Sunday, December 27, 2009

The State of Reviewing

by Libby Hellmann

Christmas is over, and since we’ve packed up all our peace and good will until next year, it's time to turn our attention to something less kind and gentle.


You know the story. It used to be you’d write a book. Your publisher would send out ARCs to major trade publications and newspapers. While you probably wouldn’t get reviewed in the New York Times, you could count on Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. And your local newspapers. Those reviews, for which we sat on pins and needles weeks in advance, helped create buzz. Good reviews could make or break library sales, bookstore interest, even word of mouth.

Not any more. First to go was review space in big city newspapers. All of us can point to a paper that no longer exists or, if it does, has pared reviews to the bone. Closer to home was the demise of Drood Review and Mystery News. Then, just a few weeks ago, the death of Kirkus. Say what you want about their last line zingers, a good Kirkus review was cause for celebration. Even worse, there seems to have been a decline in the number of reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. I could usually count on reviews from them. Not this time.

At the same time, we’re seeing an explosion of what’s being called “citizen reviews,” most of them online, all of them written by “readers” as opposed to professionals. I probably first noticed them on lists like Dorothy L, but over the years they’ve picked up steam on Amazon (‘fess up.. how many of us have asked a friend to write a favorable review?) to the point that they’ve been institutionalized with the Amazon Vine program. Reader-oriented websites, like GoodReads and Library Thing encourage them. And that doesn’t even include the proliferation of book review blogs and websites. There are literally hundreds of citizen reviews these days.

Which is the point. Citizen reviews are filling an important void. Many of these reviewers are professional, thoughtful, and take their responsibilities seriously. I’ve been the beneficiary of their work, and I’m grateful for it.

Then there are others.

I was the recent target of a citizen review that has to be the most scathing review I’ve ever received. Anyone clearly has the right to say they hated a book and why, but I think this individual went above and beyond by inferring the type of person I must be because of the subject of the book. He also threw in several racist comments, which were hurtful.

I don’t care how many good reviews you get -- it’s the bad ones we obsess over. And I did. I waited a week to say anything – I didn’t want to be impulsive -- but eventually I took it up with the organization’s owners. They maintained the review didn’t violate their terms of service. Which made me wonder what would.

But the most offensive (at least to me) part was the discovery of a sub-group of citizen reviewers, some of whom consider it a badge of honor to write clever but snarky reviews. “Writing scathing reviews is fun,” the person who critiqued my book said. Someone else agreed, saying “savaging bad writing is fun, and often necessary.” To be fair, I should point out that others in the group challenged those remarks.

I deleted my page from the organization, but it brings up an issue I believe all of us need to grapple with. On one hand, the void of reviews is filling up with new voices. That’s good. And necessary. On the other hand, how far can a review go and still be considered useful? Citizen reviews will undoubtedly be a permanent part of the literary landscape, but at what price? How should an author handle reviews that are over the top? Should we do what author Niteflyr-one did on Amazon, apparently to her regret? Or should we just crack open a bottle of wine and try to let it pass? And yeah, I know the bromide about any publicity being good publicity. Still I wonder.

What do you think?


Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

The scathing review you got was for a book that has been out for a while and won't be hurt by the review, and the guy doesn't read mysteries judging by his favorite authors. i would ignore it.

For every good review you find you'll probably find a bad one too. And I don't mean what they think of the book but how they write reviews also.
The thing about citizen reviews as you call them is that they don't get anywhere near the coverage as mainstream reviews from professionals.

So while it is nice to see reviews that like your work, you should be really overly concerned about those that don't.

Anonymous said...

Brim over I assent to but I think the list inform should have more info then it has.

Dana King said...

I write about 15 reviews a tear, and I'm routinely appalled at what passes for reviews in most circles. They're no more than plot summaries that may spoil a plot twist or two, with a comment at the to say whether the "reviewer" liked the book, or not. The not reviews; they're book reports.

I learned a couple of years ago to do my best to ensure my reviews passed the $25 test: will this review help someone decide whether to spend $25 on this book? That doesn't mean the review can't be witty or fun to read. I'm also not above having some fun with a writer whose success seems disproportionate to the quality of his work. I try to set aside my personal prejudices as best I can, and to identify them when I can't. (Example; If you're into apocalyptic thrillers with more corpses than chapters, then add one star to this rating.) I never review books in genres I don;t like, or have no knowledge of, as I have nothing to say.

Anonymous can always be counted on fr something witty, can't he?

Ann Elle Altman said...

I myself do reviews of novels and I'm always brutally honest. If I don't like a book, I will say so, however, I will never call into question who the person is or spout racial comments. That's disgusting!

I read the review, she did, in my opinion, attack your background if you are indeed Jewish. What she said about the actual story, I couldn't take offense with because I have not read the book.

I have received some bad reviews myself on works I have written and I have obsessed over them for days. Some brutal comments have made me a better writer.

Some of the bad reviews I have received, the author was having a bad day. One broke up with her boyfriend and hated the world. Sometimes I review and I'm PMSing. You don't want to be the target on those days... I read the other three reviews and they're favorable. I would go with the majority.

This is just my opinion.


Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for the feedback, Ann. I appreciated it. Dana, too -- as always you are articulate and sensible. Jon, I get what you're saying, and I would never want to interfere with or restrict anything someone says... but one day these reviews might be the norm, rather than the;s kind of like the Wild Wooly West out there these days...

Sara Paretsky said...

I am opposed to anonymous reviews, and the Internet culture, which allows people to hide behind fake IDs, gives rise to abusive language in all spheres, politics as well as books. I've also been trashed by people who sign their reviews--most memorably by Donna Leon, who enjoyed herself enormously while she took one of my books apart--and then wrote me asking if we could be pen pals--but at least she had the courage to sign the review.

In general, though, paid reviewers take the time to read the book, to know the context--Marilyn Stasio knows crime fiction--and, even if they think the book failed, explain why in neutral language, instead of relishing the chance to spill blood. A lot of these websites feel to me like mobs at the Colisseum--you can get into a frenzy of hate and remain completely anonymous.

And however much one can say, put on your big girl underpants and move on, it's not so easy.

Brian Els said...

A review is valuable if the reviewer has read the book, for one thing, and, for another, has something thoughtful to say about the author's language. Not to say that comments about authors are necessarily valueless--but useful comments in that vein are grounded in a careful reading of the author's work.
Otherwise, the approach of narcissistic reviewers should only be regarded as did Dorothy Parker when she remarked: "What fresh hell is this?"
As when she reviewed the work of an actor whose "Emotions run the gamut from A to B."

Sue T. said...

Libby, I looked at the guy's other reviews and he appears to be a science fiction fan. I suspect I'd give some of his 5-star favorites 1 star just because I'm not a fan of SF.

When I was in college, I took a class in book reviewing from Doris Grumbach, who was a well regarded author and literary critic. One thing she taught us has stuck with me all these years: always keep in mind that someone spent months or even years of their lives working on it, and you should never be cruel. (That doesn't mean that you cannot be critical.) She would have flunked the guy who wrote that Library Thing review.

Dana King said...

No offense meant, and I don't know you, but I can't believe you wrote this and posted it:

Sometimes I review and I'm PMSing. You don't want to be the target on those days.

I'm a guy with a daughter in college. For years men have denied women opportunities because they might want time off when they become pregnant, or they can't be dealt with several days a month because of their periods. For a woman to lend credence to at least part of that skewed point of view by admitting in print she may not meet her usual standards because of PMS is beyond me.

As I said above, please don't take offense, but maybe you should not write reviews on the days when you admit to being impaired, or you should run a disclaimer with the review. Reviews are written for readers first, writers second. The reviewer's bad day shouldn't enter into it at all.

Libby Hellmann said...

Hi, Dana. I understand what you're saying, and I certainly can't speak for Ann, but I took her comment to mean that she's simply more irritable on those days... not that she is or was in any way impaired. We all have moods, men and women alike. Whether that makes a difference in our daily performance is debatable.

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David Ellis said...

I'm as big a fan as anyone of the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas, and I'm sure none of us would want to muzzle this person. What bothers me is that people cannot self-edit. Anyone who writes something that vicious, in my opinion, has personal problems and has just revealed as much to the entire world. You can dislike a book and you can be very clear and direct about that fact (I recall Entertainment Weekly being pretty harsh on me a few years ago) but that is different from a personal attack.

I also agree with Sara's comment about anonymous reviews. We have a long history of supporting anonymous criticism and we should continue to do that, particularly in the political arena, but in this arena of entertainment? Well, it shouldn't be illegal, but it should be considered bad form and, frankly, cowardly.

Bastet said...

Face it, the days of finding a paying gig for book reviews are over. I did many a review in the old days when journalism was healthy. Since I still enjoy doing it, I now review for Technorati's and I do use my real name. (I also do Vine reviews for Amazon, but under my married name--something related to my credit card. Can't change it.)
Some of us are legit out here in the wilds, and we do know how to write a real review, not a plot summary.
That idiot at Library Thing wouldn't get through the front door with that "review." And harping on your ethnicity is a good way of getting the review spiked. He also seems to have a dislike of Chicago with all his comments about the book being some kind of map of intersections. I've read Hellman's work and it's nothing of the kind. She uses Chicago as if the city were a character.
The lone cowboy has written something spiteful and nasty and not helpful at all, and I doubt many people paid any attention to it at all. By now it's history.
Library Thing is not where people go to get book reviews.
Chin up. There are good online reviewers out here. I'll put your latest book on my list for, Libby.

Bastet said...

I forgot this shows my nom de plume at Google. Real name: Lynn Voedisch.

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