My professional life has swung more and more to writing about books over the last few years. This means that in addition to writing a lot more reviews than I used to, I read a lot more reviews than I used to. It also means that I’ve developed some opinions about how to write useful, thoughtful reviews, and here’s the one I truly wish everyone would start paying attention to: the words “I wanted” don’t belong in book reviews.
I’m not arguing against critical reviews. I’m all for critical reviews, both the ones that point out misogyny or racism or homophobia in books, and the ones that simply express an opinion about something that didn’t work — plot, character, prose, etc. Reviews are subjective. If someone doesn’t like a book, and they can explain why without using the words “I wanted,” that information can help other readers decide whether or not they want to read it. But if that review is just sentence after sentence trolling the book because it wasn’t the book that 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,” it probably means that you should have DNFed that book. It almost certainly doesn’t mean the book you read was bad. It almost certainly does mean that you’ve written a bad review — not a critical review, a bad one.
A few months ago, when I saw this tweet from author Rabih Alameddine, I cheered:
I used to do this all the time. Scrolling back through my Goodreads reviews, I eventually come across ones full of “I wanted” sentences. Some of them are vague, as in: I wanted more. Some are specific, as in: I wanted to know more about X character, but the book is about Y character. 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 of this other stuff kept getting in the way.
As I see it, there are two kinds of “I wanted” statements that appear in reviews, both of which I used to employ with some frequency. The first is the kind Alameddine is talking about, statements that have nothing to do with the book at all. These statements are usually about the reader. They’re not even about the reader’s experience of the book — they’re about the reader’s experience of the book they wish they’d read. “I wanted this book to be a novel, but it was a short story collection, ugh, I hated it!” Or: “I wanted these two characters to end up together, and they didn’t, and I just can’t ever forgive the author for that.” You get the idea.
Who do these kind of statements serve? If you’re privately reviewing books only for yourself, fine. Rage all you want about how the book wasn’t what you wanted. But if you’re writing a review that anyone else is going to see, this whole “I wanted the author to do something and they didn’t do it!” needs to go. Authors don’t owe us anything. It’s not their job to write the books we want; it’s their job to write. And it’s our job, as readers, to read — and to meet books where they are. Don’t like happy endings? No prob. But don’t write “I wanted a more ambiguous, less tidy ending” in your review of a romance novel, and then give it two stars because it wasn’t the sad book you wanted.
The other kind of “I wanted” statements that I see all the time are actually valid criticisms or observations clouded in this vague “I wanted” language. These statements are even more infuriating to me because the vast majority of them could be rewritten into thoughtful reviews.
I often see phrases along the lines of “I wanted more from this” or “I wanted more depth” or “I wanted the author to explore this theme more thoroughly.” In some cases, this kind of language is as bad as the other kind of “I wanted” statement. Maybe someone wrote a memoir about their relationship with their mother, and touched briefly on their experience in culinary school. And because you’re really into 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 with more depth.”
But in a lot of cases, these “I wanted more” sentences are actually getting at something the author is or isn’t doing. Whether that thing is good or bad (or, more actually, whether it works for you and why) can help other readers figure out if that book is going to work for them.
I’ll give you an example from my own reading life. Earlier this year I read Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. It’s a weird and beautiful book about a woman whose scientific submarine mission goes very wrong. When she comes home to her wife, she’s a completely different person. Both women are struggling to understand what happened beneath the sea.
I went into this book expecting a literary mystery, and when I got to the end, I was pissed. Armfield doesn’t explain anything! There’s 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, a tidy resolution, and rated it poorly because I didn’t get any of those things. Happily, I’ve gotten better at writing reviews and thinking critically about books. So instead of writing, “I wanted closure and there wasn’t any, this book sucks!” I wrote:
“I loved the first half! But then my brain started doing that “explain! explain! please explain!” dance, and the lack of explanation was just too distracting. So, for readers like me, who crave explanations, maybe know that this is a book that explains nothing. If you prepare yourself for that, and can manage your expectations, it’s a beautiful story about grief and transformation.”
I ended up loving this book, after I’d had some time to sit with it, and wrote a much longer review 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 so many purposes. They can be a way to thoughtfully engage with art and to work through your own feelings about a book. They are tools of persuasion. Reviews that encourage people not to read books that they probably won’t like anyway are just as worthy as reviews that act as powerful invitations, that elicit a reader’s curiosity about something new or unfamiliar. Glowing reviews and critical reviews both have their place. But the words “I wanted” do belong in any kind of book review — positive, negative, or in between. It’s time we ditched them.