Sunday, July 1, 2012

Reviewing the Evidence

Time was, a writer put out a book, gritted his/her teeth, and waited first for the trade reviews and then (if he or she was lucky) reviews from the consumer press.  Sometimes the reviews reaffirmed a writer's faith that he or she had made the right career choice, and sometimes they made him or her long for a nice, undemanding life on an assembly line.

Good or bad, though we knew what we were going to get: a relatively brief, professionally written review by someone who had churned out enough of them to know it wasn't an eighth-grade book report and that spoilers were a no-no.  Occasionally, there was what everyone since Malcolm Gladwell calls an "outlier": something off the general statistical curve, a review by someone who either just hated the book or gave it a rave.  We all knew which kind of review we preferred, but we also understood the structure that produced them; reasonably competent people, under pressure and underpaid, sometimes exceeding expectations.

Now, though, we live in a strange new world.  Print reviews are disappearing from print publications (and the publications are disappearing, too), and the ancient and occasionally admirable literary form called the book review is now being done overwhelmingly by amateurs.

In principle, this is fine with me. I'm actually more interested in what a mystery reader thinks of a book than I am in Michiko Kakutani's opinion.  But the new system is open to new kinds of abuse.

We've all seen books with the invariable two or three five-star ratings from people who may well be the author's friends and family.  These are often offset by a substantially larger number of one- and two-star reviews.  Several writers have recently been outed for attempting to address that imbalance by opening multiple Amazon accounts solely to write five-star reviews for their own books.  Some have even written such reviews under their own name, which strikes me as almost endearingly clueless.

More meretriciously, some assholes (sorry, but it's the right word) have been creating multiple accounts in order to post one-star pans of books chosen for purely malicious purposes.  These reviews are distinguished by their barely literate prose and by duplicating whole sentences from review to review.  These damp squibs are so badly written they'd draw an F even on a low curve, but they also plagiarize each other.  They're the Amazon version of graffiti, and if I had my way the people who write them would have their fingers Superglued together so they'd have to type with their elbows.

At the other extreme, we now have book bloggers such as Beth Crowley and Jen Forbus who are both skillful and responsible, by which I mean that they understand what it takes to write a book and never sink to the level where they use someone's year of work as a straight line for a wisecrack.  These people are becoming an indispensable part of a traditional publisher's game plan.

Writing a book is a risky activity.  We sit all alone for six months to a year, nursing an idea in the wholly subjective belief that it's branching out and assuming a kind of structure, that it might eventually be something that someone, somewhere, might want to read.  And then it comes out and some twit who probably couldn't spot the verb in STOP HERE squishes it with something he/she thinks is clever.  And I don't care what the other reviews say, most writers' first reaction to a negative review is, "busted at last" because almost all of us feel like pretenders.

All writers really want is uncritical adoration.  But we'll settle for a fair shake.  Generally speaking, I think the preponderance of amateur and semi-amateur reviewers is probably as good a sifting mechanism, or even a better one, than the old meritocracy of professionals.  So now, with THE FEAR ARTIST coming out in a couple of weeks, I'm in the familiar state of suspended animation to see whether people like my new baby.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Tim, people love your new baby. I was singing its praises to a group of voracious readers earlier today. Keep 'em coming!

  2. As a three-star review(ing) general, Tim, I'm glad you spoke out on this subject. It's occupied more space on the writing blogs these days than just about anything else.

    I love your quote, "[M]ost writers' first reaction to a negative review is, 'busted at last' because almost all of us feel like pretenders."

    I think your observation applies to achievers in virtually every calling, both in and out of the arts.

    But in the arts, especially writing, where criticism is so easy to launch without fear of consequences, we must try to steel ourselves as best we can to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews from schemers, scamers, and the just plain malevolent whose natural talents suit them better for membership in Congress than an honest living. (With inspirational thanks to Bill and Mark).

  3. Tim, your post was right on. Especially the comments about the decline of professonalism in reviewers. Writing books is a lonely lengthy process. In other endeavors, we know very quickly how we are doing because if our work stinks, we get fired.

    I can't bring myself to write savage reviews even about self-published books that should never be in print. If its poor, I summarize the plot. If its just awful, I won't review it at all.

  4. has become the largest marketplace for books, but the original democratic intent of its book review process might be seen as devolving into anarchy. Is it time for an exploration of where the Big River is taking us?

    Please visit The Big River Review.

  5. Have no fear (pun intended), Tim, The Fear Artist will be VERY well received! Will there be absolutely NO bad reviews? Sorry, can't promise you that (statistics, you know?), but I can promise that the overall average of reviews will be approximately 4 to 4.5 out of 5 (and that's the AVERAGE). Mine will be 5, never doubt it!

    I'm, perhaps, not the best of reviewers, as I'm more of a "book recommender." If I can't say something good about a book, I usually don't say it. So, I can be accused of only handing out 3, 4, 5 stars, that's the way it goes. I DO hand out 0, 1, 2 stars, I just keep my hand in my pocket when I do.

    One thing you alluded to that REALLY pisses me off from a review-reader point of view, and you alluded to this, is when a review is nothing but a complete plot synopsis, giving away the entire (or most of the) story, and occasionally followed by a single line, "Highly recommended" or "Avoid like the plague." Come on, people, potential readers don't want YOU to tell them the story, that's what the book's for! A review should talk about WHY a book is good or bad, not just recap the book. Pure laziness.

  6. @Everett--point well taken on plot summaries. However, there is a sophiscated way of doing this that doesn't include either spoilers or glowing or negative comments.

    The reviews I write are usually for print, either in academic journals or for Western Writers Roundup Magazine. Bottom line, I don't lie and WILL NOT review rotten books! The editor gets such books right back with a note to find someone else.

  7. The Fear Artist is already getting raves on all the lists, and deservedly so. I tend to review only the books I really like, because I read good books, but also I don't want to demoralize an author who has worked hard. Besides, many times, my attitude towards a book says more about how I feel, rather than the quality of the book. So I say nothing. Especially, when a book I didn't finish wins an Edgar-or something.

  8. Thank you, Jaden. Praise by a fine writer is always deeply appreciated.

    Jeff, last night my wife and I had dinner with an old friend, a classical composer who actually makes a living at it. And I was all full of how hard it was for us, sitting there all alone and pushing a daydream uphill for months and then some creep reviewer doesn't like it. And he said, essentially, that's nothing: imagine pushing a musical daydream uphill for months on end and then it gets premiered and all the reviewers are there - and the musicians butcher it. Incompetent interpreters between the artist's vision and the anudience. So I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

    Thank you, Charlotte. I do appreciate that reviewing books is difficult and often unrewarding because I do it in my own modest way at Goodreads (although it's actually been months since I put up something new). And I totally respect your unwillingness to review a book you dislike. No one should have to shoulder that load, especially when she's aware, as you are, that part of the problem could be the reviewer's, not the book's.

    Hi, Anonymous. I agree and disagree with what I read on your (the?) site. Amazon didn't kill the book review; the shrinkage of print media did that. Many papers have shut down, and many of those that remain open have reduced or entirely eliminated their book section, often in favor of expanded TV or movie coverage. When I had a book published back in the early 90s I could count on 15 to 25 good solid newspaper reviews; these days, you're lucky to get 10. And I think the canny consumer knows how to use the Amazon reviews; I doubt many people are following them, lemming-like, into the maw of terrible books. First of all, you need a threshold of reviews: I don't pay attention unless there are 20 or more. Second, you READ the reviews, or at least some of them; I find that real idiots, shameless flacks, and jerks with a negative agenda generally reveal themselves in their prose. Third, you TAKE ADVANTAGE OF AMAZON'S RETURN POLICY, which is almost infinitely accommodating, and you cite the dishonesty of the reviews as the reason for the book's return.

    I have to say, in defense of Amazon, that just as ebooks destroyed the stranglehold a few blocks of Manhattan on the selection of what we were allowed to read, the amateur review has broken the elitist dominance of book reviewing by a rather small community of individuals, most of whom were very good at their jobs but some of whom pursued personal agendas that often seemed to have nothing to do with the book(s) they were supposed to be reviewing. (And I've been very well treated by professional reviewers over the years, so this isn't sour grapes.)

  9. Interesting post and comments about reviewing.

    Amazon reviews are iffy. I think eliminating the stars and the helpful/not helpful votes could clear up some misunderstandings of the reviewing process. So many reviewers leave negative comments if a book isn't written exactly as the reviewer would have written it. A book should be judged on what the author set out to do and whether or not he or she accomplished it. It's annoying to see books get fewer Amazon stars because, for example, reviewers don't like ambiguous endings, descriptive writing, words they have to look up in the dictionary, nonlinear plots, etc. Then there are those things completely unrelated to the quality of a book, like its ebook price, that some reviewers use as a basis for awarding stars.

    I own many books of criticism, and I think negative reviews are worthwhile reading if they're honestly and thoughtfully done. All reviews are subjective. One person will find a plot that hops around in time and place confusing, while another will find it exhilarating. Even books like MOBY DICK and WAR AND PEACE have their detractors. I can agree with another's book opinions 95% of the time, and yet there's that other 5%. If I consider a book trash, I won't review it. But if a book is interesting despite its flaws, I'd like to say that. That doesn't mean the book IS flawed; it means that maybe the book wasn't a perfect fit for me, but it would be for some other reader.

    Tim, you, Jeff Siger, and everybody else on this blog are talented writers. I have THE FEAR ARTIST galley in my queue to read. I'd bet that it's pretty darn good.

  10. Tim, I couldn't agree more. I write crime fiction myself, and have been looking to do some reviews in my own genre. I'd be happy to review your new book. I've been enjoying this blog for sometime now and a responsible review is the least I can offer in return. If your interested, contact through my site at Keep writing, keep blogging