Of course I read all of your one-stars! And here’s a few reasons why readers go nuclear on books, and particularly on romance titles.
1- Because the book was just… not good.
An obvious and rather underwhelming starting point, I know, but let’s get that out of the way: sometimes a book sucks. Pacing lags, character development is absent, readers fall into plot holes the size of Helm’s Deep, and from the voice to the style, there is simply nothing to salvage in the manuscript. These one-stars rain all over books that weren’t ready for publishing and they act as a punishing reminder that no matter how much an author —or their publisher— want to share —and sell— a book, they must remember that there’s a paying audience at the other end of the publishing pipe. You can’t expect the same kind of review from your Wattpad buddies than from people who paid even just $.99 to read your book. Bear that one-star like a crown of thorns and learn from it, friend.
2 – You were triggered.
Here’s a widespread reason for a one-star, and particularly in Romance, a genre that deals with all matters of sexual and social power dynamics. You bought that billionaire erotica hoping for a good time, but this time, the kidnapping, the mind games, the stalking, the power imbalance, the cockiness, the quasi-rape, the white savior thing: any or all of these became too much, and that particular story left a sour taste in your mouth. I include in this the recent string of WW2 and Nazi-themed offerings: these usually garner a copious load of “trigger one-stars” sometimes even from people who haven’t read them.
I see more and more calls to list all potential trigger warnings in book blurbs these days. Some authors do append theirs with a short notice about “disturbing themes,” but these addenda will often remain generic, chiefly to avoid spoilers, but also because no one knows what everyone’s triggers are.
Anyway, take that one-star, author, you’ve earned it fair and square with that non-consensual eel enema scene.
3 – You did not sign for this.
A close cousin to “You were triggered.” These one-stars, are again, endemic to romance, a genre where conventions and world rules weigh perhaps more heavily than in, say, Sci-Fi. Here, I’m talking mandatory Happily Ever After, Christian Romance must be clean, Billionaire romance must contain graphic sex, SEAL/cop/Firemen must be super-honorable heroes who don’t cheat, etc.
It goes like this: you spotted an oiled male torso on what is advertised as a “small town romance,” in which a relatable heroine falls for her kind-hearted and hunky contractor. Your Kindle and your body were ready. Except that the contractor actually CHEATED on the heroine, and then there was this side-plot about him rescuing her from a cult and shooting the cult leader with a grenade launcher to escape. HOLD ON. That is not what you signed for. The book you bought was pretty much already written in your head: it should have been every other contractor romance you’ve ever read, warm and comforting in its predictability. You would have tolerated an evil ex or even a secret baby, but not any of that bizarre shit! And here’s another one-star for you, author.
4 – Girl, you got jelly
Ah, my absolute favorite kind of one-star: the one where you fell in love with the hero, and predictably grew more and more resentful of the heroine as you turned the pages. Ultimately, this toxic and one-sided crush culminated in a vengeful one-star review.
These reviews the easiest to spot: they all contain a short, understated paragraph mentioning that you kind of liked the hero because he was hot, gentle, patient, brave, but… OH MY GOD, HOW COULD HE PUT UP WITH THAT WHINY, SELF-ABSORBED BITCH! A wall of text will follow, dissecting in excruciating detail every last one of the heroine’s real or perceived flaws. Like vultures circling above a dying foal, these reviews orbit around a single, crucial point: Heroine didn’t deserve the Hero and she a bitch.
It’s okay girl, you fell in love and became jealous. It happens to the best of us, especially in romance, a genre that’s purposefully designed for you to immerse yourself in the story and identify to the heroine. But the thing is, if you’re the heroine, well, Lady Charleena can’t be. Which means, you guessed it, a one-star for you, author.
5 – You need a bit of self-validation
I think our fifth reason for one-starring a romance book is a common sin among writers, but readers don’t know it because most of us feel squeamish at the idea of publicly thrashing a title and its author.
This one-one star is all about ego, it’s about advertising your intellectual superiority to the world by dealing a clever and crushing blow to a piece of pure literary dung. Of course, you don’t hate the author: you feel nothing but a sense of vague contempt laced with pity for this struggling invertebrate as they attempt—in vain—to dribble inadequate drivel on the page. You could have done better. Your cat could have done better. I am guilty of thinking that way too sometimes, for example as a self-reinforcement technique back when I was submitting to publishers: “You can do better, so write on! If [famous scapegoat author] can get published with that, you can too!”
These reviews are most commonly found on the Goodreads page of anything ever written by EL James, whose popularity has attracted hordes of predators looking for an easy kill. Romance at large is a favorite target because it gets a bad rep for being often too formulaic, and, some claim, poorly written. This is, of course, a convenient blanket statement, and fertile ground for contemptuous one-star reviews aimed at your book, author.
6 – You’re a closet romance reader.
Here again, #6 is a close cousin to #5. You don’t read romance. Not you. You LOVED Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana. You DEVOURED Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and can usually be found lurking in the aisles of your favorite Brooklyn bookstore. You read speculative Sci-Fi, contemporary History books. Of course, you’ve read NK Jemisin. And every other Hugo recipient before her. Romance? Bah! Never. Or just for a good laugh, because “friends” recommended that one title.
You knew it was going to be terrible —why did you even buy Regency erotica in the first place? You have no idea!— But you dove in anyway, and, oh the horror! The purple prose! The stupid, stupid heroine! The hero was kind of okay, though… Anyway, let’s round it to a one-star and cleanse ourselves of this filth!
You girl, are a fiend: you’re the jelly reviewer and the self-validating one wrapped together with a big pink bow, except you would let CIA beefcakes waterboard you to death before you admit that you do read romance, at least once in a while. You’re the reader for which the term “guilty pleasure” was invented. And don’t hide behind that copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: we all know you one-click bought EL James’s The Mister! And after you’d had your fix, you one-starred it on Goodreads with a snarky one-liner.