In Praise of Negative Reviews

25 February 2018

From The Baffler:

“Startlingly Smart,” “remarkable,” “endlessly interesting,” “delicious.” Such are the adulatory adjectives scattered through the pages of the book review section in one of America’s leading newspapers. The praise is poignant, particularly if one happens to be the author, hoping for the kind of testimonial that will drive sales. Waiting for the critic’s verdict used to be a moment of high anxiety, but there’s not so much to worry about anymore. The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.

It is a pitiable present, this one that celebrates the enfeebling of literary criticism, but we were warned of it. Elizabeth Hardwick, that Cassandra of criticism, predicted it five decades ago, when she penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s magazine.

. . . .

In Hardwick’s world reviewers and critics were feared as “persons of dangerous acerbity” who were “cruel to youth” and (often out of jealousy) blind to the freshness and importance of new work. Hardwick thought this an unfair estimation, but she would have found what exists now more repugnant. The reviewers at work now are rather the opposite, copywriters whose task it is to arrange the book in a bouquet of Wikipedia-blooming literary references.

. . . .

Hardwick herself underscored this when she pointed a finger at the “torpor,” the “faint dissension” and “minimal style” that had infected the book review in her time. What’s new is that this faint style has developed a politics or an ethics that gives non-judgment in the book review a high-minded justification. Per its pronouncements, all reviewers (and readers) must check their biases and privilege prior to engaging with a text.

It is a lovely sounding idea, particularly in its attempt to ground the extinction of the negative review in a commitment to fairness and equality. Kristina Marie Darling lays out the rest in her recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Readerly Privilege and Textual Violence: An Ethics of Engagement.” Darling, who is white, and was once a “younger female contingent laborer who more than likely qualified for food stamps,” says textual violence “takes many forms,” the most egregious occurring when “the reader makes inferences that extend beyond the work as it appears on the page.” In the example she offers, a reviewer writing for The Rumpus about a book of autobiographical essays dares to wonder whether the author’s excessively picky eating (showcased in the book) may point to an eating disorder. There it is, then: that sin of considering the content in relation to one’s own views. It is a no-can-do for Darling, who, after going through several similar iterations, concludes with an admonition: “reviewers are not arbiters of taste,” she scolds, but rather “ushers in a room full of empty chairs.”

It’s a sad demotion of the book reviewer. Books are compendiums of ideas and experiences, a comment on the world in which they exist, a template as to how a different one, for better or worse, may be imagined. Why set up strict boundaries to criticism, such that nothing short of a thoroughly purified, bleached, and ironed, scolded and warned individual dares take up the task? Why require your reviewers to offer only vapid and overblown praise of whatever they find between the pages?

This new ethic of book reviewing is offered up to protect and assist the unprivileged and the marginalized; and, yes, those whose context and cultures may not be easily relatable may require a bit of extra work from the reader. Yet from there the anti-negative book review cadre argues for limitations on all book reviews. Writing a critical review that dares wonder about the writer’s biography, that goes beyond the page into the suggested and imputed, is not only “textual violence” but a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.

Link to the rest at The Baffler

PG isn’t certain whether he is part of a small minority, but he constantly “makes inferences that extend beyond the work as it appears on the page.” His personal reactions to the book he is reading are part of his enjoyment of the book. If anyone is interested, he’s happy to talk about those reactions.

While the OP does not think “new ethic of book reviewing” is a good idea, if this ethic develops into any sort of norm for professional or semi-professional reviewers, perhaps Amazon reviews will be the only ones that are truly honest.

On Negative Book Reviews

25 February 2018
Comments Off on On Negative Book Reviews

The Millions:

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

. . . .

A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.

But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG notes that the OP was written in 2011, but suspects that, for most authors, the experience hasn’t changed.

Is There a Connection Between Bad Grammar and Negative Online Reviews?

16 February 2018

From Priceonomics:

The internet is full of people giving their opinion on things. From blogs to forums to social media, the internet is a tool that empowers people to share what they think. Most of the time, these posts are not particularly useful (and sometimes even harmful), but for e-commerce sites, user reviews have been revolutionary.

Right now, there are millions of products available to purchase online. Despite never seeing the product or knowing the specific seller, you can make a well-informed decision before buying just by reading the experiences of other people who already purchased them. Academic evidence agrees. Studies show that reviews matter for customer decision making.

But not all reviews are created equal. Some are thorough and provide details on a specific product feature, while others are vague and unintelligible gibberish. Research shows users put a higher value on well-written reviews. Websites like Amazon take this into account by letting you rate whether a review is helpful or not.

Reading through so many reviews ourselves got us thinking, is the quality of writing (spelling, grammar, etc.) markedly different between positive and negative reviews?

. . . .

[W]e compiled 100,000 reviews from thousands of different products. To make sure our data inputs were standardized, we specifically used reviews that had both a star rating (to help us determine if a review was positive or negative) and a written review. On this data, we completed a series of analyses that assessed three aspects of writing quality:

  1. Length of review
  2. Spelling errors
  3. Improper use of grammar

According to our data, negative reviews have a higher rate of misspelled words and a higher rate of incorrectly used apostrophes. They tend to be longer and have more details as well. Five-star reviews typically are shorter and often don’t include punctuation.

. . . .

From our findings, we can say that when people are writing negative reviews, they create longer and more error-filled prose than those who are sharing positive reviews.

. . . .

The next measure on our rubric of writing quality is spelling. Using a spell checker, we can flag all misspellings contained in our review text.

Before evaluating differences between positive and negative reviews, we want to get a sense of spelling aptitude in the overall dataset. The following table shows what proportion of our product reviews contain spelling errors and how many.

. . . .

From our analysis, we showed that five-star reviews have the lowest incidence of spelling errors and most grammar errors. One-star reviews had the most spelling errors, and more negative reviews tended to perform worse across grammar metrics. Still, positive reviews also have errors, as we saw with four-star reviews with apostrophes and five-star reviews with an end of sentence punctuation. Review length could be a factor contributing to the differences in the kinds of errors we see between positive and negative reviews.

Link to the rest at Priceonomics

PG suspects he’s not the only one who performs subconscious language analysis when he considers whether he’s going to give much weight to the reviewer’s opinion.

The Novelist’s Complicity

13 January 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a word of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel that many regard as one of the finest literary works of the twentieth century. It’s certainly one of the most popular. The words are uttered by Nick Carraway, the narrator, through whom the entire story is told. His father’s advice is to refrain from judging people because not everyone has had the advantages he has had. But what of those who had all the same advantages and then some, the people who make up Carraway’s milieu in the novel? Carraway proceeds to condemn them, though perhaps pulling his punches when it comes to the eponymous hero.

No effort at putting Fitzgerald’s novel on screen has ever been entirely successful, certainly not in terms of fidelity to his vision. The medium of film has a major obstacle to overcome if it is to provide a faithful rendering of a first-person novel, such as the The Great Gatsby: in general, film cameras show everything in the third person, not from the vantage point of a particular character but from a stance separated from any consciousness.

. . . .

What I’m getting at with all this detail is that there’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

The imminent death of the novel has been announced every year for as long as I can remember.

. . . .

In 2009, the American novelist Philip Roth predicted that within twenty-five years the readership of novels would amount to a cult. “I think people will always be reading them,” he said in an interview, “but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”

Roth’s prognosis has some data behind it. While the publishing industry might be thriving, buoyed up by cookbooks, self-help manuals and all manner of non-fiction, fiction sales have fallen by 23 percent over the past five years. In most industries, this would raise alarm bells.

Good evidence-based research explaining why fiction sales have fallen so much seems to be lacking, but this hasn’t stopped speculation. The attention spans of readers, it’s said, is now trained for tweets, Facebook posts, and information in bitesize morsels. Roth suggested as much in his interview. “To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading,” he said. “If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”

. . . .

Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?

And if television can reach a wider audience than novels ever did, isn’t the goal of broadening empathy better served by those superbly well-written TV dramas?

. . . .

[T]here may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book. Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction.

Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing.

. . . .

A writer—I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me—suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.” The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG suggests “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has been happening for a very long time (perhaps more slowly in Britain and even more slowly on BBC Radio 4, where the OP originated).

However, “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has certainly not been common everywhere in the world.

Under the general direction of Joseph Stalin, the arbitration of literary taste lacked quite a bit of democratization. For example, per Wikipedia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.

The State Committee for Publishing, (Goskomizdat to its fans) was an enthusiastic arbiter of literary taste in Soviet Russia. PG is not certain whether the literary critics employed by Goskomizdat were ever known to say, “This is a great book even though I didn’t like it” or if their visceral reaction to a book played any role in deciding which author was referred to the Checka or not.

When it comes to deciding what books are available for people to read at reasonable prices, PG is pretty much a First Amendment fundamentalist. If one agrees with a particular literary critic or critics employed by large media corporations in general, (Hallelujah, sister!) let literary criticism thrive. If one prefers synthesizing the opinions of those sharing their thoughts on Goodreads, consulting book reviews in the maw of Amazon itself or (gasp) checking star ratings, illustre stelle vobis.

PG suggests arbitration and literary taste make poor bedfellows. But he could be fundamentally wrong.

Book of the Week: Unloved

20 December 2017

From No Shelf Required:

In an effort to draw attention to quality self-published literature and in agreement with BlueInk Review, NSR highlights reviews published on BIR’s site each week, including a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction. This week’s pick:

UNLOVED: a love story

. . . .

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Katy Regnery started her writing career by enrolling in a short story class in January 2012. One year later, she signed her first contract and Katy’s first novel was published in September 2013. Thirty books later, Katy claims authorship of the multi-titled, New York Times and USA Today Blueberry Lane Series; the six-book, bestselling ~a modern fairytale~ series; and several other standalone novels and novellas. 

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required where you will find a link to the review

Amazon Review Policy Change

11 December 2017

From madgeniusclub:

Since Amazon first opened its virtual doors, there have been concerns about reviews. Not just for books but for all the products sold through its site. It is no secret that authors have paid for reviews — and some still do. Or that there have been fake accounts set up to give sock puppet reviews.

. . . .

Amazon now requires you to purchase a minimum of $50 worth of books or other products before you can leave a review or answer questions about a product. These purchases, and it looks like it is a cumulative amount, must be purchased via credit card or debit card — gift cards won’t count.

Link to the rest at madgeniusclub and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

Online reviews have a major trust problem

10 November 2017

From Mashable:

The internet and the explosion of smartphone ownership have made the opinions of anyone with an internet connection an indispensable part of almost every consumer decision. Whether you’re in the market for a new car, wandering into a coffee shop, or browsing store aisles, there’s a good chance you might weigh the collective wisdom of the crowd.

Unfortunately, online reviews are a mess. They’re still the first stop for consumers looking to buy stuff, but also the scene of an ongoing battle between conflicted platforms, aggressive businesses, and angry customers.

Businesses know this, and they’re still working to game the system. From mattress startup Casper to online travel site TripAdvisor, plenty of companies have been found to be manipulating reviews.

. . . .

The good news is that people are getting a bit more savvy.

“I do believe that people make their purchases off highly rated products—just as I do—but there is a good deal of skepticism if reviews skew positive with little to no negative commentary,” said Tamar Weinberg, a marketing consultant and author. “I think the concept of ‘is it too good to be true?’ rings loudly in their minds.”

. . . .

Even a simple promoted review that’s clearly marked can tank trust in the site overall.

“What we’ve seen is there were sites that would incentivize reviews,” Kurushko said, “and well-known retail sites would syndicate those reviews, and it just completely destroys trust.”

Link to the rest at Mashable

The 1885 Reviews of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

8 November 2017

From The Literary Hub:

“Were Mark Twain’s reputation as a humorist less well founded and established, we might say that this cheap and pernicious stuff is conclusive evidence that its author has no claim to be ranked with Artemus Ward, Sydney Smith, Dean Swift, John Hay, or any other recognized humorist above the grade of the author of that outrageous fiction, Peck’s Bad BoyHuckleberry Finn is the story (told by himself) of a wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy or forty years ago. He runs away from a drunken father in company with a runaway negro. They are joined by a couple of rascally impostors, and the Munchausenlike “adventures” that fill the work are encountered in the course of a raft voyage down the Mississippi. The humor of the work, if it can be called such, depends almost wholly on the scrapes into which the quartet are led by the rascality of the impostors, ‘Huck’s’ lying, the negro’s superstition and fear and on the irreverence which makes parents, guardians and people who are at all good and proper ridiculous. That such stuff should be considered humor is more than a pity. Even the author objects to it being considered literature. But what can be said of a man of Mr. Clemens’s wit, ability and position deliberately imposing upon an unoffending public a piece of careless hackwork in which a few good things are dropped amid a mass of rubbish, and concerning which he finds it necessary to give notice that ‘persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot’?”

The New York World, March 7, 1885

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Mob Rule in the Book World

18 October 2017

From The National Review:

American Heart, a young-adult novel to be published in January, is a kind of Huckleberry Handmaid’s Tale, only with Muslims. In a dim dystopian U.S. of the near future that’s been overtaken by a nasty “patriotic” movement, a white girl is oblivious to the burgeoning horror of Muslims being placed in internment camps, but she experiences an awakening and decides to strike out against them to rescue a Muslim immigrant from Iran, who is in hiding and needs to flee the country to save herself. Ho-hum, says the experienced observer. Since 9/11, the Left has been spooking itself with scary tales about how the anti-Muslim Inquisition is going to start any minute now.

So: another attempt to troll conservatives about our supposed persecution of Muslims. Nothing new. When the left-leaning book-industry site Kirkus published a favorable review of the novel, though, it was a gonzo-Left outlook that launched attacks on Kirkus, with denunciation popping up at publishing-chat sites such as Goodreads. Reviewers of the review (most of whom evidently hadn’t read the book in question) insisted that Kirkus’s favorable take on American Heart amounted to inexcusable support for a supposedly abhorrent “white savior” narrative. In other words, the hero of a book about persons of color can’t be white. But if American Heart’s author, Laura Moriarty, had written the book from a person of color’s point of view, that would have been cultural appropriation.

You may not have heard of Kirkus, but it carries influence in the book world because it, and its longtime rival Publishers Weekly, are the established trade publications that run early reviews sparking bad or good buzz months before the book is published. Because the reviews in Kirkus and PW run so early, they carry disproportionate weight. They signal book-review editors (I was one for four years) that certain books are important and worthy of coverage. They signal booksellers which books might be worth ordering by the crate and promoting. A star from Kirkus is like a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert or a “fresh” rating from a Rotten Tomatoes critic. The star is everything. “You got a star in Kirkus!” is a delightful message to hear from one’s book publicist.

. . . .

After publishing that starred review of American Heart and finding itself chastised for it by a small and silly mob, Kirkus did a strange, perhaps unprecedented thing. It backed down. Its editor-in-chief, Claiborne Smith, publicly flogged himself for publishing the review in the first place, saying it “fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity” (though the clarity of the review was not in question), then re-edited the review in hopes of appeasing the Goodreads progressives, making sure now to flag the book as “problematic.” He also took the extraordinary step of removing the star to placate the pitchforks-and-lanterns crowd. I’ve never heard of that happening before in the 84-year history of Kirkus. (Smith declined to answer whether the move was unprecedented.)

“We do not bend to peer pressure or cultural criticism,” Smith told Slate. That is correct: He does not bend in the face of peer pressure or cultural criticism. He crumples in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. He curls up into the fetal position in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. He disintegrates and begs for mercy in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. His action is astonishing, craven, ridiculous. It did not need to be so. Kirkus is a tiger in the book world, or at least a collie. This amounted to surrendering to a squirrel. In the centuries-long tradition of critics and their editors who take it as a given that honest criticism will usually displease someone, and that such displeasure cannot be allowed to alter judgment, the routine thing for Smith to do would have been to shrug.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG posted the OP because it relates to traditional publishing and its marketing and promotion activities. It may also inform decisions indie authors make about marketing, promotion and other aspects of the businesses they operate.

PG understands that The National Review, like Slate, The Huffington Post and other sources of posts on TPV, has a well-known political stance. He also knows that contemporary political disagreements in the US quickly devolve into acrimony and name-calling that result in heat without light.

PG requests that the comments not descend into a left/right political argument.

The internet is full of locations where full-throated political disagreements continue 24/7. It’s not hard to find a place to insult someone who has different beliefs than you have if you’re inclined toward that sort of thing.

HELP! I Don’t Know How to Rate Books!

17 October 2017

From Bookriot:

I’ve been thinking about getting another Goodreads account (or two). And it’s not because I’m embarrassed by what I read and want to keep a separate list or because I forgot my password. The reality is I don’t know how to rate books. As I’ve broadened my reading over the last few years, I’ve run into the problem of whether I should rate books by literary value, content, or entertainment value. Perhaps by author intent or perhaps by coincidence, some books put more stock in things like allusions and themes, some focus on making a point, and some are just straight brain candy. What matters most?

Goodreads allows for one overall rating and you can elaborate in a review if you like. You can’t rate a book once by literary value, once by content, and once by entertainment value. I keep my own blog for reviews and I use the single-rating system there, too, with half-step increments. I started keeping track of all the books I read and my thoughts about them well before I realized that there were these different levels at which I could assess a book. A change my system now wouldn’t work for me. Hashtag, sunk costs?

. . . .

So what do we do about books that have significant literary value but bore us to tears (here’s looking at you, Middlemarch)? How do I rate a book that makes a great point but has a prose style I just can’t get behind (I see you, The Beast Is an Animal)?  What about novels that are possibly socially damaging and problematic yet still scratches the escapist itch (hey there, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding)? It gets even more complex when we’re looking at a graphic novel, picture book, or other illustrated piece. How does art factor in?

Link to the rest at Bookriot

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