Everyone Can Be a Book Reviewer. Should They Be?

From The Literary Hub:

“Anyone can be a critic.” It’s a common lament these days now that the book review landscape is changing. English professors and book reviewers in newspapers aren’t the only tastemakers in literary criticism anymore: Goodreads community members, anonymous or top reviewers on Amazon, and dedicated bloggers can, and do, produce discourse about books. But are they really critics? And should we take their work seriously?

Plenty of my interviewees in Inside the Critics’ Circle—critics at newspapers and magazines—grapple with these question themselves. They often define their role in the book review world by contrasting their work against that of academics and amateur reviewers.

Critics were understandably ambivalent towards amateur reviewers despite their appreciation for general readers’ enthusiasm about books. In the words of one anonymous critic, “I think it’s wonderful if people read and come up with their own opinions. I think it’s a marvelous thing. There’s nothing that says any particular group of people have a monopoly.” Yet, this same critic is skeptical about amateur reviewers’ qualifications to write a well-balanced book review: “I do sometimes think that bloggers are kind of dumb, as a general rule.”

One critic bemoaned the ways people on Amazon evaluate books:

The Amazon.com reviewers, it’s like they’re reviewing a product. It’s like they bought a pair of Nikes and they are going on and saying, “Oh, my Nikes feel just great, they fit perfectly and I love them.” Then they go on and review a book and say, “Oh, this book was too long, I got really sleepy halfway through,” and just stuff like that.

For many professional critics, books are art forms that should be discussed and evaluated as such, which is a privilege journalistic criticism affords. But amateur reviewers weren’t seen as the only threat to reviewing culture.

If the critics I interviewed were concerned that amateurs did not bring enough analysis to their reading or lacked credentials to speak to a book’s artistic merit, they had equal concern about the over-intellectualization of book reviewing.

. . . .

More than a matter of differences in approach, however, reviews rooted in pedantry were seen as doing a disservice to general readers. The fault lies not in academic critics’ literary competency but an approach to the evaluation of books that threatens to cast serious reading as too rarified, making it irrelevant for the average person.

So where does this leave book reviewers in newspapers and magazines?

Traditionally, newspapers have been the organizational base of arts reviewing. The retrenchment of book reviewing has been coupled with the economic fortunes of newspaper media. However, I think its position and history with the newspaper qua journalism represents one of the greatest strengths of journalistic reviewing.

Book reviewing is a form of journalism. More than a report on publishing industry news, book reviews situate literature in the here and now, and make it accessible to the public. People often focus on the commercial nature of book publishing: do people use reviews to buy books?  How can reviews compete with algorithms that make recommendations based on your browsing history?  They don’t have to do that.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests the OP is trying to provide some sort of professional luster for an activity that requires no particular professional background.

Do most of the rapidly-diminishing number people who read newspapers want someone to “situate literature in the here and now and make it accessible to the public” or are they simply seeking an idea of what book they might enjoy reading, whether it be a torrid romance, a cowboy yarn or a book set in a distant galaxy occupied by a collection of heretofore unknown divergent species?

PG further suggests that the idea that the managers/editors of a journalistic enterprise like a newspaper are qualified to select (and are willing to pay for) someone with the ability to “situate literature” and “make it accessible” is really quite silly. And always has been.

Why Book Reviewing Isn’t Going Anywhere

From The American Scholar:

Before she started studying book reviews, Phillipa Chong once worked to procure them. Chong interned at a Canadian publishing house during college, and quickly learned that book reviews were everything. “There was a sense that if you didn’t get a book review, your title was going to die on the vine,” she told me.

By the time she finished her doctoral studies in 2014, the landscape for book reviews had changed. Just as Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp did for film and restaurant criticism, Amazon and Goodreads democratized who could review books. “Suddenly, the debate was about whether we needed critics at all,” Chong says. “It was such a stark difference from my experience with critics during my internship. I wanted to figure out how those two storylines fit together.”

Now an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Ontario, Chong researches how fiction book reviews come to fruition, trying to solve the puzzle of why some books get reviewed and why so many more are ignored. Her new book, Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times makes the case for the persistence of old-guard professional criticism even in the Internet age.

. . . .

Scott Nover: Tell me a little bit about the people who write reviews.

Phillipa Chong: Most of people I spoke with don’t identify primarily as book reviewers. When I recruited them for this project, a lot said, “I really want to participate. But I don’t know if I count.” These were people who are hired on a freelance basis, and they might only review two or three times a year. So who are the people writing these reviews? Of the 40 people I interviewed, 11 were employed as full-time book reviewers at some point, 15 of them worked in colleges and universities, and the majority were also novelists or published authors themselves. There were 160 or more books authored by these 40 reviewers.

SN: What effect do you think that has on the book review business?

PC: I found that people’s identities as published authors were the anchor they used in their reviewing practice. A lot of people felt that the reason they were qualified to write a fiction review is because they’d written a novel themselves. When you’re a novelist, you not only have the experience of writing a book, you also have the experience of being reviewed and sometimes getting bad reviews. A lot of reviewers drew on those experiences to think about how forthright they wanted to be in their own criticism of other people’s books.

SN: When freelance reviewers don’t identify as official “book reviewers,” how does that affect book reviewing?

PC: The consequence of identifying so closely with the literary community is that critics often don’t feel that they’re part of the reviewing apparatus. They feel like they’re subject to it. This has two consequences. First, they live in a certain fear of it, because the kind of reception that their future books will have might be contingent on their relationship with the person they are reviewing. Second, there’s a lot of insistence that the book reviewing world is going through some challenges, but there’s very little consensus about who is responsible for making changes.

. . . .

SN: Do full-time reviewers evade these pressures better than freelancers? Are their reviews more honest?

PC: That’s the going hypothesis among some of the freelance critics I interviewed. They imagine that if they were full-time critics they wouldn’t feel so conflicted about the plight of the person at the other end of the review. But I’m skeptical. A theme in the book is that even though people hold positions with a lot of power, like holding a full-time critic position at a culturally influential publication, they don’t necessarily feel powerful. I was really surprised to hear some pretty powerful people say they felt shy or dread whenever faced with having to write negative reviews, for instance. And that’s not only because of all the uncertainty of the current review climate, but also the uncertainty intrinsic to cultural judgment, which is understood as subjective.

But I will say that I believe some critics were more comfortable with writing really positive or negative reviews than others. And these were people whose livelihoods were not so dependent on writing alone. So, for instance, people who had a career outside of books like faculty at a university, or people who also worked as journalists might invoke their responsibility for reporting the facts. I hypothesize that having footing in some other world, rather than being full time in the writing or reviewing world, has a fortifying effect on what people are willing to write.

Link to the rest at The American Scholar and thanks to S.E. for the tip.

BookLife by Publishers Weekly Launches Paid Review Service for Self-Published Authors

From No Shelf Required:

Remember when Kirkus introduced paid reviews over a decade or more ago? And how badly the book industry took it? We’ve come a long way since then. Below a press release from PW on its own paid review service for self-published authors.

“BookLife, Publishers Weekly‘s website and monthly supplement dedicated to self-publishing, is pleased to announce the launch of BookLife Reviews, a new reviews service open exclusively to self-published authors. BookLife Reviews provides authors with skillful, detailed reviews that include a variety of marketing insights and critical assessments, crafted by professional Publishers Weekly reviewers with genre-specific expertise.

. . . .

BookLife Reviews differ from Publishers Weekly reviews in that BookLife Reviews are longer—approximately 300 words, compared to 200  250 words for a Publishers Weekly review—and more focused on reaching readers rather than booksellers and librarians. Because they are paid reviews, costing $399  $499 each, they are guaranteed; submissions will not be rejected. Participants will receive their reviews within four to six weeks of submission. Authors will also have the option at no additional cost of seeing their reviews published in the monthly BookLife supplement, which is bound into the print copy of Publishers Weekly.”

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests this demonstrates a growing understanding that successful indie authors are earning good money and spending part of that money on marketing and advertising campaigns for their new books.

The strategy reflected in the OP may also demonstrate some concern about the future financial picture for traditional publishers.

The Problem With Feedback

From The Atlantic:

After a recent Uber ride, I hesitated between offering the four-star rating that captured my adequate ride and the five-star rating that I knew the driver expected. Eventually I tapped five stars and closed out of the app, relieved to be done with this tiny moral quandary. Later, the phone buzzed in my pocket with a text asking me to rate my experience getting an oil change. The next day, I politely declined to stay on the line “for just four to six minutes” to complete another customer-satisfaction survey. Sorry, but I have feedback fatigue.

Companies promise that “your feedback is important to us,” but providing it does not necessarily yield discernible change. Instead, the endless requests for feedback often feel dehumanizing. Being pestered for thumbs-ups and “likes” makes me feel like just another cog in the machine.

. . . .

Traceable to antiquity, the idea of feedback roared to prominence in the 18th century when the Scottish engineer James Watt figured out how to harness the mighty but irregular power of steam. Watt’s steam governor solved the problem of wasted fuel by feeding the machine’s speed back into the apparatus to control it. When the machine ran too fast, the governor reduced the amount of steam fed to the engine. And when it slowed down, the governor could increase the flow of steam to keep the machine’s speed steady. The steam governor drove the Industrial Revolution by making steam power newly efficient and much more potent. Because it could maintain a relatively stable speed, Watt’s steam engine used up to one-third less energy than previous steam-powered engines.

Few of today’s machines are steam-powered, but many use feedback. Governors control the speed of aircraft propellers while in flight. They prevent ceiling-fan lights from overheating and limit how fast cars can go. Long before Nest controlled home temperatures with fancy digital sensors, analog thermostats used feedback to maintain comfort.

So how did feedback shift from a means of regulating engine behavior to a kind of customer service? In 1948, Norbert Wiener coined cybernetics, his term for a science of automatic control systems. Wiener took Watt’s steam governor as the model for the modern feedback loop. He even named cybernetics after kybernetes, the Greek word for governor.

Wiener broadened the definition of feedback, seeing it as a generic “method of controlling a system” by using past results to affect future performance. Any loop that connects past failures and successes to the present performance promises an improved future. But instead of energy, Wiener thought of feedback in terms of information. No matter the machine, Wiener hypothesized, it took in “information from the outer world” and, “through the internal transforming powers of the apparatus,” made information useful. Water flow, engine speed, temperature—all become information.

. . . .

Even people were seen as feedback-driven structures: Wiener saw them as “a special sort of machine.”

Human beings, like machines, can change their behavior by learning from past successes or failures. But far from characterizing a soulless automaton, the feedback loop was meant to testify to the human power to adapt. For Wiener, feedback became the highest “human use” of power in the age of machines.

. . . .

The founder of management cybernetics, Stafford Beer, claimed, “If cybernetics is the science of control, management is the profession of control.” Beer’s emphasis on control, rather than improvement, echoes Watt’s insight into steam regulation. One of Beer’s earliest, most compelling examples of management cybernetics standardized a complex system to halve energy costs for steel production.

Approaches like Watt’s and Beer’s, which keep a system operating within tight parameters, demonstrate negative feedback. That’s not pessimistic or bad feedback, but feedback that prompts the system to maintain control. In traditional, cybernetic terms, negative feedback isn’t a one-star rating, but any information that helps the system regulate itself. Negative feedback is actually good feedback because it yields greater efficiency and performance, as in Watt’s steam governor.

Positive feedback, by contrast, causes the system to keep going, unchecked. Like a thermostat that registers the room as too warm and cranks up the furnace, it’s generally meant to be avoided.

But today’s understanding of feedback has reversed those terms. Positive ratings are a kind of holy grail on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and negative reviews can sink a burgeoning small business or mom-and-pop restaurant. That shift has created a misunderstanding about how feedback works. The original structure of the loop’s information regulation has been lost.

Think about it: The proliferation of ratings systems doesn’t necessarily produce a better restaurant or hotel experience. Instead, it homogenizes the offerings, as people all go to the same top-rated establishments. Those places garner ever more reviews, bouncing them even farther up the list of results. Rather than a quality check, feedback here becomes a means to bland sameness.

Unharnessed from its cybernetic meaning, positive feedback becomes an evaluation of services rendered rather than a measure of the system’s performance. Untethered from the system that they’re meant to evaluate, these measurements of quality have no loop to go back into. They float out in the world, stars and number ratings and comment cards generated in response to the sucking need for more feedback, not in the service of improved outcomes.

. . . .

The love affair with feedback for its own sake has inadvertently abandoned the mechanical insights of the steam governor. Indiscriminately valuing feedback of any kind from any source reduces its ability to regulate the system. That isn’t to say that opinions, stars, and reviews aren’t helpful. I’ve scoured book reviews on Amazon and Yelped my way to good ramen. But that kind of feedback—variable, messy, unchecked—doesn’t easily translate to systemic improvement. It is too attached to human user’s feelings and passions. Perhaps the problem isn’t that feedback loops are dehumanizing, but that they aren’t dehumanizing enough.

. . . .

If thumbs-ups or ratings on a five-point scale are not automatically useful, what kind of feedback would be? Finely tuned feedback that targets the system it’s meant to regulate will always surpass a barrage of angry or ecstatic reviews. Rather than trumpeting the desirability of all feedback, apps and review sites should pursue only the information that is crucial for making the system work better.

That approach also reveals some of the ethical shortcomings of feedback as it is used today. In the wake of many scandals, the ride-sharing company Uber recently introduced a new, faster way to give feedback: Rate the ride before it’s even over. Uber frames this offer as a sign of the company’s humanity: “We never want to miss an opportunity to listen and improve.” But giving feedback is not the same thing as being heard. Encouraging users to fire off reviews—especially those that have consequences, such as a driver’s livelihood—turns opinions into information. That information gets fed back into the system regardless of its quality, and gig-economy workers and small-business owners suffer the consequences.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG knows some authors who never read reviews of their books. Sometimes, the origin of this behavior is a review that indicates that the reviewer had no idea what the book was about.

Many  years ago, well before five-star online rating scales, some large consumer goods companies had employees, usually somewhere in the organizations marketing research department, who carefully read and analyzed every letter that the company received from someone who either liked or disliked one of the company’s products. The analysis included not only what the consumer had to say, but also an assessment of the individual’s education level (spelling errors indicated less education) and financial circumstances (What sort of paper was the letter written on? Quality stationery or a Big Chief Writing Tablet?)

The results of these analyses were compiled and delivered to various executives as part of a monthly report on consumer attitudes towards the company and its products. Because of the care taken in gathering and analyzing the the information, in PG’s limited experience, the resulting reports were treated seriously and regarded as the source of useful information.

These days, a great many organizations and individuals watch online star-ratings to determine how well a product or service works for their customers or whether a product very good at meeting someone’s needs or desires. Much less trouble to set up and run than any sort of manual evaluation, but also produces much less useful information.

Additionally, PG suspects the number of people who seldom or never write a product review or decide how many stars it deserves vastly outnumber the group that takes the time to rate a product. PG also suspects that the profile of the regular raters and those who never rate differ in many ways.

It’s received wisdom in many tech companies (the originators of computerized star ratings) that customers almost never provide useful product information and even less often suggest anything about a new product feature or service that hasn’t already been considered and rejected internally.

As the OP implies, most organizations view the large majority of ratings and reviews as junk that’s barely worth thinking about. The main benefit for the company is that customers think the company views them as individuals who have valuable insights into the company’s products.

All of this notwithstanding, PG’s experience with authors is that many do watch their online reviews and ratings closely. Whether this is regarded as useful or not seems to depend upon the author.

Mulishness

From The London Review of Books:

‘You ought to be in a kindergarten,’ a Canadian nurse exclaimed to David Jones, aged twenty, awaiting transfer home in July 1916 after being wounded in Mametz Wood. Even a decade later, photographs show a wary child or an understudy for an adult. Prudence Pelham, the staunchest of his extended female fellowship, described him as ‘completely unsexed’. He himself felt anomalous in the 1920s, and by the decade’s end ‘incredibly ancient’; at some point he slipped from seeming younger to seeming older than everyone around him. He was a self-taught modernist with an allegiance to medieval romance and Celtic art, a Londoner who was out of place in London, a Welshman who didn’t speak Welsh. He was an artist who constructed images out of words – in his painted inscriptions – and whose poems took in the observable world, including everything glimpsed in his peripheral vision. There was the hand-held and eye-level, frame-by-frame actuality of In Parenthesis (1937), his poem of the trenches, noise-saturated, full of chiaroscuro and stalked by horror, but recorded with intricate stylistic detachment; later, there were the ever receding vistas of The Anathemata (1952), his epic about the matter of Britain.

As Thomas Dilworth documented in his earlier David Jones in the Great War (2012), Jones saw more active service than any other British writer, all of it as a private, and outlived nearly all his contemporaries, with the exception of Robert Graves, born in the same year, 1895. The postwar life has its doldrums, and for a biographer the narrative sails are hard to hoist. For his full-dress Life, three decades in the making, Dilworth adopts a chronicle approach, breaking his close-grained account into brief chapters or time sections – wisely, because the hard to track Jones, endlessly on the move, never settled, and is to be found only in the day by day. The book reflects the tenacity and hiddenness of its subject, beginning with his London Welsh origins.

Jones’s father was a printer’s overseer for a Nonconformist weekly on Fleet Street, from a line of North Wales plasterers and stonemasons. His mother’s family were pure Rotherhithe: boatbuilders and shipwrights, her father a mast-and-block maker competent ‘in all that belongs to a ship’s carpentry’. Starting out as a teacher and governess, Alice Jones née Bradshaw ended her working life reluctantly with marriage and the family’s move from Rotherhithe to Brockley – London still, or just, with one foot in open country rather than river. She kept up with advanced ideas: she wanted to call her second son Oscar, got away with Walter (after Pater), but was confounded when at the age of nine he chose to answer only to his middle name, David. She had gone up in the world doctrinally, to keep Wales at bay and to counter her husband’s evangelical and downward move, as a lay preacher who had swerved from his Anglican origins. But both parents were high-minded, and questions of ritual remained alive, as they would for Jones throughout his life, in a household whose aspirations were framed by a lower middle-class artisanal culture on the cusp of change.

. . . .

But his early attention was fixed on Wales, part of whose purpose for him was its remoteness, brought near by avid childhood reading. During his first eight years the family did not visit Wales. When they did so it was a Rubicon he had already crossed, ratified by seeing hills for the first time and sea for the second. His loyalties were separate if indivisible, and decades later he corrected his publisher T.S. Eliot’s reference to him – not Welsh, but ‘a Londoner of Welsh and English descent’. He was encouraged to draw from early on – the urge to convey the look of things was as involuntary ‘as stroking a cat’ – and, at his own insistence, was sent at the age of 14 to the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. He was taught cosmopolitan visual lessons under cover of an apprenticeship for a career as a professional illustrator, continuous with his father’s trade, whose Edwardian disjecta littered the house. ‘I was brought up in a home that took the printed page and its illustration for granted,’ he remarked in an ‘Autobiographical Talk’ collected in Epoch and Artist. Camberwell was an extension of Brockley, art an extension of storytelling. Dilworth makes clear these contexts for In Parenthesis: it was a painter’s first experiment with words, originally intended to be illustrated.

In 1914, Jones enlisted without hesitation, remarking later that ‘history came to my aid.’ He tried to join the Welsh Horse Yeomanry, with no experience of horses, and then the Artists Rifles, but was deficient in chest measurement, before succeeding with the newly raised London Welsh battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a regiment in which commissions were held by Graves and Sassoon (neither of whom, as a private, he would meet). Some of the officers were Welsh, but the ranks were hastily recruited Cockney volunteers, and Jones was caught up in an emergency of language, unfamiliar idioms, indecipherable accents. Basic training in North Wales, musketry and manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, the march to Southampton and the night crossing to France in December 1915, the first experience of a long-range heavy shell: these rites of passage are distributed between the flickering personae of In Parenthesis, as a prelude which takes up much of the work.

Jones was an infantryman, equidistant from officers and ‘other arms’. He was good at hearing where a shell would fall, what kind and calibre it was, and where to put himself. The draughtsman’s hand-eye co-ordination made him useful with a rifle, and would serve him as a map-maker. Physically slight, he excelled at night patrol, for which he repeatedly volunteered, as exempting him from fatigues. He preferred the company of comrades to any other – making himself scarce when the possibility of a commission was offered – and preferred the firing line to anywhere else. The climax of In Parenthesis is the attack on Mametz Wood in the first days of the Somme: an affair of marching, waiting, cancellation, repositioning, followed by a Now of battle fought by exhausted troops wound to a pitch of dread by long anticipation. The assault was directed at thick forest, heavily defended, a mile deep and the width of a division. Jones was not in the first wave but in close support. A frontal attack was the order of the day, ‘clear view … leisurely walk … waves of slowly walking men’. The final approach took four minutes, over rough and rising ground, without flanking support, during which a third of his battalion fell. After thirty hours of hugger-mugger in the wood Jones, mercifully, was shot in the leg. He crawled back towards the British trenches, was carried to a dressing station, told what a beautiful blighty – a wound serious enough to require the soldier to be sent back to England – by the orderly who removed the bullet.

. . . .

The difficulty with reading the poem as a narrative account of those years is that In Parenthesis confounds chronology: not begun until a decade after 1918, not published until two decades after the events, in the shadow of a coming war. ‘I did not intend this as a “War Book” – it happens to be concerned with war’: as the hesitant and haunting preface suggests, it is a work of l’entre-deux-guerres. Its revelation is that the peacetime distinction between past and present is unreal, and that our historical condition is to be between wars. This is why the world of his trenches is so curiously normalised, the habitat of one who was there long enough to take it for granted. Business as usual, or in the chalked polyglot of the estaminet behind the lines: ‘BIERE/EGG CHIP 3 FRANC/CAFE AU LAIT/ENGLISH SPOKE HEER.’ Jones’s explanation of the work’s title refers to the composition, not to the experiences: ‘This writing is called In Parenthesis because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something … and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.’ The between-time of which this speaks is close in apprehension to Eliot’s ‘twenty years largely wasted’.

. . . .

In Parenthesis bristles with intimations of class – ‘men on horseback, of evident aloofness’ – as an otherness more mysterious than the enemy, and ‘the clipt hierarchic command’ is one of the poem’s terse vernaculars. Imperturbable officers stroll in the open during heavy barrages, greet one another nonchalantly amid the falling shells (‘Well, Dell!’), are attired as if paying afternoon calls in Belgravia – and die without looking back. Jones had been sartorially susceptible even before he volunteered (one witness remarked that, however hard up in later years, he always got his shoes at Lobb’s), and he would have agreed with his friend the classicist W.F. Jackson Knight that the Great War was ‘a frightfully dressy affair’. Much of this is parodic – he resented the tone-deafness and hauteur of the officer caste – but there is a residue of fascination.

Even so, as Jones wrote in 1935, ‘I must be and am essentially a private soldier, in and out of the war,’ and he thought of the artist as an infantryman who works directly with his materials, who prospers by lying low.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

“War is hell, certainly, but Jones never doubted that there is a good deal of hell around and this aspect of the matter did not greatly surprise him.”

~  D. S. Carne-Ross

 

How to Be a Dictator

From The Guardian:

Born in obscurity, frustrated in youth, the dictator rises through accident, patronage or anything except merit to blossom into a fully fledged evil-doer, desperate for the respect and admiration that are wrung from the populace only by skilled PR manipulation. Often feigning modesty, he soon generates a cult that he personally develops. Women and even brave men feel overcome in his presence; schoolchildren chant the praise of the father of the nation; artists and writers deify the great leader. Dictators generally come equipped with an ideology, but since they have no principles, only a lust for power, the process of propagation turns it into a mockery.

Although dictators often fancy themselves as writers or philosophers, they fail to make the grade as intellectuals, and the Little Red Books they produce are travesties. If they are dictators of the left, their attempts at radical reform bring famine and suffering to the population. If dictators of the right, they go to war, with the same consequence of popular suffering, and lead the nation to shameful defeat. They long to be popular, and put great effort into creating that illusion, but it is all fakery. Surrounded by sycophants, they are friendless, lonely and paranoid. Most of them die a dog’s death, but if they somehow manage to avoid this, people only pretend to mourn them. After their death, they are quickly forgotten.

This is the collective portrait that emerges from Frank Dikötter’s book, the eight chapters of which deal with Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. Despite their fundamental similarities, his dictators do have stylistic differences. Stalin allowed streets and cities to be named after him, while Mao did not. Hitler was a teetotaller and Duvalier a follower of the occult. Kim’s floodlit statue towered over Pyongyang, following the tradition of Stalin statues, but Hitler vetoed the construction of statues of himself (thinking this honour should be reserved for great historical figures), and Ceauşescu and Duvalier felt the same. Some dictators’ enforcers wore brown shirts, others black, and still others had no uniform. Mussolini and Hitler excelled as orators, while Stalin was an undistinguished speaker who never addressed mass rallies. Stalin, Mao and Duvalier wrote poetry, Hitler painted and Mussolini played the violin.

In the chapters on the “big” dictators – Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao – Dikötter dwells on the cult that developed round them. All of them headed a party that borrowed some of their charisma, and their regimes featured a variety of secret police and enforcers as well as cheerleaders and informers. Ordinary people were encouraged to believe that anything bad was done by subordinates without the dictator’s knowledge (“If only the Duce/Fūhrer/vozhd’ knew”). In fact, the dictators repeatedly made terrible mistakes and appear to have had few if any lasting achievements.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Link to How to Be a Dictator

Stella Count shows gender bias in book reviews is changing

From The Guardian:

Researchers have praised most Australian publications for reaching gender parity in their book review sections last year.

Of published book reviews in Australia in 2018 49% were for books written by women, according to research published on Thursday by the Stella Count.

The Stella Count is Australia’s answer to the Vida Count for literature, which surveys women’s representation in major literary publications and book reviews. The count was established in 2012 alongside the Stella prize for books by women to highlight gender disparity in Australian literary culture.

Conducted with academics from Australian National University and Monash University, the Stella Count involves researchers combing book review sections of 12 major Australian newspapers and book reviewing publications, tallying the number of books reviewed and the gender of the books’ authors.

The Stella Count also notes the gender identity of the reviewer, and the space given to reviews of books by women compared with those by men.

. . . .

Julieanne Lamond, from the Australian National University, who leads the analysis of the data with Melinda Harvey from Monash, told Guardian Australia the count was an important way to measure what kinds of stories were making their way into the public consciousness.

“If we think about our ideas about what men and women are, what kinds of stories can and can’t be told, and what kinds of stories are considered important, whether books by men and women are getting equal access to those pages is really important,” she said. “It’s a really important way that cultural prestige is created.”

. . . .

Analysis also showed that more women than men were employed as reviewers of books in 2018. This corresponded with an increase in the number of books reviewed overall, suggesting both books and reviews written by women had been added to review sections, rather than taking the place of those by men.

Women also received more access to what Lamond called “the big name-making reviews” – that is, reviews of 1,000 words or more – in 2018 than in any of the preceding years, with 47% of these dedicated to women authors compared to 36% in 2017.

. . . .

Of continuing concern was the trend of “partitioned criticism”, in which men tended to review books by men and women tended to review books by women. “There’s a gender essentialism at work – the idea that books written by women are just for women and books written by men are just for men.”

The impact of “partitioned criticism” was particularly significant for women writers.

“Books by men can often be considered more serious even if they’re about the same subject matter that women are writing about. So Jonathan Franzen writes about family and it’s a serious book, and for every woman writer that does the same it’s considered a woman’s book. I think there’s still some work to be done there.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG is interested in what happened to the number of online reads for various reviews and reviewers. He also wonders if one is permitted to keep one’s gender a secret via the use of a pen name or if gender disclosures are mandatory.

What would George Eliot or Andre Norton do if either were still alive? George Sand? Isak Dinesen?  How should Robert Galbraith or J.D. Robb be counted if they chose not to reveal their gender? SK Tremayne or SJ Watson?

A Goodreads Survey in 2014 reported that women are predominantly read by women – 80% of a new female author’s audience is likely to be female.

Is a male author permitted to write a book with a female narrator? What if an author wanted to assume a different gender and gendered pen name for the purposes of writing a particular type of book?

From a purely commercial standpoint, a fiction author might be advised to write as a woman.

From National Public Radio:

A National Endowment for the Arts report found that only 57 percent of Americans had read a book in 2002 a four percentage-point drop in a decade. Book sales have been flat in recent years and are expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.

When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.

By this measure, “chick-lit” would have to include Hemingway and nearly every other novel, observes Lakshmi Chaudhry in the magazine In These Times. “Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominately male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.”

Book groups consist almost entirely of women, and the spate of new literary blogs are also populated mainly by women. The Associated Press study stirred a small buzz among some of those bloggers.

“I’ve read at least 100 books in the past year. Seriously. Probably more like 150 to 200,” a user named Phyllis wrote on the literary blog Trashionista. “My husband? I’m guessing zero, unless you count picture books and comic books he has read to the kids.”

“We see it every time in our store,” says Carla Cohen, owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. “Women head straight for the fiction section and men head for nonfiction.”

“I know that we certainly have more women than men customers,” concurs Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, an independent bookstore in the Miami area. “But I don’t have any wisdom about why that is.”

. . . .

Theories attempting to explain the “fiction gap” abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them.

Some experts see the genesis of the “fiction gap” in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.

“Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it’s not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life,” Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.

Another theory focuses on “mirror neurons.” Located behind the eyebrows, these neurons are activated both when we initiate actions and when we watch those same actions in others. Mirror neurons explain why we recoil when seeing others in pain, or salivate when we see other people eating a gourmet meal. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons hold the biological key to empathy.

The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.

“Reading requires incredible patience, and the ability to ‘feel into’ the characters. That is something women are both more interested in and also better at than men,” says Brizendine.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

When PG checked the Barnes & Noble list of its Top 100 Bestsellers of 2019 (fiction and non-fiction), seven out of the Top 10 Bestsellers were written by women: Delia Owens, Michelle Obama, Tara Westover, Rachel Hollis (twice, #5 and #10), Harper Lee and Marie Kondo.

The Amazon Charts – Most Sold – Top 10 Fiction List for the week of September 8 included seven women authors – Margaret Atwood (twice, #2 and #4), Delia Owens, Donna Tartt, Patricia Cornwell, Fiona Valpy and Lisa Gray.

For the Most Read books on Amazon Charts Fiction List, all ten were written by women. Delia Owens was #1, J.K. Rowling was #2, #3, #4, #6, #7, #9 and #10, J.D. Robb was #5 and Louise Penny was #8.

Since The Guardian story was focused on Australian authors, PG took a trip to Amazon Australia. He couldn’t find Amazon Charts for Australia, so he checked out the best-selling new fiction releases – five out of the Top 10 were written by authors with female names and six out of 11-20 best-sellers were female. For best-sellers in the Kindle store, seven out of the Top 10 were female.

 

Review Brigades

PG finally stumbled across a term that explains some of what he’s seen on Amazon and other online reviewing sites on occasion. He hadn’t seen a name for this phenomenon.

From Review Meta:

Brigading is a term used when online trolls group together to flood another site (or subsection of a website) with their message.  On Amazon, this happens when a product is quickly flooded with negative reviews, often politically motivated, and likely by reviewers who have not actually used the product or read the book.

. . . .

There’s a few tell-tale signs of brigading that are very easy to notice once we’ve run a report on the reviews:

1. Rating from Unverified Purchasers is much lower than the rating from Verified Purchasers

. . . .

Since the brigaders will not go out of their way to purchase the item before leaving a nasty review, you’ll often see an unusually high amount of unverified purchases, which are much lower on average than the verified purchase reviews.

2. High number of Deleted Reviews

. . . .

A high number of deleted reviews with a low average rating does not mean that Amazon is taking sides and trying to silence a group of people.  Amazon is simply doing their job of removing reviews from people who obviously have not used the product.

3. Lots of negative reviews appearing all at once

. . . .

Usually, brigades are organized on different sites outside of Amazon (Reddit, Facebook, Twitter), and then inspire a flood of reviews all around the same date.  If the rating from reviews on High-Volume days is considerably lower than the rating from reviews on Normal-Volume days, it can be a sign of brigading.

Link to the rest at Review Meta

If you’re not familiar with Review Meta, here’s a description from the site:

  • ReviewMeta.com is a free tool that analyzes reviews and helps consumers identify inauthentic or biased reviews.
  • Consumers can copy and paste any Amazon product URL into ReviewMeta.com’s search bar, or use the free browser extension to generate a report.
  • ReviewMeta was launched in 2016 and currently assists over 10,000 visitors a day.

And a video: