one of two things: 1) don't review them if you know you already don't like them - your opinion will be tainted. 2) Review with an open mind and for what the beer is trying to be, not what you think the beer should be or pit it against the kick-ass India Pale Ale that you had earlier.

Same for books. If you like Sci Fi, it’s probably best that you do not review romance novels. If you do review a romance novel, don’t compare it to Asimov or complain about the lack of aliens. I know it seems simple, but apparently it needs saying.


What to look for

Beer reviews are broken down into 5 categories to be evaluated: Appearance, Smell, Taste, Mouthfeel, Overall. Each of these catagories are rated from 1 to 5, with the “Overall” category being an opportunity to award points to those qualities that don’t fall neatly into the other categories.


Books should be rated by the main components of what constitutes a quality read. To simplify matters, let’s deal with novels for now. Let’s come up with some basic categories, borrowing only loosely from Aristotle’s Poetics.

Grammar and Spelling –One or two mistakes are acceptable, much more than that and one has to start thinking about deducting a point. A book would merit a one star if it is demonstrably proven to contain errors on almost every page.

Plot –One can refer to Aristotle on this category, but let me give you my thoughts. Is it of interest? Is it plausible? Does the action flow logically from what we know of the characters and the setting rather than involving a deus ex machina? Is it without any obvious flaws? If all of these are strong, there is no reason not to give it a rating of 5.

Characters –Do you care for them? Not every character has to be likeable, but the reader needs someone to connect with. Are they believable? Are their motivations clear? Are they interesting?

Themes and Ideas –Does the author involve you in ideas that relate to your real life and are you better off as a person for having read his work?

Style and Use of Language –Does the use of language and art make you further appreciate the craftsmanship that is writing? Sometimes reading a master of wordsmithing is joy enough.

Overall—Here is your opportunity to rate the intangibles.


Here you have a brief outline that could be used as a standard for everyone who reviews a book. It would be easily enforceable and would lead to a higher overall degree of reviews. There’s nothing wrong with demanding a little bit more from reviewers: if it is good enough for beer, it is good enough for books.


One last bit of advice from Beer Advocate that also applies to book reviewers: DON’T REVIEW WHILE INTOXICATED!


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