A Book Review

28 August 2015

Reviewing Irish books: the good, the bad and the ugly truth

18 July 2015

From The Irish Times:

When in their Irish Times reviews earlier this year Joseph O’Connor praised Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies to the heights and John Boyne did the same for Belinda McKeon’s Tender, it seemed to confirm the return of the feel-good factor to an Irish literary world that was not immune to the economic downturn.

Last Saturday, however, the warm glow turned from Ready-Brek to radioactive as readers and writers took to social media to respond to an excoriating review of Paul Murray’s new novel, The Mark and the Void, by Eileen Battersby, the Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times.

The negative review perhaps came as a particular surprise, given that the same critic had been such an enthusiastic champion of his much-loved previous novel, Skippy Dies. As Róisín Ingle reminded her Twitter followers: “So Man Booker wanted a comic novel? This was it & twice as funny as The Finkler Question.”: Eileen Battersby on Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies.”

. . . .

Others condemned the review as vicious and nasty, offered up conspiracy theories about it being a Trinity College thing (eh?) or speculated that the unflattering portrait of a female literary critic in the novel, Mary Cutlass, may have played a part.

However, the spoken word poet Brendan McCormack was representative of those who took a different view of the outcry: “Irish novelist gets bad review on home soil. Nepotists up in arms. Quelle surprise”.

. . . .

 Part of the problem, in my view, is that there is a tendency among some reviewers in Ireland to pull their punches – heck, some even refuse to get into the ring in the first place or duck back under the ropes as soon as they read a few pages and realise their subject has a glass chin. I don’t think any reviewer punches below the belt, certainly not intentionally. But occasionally they come out swinging from the first bell, or sentence, and just keep on punching to score their points, even when their opponent is already helpless on the floor, which entertains some but upsets many others.

. . . .

So, in an attempt to clear the air and open up the subject for debate, I asked a wide cross-section of authors and critics who review for The Irish Times these questions: How honest can you be reviewing books by Irish authors in a country like Ireland, where the literary scene is so small? And as a writer, how do you respond to a bad review? Is it possible not to take it personally?

Perhaps the most telling – and ironic – response was this, by an author who by necessity must remain anyonmous: “Actually, as I try and write this, I realise I probably can’t say what I really think – both because [redacted] and for the sake of my future as a writer! So, interested as I am, I’ll pass – what I could actually write would be so mealy-mouthed you wouldn’t want it anyway. And my agent advised me against it.”

. . . .

Fintan O’Toole

I’ve worked as a critic in both Ireland and the US and Ireland is much harder. It’s an intimate place and the number of people directly involved in fields like theatre or fiction is small. Over time, you’re bound to meet most of them. That puts a huge premium on honesty. People come to expect that the critic is somehow part of the scene and therefore obliged to be supportive. Praise is increasingly considered as the default setting and anything less must be motivated by some personal grudge or conspiracy.

Link to the rest at The Irish Times and thanks to Edmond for the tip.

Amazon Accused of Censoring Book Reviews

13 July 2015

From The Guardian:

In the age of social media, interacting with our favorite authors has gotten much easier. Using platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, fans can pose direct questions, “like” recent status announcements, and even track where and when authors will hold their next public reading. And yet, even with all these new ways to connect, most fans still aren’t able to sit down at the dinner table with their literary idols.

Amazon, however, is being accused of determining through some sort of mysterious algorithm who is actually well-acquainted in real life. If we’ve interacted with authors online, the Guardian warns us that “Amazon might decide that you’re “friends” and ban you from leaving a review of their latest book.”

In a blog post, indie author Imy Santiago writes of being prevented from leaving a book review on the site because Amazon decided her “account activity indicates that you know the author.” In reality, Santiago only ever interacted with the author online; she considers Amazon’s decision “censorship at its finest.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit and thanks to Dave and many others for the tip.

Snagshout: Get a discount, write a review

8 July 2015

From CNN Money:

Snagshout, which launched last week, sells gadgets, home goods, and other everyday items at 40% to 90% off listed prices. There are even some freebies.

Here’s how it works:

Snagshout approves new users after they link their Amazon accounts to the site. After approval, they can browse and select from a list of deals that can be redeemed on Amazon using a promo code during checkout.

In order to continue using Snagshout, customers are required to post a review of each purchase after they receive and test it. Snagshout is notified when reviews are published.

“We’re kind of modeling it after the Vine program,” Snagshout CEO Paul Johnson said, referring to Amazon Vine, which lets businesses give away their products to trusted reviewers.

. . . .

While Snagshout is capitalizing on something many of us do — buy and review stuff — there have been concerns about incentive-based review sites and limited quantity offers.

Studies have shown that people tend to be influenced by a number of factors when rating businesses online, including pre-existing reviews and even the weather. Giving discounts or freebies can also build bias, which is why disclosures are crucial.

In February, the FTC reached a settlement with a car shipment broker over the firm’s policy of providing customers with discounts in exchange for reviews. The agency argued that the company “deceptively represented that its favorable reviews were based on the unbiased reviews of customers.” The agreement required the broker “to clearly and prominently disclose any material connection.”

Snagshout tells sellers it doesn’t guarantee positive reviews, and it requires all customers to include this sentence in published opinions: “This product was provided at a discounted price in exchange for my honest review.”

. . . .

CNNMoney investigated some of the items on Snagshout and found that the vast majority are already highly rated on Amazon, and reviewed by hundreds of people.

Currently, there are 700 businesses that sell through Snagshout, and 30,000 shoppers have an account on the site, according to Johnson. Only a few users have complained about certain products, he said. But as the site grows, it may become harder to manage more issues.

. . . .

[The] five-person business is based out of Athens, Georgia.

Link to the rest at CNN Money and thanks to Chloe for the tip.

PG did a quick check and couldn’t find any books on Snagshout.

‘Hello’ from Amazon – Big Brother style review censorship

24 June 2015

From WriterChristophFisher:

Dear Readers A few weeks ago I woke up to this message:

Hello from  We are writing to inform you that we have removed your review privileges and suppressed all of your reviews. Any new reviews written will automatically be suppressed. We took this action because you have failed to comply with our review guidelines and manipulated product reviews.

. . . .

Surprised and curious I asked them for clarification on the matter but have had no personal reply to my appeal. Amazon removed all of the reviews I wrote: 1700 of them without discussion or ‘trial’. Eventually I received this:

Hello, We’ve removed Customer Reviews left by your account because it’s come to our attention that you have violated our policies by manipulating Customer Reviews. Any attempt to manipulate ratings, feedback, or Customer Reviews is prohibited. After reviewing your account, we’ve determined that your reviews will remain removed from the site. For more information, please review our Customer Review Guidelines ( We will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter. We appreciate your cooperation, Review Moderator

You can see, they are not very forthcoming, despite their trigger happiness. I’d like to believe that they are trying their best to make the system credible but without bothering to tell me what my crime is and without effective deletion of troll reviews I am getting cynical. Every review is a “manipulation of customers”.

Trolls and nasty people are doing their worst with full support of Amazon. I’m currently inundated with messages, some from irate authors assuming that ‘I have deleted the reviews of their book’. Apologies, this has nothing to do with me, neither do I know why this is happening.

I’ve had plenty of questions from you: whether my reviews were verified purchases, whether I forgot to mention when I received a copy for the book etc. I cannot answer any of these questions as I do not know which specific review or ‘behaviour’ has triggered the alleged ‘violation’, nor have I violated their guidelines. 95% of my reviews were of books I bought through Amazon and I usually mentioned if I had been given a copy for review.

. . . .

Strangely, the action against me by Amazon took place at a time when I hardly reviewed due to a family bereavement and house move. My ranking was dwindling anyway. I wonder if it could be the doing of one of a few disgruntled individuals, whose books I refused to review or who have taken issue with me in one of the Facebook groups. As moderator in several of them I have made enemies. Without word from Amazon, this is all useless speculation that I have long abandoned.

Link to the rest at WriterChristophFisher and thanks to Al for the tip.

Amazon looks to improve customer-reviews system with machine learning

20 June 2015

From C/Net:

Amazon is rolling out a big change to its customer reviews system in the US, introducing a new machine-learning platform it developed in-house to surface newer and more helpful reviews.

“The system will learn what reviews are most helpful to customers…and it improves over time,” Amazon spokeswoman Julie Law said in an interview. “It’s all meant to make customer reviews more useful.”

The change, which started Friday, will probably go unnoticed at first, as the e-commerce giant’s new platform gradually starts altering the star ratings and top reviews on product pages. The new system will give more weight to newer reviews, reviews from verified Amazon purchasers and those that more customers vote up as being helpful.

A product’s 5-star rating, which previously was a pure average of all reviews, will also become weighted using those same criteria, and so may change more often.

. . . .

The new platform was something the company looked at “very closely” before instituting, Law said, though she declined to say how long Amazon had been developing it.

“It’s just meant to make things that much more useful,” Law said, “so people see things and know it reflects the current product experience.”

For example, sometimes a company will make small tweaks to a product or address some customer complaints, though this product isn’t officially updated or renamed. With the new system, Law said, these small modifications should become more noticeable when shoppers are buying products.

Link to the rest at C/Net and thanks to Felix for the tip.

Pamela Paul, Book Review Editor, Talks Shop

13 June 2015

From The New York Times:

“It feels terrible when it’s happening to you,” Pamela Paul, editor of The Book Review said when asked about the purpose of negative reviews in a conversation with C-Span’s Book TV. “But, you know what I remind myself when we have negative reviews is that we’re not a service arm for the publishing industry,” she said. “We’re here for the readers. And readers are trying to make a decision about what they should spend their time reading and their money buying if they’re buying a book.”

. . . .

“We review about 1 percent of the books that come out in print from a publisher every year. So 99 percent of those books are being discarded. At some point you kind of have to say, ‘O.K., we’re just going to look at these books,’ otherwise we would be here 24 hours,” Ms. Paul said.

. . . .

As for the $1 million question — Digital or print books? — here’s how Ms. Paul does her reading:

“I’m old school. I read 100 percent in print. I love the book as a physical object; I have thousands and thousands of books — I collect them. I am constantly building new bookshelves in my house,” she said.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Tom for the tip.

Authors Call On Amazon to Review Reviews Process

6 June 2015

From Writer’s Circle:

The Horror Writers Association (HWA), a nonprofit organization for writers and publishing professionals promoting horror literature, has recently written an open letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos asking for a review of the policies around Amazon’s review system. Namely, it seems the HWA is seeking a way to remove reviews they deem as inappropriate in how spiteful it can be. Specifically, they want to be able to remove any review that:

  • “indicates the customer has not read the book, but only a small portion of it, such as a free electronic sample;”
  • “includes spoilers which, once revealed, could significantly reduce interest in the work;”
  • “includes negative personal remarks about the author; and/or”
  • “is focused on the work’s price rather than its content.”

The HWA tries to make the case that reviews that would fall under the list of characteristics above not only seriously negatively impact the author, but also negatively impact the experiences of other possible readers.

. . . .

In the end, it comes down to book publishing platforms and review sites trying to strike the delicate balance between protecting the author, and allowing reviewers to get their true voices and opinions out into the world. Author organizations like the HWA, and authors like Anne Rice and Toss Barselow are trying to change the system and hopefully the proper balance will be struck. This isn’t about thick skin, or authors being upset about bad reviews: it’s about dishonest people hurting an author’s reputation and livelihood through intimidation and bad tactics.

Link to the rest at Writer’s Circle and thanks to Cora for the tip.

Renowned Author Calls Out Randi Harper’s Amazon Trolling

4 June 2015

From Breitbart:

Bogus reader reviews have long been a problem for websites like Amazon and Goodreads. Intended as a mechanism to allow readers to dabble in literary criticism, their accessibility has left them vulnerable to political and personal vendettas.

Despite the efforts of Amazon to stamp out the practice on its website, a recent controversy involving Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice and an infamous online activist suggests it remains a hot-button issue for authors. 

 The topic has attracted renewed attention due to the involvement of Randi Harper, a controversial activist, in an apparent review-trolling campaign against a book by the technologist Vivek Wadhwa on Amazon. Harper has previously been accused of using her position as CEO of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative (OAPI) as a means to divert attention from her own bullying behaviour on social media, and many of her critics are presenting this as another key example in a trail of controversy.

. . . .

This sort of abuse is not uncommon on social media, of course — but it is certainly strange behavior for someone who claims to campaign against online abuse. Breitbart has covered Harper’s controversies before, in particular her creation of a Twitter autoblocking tool that claimed to block “trolls” and “abusers”, but in fact targeted innocent academics, journalists, and businessespeople — as well as, bizarrely, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The latest controversy involves her participation in an online shaming campaign against the prominent technologist Vivek Wadhwa. The website Stop The Goodreads Bullies, which tracks cases of book review abuse, recently highlighted a review of one of his books by Harper, in which she accuses Wadhwa — an outspoken advocate of diversity in tech — of trying to “profit off feminism” and “silence women”. Crucially, the review did not discuss the content Wadhwa’s book, which Harper later admitted she had not actually read. Amazon, which has recently been trying to clamp down on review abuse, removed Harper’s review after it was reported to them.

Link to the rest at Breitbart

Literature as a Chain Letter Among Friends: On the Fantasy of Critical Distance

31 May 2015

From Flavorwire:

Over the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan lightly chided the editorial staff of the paper’s book review for a perceived imbalance in the way it chooses its reviewers. At issue is a question of intimacy or closeness. “How Close Is Too Close?” the article’s title asks (mirroring the oppressively Socratic form of theReview’s Bookends column). When a reviewer knows the book’s author, does this constitute a conflict of interest?

“What editors may see as compelling expertise, readers may see as bias,” writes Sullivan. “That’s something that assigning editors should pay even more attention to as they try to get the balance right.”

The fantasy inculcated by Sullivan is one of dispassionate critical distance. But the literary and academic communities — indeed, virtually any community regarded in the pages of the Review — are defined by closeness and proximity, by a web of professional relations that boil down to impassioned respect and disdain, not to mention favors. When you read a book review — any book review — you are, on some level, witnessing a rehearsal of that critic’s location within (or outside) of this web of relations. This performance is part of what defines what you might call the “literary difference” that bolsters a book review. And if you’d rather read something with pretensions to “blind” critical distance, reach for an academic journal instead.

. . . .

Certainly fairness is one thing — mean spiritedness is gross and unenlightening, as are public displays of affection — but “evenhanded” and “dispassionate” critical ideals are not as old and historically justified as one might think. In fact, it’s possible to argue that literary humanism itself is founded on the idea of literature as “letters among friends.”

. . . .

As Elizabeth Gumport wrote in “Against Reviews” in 2011, this dispassionate pose can be traced back (at least) to the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, whose obsession with cold analysis makes the review into something like an autopsy. Noting the fruitlessness of this professionalized review, Gumport reminds us that when we write boring, dispassionate reviews, it’s only our friends who read them anyway:

Who reads reviews? Occasionally a lot of people. But usually just the book’s author, if she Googles herself, plus any pals, parents, exes, etc. who also search for her. Otherwise, our only readers are our friends, who feel obligated to at least skim our boring review because we liked theirs on Facebook. Why do we prioritize some imaginary “public” over people we actually know, and who read our work? Why don’t we want to write, and read, for our friends?

Gumport concludes:

If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing — and reading — reviews.

Link to the rest at Flavorwire

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