Monday, August 20, 2012

What is the Role of Reviewer?

A couple weeks ago a friend asked me for my thoughts on a couple of articles about book reviewers. We had a good conversation and I thought it would make a great blog post topic.

Now before I begin this, I want to clarify that technically I guess I'm a book reviewer. My reviews have appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, Criminal Element and Crimespree Magazine. However, I don't in any way view myself as a reviewer the way Ron Charles or Jacob Silverman are. That may also be one of the points I make in this post, so away we go.

I believe the whole thing started with this article from Jacob Silverman. And then Ron Charles wrote  this one.

Silverman refers to "the mutual admiration society that is today's literary culture." He's critical of the enthusiasm that exists in the social media realms saying,

"...if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you'll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue, and it's having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page."

I'm not sure who is believing that all new books are wonderful, but let's leave that be for right now. And the belief that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. I must be following the wrong people on Twitter. I do see the authors that go back and forth giving each other accolades, and honestly, most of the time, I completely dismiss it. If an author recommends someone just because they are friends or they want to get something in return, it doesn't take more than one book for the readers to catch on. He goes on to say,

"...critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone's book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers."

I don't understand the logic on this one at all. If you could savage someone's book and not offend their sense of friendship BEFORE social media why would social media have changed that? Is he saying that authors are now unable to take the criticism they were able to take before social media?
Or maybe he's saying the rumor mills will fly if such a thing happens?  I guess I'm just dense, because this one is eluding me.

I'm not going to cite the whole article, you can read it if you haven't already and are interested in it. But I am going to cite this last part and then segue into Ron Charles. Silverman says,

"Reviewers shouldn't be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it."

Again, I go back to the statement I made earlier, I don't see myself in the same role as Charles and Silverman. However, I also don't think I prefer to make recommendations over pans because "Twitter encourages it." As a matter of fact, I was making recommendations over pans before I signed up for Twitter. I prefer to make recommendations because I prefer to share my enthusiasm for reading and I prefer to help people find books that will make them excited about reading, not discouraged. Maybe we have to chalk that one up to the teacher in me that just won't die.

The entire world of publishing has changed, is changing and will continue to change. And the role of reviewer has to change with it. To say that all kinds of print publications are disappearing and the world of publishing is changing, but reviewers should be able to do the same thing they've always done in the same manner they've always done it is, in my way of thinking, absurd. Hey! Somebody moved my cheese, dammit! I don't have a problem with publications or bloggers who choose to be "recommendation machines."  How is that different from a publication that prided itself on how many negative reviews it could hand out?

One other thing on Silverman, sorry...he makes mention of Lev Grossman and cites where Grossman said he wouldn't review any books he didn't like. I am totally in favor of this. It's my own policy. But here is where the distinction needs to come in. The option to NOT review has to be there. If someone chooses or is forced to review every book he/she reads - or is assigned to review a book and doesn't have the option to not review it, then he/she should be honest. I don't, in any way, condone false sentiment. And that's especially true for authors blurbing each other's books.

And truly, for mid-list books isn't the exposure what's really valuable?

So that this post doesn't go on forever, and so I can get back to the book I'm reading, let's jump to this statement by Ron Charles (again, you can read the full article at the link above):

"In 15 years, nobody at a barbecue has ever asked me to expound on the weaknesses of a mid-list novel they’ve never heard of."

People want to know what to read in the seas and seas of options out there.  When they look to reviews they aren't looking to see a nice literary debate on the merits of a book. They want to know what they should spend their time and money on.

When I read a book, I'm a slow reader. A 300 page book could take me 8-10 hours to read. Then when I write a review, I tend to obsess over it. On a good day, a review could take me 75-90 minutes. But it isn't unusual for me to spend 2+ hours on a review. I'm not going to invest that kind of time into a book I don't like. And if it's that bad, I'll know by page 50. I use to force myself to read a book all the way to the end. But I don't do that anymore. Why? 1.) Because if you haven't hooked me by page 50, you're doing enough wrong that I wouldn't review you anyway. You should be paying an editor, so check with him/her to find out what that is. 2.) If I didn't receive another book ever, I'd have enough books in my home right now to read a new one every day for the next four years. In other words, there are enough good books to keep me busy. I don't need to punish myself with ones I don't like. 3.) Life is too short to read bad books.

I have no problems with people who choose to write negative reviews, provided they are being honest and not mean or petty. By that I mean they are offering up honest criticism of the work and not taking shots at the author or griping about the price or anything else unrelated to the merits of the writing. I have blogging friends that write worthwhile negative reviews. I don't dislike them if they don't like a book I did. That's like me not liking anyone who doesn't like tacos.

Social media is here. Telephones, radios, and televisions increased the ability of people to communicate, whether for the good or the bad, that in turn changed culture. It changed the needs of the people. Social media has done that same thing. Those who can't or won't change with it, will be making buggy whips tomorrow.


Lesa August 20, 2012 at 8:26 AM  

Excellent points, Jen. Most of the reviews on my blog are positive. Like you, I want to recommend books others will want to read, and I don't want to bother with books I don't enjoy. I have even pulled out of blog book tours when the book wasn't right for me. I read part of one, and told the tour organizer, I'm not going to be able to recommend this, so I'm pulling out. They respect that. I have too many good books waiting to be read to bother with ones that I find uninteresting. It has nothing to do with social media. It has a great deal to do with what I enjoy reviewing and recommending.

bermudaonion August 20, 2012 at 9:10 AM  

This is a great post. I certainly don't consider myself a reviewer like Ron Charles of Jacob Silverman either. I do write about every book I read and I try to be honest about it. I think we add value because we create buzz about the books - I don't think anyone who reads my blog thinks I'm a literary genius.

Jen August 20, 2012 at 11:05 AM  

Thanks ladies.

Kathy, the other notable point that should be made for bloggers is the trust element. All the latest research says reviews in publications rate pretty low in people's decision to try something. But recommendations from friends are huge!

Linda Rodriguez August 20, 2012 at 12:52 PM  

Jen, I totally agree with you. I won't review a book if I don't like it and can't recommend it, even if it's written by a friend.

What's not mentioned in these two posts is that a lot of literary reviewers used to like to review books they could "savage." It boosted their name recognition and readership and gave them a chance to make witty and snide remarks in their reviews. But it didn't help people find good books to read.

Now, we're inundated with books, many of which are self-published and vary in value from excellent to extremely poor. I want to help my readers find books they'll enjoy reading. I could write negative reviews, snarky and sarcastic and full of verbal acrobatics to show off, every day for years, and not one of those would help someone find something excellent to read.

Peppermint Ph.D. August 23, 2012 at 7:13 PM  

I review most everything I read, but I'm very selective about what I choose to read. Therefore, I do like most of what I read. On purpose. Because, like you, my home is filled with books I can read otherwise. As much as I love perusing the big time reviews, I sometimes get tired of their big word, fluffy, see how fancy I am and you didn't impress me attitudes. Honestly, some of them are just aggravated that someone else is getting a piece of their pie and the public actually enjoys the recommended slice more! :) Great post!

TStevens September 14, 2012 at 2:01 PM  

If I really do not like a book I try to point out everything I liked about a book before I venture to say what I didn't like about it. They tend to be my longest reviews.

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