Your Dog Is Ugly: Thoughts on 1-Star Reviews

I really don’t understand the one-star review.

I don’t like them personally, but I do get the idea behind writing a negative review, letting all and sundry know that you really, really didn’t like a book, movie, TV show, consumer product or service. I’d like to believe someone writing a negative review feels an obligation to potential purchasers, informing them of deficiencies in their own personal experience with the product at hand.

But … mousing over to just that one star and then clicking it — man, that’s like salting the wound, kicking someone who’s already been knocked down. That sole star makes it personal, like saying: Not only was what you did worse than lousy, but your dog is ugly, too.

I don’t understand the need for that.

pacific_ver3Recently, I’ve been on a run of reading non-fiction war memoirs and in that vein I re-watched my DVD of HBO’s mini-series The Pacific.  I think it’s a great production, filled with interesting performances and some compelling stories about a fascinating theater of war that is too often overshadowed by World War II’s European Theater of Operations.

Curious, the last time I visited Amazon I clicked on The Pacific and checked out the reviews. I was surprised — although by this point I really shouldn’t be — by the number of (you guessed it) one-star reviews. The “top” one-star review, the one most people found “helpful” was titled “There’s no historical context: Who said Hollywood was dead” and proceeded to say “everything” was wrong with the series.

The reviewer went on to list his issues, which really boiled down (to me) to being overly disappointed that it was, after all, a movie and not an exact depiction of life in the Pacific Theater from 1941-1945; instead, it was a “soap opera” centered on the personal lives of three soldiers. He added some quibble about the series being too lenient on the Japanese, who after all perpetuated far worse atrocities than American soldiers, using the Rape of Nanking as his example.

Certainly the reviewer is entitled to his opinion. I won’t dwell too much on my opinion here, which is that he missed the point of the series entirely.

Movies, TV and books have a long, long history of taking liberties with the facts, as have serious non-fiction books; the cliché is true: history is written by the winners. A certain amount of skepticism is healthy and necessary. Although there is clear and welcome attention to small details, The Pacific was intended to be … wait for it … a study of Americans fighting a very different war from their peers in Europe, not a history lesson.

512mvvWgz2L._SX300_I read and greatly enjoyed With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge, one of the two books that served as the basis for the screenplay (I started but did not finish Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific; the author’s style of writing didn’t “work” for me). The writers and producers of the mini-series definitely captured the essence of the war Sledge wrote about, even while merging or omitting important events and characters.

Back to the topic.

I get that the reviewer was unhappy The Pacific did not meet his personal expectations. He also wasn’t wrong to say it was historically inaccurate, although in my mind he really should have expected that to begin with. As for not making the Japanese look more evil, well I’m sure he realized the Rape of Nanking was in 1938, three years before the events of the mini-series (my counter-opinion is the extreme actions of both sides were well represented. Anyway, his opinion/my opinion — neither right, neither wrong, both valid).

But then the reviewer goes on to praise the excitement of the battlefield scenes, even calling them “riveting,” which would appear to refute the earlier assessment that “everything” was wrong with the series. Isn’t “riveting” worth another star? I know, I know. I’m asking for consistency and where humans are involved, well that’s kind of a pipe dream now, isn’t it?

Here’s my point. Go ahead and write a review to let others know about your experience with the product. But remember it is your experience, and others will — inevitably, because again we’re all humans and all different — not necessarily have the same experience. You’re not, regardless of what your mother told you, the smartest person in the world (I’m reminded daily that I am not).

IMG-20130513-01033And remember, too, that the item you’re reviewing was created by a person, or a group of people, and some or all involved are proud of what they’ve done which likely involved great effort and dedication. I’ve written two novels which some said were good and others said were mediocre; regardless, I love them both and am proud of my accomplishment.

Do your review and be as honest as you want, make your points. But don’t tell someone their dog is ugly. There is no need for that.


9 responses to “Your Dog Is Ugly: Thoughts on 1-Star Reviews

  1. I like this! Thanks for speaking out. Reviews are to critique the work, not the personality or life of the author.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve had people say my work is “riveting” too and then give me one star because they said it was full of fragmented sentences, runs ons and sometimes sentences didn’t have verbs – and said it was therefore all wrong and full of copyediting errors. If I was writing a thesis, newspaper article or report then I would totally agree – but writing novels is called “creative” writing for a reason and I developed my style of writing with a world renown editor who helped take my first book to a best seller. So say you don’t like my style, but don’t call it “wrong” or an “error” and give me one star – I wonder what the reviewer would have made of JP Donleavy who often dispenses with verbs in order to create a visceral experience of a character or scene, or John Fowles who has sentences 13 lines long with thoughts separated just by semicolons – oh goodness, that would never pass the Microsoft Word check for grammar – dear me 🙂

    It’s like someone who likes realistic paintings that are like photographs giving a modern art piece one star and calling it bad art. It’s not necessarily bad art, you just don’t like the style, so say so, but don’t condemn the work itself.

    I’ve also checked on reviews of renown writers, giants in their field and seen one star reviews from people who totally missed the point … and so I just wonder …… again, as an author I want honest reviews but they need to be informed honest reviews and I couldn’t agree more, don’t tell me my dog is ugly. Thanks for writing such an honest blog Scott – you have said what so many of us think but don’t dare say as it sounds like we are being over defensive – and we’re not. Just reasonable.

    • The phenomenon of 1-star reviews for “classic” works astounds me. Dickens or Hemingway get 1-star and are called “boring”? Seriously?

      As you astutely point out, the key is “informed” honest reviews. A true review should look at as much as possible of the environment surrounding the work. For example, I read “A Farewell To Arms” and found the prose wooden; at the time of publication, of course, the book was a sensation and considered quite exciting. So, in my review should I go on and on about how boring I found it? Or do I comment that the prose is dated and reflective of the time it was written? I prefer the latter, personally.

      Thank you again, sir, for your comment and your time spent in my corner of the webosphere. I greatly appreciate it.

  3. I recently got into a bit of an argument on Goodreads of our “obligation” to “tell it like it” so other readers don’t part with good money by being forthright but looking for what’s good as well. Glad to see I’m not alone. There are some who argue don’t write a negative review at all; if you can’t say something nice… I think that is incorrect as well. Give honest but not ugly feedback when necessary. Fortunately, there are so many good books that this is relatively rare problem.

    • In general I prefer not to do negative reviews because frankly I’m not confident in my own taste to feel comfortable telling someone else what they should or should not read.

      Even in my positive reviews, I do however attempt to point out issues which I feel are universal enough to catch the attention of most reasonable people. A larger number of typos or grammatical errors, for example. I know many people are put-off by typos, and some will ignore an otherwise interesting or exciting story over them (I was like that myself, before publishing my own books and finding out how hard those buggers are to eliminate).

      “Honest but not ugly” is a great way to look at it. If you give a negative or neutral review. That was exactly my point in this post, which was probably not nearly as clear as I thought it would be at the onset. 🙂

      Thank you very much for your comment, and for taking the time to read this. Come back any time, and feel free to browse around, perhaps something else that dripped out of my head will interest you as well. 🙂

  4. I think there is a place for them- but they should be RARE. The story, editing, everything should be complete garbage.

    Honestly, I think a ten-star system would be more realistic, but no one consulted me for some odd reason. I read a lot of books that are firmly between three and four (or four and five) stars, and which way do you lean? Frustrating.

    • An excellent point about books that fall *between* rating levels. I’ve read more than a few “… and a half” books and always round up because that’s what I think is most consistent with my personal review policy. Like an umpire calling balls & strikes, being consistent is probably the key. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting. Please feel to browse around and add any other questions or comments you may have.

      • +100 Dean points for a baseball analogy. I think that’s true, but I want to save five stars for something that is *amazing* (and one star for something brutally bad)

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