Monday, 6 September 2010

Who reviews the reviewers?

I’ve developed a couple of techniques when selecting novels for me and my wife to read. 
First, I listen carefully to the conveyor belt of brilliant reviewers who inhabit Radio 4’s A Good Read. Second, in the case of my wife, when she gives positive feedback for a book, I use Amazon listmania to find readers who share literary common ground with her, and then select books from the list that she hasn’t read. Going the extra mile by checking the Amazon reviews from the public for those selections places a very sweet cherry on top of an already luscious cake.

Trust Sue, she's a CBE: BBC

Why do I put so much faith in Joe Public’s views?

Well, I’ve learned that given enough responses (sampling: it’s a statistical thing) the average score tends to tally pretty well with my view. For instance, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the best book I’ve read in the last twelve months: twenty-two 5-stars and one 4-star (99% average). My other favourite of the year, The Road: 83% from 544 reviews. At the other end of the scale, The Resurrectionist received 44% (89 reviews), and middle-of-the-roader, Cloud Atlas, scored 74% (187 reviews). My wife’s favourite, The House of Sand and Fog: 85% from 41 reviews. All about right.

What if you suspect the average has been artificially dragged down?

Then it’s time to check the veracity of the 1-star reviews. I do this because I have found that many 1-star ratings are given because the delivery was late, or the item (if electronic) isn’t compatible with Apple (serves you right), or the reviewer hasn’t got a clue. The last kind – particularly if it’s a book review - can be spotted easily by the grammar used, specifically: a lack of capitalisation; ludicrous punctuation; the word ‘definitely’ spelt as ‘definately’, and/or ‘disappointing’ spelt ‘dissapointing’.

Do not trust PDF, it's statistics:

Here are some classic 1-star reviews:

“i have not read this book yet. but there is one interesting thing on its cover, the word "sand". it looks like average american mentality is set to mention this word when it comes to anything iranian. in other words, no matter what the scenario is, this word has to be included in there to signify it iranian. despite your brainwash, iran does not have as much desert as you have been programmed to think it does. as a matter of fact, other than sands of the persian gulf beaches and the caspian sea, there is no other place in iran that is covered by sand. another piece of information for your geography that you did not learn in the high school: all together, iran has less desert than the state of california. the world has changed; it is time to join the planet earth and learn about it.”

“I didnt like this book. I am currently studying it for an English exam and after reading it twice i;m affraid i do not like it. I did not like the way the book jumped around i feel it had no story to it. I feel this is ashame because i have read and loved all of Clarke's other novels.”

“1984. I read this classic piece of literature recommended by friend Rupert a Aussie bloke But i was very dissapointed indeed with it This could never happen the people would not allow it .Its just to far fetched to be true Life is to be enjoyed not to be mulled over in so called historicism memorabilia

So if you find a review with 1-star examples like these, you know to ignore them, and recalculate the average. Still, no system is perfect, and it is possible to get false positives. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight received 85% from 928 reviews, yet it is unreadable drivel – popular, but drivel. So, when you come across a novel that has crossed beyond the hype-barrier, you’re on your own.

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