My professional life has shifted more and more towards writing books over the past few years. This means that in addition to writing a lot more reviews than before, I read a lot more reviews than before. It also means I’ve developed some opinions on how to write useful and thoughtful reviews, and here’s the one I really wish everyone would start paying attention to: the words “I wanted to” don’t have their place in book reviews.
I do not dispute the critical opinions. I’m all for reviews, both those who point out misogyny, racism, or homophobia in the books, and those who simply voice an opinion on something that didn’t work out – plot, character, prose , etc. Reviews are subjective. If someone doesn’t like a book and can explain why without using the words “I wanted to,” that information can help other readers decide whether or not they want to read it. But if that review is just sentence after sentence lagging behind the book because it wasn’t the book the reviewer wanted to read – that’s not helpful, and it’s not even a real critical review.
Let me let you in on a little secret. If your book review is peppered with the words “I wanted to,” it probably means you should have DNFired that book. It certainly doesn’t mean that the book you read was bad. It’s almost certainly Is means you wrote a bad review – not a review, a bad one.
A few months ago, when I saw this tweet from author Rabih Alameddine, I clapped:
I used to do this all the time. Scrolling through my Goodreads reviews, I ended up coming across phrases full of “I wanted to”. Some of them are vague, as in: I wanted more. Some are specific, as in: I wanted to know more about character X, but the book is about character Y. Or: I wanted the author to focus more on plot and less on description. Or: I wanted this book to be a love story, but all that other stuff kept bothering me.
In my opinion, there are two types of “I wanted to” statements that appear in reviews, both of which I used with some frequency. The first is the kind Alameddine talks about, statements that have nothing to do with the book. These statements generally relate to the reader. They aren’t even about the reader’s experience of the book – they’re about the reader’s experience of the book they would have liked to read. “I wanted this book to be a novel, but it was a collection of short stories, ugh, I hated it!” Or: “I wanted these two characters to end up together, and they didn’t, and I just can’t forgive the author for that.” You had the idea.
Who are these kinds of statements for? If you’re reviewing books privately just for yourself, fine. Rage all you want that the book wasn’t what you wanted. But if you’re writing a review that someone else is going to see, that whole “I wanted the author to do something and he didn’t!” must leave. The authors owe us nothing. It’s not their job to write the books we want; it is their job to write. And it’s our job, as readers, to read – and encounter books where they are. Don’t like happy endings? No problem. But don’t write “I wanted a more ambiguous, less orderly ending” in your review of a romance novel, then give it two stars because it wasn’t the sad book you wanted.
The other type of “I wanted” statements I see all the time are actually valid criticisms or shadowed observations in that vague “I wanted”. These statements are even more infuriating to me because the vast majority of them could be rewritten as thoughtful criticism.
I often see sentences like “I wanted more of this” or “I wanted more depth” or “I wanted the author to explore this theme in more depth”. In some cases, this type of language is just as bad as the other type of “I wanted to” statement. Maybe someone wrote a memoir about their relationship with their mother and briefly touched on their experience at culinary school. And because you really love cooking, you were much more interested in that minor detail, so you write a disappointed review about how you “wanted them to explore that theme in more depth.”
But in many cases, those “I wanted more” phrases actually touch on something the author does or doesn’t do. Whether that thing is good or bad (or, more actually, if it works for you and why) can help other readers determine if this book will work for them.
I’ll give you an example from my own reading life. Earlier this year I read Our women under the sea by Julia Armfield. It’s a strange and beautiful book about a woman whose scientific underwater mission goes horribly wrong. When she comes home with her wife, she is a completely different person. The two women struggle to understand what happened under the sea.
I went into this book expecting a literary mystery, and when I got to the end, I was pissed. Armfield explains nothing! There is no resolution! What the hell happened at the bottom of the ocean? ! Years ago I would have written a scathing review about how I wanted answers, closure, an orderly resolution, and graded it poorly because I had received none of it. Luckily, I got better at writing reviews and thinking critically about books. So instead of writing: “I wanted closure and there was none, this book sucks!” I wrote:
“I loved the first half! But then my brain started doing this “Explain!” Explain! Please explain!” dance, and the lack of explanation was just too distracting. “Explains nothing. If you prepare for this and can manage your expectations, it’s a great story of grief and transformation.
I ended up liking this book, after I had time to sit down in it, and I wrote a much longer exam about genre expectations and meeting books where they are and the joy of reading a book as it is meant to be read.
Reviews serve several purposes. They can be a way to thoughtfully engage with the art and work through your own feelings about a book. They are tools of persuasion. Reviews that encourage people not to read books they probably won’t like anyway are just as valid as reviews that act as powerful invitations, which make a reader curious about something. new or unknown. Both rave reviews and critical reviews have their place. But the words “I wanted” belong in any type of book review – positive, negative, or somewhere in between. It’s time to let them go.