I had originally written this really long, impassioned post about my thoughts on the matter, but once I got the rant out of my system I felt that none of it was particularly valid or new anymore; in fact, I come quite late to this debate.
The debate, to bring you up to speed (or to explain what this post is about), is essentially around “bad” book blogger/reviewer and author behaviour, and whether book bloggers/online reviewers actually write “real” reviews at all. I’ve gathered together pertinent links below if you want to journey through the discussions – at the very least, check out Maggie Stiefvater’s blog post about what she considers to be a “real” review, because it sparked a whole new round of posts on the topic.
I sometimes read reviews that you could probably label “enflaming” or snarky, and I generally find that they provide good warnings (they’re always of YA books, it seems, the quality of which, now that they have such huge cross-generational readership, is a bit iffy at times). But I wouldn’t have cared much for this debate if Stiefvater’s words hadn’t pricked a few of my pedantic nerves. Of the kind of reviews that provoked bad author behaviour, she says they
often involve animated gifs, swearing, and snark. They’re often quite funny. But here’s the thing, though. When a blogger writes a biased, hilarious, snarky rundown of a book they despised, he/ she is not writing a review. They are writing a post about a book. I’m not saying that bloggers shouldn’t write biased, hilarious, snarky rundowns of books. I’m saying that those rundowns are not reviews.
While a real book review she defines as:
… an unbiased, careful look at a book — basically it is a little academic paper. It involves an itty-bitty thesis on your opinion of the book, surrounded by tiny supporting sentences describing the strengths and weaknesses of said book. [In writing a review for the New York Times, my] opinion was important, yes, but even more important was getting the essence of the book across in a few short paragraphs. The better I define the strengths and weaknesses, the more useful that review is really going to be to a reader. In the end, my opinion is nearly secondary — I should’ve done my job well enough that the reader can decide for themselves if the book is for them or not. Because a review isn’t for me. It’s for other people.
I wanted an example of what she meant (I like examples) and so I found her recent review of Francesca Lia Block’s Pink Smog on the New York Times Book Review site that she’s referring to in the above quote. And yes, it’s a very well-written review. It provides an example of the kind of “professional” review Stiefvater is talking about, the kind of review that book bloggers rarely write (more on that in a bit).
I don’t disagree with Stiefvater’s definition of a review, not really (more on that later). What I have trouble with is her claim that a “professional” review isn’t subjective. Of course it is. We’re human, and we’re not writing technical manuals here. Anyone who’s ever studied journalism knows we can’t keep personal bias out of what we write, and reviews are nothing but one person’s take on a book.
BUT, there are well-written reviews, and there are weakly-written reviews, and then there are the snarky ones she mentions above, which can be highly entertaining and often get right to the contentious point about a book (see some of the links below) without farting around. I would like to write well-written reviews, and I feel like I have some success sometimes and fail miserably at other times. Certainly I think I was writing better reviews before having a baby. But they keep me writing, which I have little time for these days (and a lack of inspiration, but that’s another issue entirely).
While wandering around the internet, I came across an earlier post on Fiction Writers Review on “Owl Criticism” by Charles Baxter, which – if we link the two, written a year apart – helps us understand what Stiefvater really meant (or what I think she really meant). “Owl criticism” is the tendency online reviewers – on Amazon and Goodreads, in particular – have of saying things like “this book has an owl in it. I don’t like owls, so I didn’t like the book.” Baxter includes some examples gleaned from thousands like them on Amazon:
“Paintlady” from Jacksonville, Florida, writes: “Anna Karenina is the most boring book I have ever laid eyes on; I do not know how this book became a classic; it belongs in the circular file, not on the bookshelf.” About Madame Bovary, “photondancer” writes, “Dear lord, this book was awful. One of the very few novels that I have been unable to finish or indeed to get halfway through. It was just TOO BORING.” About Shakespeare’s King Lear, Daisy in Arizona writes, “The story overall was just unsatisfactory. At times it seemed idealistic and illogical.”
(as an aside, I’m often reminded – and often keep in mind – when I write reviews, that classic, basic piece of direction we all got from our high school English teachers: don’t just say “it was good” or “I didn’t like it.” EXPLAIN and ANALYSE why you found it good or not. I personally add to that: You can argue anything you like in English, as long as you can back it up.)
If you look at these so-called reviews that Baxter quoted, what do you notice about them? That’s right, you haven’t learnt anything about the book. Therefore, you cannot – or should not – have a good idea of whether you would enjoy this book, or get something out of it, yourself, or even if it’s a good book regardless of one person’s take on it. And reading a book is such a personal, subjective journey – we each of us can only experience a book in our own way, which may not be the way anyone else reads it and experiences it. Which is indeed what those people were writing. It just isn’t that helpful, or indeed, one could argue, that intelligent. So is it trustworthy?
Baxter describes a well-written – or trustworthy – review as having two distinctions:
[first that] the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together.
It does sound like writing a “proper” review is something of an elitist, or academic, act, something only a “professional” would have the educational background, the time, the ability or even the inclination to write. What Stiefvater called a “little academic paper”. And the one thing that I love about the internet and the book blogging community in particular is how, collectively, we’ve broken down the elite doors of professional reviewing and, in a way, cut out the middle-man professional reviewer altogether, allowing authors and publishers to connect directly with readers. We like the personal touch, while a pro review might be hard to connect with (that said, I’ve picked up several books based on reviews in the Globe and Mail’s slim book review section – incidentally, I’ve noticed that those reviewers (all authors themselves) tend to begin their reviews with some personal story relevant to the book they’re reviewing, which actually makes me trust them more). Interestingly, Baxter cites two professional reviews – from the New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic – that failed his criteria and were thus “untrustworthy”, so really I was left with the feeling that only PhD theses’ were worthy of his time. And that’s hugely unrealistic.
Going back to Stiefvater’s description of unprofessional book
reviews posts (above), Really, there will always be a place for such “rundowns of books”, and if they’re not what you’re looking for as you tour the internet, you don’t have to pay them any attention – or let them decide whether you’ll read a book. I’ve written a few that I would call snarky, of books that just had me so enraged I couldn’t have written them any other way. And it’s time-consuming, writing anything resembling a real review. I don’t have that kind of time, that’s for sure.
But I do aspire to write well-written, trustworthy reviews. I try to dredge up memories of critical theory from uni – less to use such language in my reviews than to help me grasp what I’ve read and my reaction to it. I struggle all the time. In writing up a so-called review of Crime and Punishment, which I failed to quite finish, I could not get past my incredible scorn for Raskolnikov, which coloured the entire book for me – I would never go so far as saying that, because I detested the main character (who was a whinging, self-indulgent, tiring person), the book was crap and shouldn’t be called a classic. I would never be so arrogant, and my opinion is not that God-like. So perhaps what I am writing, in cases like this, is the story of my reading experience with a particular book. Can I call it a review? Does it really matter?
Sometimes I think that it’s not the online reviewers – yes I will use that word – that need to be taken to task so much as some of the people who read said reviews and take offence at them. I’ve had my fair share of vitriol from people who decide, based on a single review (or opinion piece, if you prefer), that they know everything about me and are in a position to psychoanalyse me – very much along the lines of “owl criticism”, too. Here’s an example – one of the tamer ones – from my review of C&P on Goodreads:
It is sad for me to read such a continuous stream of negative comments. You have given up on this book without even finishing it, or even attempting to analyze and relate to it. This is sad. Were you put off by the lack of “excitement”? By the abundance of Russian last names? By your own ignorance about the time period and the deep psychological consequences that resulted from the political order of 19th century Russia? By your inability to comprehend Dostoevsky’s brilliant use of symbolism, religious allegory (or research allegorical passages, for that matter), and suspenseful chronology? Sorry to be so blunt, but that is what these I-have-not-read-or-even-attempted-to-understand-the-book comments force me to conclude.
From the OP’s review, There’s also no mystery, and not much suspense. If this is true, then what IS suspense for you? Please enlighten me. Because if you are looking for a generic feeling of suspense, don’t look for it in Dostoevsky. Go read Agatha Christie or something. It doesn’t require any outside knowledge or research, just a box of popcorn and boredom.
I’ve also been taken to task:
My statements had less to do with that particular book, and much more to do with lazy criticism. I wouldn’t even really have cared if Shannon had said that she hated the book. My problem was that she seemed to have no critical context beyond how miserable it was. The review basically consisted of a bland recapitulation of the plot, and ended with a bunch of entirely subjective complaints about how self-centered Raskolnikov is. What I’m wondering is just how this is supposed to be helpful to other people who are curious about reading the book.
This commenter isn’t wrong, really (as much as it hurts), but it does make me think that sometimes what we’re writing aren’t “real” reviews after all – which brings us back full circle to Maggie Stiefvater’s post. I sometimes don’t try at all to write a “real” review, but I do write these partly for myself – to help me remember, and to practice writing.
If we’re going to make better attempts at writing our book reviews/posts/thoughts/opinions – whatever you want to call them – with respect, thoughtfulness, clarity and hey, a bit of education, then maybe the people who like to write “owl criticism” reviews and comments on other reviews, could maybe respond with a bit more respect, open-mindedness, understanding and hey, how about some manners?
But I guess there’s no fun in that, for some.
There was a sort-of beginning to this round of internet slagging. It started with some negative book reviews:
Wendy Darling’s review of The Selection by Kiera Cass on Goodreads;
Flannery’s review of Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta on Goodreads;
and Kira’s review of Tempest by Julie Cross on Goodreads, in which things got nasty in the comments and linked to Julie Halpern’s response to Allison’s review. There are also profuse apologies from YA author Lauren deStefano for Twitter comments on the subject; apparently she wasn’t aware of the larger context around it.
It got even messier, including the above-mentioned angry post by Julie Halpern that has since been deleted, though there is this one still up, and over time led to more book blogger and author posts which in turn broadened the topic.
Kat of Cuddlebuggery Book Blog on The First Five Days on Goodreads, giving the full run-down of the antagonism between reviewers and authors, with links and Twitter quotes. And then in a second post here, the “wank fest” continues.
Then there was an article in the Guardian on YA novel readers clash with publishing establishment (which sums up the mess without saying anything particularly intelligent about it), which led to this:
Which got some very articulate, intelligent book bloggers thinking, and writing some stellar posts on the art of reviewing:
Thank you to everyone for including links in your posts that led me to another, and yet another, fabulous post on the topic in its various forms! If you have a post on the topic, or you know of some I’ve missed, feel free to leave a link in the comments so I can include it. This is the internet, after all, and an open debate.