A Former Paid Reviewer Shares:

PG received the following from an individual who he won’t identify. PG has removed one sentence that might allow someone to identify the sender, but the remainder of the message is as PG received it:

I can address some of the questions you posted about reviewing for Kirkus and PW.

I have freelance-reviewed for years through various organizations, including Kirkus Indie and PW’s equivalent. For these plus Chanticleer Reviews and Dark Diva/Readers Roundtable all titles were indie published.

. . . .

Pay has ranged from $0 to $75 per review. Kirkus and PW were $25-50 at the time I wrote for them; Chanticleer started at $50 then raised to $75/per after three reviews that passed muster. NYJB has never paid, but by far has been the most satisfying opportunity. I consider my pay from them to be the excellent books that have come to me for free, whether they be advance reader copies or beautiful finished hardcovers.

In all instances there’s been someone at the organization to edit and approve my review. All except NYJB edited my reviews heavily; NYJB barely changes a comma. All but NYJB have had strict guidelines for length, format, and content. But all have been firm about us writing honest reviews, and handling negative aspects of a title tactfully. Absolutely no nastiness allowed.

I’ve never had a contract with any review orgnization, just an agreement reached via email conversations, which basically amounted to my agreeing to their procedures.

Since there’s only ever been one person between me and the organization (the review editor, who may or may not have been staff vs. freelance), I assume the bulk of what Kirkus, PW, and Chanticleer charge authors goes to the organization, presumably as profit after they pay their reviewer and review editor. I have no idea what the editor receives.

A personal note: I agree with 99% of your posted commentary about traditional vs. self/indie publishing regarding the latter being a better deal for authors. I must say, though, that the trad-pub books I’ve had available for review have been orders of magnitude better than the indies. Yes, there have been good ones, but to date, in general, on the reviewer end, through the channels I’ve experienced, indie books remain subpar to the ones that go through the gatekeeping and corporate production process.

I would go so far as to say it’s an inverse proportion, i.e., 1 or 2 out of 10 indies are worth reading and reviewing, whereas 8 or 9 out of 10 trad-pubs are worth it.

As an author myself, I’ve abandoned traditional publishing. But as a reader, I prefer its products. Not sure what that means beyond affirmation that the publishing world is changing!

Who let the dons out?

From The Critic:

Contrary to what you sometimes read in the newspapers, the media don has been going strong for upwards of 120 years. When English Literature started professionalising itself at the end of the nineteenth century and universities needed to fill their newly-created English departments, they tended to recruit from journalism.

That first wave of English professors consequently deposited such all-round pundits as John Churton Collins (Birmingham) and George Saintsbury (Edinburgh) on the lecture-room podium — all erstwhile hacks who, whatever the glamour of their academic gigs, could never quite abandon the trade that had brought them preferment.

Come the 1960s, as both universities and media doubled in volume, this wave turned into a torrent. Malcolm Bradbury (UEA), David Lodge (Birmingham again), the sociologist Laurie Taylor (often thought to be the original of Howard Kirk in Bradbury’s The History Man) each contrived to build a highly lucrative bridge between academe, the public prints, and the Today programme.

All of a sudden, the don could have it both ways — file that learned 5,000 words for Essays in Criticism and review for the Observer, publish a book with a title such as Foucault and the Structuralist Hegemony and judge the Booker Prize. Bliss it was to be alive in that cross-cultural dawn.

Half-a-century later, alas, the laudable aim of encouraging brainy specialists to share their knowledge with the world at large has turned into a complete disaster. Why is the presence of an academic on a book prize judging panel, fronting a BBC Four arts documentary or even reviewing for a national newspaper generally such an embarrassment? One reason, alas, is that fatal assumption of omnicompetence — the idea that talent translates from discipline to discipline which finds the titans of academe being employed to carry out tasks for which they may not actually be qualified. Mary Beard is a Classics professor. Why should she end up on poetry symposia or presenting arts docs about painting?

Another reason is the sheer inability of most academics to step down from the Parnassus of their specialist subject and engage with non-specialist hoi-polloi. This failing is particularly evident in the bread-and-butter world of book reviewing.

. . . .

As for mother Carey’s chickens, all avidly disporting themselves in the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the London Review of Books and countless other organs, their main limitation is that they possess all the book reviewer’s traditional faults, only more so. Item one on a pretty considerable list is score-settling (see Terry Eagleton’s decades-long spat with A.C. Grayling, or the multiple vendettas annually conducted by Craig Raine).

Item two, as immemorially practised in the LRB, is simply to use that new volume of essays about Harold Wilson as an excuse to drone on about your own opinion of the postwar Labour Party while barely mentioning the book that started you off.

Readers often complain about book-page glad-handing. No one, it might be said, glad-hands like an academic.

Link to the rest at The Critic and thanks to C. for the tip

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:

The new literary tastemakers: can they be trusted?

From The Bookseller:

Last week, Barack Obama released his annual summer reading list, receiving 250,000 Facebook reactions and 26,000 comments. The ex-president is certainly not the first public personality to tout their literary nous; everyone from Emma Watson to Kim Kardashian West has opened their bookshelves to the world. But how are these celebrity tastemakers transforming what we read, and what does it mean for professional literary criticism?

To answer this, we need to understand why these public personalities choose to share what they’re reading. While all profess some form of altruistic mission, epitomised by Oprah Winfrey’s desire to “get the whole country reading again”, there are secondary benefits to having a successful book club.

1. Pubic perception

PewDiePie, a highly-popular YouTube creator who got his start over-reacting to scary video games, has since tried to distance himself from his past. By posting book reviews to his YouTube channel, he is attempting to adjust his public persona from immature, loud-mouthed gamer to intelligent and thoughtful cultural commentator. And it seems to be working:

This Youtuber who I used to watch because he screamed at barrels just lectured me on philosophy for 50 minutes.
– Top voted comment on PewDiePie’s latest book-related video

Nonetheless, this kind of identity shift can be hard for audiences to swallow, especially for entrenched celebrity identities. Kim Kardashian West launched her book club in 2017, and received both support from fans (“Love that idea”), and derision from others (“You can read?”). Stevie Marsden speculates (in her 2018 study ‘I didn’t know you could read’, Logos, 29(2-3), pp.64–79) that Kardashian West’s book club was “part of her redemptive re-emergence into the public spotlight following the Paris attack [where Kim Kardashian was held hostage at gun point].” However the venture didn’t get past the second book, and Marsden goes on to surmise that “few felt [Kardashian] had the relevant credentials or expertise to be a literary intermediary.” It takes a lot more than a book club to shift public perception apparently.

. . . .

3. Business opportunities

Starting as a curiosity, Reese Witherspoon’s book club now reaches over 18 million Instagram followers every month, and is used in-part to feature books in which Witherspoon owns film rights. Thus she creates “the audience for her own movies before she even starts filming”. While making possible films featuring strong female leads (WildGone Girl), this business incentive undeniably influences the books Witherspoon chooses to feature.

With secondary motives underlying the stories promoted by these emerging literary intermediaries, what has happened to the art of objective literary critique, which demands “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument”? Is book culture being undermined?

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG points out that many “professional literary critics” are book reviewers whose principal qualification is that someone hired them to review books.

Why Is Amazon Blocking Reviews of the No. 1 Best-Selling ‘Justice on Trial?’

From The Federalist:

Amazon is refusing to publish many reviews and ratings of the No. 1 best-selling “Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court,” according to multiple reports from readers who purchased the book directly from Amazon.

The behind-the-scenes dive into the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which was written by Carrie Severino and The Federalist’s Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway, debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s list of best-selling books.

The Federalist independently confirmed that many reviews by verified purchasers of “Justice on Trial” were not being published by Amazon. Some fake reviews from non-purchasers and reviews from those who clearly had not read the book, however, were published immediately. As of Wednesday evening, the online retailer had allowed only 16 reviews of the top-selling book to be published.

One reviewer whose critique was published by Amazon accused the authors of “stay[ing] away from using the term rape” regarding unsubstantiated accusations of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh during the confirmation process in 2018. A word search of the Kindle version of the book shows that the term was used 41 times by the authors. Another review, from an individual who did not purchase the book from Amazon, wrote that it was the “[w]orst book ever” and rated the book with one star.

. . . .

In a canned statement provided to The Federalist by an Amazon spokesperson, the company said, “Our policy includes a delay before reviews appear on our website while we ensure reviews follow our participation guidelines.” The spokesperson did not explain why troll reviews from commenters whom Amazon hadn’t verified have purchased the book were nonetheless published without delay while reviews from verified purchasers were quarantined and remain hidden.

. . . .

The company also refused to disclose the percentage or number of unpublished reviews written by verified buyers, or what the average rating was for verified purchasers whose reviews were being hidden by Amazon.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon employees were being investigated for manipulating product reviews in exchange for cash.

“The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice,” the Wall Street Journal noted. “Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.”

A 2019 expose published by The Hustle dove deep into what it called Amazon’s “massive fake-review economy.”

“Amazon likes to think of its marketplace as a merchant meritocracy where the best products get the best reviews by virtue of quality and honest consumer feedback,” The Hustle wrote. “But the vast size of the platform, coupled with a ferocious competition among sellers to get higher product rankings, has spawned a problem: A proliferation of fake reviews.”

Fake reviews have become such a significant problem that multiple services like Fakespot and ReviewMeta have popped up offering to help potential consumers sort the signal from the noise. Fakespot estimated that up to 30 percent of Amazon reviews are fake or unreliable.

Link to the rest at The Federalist

Amazon Investigates Employees Leaking Data for Bribes

The following is from September, 2018. PG has no idea why he missed it.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. is investigating suspected data leaks and bribes of its employees as it fights to root out fake reviews and other seller scams from its website.

Employees of Amazon, primarily with the aid of intermediaries, are offering internal data and other confidential information that can give an edge to independent merchants selling their products on the site, according to sellers who have been offered and purchased the data, as well as brokers who provide it and people familiar with internal investigations.

The practice, which violates company policy, is particularly pronounced in China, according to some of these people, because the number of sellers there is skyrocketing. As well, Amazon employees in China have relatively small salaries, which might embolden them to take risks.

In exchange for payments ranging from about $80 to more than $2,000, brokers for Amazon employees in Shenzhen are offering internal sales metrics and reviewers’ email addresses, as well as a service to delete negative reviews and restore banned Amazon accounts, the people said.

Amazon is investigating a number of incidents involving employees, including some in the U.S., suspected of accepting these bribes, according to people familiar with the matter. An internal probe began in May after Eric Broussard, Amazon’s vice president who oversees international marketplaces, was tipped off to the practice in China, people familiar with the matter said. Amazon has since shuffled the roles of key executives in China to try to root out the bribery, one of these people said.

Internally, Amazon has worked hard to stop sellers from gaming its systems, but it can sometimes be a Whac-A-Mole situation as swindlers get more creative, according to former Amazon executives and other people familiar with the company’s thinking.

. . . .

Potential internal corruption is the latest challenge Amazon faces in upholding its platform’s integrity, after well-publicized problems with fake product reviews and counterfeit merchandise.

For the past few years, Amazon has recruited independent merchants to sell their products on the company’s marketplace, something that both widens the variety of products offered on the site and reduces prices. More than two million merchants now sell an estimated 550 million products on Amazon, representing more than half of all units sold on the site and contributing an estimated $200 billion in gross merchandise volume last year, according to FactSet estimates.

. . . .

One of the newer ways some sellers are seeking an edge over rivals is getting access to Amazon employees.

Some midlevel Amazon employees in China have the power to delete negative reviews and can access the email addresses of users who have purchased specific items and written reviews of them, said a person who has facilitated illicit transactions between third-party sellers and Amazon employees in southern China.

Brokers are the middlemen between Amazon employees and sellers who want negative reviews deleted or access to internal sales information. Brokers search for Amazon employees on Chinese messaging platform WeChat and send messages asking them if they would like to provide these services in exchange for cash, according to brokers and sellers who say they have been approached by brokers.

The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice. Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.

For less money, sellers can buy from Amazon employees the email addresses of customers who write reviews. This gives sellers the opportunity to reach out to customers who have written negative reviews and try to persuade them to adjust or delete those reviews, sometimes by offering free or discounted products, the sellers and brokers say. Amazon prohibits this practice.

Brokers also offer proprietary sales information, such as the keywords customers typically use to search for items on Amazon’s site, sales volume and other statistics about buyers’ habits, according to the people. Having this information enables Amazon sellers to craft product descriptions and advertisements in a way that boosts their rankings in search results. Amazon doesn’t disclose this type of detailed sales information.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

In PG’s personal shopping on Amazon (and before he saw the OP), he has become less and less likely to purchase products from Chinese sellers because of the poor reputation some have for honesty, accurate product descriptions and substandard customer service.

He realizes this practice is unfair to Chinese sellers who are operating honestly and if PG discovers a reliable method for identifying such sellers, he’ll be happy to purchase from them.

The OP has lead PG to conclude that some of Amazon’s Chinese employees are doing positive harm to both the company’s overall reputation and to honest Chinese sellers. These employees don’t seem to be planning for long-term employment with Amazon. Perhaps some are working for Alibaba, JD.com or other Chinese ecommerce competitors of Amazon. The fact that such thoughts have crossed PG’s mind make it even less likely that he will patronize Chinese businesses online regardless of what name is on the website.

Why Should Authors Read Your Bad Reviews?

From The Guardian:

History has yet to find the book that is universally adored – or the author who enjoys reading bad reviews. While Angie Thomas has topped the charts and scooped up armloads of awards for her two young adult novels, The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, her recent request that book bloggers stop sending her their negative reviews saw her on the receiving end of a wave of vitriol.

Thomas wasn’t asking reviewers to stop writing bad reviews. She was just asking that they didn’t give her a prod on Twitter or Instagram to tell her about it.

“Guess what? WE ARE PEOPLE WITH FEELINGS. What’s the point of tagging an author in a negative review? Really?” she wrote on Twitter. “We have to protect our mental space. Too many opinions, good or bad, can affect that … Getting feedback from too many sources can harm your writing process. I have a group of people whose feedback I value – my editor, my agent, other authors who act as beta readers. With the position I’m in, social media is for interacting with readers, not for getting critiques.”

. . . .

Authors have been saying for years that they would prefer not to be tagged in bad reviews on social media. In November, Lauren Groff wrote that “tweeting it [a review] to a writer is like grabbing their cheeks and shouting it into their face”. It even happened before the social media era, such as when Alain de Botton was told about Caleb Crain’s review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (“I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make,” wrote de Botton on Crain’s website). And perhaps, Martin Amis’s publishers should have kept him in the dark about Tibor Fischer’s write up of Yellow Dog. (“A creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse,” said Amis of Fischer.)

But the blowback against Thomas is disproportionate when compared to how reviewers have reacted to this request in the past. As she herself points out: “Plenty of white authors have said the same thing about reviews without getting the same kind of attacks that I’ve received.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

“The Levelling” Review: Masters versus the Masses

From The Wall Street Journal:

Resentment of elites is the theme of the hour. In “The Levelling,” Michael O’Sullivan mentions a historical analogy to make all the more vivid our current moment. In England in the late 1640s, he notes, a faction called the Levellers complained about the grandees in Oliver Cromwell’s army, which had just defeated Charles I in a civil war. The grandees wanted to impose a postwar settlement without consulting the rank and file in the army. As one Leveller put it, calling for more equality: “Have you shook this nation like an earthquake to produce no more than this for us?”

More than three centuries later, the 2008 financial crisis devastated Middle America, but the grandees who fueled the crisis with excessive risk taking faced no consequences. According to Mr. O’Sullivan, the government response to the 2008 global crisis saved “those who have the means to be saved (and who may not deserve to be saved), leaving others floundering.” This generation’s Levellers in the U.S. and the U.K. and on the European continent protest the undemocratic power of government technocrats, central banks and the European Commission, and they vote for Donald Trump, Brexit and Europe’s populist parties.

It is a powerful statement of the problem of the elites vs. the masses, the insiders vs. the outsiders. Ironically, “The Levelling” itself and the genre to which it belongs highlight the problem rather than solve it. Often condescending, supposedly expert solutions are offered to a crisis that is so broadly defined that it includes obesity, videogame addiction, acute attention deficit disorder and the “hunched form of the ‘texter.’ ” In such diverse signals the author claims to hear the masses saying that they “are experiencing more change than they are comfortable with.”

It is part of the charm of “The Levelling” that the author confesses the sins of this genre even while he gleefully sins further.

. . . .

To be fair, Mr. O’Sullivan, a finance executive and author, sometimes shows more convincing expertise.

. . . .

So should the grandees listen to the “incoherent” grievances of the Levellers? Should the grandees reflect on their own incoherence—repeated domestic and foreign-policy failures unsuccessfully hidden by their favorite buzzwords? Surely such incoherence is part of what has led voters to reject them. The grandee philosophy remains that of the famous Ring Lardner line: “Shut up, he explained.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Escaping Samuel Johnson

From The Paris Review:

“We see with other eyes, we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts than those we formerly used,” wrote Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man. One of the most persuasive spokesmen for American independence, he championed the clearing away of British “cobwebs, poison and dust” from American society. American independence, he argued, could never be complete without that.

Many Americans thought the same way: that apart from economic stability and success, what they needed almost more than anything else after political independence was intellectual and cultural independence, free from the stifling influence of British arts, letters, and manners. They resented their cultural subservience, which had not disappeared with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Yet for more than a century after the Revolution, the majority of literate and cultured Americans did not want to turn their backs on British culture, “their ancient heritage”—especially its literature and the historical traditions of its language. About seventy long years after Paine’s statement, the popular English novelist Anthony Trollope elegantly expressed this powerful, persistent, and apparently inescapable linkage: “An American will perhaps consider himself to be as little like an Englishman as he is like a Frenchman. But he reads Shakespeare through the medium of his own vernacular, and has to undergo the penance of a foreign tongue before he can understand Molière. He separates himself from England in politics and perhaps in affection; but he cannot separate himself from England in mental culture.” Janus-like, and often in a less fully conscious way, Americans knew that their “mental culture,” whether they liked it or not, was linked to Britain’s, and they had little taste for parting with it.

. . . .

America’s lingering literary and linguistic attachment to England is nowhere so evident as in the nation’s pervasive ambivalence toward Samuel Johnson and his great dictionary, published in 1755, which many call the first major dictionary of the language. He was the great sage of English literature, and a brilliant essayist, moralist, poet, lexicographer, and biographer, the “Colossus of Literature” and “Literary Dictator” of the second half of eighteenth century England, a figure thoroughly synonymous with Englishness. Throughout his career as an author, Johnson advertised his multilayered and complicated dislike of America and Americans. In 1756, the year after he published his famous dictionary, he coined the term “American dialect” to mean “a tract [trace] of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed.” He had in mind an undisciplined and barbarous uncouthness of speech. With typical hyperbole on the subject of Americans, he once remarked, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American … rascals—robbers—pirates.”

Yet Americans could not get enough of him. They devoured his books, which libraries held in great numbers. His influence on American thought and language was vast. Thomas Jefferson recognized this as a grave problem: he wanted to get Johnson off the backs of Americans. In a 1813 letter to his friend, the grammarian John Waldo, Jefferson took note of Johnson’s Dictionary as a specific drag on the country’s cultural growth: “employing its [own] materials,” America could rise to literary and linguistic preeminence, but “not indeed by holding fast to Johnson’s Dictionary; not by raising a hue and cry against every word he has not licensed; but by encouraging and welcoming new compositions of its elements.” And yet, as one historian writes, “It was to prove more difficult to declare independence from Johnson than it had been to reject George III.” The weight of Johnson’s authority on culture in America was a legacy, both positive and negative, that would loom large in the American psyche far into the nineteenth century. Several of the leading American authors at the time actually fed the appetite for Johnson rather than attempted to dampen it. One of them, Nathaniel Hawthorne, revered Johnson. Although he complained in Mosses from an Old Manse, “How slowly our [own] literature grows up,” for him Johnson could do no wrong. In London during the 1850s on government business, he recorded in his English Note-Books walking in Johnson’s footsteps—taking a meal at Johnson’s favorite London tavern, the Mitre; traveling up to Lichfield in Staffordshire to pay homage to the great man’s birthplace; and exploring Johnson’s rooms at No. 1 Inner Temple Lane in London, where his imagination luxuriated in the sense of place: “I not only looked in, but went up the first flight, of some broad, well-worn stairs, passing my hand over a heavy, ancient, broken balustrade, on which, no doubt, Johnson’s hand had often rested … Before lunch, I had gone into Bolt Court, where he died.” As for James Fenimore Cooper, he was liberally using Johnson’s Dictionary as his principal authority on the language, even after America’s first large (unabridged) dictionary was published by Noah Webster.

. . . .

An avalanche of British attacks on American society and culture in general and language and literature in particular in the early nineteenth century did not improve American self-confidence. While such British offensives did not exist in isolation from larger political events at the time that contributed to a hostility between the two countries, which eventually ignited in the War of 1812, that larger context fails to account for the harshness and frequency with which British writers insulted American life and manners. Many British travelers’ attacks in books and the British press were simply outrageous and in poor taste, ill-informed or not informed at all, aiming to appeal sensationally to a portion of the British reading public that was either ignorant of America and prepared to think the worst of it, or welcomed such attacks as exotic and improbable adventure stories.

Fanny Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote a sensational best seller, Domestic Manners of the Americans, based on her months of traveling all over the country. An engaging but also wounding account, often insightful and sometimes appreciative, it is marred by a recurring strain of anti-Americanism. As she sees it, the abuse of the language was no small part of Americans’ lack of discipline and bad taste and manners. She shudders over what she saw and heard as the vulgarity of American manners and language, appalled at the “strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation.” She is short on examples, but in an appendix she added to the fifth edition of her book seven years later in 1839, she records some family conversation in an unspecified part of the country. It contains this specimen of a father’s pride in the chickens the family is about to serve up for guests: “Bean’t they little beauties? hardly bigger than humming birds; a dollar seventy five for they. Three fips for the hominy, a levy for the squash, and a quarter for the limes; inyons a fip, carolines a levy, green cobs ditto.” She links the speech she heard to the prevalent lack of refinement resulting from the low esteem in which women were held. If America was ever going to rescue itself from this revolting social malaise, she writes, it would have to be through the refinements of the arts: “Let America give a fair portion of her attention to the arts and the graces that embellish life, and I will make her another visit, and write another book as unlike this as possible.”

. . . .

Looking back at a century of such British mockery, the historian Allan Nevins in 1923 conveyed the seriousness of the threat relentless British mockery posed to the American psyche in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and the anxiety it stirred up in the young country: “The nervous interest of Americans in the impressions formed of them by visiting Europeans and their sensitiveness to British criticism in especial, were long regarded as constituting a salient national trait.” Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was appalled by the effect on American authors: “The first step of an American entering upon a literary career was to pretend to be an Englishman in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.” American poet, journalist, and commentator H. L. Mencken, in his linguistically patriotic book The American Language, provides another retrospective in sections titled “The English Attack” and “American Barbarisms.” He describes the clash as “hair-raising,” an “unholy war” of words. Captain Thomas Hamilton, a Scot, mentions a few of the prevalent barbarisms: “The word does is split into two syllables, and pronounced do-esWhere, for some incomprehensible reason, is converted into wharethere into thare; and I remember, on mentioning to an acquaintance that I had called on a gentleman of taste in the arts, he asked, ‘Whether he shew (showed) me his pictures.’ Such words as oratory and dilatory, are pronounced with the penult syllable, long and accented; missionary becomes missionairy, angel, ângel, danger, dânger, &c.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Amazon Shoppers Misled by ‘Bundled’ Star-Ratings and Reviews

From The Guardian:

Badly translated versions of classic books and critically panned remakes of Hollywood films appear to have glowing endorsements on Amazon thanks to the website’s policy of bundling together reviews of different products.

Analysis by the Guardian shows products that have actually been given one-star ratings appear alongside rave reviews of better quality items, making it impossible for consumers to judge the true value of what they are about to buy.

The Guardian found numerous examples of “bundled” reviews that make poor products look highly rated – rendering the star rating effectively meaningless.

. . . .

The research found:

 Badly translated or updated Kindle versions of Emma by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which include references to “moms”, “guys” and “buddies”, but appear to have 4.5-star ratings from hundreds of reviewers.

 A 2017 TV version of Dirty Dancing that shares the 4.5-star reviews of the original film, despite being described by Hollywood Reporter as a “bloated” remake “that nobody asked for and nobody is likely to truly enjoy”.

 Reviews for Wuthering Heights appearing under listings for Jane Eyre, and vice versa.

 Complaints from consumers who said they had been misled when buying books from a variety of authors – from JK Rowling to Shakespeare.

 Star ratings being combined for different products in other departments, from electronics to gardening equipment.

The problems with some reviews seem to go back years, with complaints from readers pointing out they were appearing under the wrong works and editions since at least 2014.

. . . .

The combinations of formats and editions make it impossible for readers to pick between multiple versions of the same products, and allow those selling badly put together editions to piggyback on good reviews.

Anyone glancing at the reviews for a Kindle version of Emma retailing at £4.36 might believe it is worth buying, but a look at the opening pages reveals a poor translation of the original.

Emma’s mother has become her mom, and her love interest, Mr Knightley, is “a sensible guy” who uses the word buddy instead of friend.

A passage that is supposed to say “poor Miss Taylor” will be missed, instead reads: “She is surely very sorry to lose terrible Miss Taylor, and I am positive she can leave out her more than she thinks for.”

. . . .

A review from a reader, which appears to be about this edition, gives it just one star and describes it as terrible.

“Each page has a dozen errors. It reads as if it has been translated from a foreign language. ‘Dog’ in the original is ‘canine’ in this version; ‘file’ in the original has become ‘document’; ‘tremendous’ has become ‘maximum incredible’; ‘man’ has become ‘guy’.

“That is just a short summary of the errors in the first two pages. The whole thing is unreadable and a waste of money.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Oops! Famously Scathing Reviews of Classic Books from the Times’s Archive

From The New York Times:

 What can we say? We don’t always get it right. Here’s a look back at some of our most memorable misses.

On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (1860)

. . . .

“This Salinger, he’s a short-story guy.”

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)

. . . .

“The author’s probable intention was to exhibit a unique development in this little asylum waif, but there is no real difference between the girl at the end of the story and the one at the beginning of it.”

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

. . . .

“Not one syllable of what Hemingway has written can or will be missed by any literate person in the world.”

Across the River and Into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway (1950)

Link to the rest at The New York Times

A Book That Captures the Singular Life of Marie Colvin

 

From The New Yorker:

In Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” there is a passage describing Colvin’s ordeal behind Chechen-rebel lines over Christmas of 1999. After coming under sustained Russian bombardment outside Grozny, the American-born reporter, then aged forty-four, was forced to trek out of the war zone over the snow-covered Caucasus mountain range to reach safety in neighboring Georgia. There were many bad moments, and, at one point, driven to exhaustion, Colvin considered lying down in the snow and sleeping. It was the opposite impulse of the one that drove her forward throughout her life. Colvin survived her Chechen experience and a dozen or more equally dangerous episodes during her twenty-five years as a war reporter, but, a month after her fifty-sixth birthday, in February, 2012, her luck ran out, in Syria. The Assad regime’s forces fired mortars into the house where she was staying, in the rebel-held quarter of Homs, and she was killed.

Colvin’s life has been memorably chronicled by Hilsum, a friend and colleague who lived and worked alongside Colvin in many of the same war zones, and whose home base was also London. (Full disclosure: I knew Colvin and am a friend of Hilsum’s.) At a time when the role of women is being reëxamined and has rightly galvanized public attention, Colvin’s tumultuous life has inspired a number of recent accounts, including the feature film “A Private War,” starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin. But it is Hilsum’s biography, written by a woman who both knew Colvin and had access to her unpublished reporting notes and private diaries—a trove of some three hundred notebooks—that seems to most closely capture her spirit.

As told by Hilsum, Colvin’s life was an unreconciled whirl of firsthand war experiences—many of them extremely dangerous and highly traumatic—London parties, and ultimately unhappy love affairs, laced through with a penchant for vodka martinis and struggles with P.T.S.D. Colvin was a Yank from Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Yale-educated, and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—her Bible was Gellhorn’s “The Face of War”—but she never wrote a book herself, and was little known to her countrymen, making her name, and the bulk of her career, instead, inside the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a British broadsheet with a tabloid soul. From 1986 onward, when the Sunday Timeshired Colvin, the editors appear to have happily taken advantage of her lifelong hunger for professional affirmation, a chronic willingness to throw herself into danger in order to get scoops, and her considerable personal charm, which, early on, earned her the trust of roguish political players like Yasir Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker




Is It Really Five Stars? How to Spot Fake Amazon Reviews

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dogs love water!!!

My dog loves this pet drinking fountain. He doesn’t care that it’s louder than Niagara Falls when the water level is low, and that the setup instructions were impossible to follow. Oops, this is supposed to be a positive review. So, yeah, the LED light is nice, I guess?

I’ll never actually post that, but it could have been worth money if I had. Let me explain. I visited a Facebook group called “Amazon Reviews” and was promised a full refund on a $44 Amazon purchase of a pet fountain if I did the following on the mega-retailer’s site:

1. Write a positive review.

2. Post my photos of the product.

3. Rate it five stars.

Not only is this ethically problematic, it is also against Amazon and Facebook user policies. Plenty of people don’t care, though: They’ll do it for this pet gizmo or one of the other bajillion products in these forums.

Every day, many of us search for a product on Amazon, pick a four- to five-star option and tap Buy Now. Those little yellow stars can make or break a product.

“In early 2012, the Amazon catalog grew too big, and the only way to get to the top of search results was to prove to the algorithm that your product was the best,” said Juozas Kaziukėnas, chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, a business-intelligence firm focused on e-commerce. “Most sellers realized acquiring reviews was a golden ticket.”

. . . .

There are four species of Amazon review:

A legit review. Left by a human who bought a product and felt like sharing, the legit review, often labeled as a “Verified Purchase,” might be peppered with real-life experiences that indicate genuine use.

Legit reviewers tend to be moved to review when they love or hate the product, so the ratings are more extreme, says Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta, a website that analyzes Amazon reviews.

A Vine review. Amazon invites some of the most prolific legit reviewers to be a part of Vine. The program rewards them with free products in exchange for reviews, marked with a green label. Vine members choose from a preselected group of products, but neither Amazon nor the company that provides the product can influence, edit or modify reviews, Amazon says.

Amazon Vine reviewers I interviewed say they don’t let the perk influence their ratings, and showed me many negative reviews they have written. ReviewMeta found Vine reviewers give more two-, three- and four-star reviews than other groups.

. . . .

An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook. An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook.

Here’s how it works: A shopper joins a Facebook group with a name like “Amazon reviews.” These groups tend to be private but I was let into two, even after saying I was a journalist.

Sellers, often out of China, post about free products, say Bluetooth headphones. The buyer gets the Amazon link from the seller via direct message, orders the headphones through Amazon so it can appear as a “Verified Purchase,” then writes the review, posts some photos and rates it five stars. Once proof of purchase is provided, the seller refunds the buyer, generally via PayPal .

The moderator of one of the Facebook product-review groups I joined directed me to his rules, which state that members are meant to write honest, unbiased reviews, and that the group isn’t responsible for “deceitful posts or dishonest reviews left by buyers/sellers.” Facebook says it closes groups that offer incentives for fake reviews. Amazon says it works with Facebook to police these groups.

I spoke with various reviewers in these groups, many of whom didn’t want to be identified. They say they write these types of reviews to save money.

“I definitely gave a 4- or 5-star review to stuff that wasn’t good,” said Jeffrey Chu, from Charlotte, N.C., who reviewed products from Facebook groups until Amazon blocked him from reviewing last year. “I felt a little bit bad about doing it, but even before this, I noticed a lot of BS reviews. I figured the system was broken, I figured I’d get stuff out of it.”

The fake review. Finally, there are the full-on fakes. These reviews don’t show verified purchases and consistently deliver high ratings without much detail. One person I saw on Craigslist offers reviews starting at $5 a pop. So-called click farms in Asia claim to control thousands of Amazon accounts that vendors can hire to leave reviews for between $1 and $5 each.

Sellers also “hijack” legit reviews through some back-end trickery, Mr. Noonan said. A merchant might put a new item on the page of a well-reviewed but now-unavailable older product. The star rating looks good, but the reviews don’t match the item.

. . . .

“We suspend, ban or pursue legal action against these bad actors as well as suppress all known inauthentic reviews,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. “Customers can report suspicious reviews 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we investigate each claim.”

Last week, I spotted a listing for headphones branded Wotmic with 51 five-star ratings—and no poorer ratings. This week, Amazon’s sweep removed all 51 reviews. Wotmic’s parent company, Shenzhen Womaisi Technology Co., Ltd. hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment.

. . . .

ReviewMeta and Fakespot automatically look for those red flags and more. Paste in an Amazon product page address, and either site gives you a review of the reviews. They both calculate the average star rating with questionable reviews removed. I prefer ReviewMeta for its more comprehensive report cards.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Facebook, Amazon struggle in fight against fake reviews

From Fox News:

A Fox News investigation has found that Facebook is a breeding ground for groups where reviews for products on Amazon, among other online platforms, are bought and sold. And small businesses competing in the online marketplace may already be suffering because of a lack of controls, or a lack of efficiency, on behalf of two of the world’s most valuable brands.

Reviews can be critical for businesses that operate in online marketplaces like Amazon, not only because of the impact a 1-star review can have but because sellers and products with the greatest number of reviews typically appear higher in search results.

. . . .

Beyond the fact that reviews are critical for a company’s existence, the practice of compensating someone in exchange for a customer review is something that violates both Amazon and Facebook policies. It could also put you at odds with the Federal Trade Commission.

That hasn’t stopped the practice from flourishing on Facebook, Fox News has found. Groups like “Amazon review club” can be joined with the click of a button, and with no apparent background check.

. . . .

Fox started tracking that group, and others like it, just before the Black Friday shopping rush in early November. Since then, its membership has grown by thousands, standing at more than 82,000 members as of this writing. That group was created in 2016, and there are plenty of others like it where reviews are solicited for everything from Google Maps to Yelp.

. . . .

Over the course of a few weeks, Fox News witnessed members of these groups offering to sell hundreds of reviews at a time, promising commissions in exchange for praise and soliciting 1-star reviews that seemed destined for some unlucky online competitor.

Link to the rest at Fox News

Where Did the Amazon Reviewers Go?

From The Book Designer:

Two years ago, it was so easy to find the top Amazon.com reviewers and approach them and ask for reviews. There was software that let authors and publishers find the name and email addresses of the thousands of Amazon reviewers who had already written reviews of books in a similar vein.

I had written a self-help book for women about lowering stress, so it was easy to find the bestselling books on stress reduction and find the contact information on Amazon of those who had reviewed those bestselling books.

Then, I put together a BULK email using MailChimp and emailed THOUSANDS of reviewers all in one afternoon.

It. Was. Awesome.

Then, for some reason, in March of 2018, Amazon made a decision to hide the email addresses of reviewers on their profiles. Speculation was they did this because of the new GDPR rules and regulations but no one really knows why. This completely stopped authors from being able to email potential reviewers–even if the reviewers didn’t mind being contacted with their information public on their profile.

Does this mean it’s the end of finding targeted reviewers for books? Absolutely NOT! But it is a lot harder than it used to be.

Amazon is REALLY working hard to hide the contact information of book reviewers, and GoodReads only lets you message a few readers every day before shutting you down for the day. HOW, then, can you reach the reviewers and readers who write reviews?

. . . .

Debbie [Drum] has a program called Book Review Targeter that pulls data on readers and reviewers of specific books. I LOVE the idea of using software to find readers and reviewers of books written by authors in my community. There are authors out there who have already written books that appeal to MY readers. Finding readers and getting them to consider my book is SO much easier when I start by knowing my fellow authors and reach out to THEIR readers.

With this idea firmly in place, and knowing that it is no longer “cool” to mass email folks. HOW CAN I REACH THEM?

. . . .

Amy: Debbie, is there any way in today’s world, to email readers in a way that does not “spam” them?

Debbie: The good news is YES.

When researching comparable authors to find books that have a lot of reviews online, look for bestselling books to start. When a bestselling author releases a book and they have done “everything right” – meaning

  • they have done the market research,
  • their cover is beyond professional,
  • their description is spot on and convincing,
  • and their content is killer,

then that author will probably have a lot more reviews and you will get better review response results from mass cold emails.

I would say first test out in a small segment to see if mass emailing will work for you. If it doesn’t, don’t give up. There are certainly other ways to get the reviews you need to sell more books.

Amy: So what other options do we have? That’s the next question.

Debbie: Social Media is also a great place to find reviewers. When looking for book reviewers, and influencers that can share and promote a book, I like to start with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

All of these amazing platforms have direct messaging and commenting components to them.

What’s so great about this? A lot of these social media platforms are listed on an Amazon reviewer’s bio page.

. . . .

Amy: What is the best way to connect with readers in this new world?

Debbie: There are only four rules to follow when it comes to contacting reviewers.

Here they are:

#1 – Be Brief

This is the most important that’s why it’s FIRST. Don’t write paragraph after paragraph after paragraph. This is a HUGE mistake. In a couple of sentences you can explain what your book is about, why you are contacting them, what they will get out of it (more about this in #3) and what to do next.

People will tune you out if you go on and on.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

How to Have an Opinion: The Criticism of Martin Seymour-Smith

From The Millions:

Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn’t for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent … seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as “brilliant … but too much so.” Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures.

As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century’s most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought … if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt … of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.”

On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept … he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG notes that Mr. Semour-Smith’s magnum opus, published in 1976, appears to be out of print, has an Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #2,042,365 and two Amazon reviews.

A quick check of Rabbit Run, published in 1960, shows Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #70,167 and  The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, is ranked at #8,265 and just one of its many editions has 2,121 reviews.

Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?

From The Guardian:

As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?

It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.

Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such “death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.

I am in favour of removing monuments erected to celebrate individuals whose life work was to destroy the happiness or lives of others. I think the statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, belongs in a museum with a lengthy note about Rhodes’s horrific legacy and the cultural circumstances under which the statue was first erected. The same is true of the many tributes across the US to Robert E Lee. But a book is not a statue. A story is not necessarily a tribute to, or celebration of, its author. I am left reaching, instead, for the correct metaphor to evoke the relationship between work and creator. Is a book its author’s child, innocent of its parent’s wrongdoing? Or is it a hologram of its creator, representing all that its author was and did? Of course neither of these is correct; I’m still searching for an analogy that lies between these two extremes.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG suggests if you can’t separate the author from the book, your mental, emotional and analytical self-discipline may need some work.

PG is reminded of a quote that he suspects begins (or began) every first-year semantics class, “The word is not the thing.”

Although S.I. Hayakawa popularized it, at least in the US, PG understands the phrase originated with Alfred Korzybski, who also said, “The map is not the territory.”

Here is a longer quote from Hayakawa:

Citizens of a modern society need […] more than that ordinary “common sense” which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for.

PG also suggests that the book is not the author and vice versa.

If a reader comes to a book having pre-judged it by its author, he/she may well fail to understand the book. If the author had written this particular book anonymously, using a pen name, would the book be different?

The idea that one should pre-judge a book by what one knows (or thinks one knows) about the author seems totally bizarre. One is not supporting Naipaul by reading his books. What we know or think we know about an author does not change the words the author wrote.

A bit of perspective on the history of a society’s popular thought and accepted truths might help today’s critics of people who lived in a much different time and culture that attitudes and understandings change and today’s verities can well be tomorrow’s disdained falsities.

Is Quality, Like Beauty, in the Eye of the Beholder? The Elusive Art of Book Reviewing and Its Influence

From No Shelf Required:

What is a book review? Many have attempted to answer this question over the last few decades in a multitude of ways—from informed scholars, librarians, and booksellers to publishers, authors and readers. While their views differ widely on how successful book reviews are in bringing us closer to a book’s quality—and whether this is even possible—their definitions of book reviews and their core purpose seem to be in sync. To start, book reviews are a ‘genre’ in their own right, as they have features specific to them, and they can be as entertaining to read as the books they put under the microscope. These features, of course, depend on the context in which the books are reviewed (e.g., reviews found in academic journals are more in-depth and lengthier than those found in mainstream newspapers and magazines), but the general purpose of book reviews is always to serve as kind of an economic model, helping readers—whoever they may be—to decide if they should spend their money on a book, be it for entertainment, enlightenment, or scholarly pursuit. In other words, the main purpose of book reviews is to reduce search costs and uncertainty (Clement & others 78).  In this sense, then, readers hope that book reviews will guide them in the direction of the books they both want and need.

If we examine how information professionals and scholars have perceived book reviews over time and in varied settings, we can conclude that despite their imperfections and sometimes contradictory performance and impact, the presence of book reviews in scholarly and mass communication is understood to be both necessary and helpful, not only to guide readers through the maze of published literature—which today exceeds 2.2 million new titles in any given year, according to UNESCO estimates published in 2017—but also to point to the cultural conditions of our time and to give us alternate views on particular subjects. Indeed, the world needs different opinions. As Peyre put it, “unanimity in any acclaim for a book (whether or not by a Nobel Prize winner), a play, a concert performer, or an artist, even if he has become as venerable as Picasso or Chagall, should arouse suspicion. It can only be a sign of conventionality, of intellectual laziness, or timidity” (Peyre 130).

Yet despite such explanations for the necessity of diverse opinions, there has been no shortage of views pointing, sometimes harshly, to the inherently self-defeating nature of book reviews.

. . . .

Book reviews are studied usually in terms of several criteria: review length, lag-time, orientation, evaluative slant, and reviewer identity (Rehman 127). They are also studied in terms of their influence on author reputation and career advancement, as well as in terms of their power to predict a book’s critical reception and, ultimately, its financial success. Questions that appear frequently in such studies include, for example: How have book reviews and our perception of them changed over time? How often are critics truly objective in their analysis? Should they strive to be more descriptive and less prescriptive in their analysis? Are book reviews only about the book or do they also reveal details about the critic? What is the impact of negative reviews on a book’s sales and on an author’s public image? What is the role of professional editors in the process of preserving ethical standards behind book reviewing? How much influence do editors have in deciding what books are reviewed in professional publications and by whom? How often and in what ways are book reviews used as marketing tools by publishers, authors, and such middlemen as PR agents? And, perhaps most relevant, just how many books can possibly be reviewed in a world that sees 2.2 million titles published annually?

. . . .

Upon closer examination of available literature (and based on my own experience as a professional book review editor at Library Journal), I have come to identify four major types of book reviews: academic reviews; trade reviews; mainstream media reviews; and, since the advent of modern technologies and social media platforms, user reviews. The first three types refer to the book reviews written, edited, and published by professionals, while the fourth refers to the reviews we encounter online and all over the Internet; they are usually written by amateurs who voluntarily share their thoughts about a book (often anonymously).

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests that, as a means of informing a purchase decision for a particular book, user reviews are likely, on a collective basis, to be far more influential for a given individual reader (especially a reader of ebooks) than any of the other categories of reviews written by “professionals”.

While an individual user review may be useless for deciding about a prospective ebook purchase, collectively, a group of user reviews is often quite valuable for PG.

The consequences of an unwise ebook purchase are also smaller than an unwise printed book purchase for several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, ebook prices are lower than printed book prices, so less of the reader’s money is at risk.
  2. If an ebook proves unsatisfying, it can usually be returned for a refund with a mouse click, a much simpler process than trudging back to a physical bookstore with printed receipt in hand. (PG is likely not the only person whose physical bookshelves include poor purchase decisions for which the return process wasn’t worth his time. They sit there, like awkward distant relatives one prefers not to speak with, but still have some embarrassing connection with the observer.)

The other problem with “professional reviews” is that a great many of the publications in which they were formerly published have gone out of business or are otherwise unable or unwilling to pay a “professional” for a review. How many people actually read online publications that include “professional” reviews. Does a book reviewer who writes “professional” reviews still qualify as a professional if he/she isn’t paid at all or is paid so little that a day job is required for sustenance?

The New York Times book reviews were very influential in days now past because of the large number of the paper’s subscribers and their attractive demographics (nice income, good education). Today, the Times’ overall audience is far smaller (particularly in comparison with other online destinations) and who knows how many people actually read the book reviews as opposed to seeing a link to a book review or opening a page that includes a book review, then heading elsewhere? (PG will note in passing that online web traffic analytics for this sort of thing are notably inaccurate. Here’s a link to a short article that describes a variety of estimation methods and points out their shortcomings.)

As times change, some people change and others do not. Yesterday’s profession, regardless of how valuable it might have been back in the day, may not have the same value today. While not wishing bad fortune on anyone, PG notes that today’s “professional” can be tomorrow’s barista.

 

‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives

From The New York Review of Books:

The white supremacists chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were probably unaware that the leading Nazi ideologue who used the original slogan of Blut und Boden to promote the creation of a German master race was not himself a native German. Richard Walther Darré, who proclaimed the existence of a mystic bond between the German homeland and “racially pure” Germans, was actually born “Ricardo” on the other side of the Atlantic, in Argentina’s prosperous capital, Buenos Aires.

Sent by his German immigrant family to the Heimat for schooling at the age of nine, Darré later specialized in agriculture, the logical choice for someone with an Argentine background at a time when the succulent beef and abundant wheat of Argentina’s pampas made the country renowned as the “breadbasket of the world.” For a while, during the 1920s, he contemplated returning to Buenos Aires to pursue a career in farming, but that was before his writing caught the attention of Adolf Hitler’s rising Nazi Party. His 1930 book A New Nobility of Blood and Soil, in which he proposed applying selective cattle-breeding methods for the procreation of perfect Aryan humans, dazzled the Führer.

As early as 1932, Darré helped the SS leader Heinrich Himmler to set up the Race and Resettlement Office in order to safeguard the “racial purity” of SS officers. Darré’s work also inspired the Nazi Lebensborn (Fount of Life) program that rewarded “unmarried women and girls of good blood” who had children with racially pure SS officers. Hitler was so impressed with the “Blood and Soil” movement that in 1933 he named Darré Germany’s minister for agriculture.

. . . .

Subsequently, in my work as a writer, I focused on how hundreds of Nazis and their collaborators escaped to Argentina. This made me painfully aware of how their presence during the thirty years between the end of World War II and the 1976 coup had numbed the moral sense of what was then an affluent, well-educated nation, with disastrous consequences for its people. Argentines’ forced cohabitation with Nazi fugitives resulted, I came to believe, in a normalization of the crimes that the German émigrés had committed. “He came to our country seeking forgiveness,” Argentina’s Cardinal Antonio Caggiano told the press when Israeli operatives captured the Nazi arch-criminal Adolf Eichmann and spirited him out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem. “Our obligation as Christians is to forgive him for what he’s done.”

Some fifteen years later, Argentina began its own descent into full-blown totalitarianism, and its military embarked on a mass killing program that differed in scale, though not in essence, from the Nazis’: an estimated 30,000 people were made to “disappear” by the dictatorship. The same politicians and religious leaders who had turned a blind eye to the presence of Nazi criminals in Argentina looked away again as blood-soaked generals kneeled to receive their blessings in Buenos Aires Cathedral. Much of my adult life has been haunted by the need to answer the question of how this could have come to pass in Argentina. And how it might come to pass elsewhere.

. . . .

This normalization of totalitarian undertones accelerated after my family moved back to Argentina when I was nineteen. To make myself better acquainted with Buenos Aires, I would take long walks through the capital. One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark, and in those days a revolving billboard had been suspended around it. Round and round turned the display and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.”

With every turn, the billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose. The billboard message was the brainchild of Oscar Ivanissevich, Argentina’s reactionary minister of education, ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn. His other mission was an “ideological purge” of Argentina’s universities, which had become a hotbed of student activism. During an earlier ministerial term in 1949, Ivanissevich had led a bitter campaign against the “morbid… perverse… godless” trend of abstract art, recalling the Nazis’ invective against “degenerate” art. During that period, his sister and his nephew were both involved in smuggling Nazis into Argentina.

Ivanissevich’s Orwellian billboard made its appearance just as right-wing violence erupted in the buildup to the military coup. That same year, 1974, Ivanissevich had appointed as rector of Buenos Aires University a well-known admirer of Hitler’s, Alberto Ottalagano, who titled his later autobiography I’m a Fascist, So What? His job was to get rid of the kind of young left-wing protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel demanding that it be turned into a children’s hospital, and he warmed to the task of persecuting and expelling them. Being singled out by him was more than merely a matter of academic discipline; some fifteen of these students were murdered by right-wing death squads while Ottalagano was rector.

As a partial stranger in my own land, I noticed what those who had already been normalized could not: this was a population habituated to intolerance and violence. Two years later, Ivanissevich’s slogan made a macabre reappearance. In the basement of the dictatorship’s death camp based at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA), where some 5,000 people were exterminated, officers hung two banners along the corridor that opened onto its torture cells. One read “Avenue of Happiness,” the other “Silence Is Health.”

. . . .

It was in these years in Argentina that I learned how quickly the veneer of legality can be peeled away from a society. In 1977, a year into the dictatorship, I joined the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper that was the only news media outlet reporting on the crimes of the regime. “I had the privilege of speaking out while everyone else kept silent,” says the then-editor of the Herald, Robert Cox, a Briton who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not the fact that he was British or that his newspaper had a limited circulation that allowed Cox to print what the other newspapers would not. It was simply that he could not bring himself to remain silent about the carnage he was witnessing. Unlike so many Argentines, he had not been desensitized by growing up among Nazi fugitives; instead, he had been raised in wartime London among the rubble of buildings destroyed by Hitler’s bombs and rockets.

But there was a price to pay for the privilege Cox speaks of. Returning home from my very first day of work, I saw three plainclothes police officers—unmistakable despite their shoulder-length hair, leather jackets, and bell-bottom trousers—leaving my apartment building carrying a leather satchel from which a spool of recording tape was visible. The secret police had tapped my phone, the building superintendent whispered to me. A green Ford Falcon was parked across my street.

The discreet tipoff from my building’s super was unusual; it was far more common for people to snitch on their neighbors, and this was, of course, encouraged by the military. In December 1979, Cox was forced into exile, along with his Argentine wife and their five Argentine-born children, after he received threats that revealed a detailed knowledge of his family’s daily routines. To this day, the Cox family remains convinced that it was a close acquaintance who provided the dictatorship with the information. The transformation of friends into informers is a defining characteristic of totalitarian regimes.

If you want to know what sustains totalitarian violence in a society, psychology is probably more useful than political analysis. Among the elite, support for the dictatorship was enthusiastic. “It was seen as kind of a social faux pas to talk about ‘desaparecidos’ or what was going on,” says Raymond McKay, a fellow journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, in Messenger on a White Horse, a 2017 documentary about the newspaper. “It was seen as bad taste because the people didn’t want to know.”

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

The First Reviews of Every Ernest Hemingway Novel

From The Literary Hub:

On this day in 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, Ernest Hemingway—the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning, machismo-exuding, globe-trotting war correspondent and titan of 20th Century American fiction—took his own life. His much-imitated writing style and tumultuous personal life have ensured that he remains one of the world’s most widely read, and divisive, authors.

To mark the fifty-seventh anniversary of his death, we’re taking a look back at the first reviews of each of Hemingway’s nine published novels, from The Torrents of Spring (1926), to the posthumously released Islands in the Stream (1970) and The Garden of Eden (1986).

. . . .

The Torrents of Spring reveals Mr. Hemingway’s gift for high-spirited nonsense. Whatever its effect on literary foibles, it contributes to that thoughtful gayety which true wit should inspire. While he ridicules certain extravagances by pushing them to the logical conclusion, Mr. Hemingway obviously entertains a robust respect for the object of his allusive gibes. In the last analysis, the book sets out to amuse. This it does.

–The New York Times, June 13, 1926

. . . .

“It is a relief to find that The Sun Also Rises maintains the same heightened, intimate tangibility as the shorter narratives and does it in the same kind of weighted, quickening prose. Mr. Hemingway has chosen a segment of life which might easily have become ‘a spectacle with unexplained horrors,’ and disciplined it to a design which gives full value to its Dionysian, all but uncapturable, elements. On the face of it, he has simply gathered, almost at random, a group of American and British expatriates from Paris, conducted them on a fishing expedition, and exhibited them against the background of a wild Spanish fiesta and bull-fight. The characters are concisely indicated. Much of their inherent natures are left to be betrayed by their own speech, by their apparently aimless conversation among themselves. Mr. Hemingway writes a most admirable dialogue. It has the terse vigor of Ring Lardner at his best. It suggests the double meanings of Ford Madox Ford’s records of talk. Mr. Hemingway makes his characters say one thing, convey still another, and when a whole passage of talk has been given, the reader finds himself the richer by a totally unexpected mood, a mood often enough of outrageous familiarity with obscure heartbreaks.

–The New York Times, October 31, 1926

. . . .

“There is in A Farewell to Arms no change from the narrative method of The Sun Also Rises and Men Without Women. Ernest Hemingway did not invent the method, which is chiefly to be characterized by the staccato nature of sentences (an effort at reproducing universal conversational habit), and its rigid exclusion of all but the most necessary description. Yet if Hemingway was not the inventor of the method, tentative gropings toward such a manner having been made by many of his immediate predecessors, the author of A Farewell to Arms has, in his several books, made it so strikingly his own that it may bear his name, and is likely to henceforward. The method has its advantages, and also its disadvantages.

The chief result is a sort of enamel lustre imparted to the story as a whole, not precisely an iridescence, but a white light, rather, that pales and flashes, but never warms. And because it never warms, or never seems to warm, the really human in Hemingway (and there is a great deal in Hemingway that is human) fails of its due. It is not impossible that Ernest Hemingway has developed his style to the extreme to which he carries it because in it he finds a sort of protective covering for a nature more sensitive than he would have one know.
. . . .

“There will be debate as to whether A Farewell to Arms is a finer piece of work than The Sun Also Rises. And there will be cogent arguments advanced on either side. On the surface, the newer story is more effective than the earlier novel. There is more drama, the movement is more nearly continuous and better sustained. And the story of the love between the English nurse and the American ambulance officer, as hapless as that of Romeo and Juliet, is a high achievement in what might be termed the new romanticism. And yet for the present reviewer The Sun Also Rises touches a note which Hemingway caught once, and, in the very nature of the thing, cannot touch again.”

–Percy Hutchison, The New York Times, September 29, 1929

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Why You Can’t Really Trust Negative Online Reviews

From The New York Times:

The Great Wall of China has more than 9,000 Google reviews, with an average of 4.2 stars. Not bad for one of the most astonishing achievements in human history.

But you can’t please everyone.

“Not very tall. Or big. Just sayin. I kinda liked it. Sort of,” wrote one ambivalent visitor of the structure, which stretches thousands of miles. Another complained, “I don’t see the hype in this place it’s really run down and old … why wouldn’t you update something like this? No USB plug ins or outlets anywhere.” Someone else announced that he’s “Not a wall guy. Laaaaaaaaammme.”

Even Shakespeare can’t escape the wrath of consumer scorn. One reviewer on Amazon awarded Hamlet just two stars: “Whoever said Shakespeare was a genius lied. Unless genius is just code word for boring, then they’re spot on. Watch the movie version so you only waste two hours versus 20.”

. . . .

We use reviews to vet our options. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of American adults say they sometimes or always read online reviews for new purchases. And more than two-thirds of regular review readers believe that they’re “generally accurate.”

Marketing data indicates that negative reviews in particular dramatically influence our buying behaviors. But research on the biases and demographics of online reviewers — and our own, often errant interpretations — suggests that our faith in reviews is misguided.

. . . .

There are many more positive reviews online than there are negative ones, studies show, which creates a scarcity of negative reviews that we associate with value.

For instance: In a data sample from Amazon, just 4.8 percent of reviews with a verified purchase were rated one star, whereas 59 percent had five stars, according to a study published in 2014 by The Journal of Marketing Research and led by Duncan Simester, a marketing professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.

“The infrequent nature of negative reviews may help to distinguish them from other reviews,” Dr. Simester wrote in an email. We consequently pay more attention to them.

. . . .

We also think of negative reviews as windows into what could go wrong. Is this camera’s memory card going to go kaput in the middle of my honeymoon? Are these socks scratchy? Dr. Simester pointed out that people may see negative reviews as more informative, and therefore more valuable, than positive ones because they highlight defects — even if they’re not actually more accurate.

“We want to feel secure in our decision-making processes,” said Lauren Dragan, who analyzes consumer feedback as the audio tech products reviewer at Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products. We use negative reviews to understand our risk and reduce our losses, studies show.

. . . .

Reviews are subjective, and the tiny subset of people who leave them aren’t average.

People who write online reviews are more likely to buy things in unusual sizes, make returns, be married, have more children, be younger and less wealthy, and have graduate degrees than the average consumer, according to Dr. Simester’s 2014 study. Online reviewers are also 50 percent more likely to shop sales, and they buy four times more products.

“Very few people write reviews. It’s about 1.5 percent, or 15 people out of 1,000,” Dr. Simester said. “Should we be relying on these people if we’re part of the other 985?”

. . . .

Another reason to be wary is roughly one in 15 people review products they haven’t actually purchased or used, according to Dr. Simester. These “self-appointed brand managers” write speculative, unsolicited negative reviews to offer the company “feedback.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Amazon comes under fire for removal of book reviews

From The Bookseller:

Amazon has come under fire for removing reviews from its online book listings, with some customers having had all their reviews removed or being blocked from posting further reviews on Amazon.

Authors, bloggers and publishers have criticised the development, with many sharing their frustration through the #giveourreviewsback hashtag. Amazon has blamed temporary “technical issues”.

Author Isabella May told The Bookseller that she had had a “hellish week” of losing reviews for her two novels, published by a small independent Crooked Cat Books. “I have lost a whopping 11 reviews for my two novels in the space of just a week,” the novelist said. “Everything I am doing now as an author is about raising my profile and following my long-term vision, so as you can imagine, it’s quite upsetting to see one book plummet from a very respectable 55 reviews down to 49, and the other (more recently published title) fall from 36 reviews to 31. For a high profile author who may no longer feel the need to check their reviews, this is but a drop in the ocean. But for a new voice, it’s everything, and very distressing – particularly as my publisher retail solely online and solely via Amazon.”

Another reviewer and novelist told The Bookseller  that some of their own positive reviews for other writers had been taken down from both Amazon.com and Amazon UK, noting that books from Amazon’s own publishing arm, such as its fiction imprint Lake Union, attract significant numbers of positive reviews. One title White Rose, Black Forest  garnered 2,960 reviews on Amazon.com within three months of publication.

The reviewer, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Is this removal of reviews from other authors part of Amazon being at the top in terms of publishing? Because whilst we all suffer, their authors seem to have review numbers the rest of us can only dream of.”

Despite emailing Amazon May was told the reviews would not be reinstated because they were “in violation of our guidelines”. She was not told which specifically but was directed towards its lengthy community guidelines microsite which includes various sections which includes a section on how the company “may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behaviour”.

The retailer has developed tools and policies to combat fake reviews amid problems over “reviews for hire”.

. . . .

HarperCollins’ commercial publisher Kimberley Young told The Bookseller that the removal of reviews enables Amazon to promote its own books “at the expense of others”.

“Writing an honest review on receipt of a proof copy of a book is both an established practice and also a very modern tool,” she said. “Reviews drive word of mouth and help readers find the right books for them. We know algorithms favour well reviewed books and I can’t see how the removal of reviews across so many titles on Amazon can benefit the consumer – it narrows the range and discoverability of books and is another step in Amazon supporting their own books at the expense of others.”

Another senior publisher who wished to remain anonymous told The Bookseller: “This is an example of a megalithic global corporation heavy handedly trying to manoeuvre in the complicated, interconnected world of the modern book publishing community where relationships between people count not algorithms. The fact that someone follows you on twitter or Facebook does not reveal a conflict of interest for their reviews on Amazon and does give the book buyer a really good service.” The publisher added: “I suspect this another move by Amazon to favour titles published through their own publishing channels or through their massively profitable self-publishing lines. Amazon have a real problem because while none of their titles published physically through their publishing imprints are carried by any high street retailers and while they continue to sell smallish quantities of millions of titles at 99p in digital, for instance, and making lots of money from that, very few of those authors generate real commentary, hit the bestseller lists, have any media profile or generate enthusiasm among normal book readers.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that HarperCollins and other large publishers also fit the description of “megalithic global corporation[s]” who have tried to manipulate the book market.

PG further notes that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster plead guilty to illegal price-fixing for ebooks. So HarperCollins is a self-admitted manipulator of the book market “at the expense of others”, including purchasers of books.

PG understands that this is old news for long-time visitors to TPV, however he reminds one and all that the major US publishers have willfully violated the law in an effort to force purchasers of books to pay millions of dollars in higher prices. PG thinks their sense of entitlement and commitment to market manipulation extends to the terms they offer the authors of the books they publish.

The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

From The Guardian:

In recent years, the group biography has become a spirited mainstay of the publishing landscape: a means both of revisiting and reinterpreting already familiar times, people and places, and of bringing together between hard covers lives that might not be deserving of an individual doorstop. In Sharp, though, Michelle Dean has assembled not so much a group as a small crowd: her book, with its title that brings to mind suddenly puckered lips, has the feeling of a cocktail party at which several people drink too much, nearly everyone talks too loudly, and no one really likes anyone else. Through this gathering, she wanders, ashtray in one hand, dishcloth in the other. Dean relishes her guests’ bad behaviour – you might call her a little starstruck – but only to a degree. As the evening goes on, she will sometimes find herself apologising for them, these women who are so clever and talented, and yet so madly competitive, so stubbornly reluctant to attach the word “feminist” to their neon-bright names.

. . . .

Most began as journalists, making an art, as Dean’s subtitle has it, of “having an opinion”; some then went on to write acclaimed novels, and other kinds of books. Most of their names are well known: Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, Rebecca West. Others, at least for British readers, may be less familiar: Janet Malcolm, whose singular, often controversial interviews appeared in the New Yorker; Pauline Kael, once the same magazine’s acerbic film critic; Renata Adler, the reporter whose home was also there until she put the literary equivalent of a bomb under her career. Dean gives each one about the same amount of attention, although it’s clear that she enjoys the company of some more than others. The playwright Lillian Hellman and the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, however, she collides with so fleetingly, they appear before the reader like gatecrashers or, more likely, additions to the guest list so embarrassingly last minute she can hardly bear to do much more than pour them their first sidecar.

What unites them, besides their trade and their talent? Dean talks, in her preface, of their remarkable achievements in a world that “was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything”; of the way they roundly defied expectations. But there’s also the adjective of her title: sharp. People did not always respond favourably to the “sting” of their words. What would have seemed daring and deeply smart coming from a man appeared only haughty, inappropriate and unkind when served up by a woman.

. . . .

Didion, in her tiny dresses, her wrists like clay pipes, was just so much surface and “swank”. Dean, a journalist herself, sympathises with all this; her book – though these are my words, not hers – is for any woman who has ever silenced a dinner table by being just a little too quick, too knowing, too mocking. Am I allowed to say that I have more than once done just that? Maybe I am.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Raised by Strangers in the Aftermath of War

From The Wall Street Journal:

Claude Monet wrote that “without the fog, London wouldn’t be a beautiful city,” and one suspects that Michael Ondaatje agrees with him. Mr. Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight” . . .  is a thoroughly fogbound book about childhood and espionage in postwar Britain that feels its way forward with little sense of direction, creating intrigue and allure from the “mysterious cloak”—to borrow again from Monet—that covers and conceals its story.

That story begins by looking back to 1945, when 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his older sister, Rachel, learn that their parents are moving from London to Singapore for a year. The children are left under the supervision of a lodger in their house, an enigma they have nicknamed the Moth for his shy, fluttery movements. But not long after the departures, Rachel finds, hidden in the basement, the trunk that her mother packed and pretended to take overseas. She has not gone to Asia at all, they discover (though apparently their father, a traumatized veteran, has), but all that the Moth will tell them of her disappearance is that she “is away. Doing something important.”

“We grew up protected by the arms of strangers,” Nathaniel, the book’s narrator, recalls. Along with the Moth, a gruff former boxer known as the Darter becomes a fixture in the house, eventually apprenticing Nathaniel in the illegal trades he’s cornered since the end of the war. Some of the most strange and memorable passages in “Warlight” take place at night on a barge in remote tributaries of the Thames, where the Darter and Nathaniel are smuggling greyhounds as part of a dog-racing racket.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Authors Beware: Amazon Gets Medieval on Paid and Traded Reviews

From author Anne R. Allen:

My inbox has been bursting with unsolicited emails for the past few weeks. I must be on a new list of “easy prey” circulating in the the author-scamming community.

. . . .

These emails will “analyze” the Amazon buy page of one of my books—always assuming I’ve only written the one—mansplaining how I’m too stupid to know it’s overpriced, too short, has a bad cover, a bad sales rank (even when it’s a bestseller) and of course, has an insufficient number of reviews.

. . . .

The emailing creeps have no idea I’m with a small press, and they’re actually dissing my publisher. But I can imagine this approach is pretty effective on self-publishers, especially relative newbies. Some judgey stranger offering unpleasant criticism in your morning email can shake an author’s confidence.

And they’re counting on that. Once you’re feeling vulnerable, they pitch bogus or wildly overpriced services, “break into Hollywood” scams, worthless interviews, and that old warhorse, paid Amazon reviews.

. . . .

But when I started to research the paid review business this week, I ran into a bunch of new dramas and draconian changes. So I decided to devote this post to the latest Amazon review horrors.

DO NOT Pay for Amazon Customer Reviews!

One email notified me that I’d failed to get “enough” reviews on my new Author Blog Book. But I could get 25 Amazon reviews from him for only $900!

Dude, here’s the reason many of us “fail” to get tons of Amazon reviews anymore: scammy review-sellers like you.

This is because Amazon fights paid review violations with robots, which are wrong more often than not. And they’re scaring off real reviewers.

In 2016, the Zon changed their TOS to require reviewers to be Amazon customers and forbid any payment—including free products or gift cards—to reviewers of anything other than books. (Book reviewers can review free books as long as they disclose.) This was supposed to crack down on the rampant gaming of Amazon’s review system. For more, see my 2016 post on Amazon’s New Review Rules.

. . . .

A review on a blog is useful, and can be quoted in Amazon’s “editorial review” section, which often has more clout with readers.

But Amazon has recently made more draconian changes. The guidelines have been modified again, and so have the punishments.

It used to be that customers violating Amazon’s TOS were banned from SELLING on Amazon, but the new policy bans them from BUYING.

Your account will be deleted. No warning. No explanations.

. . . .

Amazon’s Review Police-Bots Deleted “Over a Million” Innocent Customers’ Accounts this Month.

Amazon’s latest police-bots are out for blood: if they even suspect you of breaking the rules, your account gets deleted with no warning.

. . . .

The victims got this explanation:

“The account has been deleted for one or both of the following reasons.

Your reviews were posted in exchange for compensation, such as gift cards to purchase the product, product refunds, review swaps, or free or discounted products, and/or Your account was used for commercial purposes.”

. . . .

The most recent crackdown doesn’t only involve draconian punishments for suspected paid reviewers.

Amazon is also banning reviewers from posting in more than one Amazon store. It used to be reviews could be posted in the US Amazon store as well as Canada, UK, Australia, etc., so a UK reviewer could also post a review on Amazon.com, where it had a potential to increase a book’s sales and get it into Bookbub and other newsletters.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen

PG says, among other things, the history of Amazon has been typified by an ongoing battle between con men/con women and Amazon. The battle has often been fought in the reviews section.

PG doesn’t blame Amazon for working hard to keep their reviews legitimate and clean. Online customers are among the flightiest of creatures and can click to competitors on the slightest provocation. As anyone who has watched human activities online for very long understands, herd behavior is a real phenomenon and all sorts of seemingly minor problems or lurid stories can startle large numbers of purchasers off to Walmart or Costco.

In the battle between Seattle and Evil, innocent bystanders can be digitally injured.

An estimated three billion people use the internet today. The number and variety of online cons is impossible to calculate and Amazon is likely to see a good portion of those cons, so they have reasons to be paranoid.

That said, it is imperative for Amazon to treat its suppliers well. Just as customers can move elsewhere, so can suppliers. If PG were running the world, there would be more well-designed online indie-friendly bookstores.

Would The World Be Better Off Without Book Reviews And Ratings?

From No Shelf Required:

Q: What is your ideal kind of online library and book store? 
A: The kind without comments, reviews and ratings. The kind that only gives useful descriptions and context.

Someone asked me recently to describe an ideal app for reading (inside the app: a mix of ebooks, magazines and newspapers), and I found myself describing a very quiet virtual place, full of knowledge and information, without all the white noise. No Comments section. No opinions. No venom.

This led to another question: So you would not allow readers to express their thoughts online? My answer: I want readers to write and express their own original thoughts by publishing their own works (if they so choose), after being inspired or motivated by reading the thoughts of others. But I would like us all to say and write less about other people’s creation, especially since our inherent need (clearly) is to dislike it at least as much as to praise it. It’s become a nasty race. Everything revolves around liking, rating, heart-ing books online. And we must realize it’s hurting more than helping a large number of writers out there.

The value (and the point) of what we create (whether for entertainment or education) is that it will not appeal to every person at every given moment. The writer owes the reader nothing (I’m referring here only to the process of reading). It isn’t the writer’s responsibility to please every reader’s imagination and taste. It is the reader’s responsibility, however, to remain aware of that.

. . . .

This idea that we can ‘decide’ for others has been a dominant force in the publishing and library industry for centuries. Ask yourself next time you walk into your local library or bookstore: are the books awaiting me there (in any format) all the great books out there for me to discover and be inspired by?

. . . .

However, there is no ‘perfect’ combination. A lot of good writing falls through the cracks. It’s been a faulty process for centuries, although, to be fair, a human one. Today, we are turning a corner whether we like it or not. I, for one, like it. We are leveling the playing field, which means more than ever, people are writing and publishing. I’m not suggesting we are all equally good at writing and that everything published will find readership, but I am stating that the process of ‘rating’ literature and ‘quantifying’ a book’s value via ratings (like those we see on Goodreads and Amazon) is often subjective and driven by interests, personal and professional.

Which brings me to book critics and book reviewers. We don’t need them the way we used to (note to the reader: I was a book review editor for ten years). In an evolved society, we (will) think for ourselves more. We (will) exchange knowledge and information without the ‘influence’ part. We (will) ‘filter’ on our own.

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG notes that no one forces a reader to pay attention to reviews and ratings.

For some of his purchases, ratings and reviews are very helpful for PG. For others, they’re superfluous.

In a world where nothing is new or innovative, people would probably pay much less attention to reviews. PG has no problems shopping for fruits and vegetables without any reviews or star ratings next to the carrots.

However, each book is new. Absent plagiarism, no one has written or read that particular book before. A great many readers want to devote their limited reading time (and book budget) to new books they will enjoy. Very few people are happy when they spend money on a book they end up hating after 50 pages.

Some might rationalize the time spent on a bad book as some sort of learning experience that broadens the reader’s outlook or something – an “Eat your spinach – all of it. It’s good for you” view of the world. Reading a terrible book will broaden your outlook by exposing you to a person who can’t write but may have other undiscovered and unexposed talents or experiences you can learn from.

If someone is untalented at writing but talented at playing the lute, PG would much rather be exposed to that person through his/her lute performances. If one likes to enjoy people at their best and finds inspiration and uplift in the works of great artists, the lutist is eminently preferable to a failed novelist.

PG regards time spent reading a book that’s not well-written as pretty much wasted when it could have been used for reading something he enjoyed or learned from.

From a practical standpoint, reviews and ratings are usually the most potent form of marketing for books. That’s the reason authors work hard to solicit good reviews. If reviews weren’t a good way to sell books, smart authors would spend their time somewhere else.

As far as an online library and bookstore providing only “useful descriptions” as described in the OP, a description like “I hated the book and couldn’t finish it” can be among the most useful descriptions provided to a prospective purchaser, particularly when 50 other people usefully describe the book in the same way.

In Praise of Negative Reviews

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

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?

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

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.

Mob Rule in the Book World

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!

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

How Amazon reviews became the new battlefield of US politics

From The Guardian:

There are stars that twinkle and shine in the firmament and yet others that determine the destiny of authors. In the case of the latter, every author wishes for an Amazon page that is, much like the Coldplay song, “full of stars”. Hillary Clinton, former US presidential candidate, and author of the testily titled What Happened, was not such a fortunate author. A mere day after it was released, Clinton (or, more likely, one of her many publicists) found her book’s Amazon page to be a battleground. Within 24 hours of the book’s release, 1,500 reviews had been posted and – like the American electorate – divided between ardent love and ferocious hatred for the book and its author. The former slathered on five stars, the latter a single, sulky one. The election, it appeared, was being replayed in Amazon reviews.

But while power and strategic string-pulling were unable to turn the election, they did come to Clinton’s rescue in the review wars. The day after the book’s release, Amazon chose to remove nearly 900 reviews from Clinton’s page, a move that brought the book’s rating up from 3.2 stars to a dazzling 4.3. Ever cryptic, Amazon alluded to its “community guidelines” and cited “mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of the many do not drown out the voices of the few” as a reason for the excision. Supporters of Amazon’s move went further: the reviews could not have been legitimate, they opined; so many people could not possibly have read and then loved or hated the book in a single night. One week later, What Happened was averaging five stars, based on more than 1,500 reviews. Only one recourse remained for the Hillary haters: voting up the few remaining one-stars from “verified purchases” as “most helpful”.

Amazon is not always sympathetic to sad sagas of political animus wrecking the review destinies of authors. The story of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is an example. Bray’s book, published by Melville House, happened to be released the Monday after neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to a counter-protestor being run over and killed. This placed Bray’s book right in the middle of President Trump’s blame for “both sides” by likening Antifa to neo-Nazis. Eager to fight, some of the so-called “alt-right” took to Reddit with a screenshot of Bray’s Amazon page and the instruction: “Currently at 3.5 stars. You know what to do.” They did: in no time, the book’s listing was, in the words of its publisher Dennis Johnson, “flooded” with single-star reviews. Johnson complained to Amazon – via the automatic submission forms provided to the non-Clintons of the world – and a few one-star reviews were removed, but at that point there were now about 50 of them. Johnson even sent Amazon a screenshot of the Reddit page, but was still unable to speak to a human representative. The reviews, meanwhile, slowed the book’s sales, claiming that purchasing the book would support violence. In an odd and unlucky irony, the gap in intellectual history that Bray had attempted to address in his book – the US’s inattention to anti-fascist resistance – manufactured the material for its condemnation. A book about fighting evil was characterised as evil.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Marcel Proust paid for reviews praising his work to go into newspapers

From The Guardian:

The French writer Marcel Proust paid for glowing reviews of the first volume of his Remembrance of Things Past to be put into newspapers, letters by the author reveal.

The novelist wrote the notices himself and sent them to be typed up by his publisher “so there is no trace of my handwriting” to distance himself “absolutely from the money that will change hands”.

The letters have come to light with an extremely rare copy of Swann’s Way, which is expected to go for around half a million euros (£438,000) when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Paris next month.

They make it clear that Proust orchestrated the operation himself from his bed, promising his editor at the publisher Grasset that he would “of course, pay him back in full”.

The wealthy writer paid 300 francs – around £900 today – for a flattering reference to Swann’s Way to appear on the front page of Le Figaro, then – as now – one of France’s leading dailies. He paid a further 660 francs for another much larger summary of a glowing review by a friend of his to similarly appear on the front page of the Journal des Debats.

. . . .

Proust’s desperation for publicity was partly because he was having to pay for the book’s publication himself, experts said. A string of publishing houses had turned it down before Brun persuaded his boss Bernard Grasset to take it in 1913 – but only if the author paid all the costs.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Are reviews worth reading?

This article is written by a software developer and is about reviews of an app he was involved in creating for Dropbox. He read a lot of reviews.

Since book reviews are of continuing interest to most authors, PG was interested to see so many similarities in the behaviors of readers of books and the users of software apps. The OP’s analysis of star ratings from various subgroups of users was particularly intriguing.

PG thought some of this software author’s thoughts might be beneficial to those who write books (which are converted into ebooks which are a component in ereading software programs).

From Medium:

I recently read thousands of reviews about our Dropbox app. Call me crazy, but it was the most riveting thing I’ve read all year. I laughed, I cried, I got warm fuzzies inside.

Why in the world would anyone read so many app reviews? Well, I was on a mission. I wanted to learn more about our users and what they thought about our product.

Yes, we run user studies at Dropbox, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear from people across the globe. I wanted to read their actual words — tirades, triumphs, and all.

Looking back at this experience, I have to say it was incredibly humbling. I learned new things about our users that I never would’ve learned otherwise.

. . . .

1. People just want to be heard

The first thing that jumped out at me while reading these reviews was that people had such strong opinions about our app. As I scrolled from review to review, I noticed people using a whole lot of superlatives—words like mostbest, and worst popped up again and again.

. . . .

After crunching the numbers, I found that over 70% of our app reviews were either 5-star or 1-star reviews. Over two-thirds of reviewers either loved or hated our app.

Why is it that people tend to give extreme ratings? There are a few theories that try to explain extreme responding, but I like to think that people on the internet are just passionate about voicing their opinions.

People want to be heard, and giving a 1-star or 5-star rating adds oomph to your opinion.

. . . .

2. People want to know what’s going on

A little over a year ago, we stopped writing release notes for our iOS and Android apps. Instead, we used a generic message about how we “regularly release updates.” Although we wanted to write release notes, there were a bunch of internal reasons that made it difficult for us to keep writing them.

You might be thinking, “Who the heck reads release notes anyway?” Well, it turns out a lot of people do. After we stopped writing release notes, 12% of reviewers complained about our generic release notes. That’s more than one in every ten reviews!

. . . .

5. Ratings differ a lot by country

Our Dropbox app is available in over 100 countries. Except for the UI language, the app is pretty much the same in every country.

Because it’s the same app, you’d expect the ratings to be roughly the same in every country, right? Well, it turns out our ratings are pretty different in each country.

Let’s look at our iOS app, for example. In the United States, we have roughly the same amount of 5-star reviews as 1-star reviews. But in Japan, we have almost twice as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews. In Brazil, it’s flipped—we have a lot more 5-star reviews than 1-star reviews.

Link to the rest at Medium

The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

From Publishers Weekly:

The fourth floor of the New York Times Building, where the eponymous paper’s newly-formed Books Desk keeps its nest, is, somewhat appropriately, under construction. One side of the floor is blocked off with yellow barricade tape. On the other side, the books team, led by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, is undergoing renovations of its own.

Those changes began last August, when the newsroom leadership decided that the paper’s books coverage, both in print and for the web, should be centralized to one desk. Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

With the choice to combine books sections made, another choice was inevitable: how to combine. “You could say, ‘Let’s just take these three separate sections—which, again, were really derived from a print newspaper era—and shove them together and continue coverage as-is, coordinating more,’” Paul said. “Or you could pause and take a moment and say, ‘If you were starting from scratch and weren’t just pushing these three sections together, what would New York Times books coverage look like?’”

The paper opted for the latter, and began the process of discovering what that coverage would look like by expanding Paul’s duties from running the Book Review to overseeing all books coverage at the paper.

. . . .

[A]s Paul put it, “this is one of the cases in which centralizing and consolidating is not reduction. It’s expansion. Obviously, we need the staff to be able to carry that out.” That has meant bringing on faces both fresh and well-known at the Times over the course of the past year, including deputy editor of books features Laura Marmor (from the paper’s Styles section), Susan Ellingwood as news and features editor (from Opinion), digital staff writer Concepción de Léon (from Glamour magazine), fact-checker and occasional writer Lovia Gyarke (from the New Republic), and Book Review staff editor Lauren Christensen (from Harper’s Bazaar), among others. Earlier this month, senior editor Parul Sehgal, a PW alumnus, joined Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as a daily critic in the wake of the departure of longtime chief critic Michiko Kakutani—one of many writers at the Times to recently take a buy-out. Kakutani’s role will not be filled.

Once Jones was on board, she and Paul, along with the research wing of the Times, set out to investigate what current and prospective readers of the paper, both in New York City and elsewhere, wanted to see in terms of coverage. That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

In short, the duo discovered the need for a paradigm shift in terms of how they were approaching the books that came across the Books Desk.

“It used to be that a book would come in and we’d say, ‘Should we review this or not?’” Paul said. “Now the book comes in and we say, ‘Should we cover this or not, and if so, what should that coverage be? What is the best way to tell this story, regardless of the medium?’”

. . . .

As for the Times bestseller lists—which, famously, are governed by an algorithm that the paper’s reporters and editors know nothing about—Paul maintains that publishers and authors (whom, she stressed, comprise only a subsection of the Book Review’s audience) were the only readers who showed any particular unhappiness about the axing earlier this year of such rankings as the mass market and graphic novel lists. She said that the Books Desk as a whole is providing a similar function for its readers in what she believes are much better ways.

“Many readers of the print Book Review don’t like flipping through ten pages of lists,” Paul said. “We’re going to have some kind of ‘new and noteworthy’ column [in the redesign], which is, frankly, a much better way to find out what’s new, where there’s actual description and an image of the book and a much more useful sense of what the book is about than a teeny little microdescription on a bestseller list.”

. . . .

But other growing categories, like e-book only and self-published books, will not be covered. “Frankly, many, many, many books have been thoroughly vetted and edited and worked on collaboratively, and we only review about 1% of those books,” Paul said. “For our editors to pay attention to the number of books that are coming out from every big publisher all the way down to the smallest indie publisher, and for them to do that job well, is job enough.”

. . . .

And the industry will, Paul insists, be there in 12 years for the Times to cover, undoubtedly in newer ways. The drumbeat of doom and gloom that accompanies the day-to-day existence of the book industry is, she noted, perennial. But as far as she’s concerned, that industry—like the paper that houses the Books Desk that covers it—is anything but failing.

“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative,” Paul said. “People looked at retailing, they said, ‘It’s dead, it’s gone, it’s done.’ And yet independent bookstores are thriving. Amazon is getting into the retail space. This could be a new area of growth. I don’t feel worried.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says any proper “Books Desk” in 2017 would have at least one person, and likely more than one person, located in Seattle, which is where the real center of the U.S. book business is and will be for at least the next several years.

PG notes that Amazon is mentioned only one time in the OP, and only because Amazon has opened a few physical bookstores.

At times New York City seems like a very provincial place.

What the Departure of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

From New York Magazine:

Except for the few people who were privy to Michiko Kakutani’s growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic, most readers were surprised by her decision last month to take a buyout after 38 years at the New York Times. But one book publicist did have a premonition a week before the announcement. She had emailed Kakutani about a controversial political book for the early fall, which was technically under embargo, and hadn’t heard back with a request for an early copy. Books that break news are zealously guarded from most reporters and critics, but when Kakutani asked, you just mailed it off and bit your nails waiting for the verdict.

It’s usually overreaching to call any critic’s departure the end of an era, and Kakutani’s writing career isn’t over at all: This week she signed a multiple-book deal with Crown’s Tim Duggan Books. The first book, published next year, will be a controversial political book of her own, a cultural history of “alternative facts” titled The Death of Truth. But an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me. Her column was a gauntlet no major author could escape, a maker of new stars (Zadie Smith, Alice Sebold, Jonathan Franzen) and punisher of old (Mailer, Updike, Franzen). And as she grew into the job, she became more legend than human, less knowable the more we got to know her. Famously private and therefore ripe for rumors (she’s dating Paul Simon! No, Woody Allen! No, she doesn’t exist!), given to quirks that made her a figure of snark (overusing the word limn, writing in the voice of Holden Caulfield), she attained a status in New York somewhere between Edmund Wilson and Dr. Zizmor. White male writers derided her for bashing their books, though Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was terrified of her, too. Kakutanied became a verb. But whatever was said about her, which was a lot, the one thing you couldn’t say was that her judgment didn’t matter.

. . . .

Meanwhile, the Times became a tougher place for critical gods. Lone wolves hurling thunderbolts from their garrets gave way to affable co-critics doing online chats, TimesTalks, and video clips, writing personal essays and exploring their own biases. Change has been especially swift in books. Last year, Pamela Paul, editor of the Sunday Book Review, was directed to consolidate the paper’s three separate book fiefdoms — the Review, the print daily reviews, and publishing news — under one print-and-online department. Each of the three daily critics was generally reduced to one review per week (though asked to supplement with essays). Important books that used to be reviewed in both the daily and the Review now usually get only one at-bat, and, as at the Book Review under Paul, there is a move toward appreciations, Q&As, genre roundups, and hot-take debates.

Lead critics are going out of style across the paper; there are now “co-chief critics” in art, theater, and film, and after Kakutani’s departure, no book critic will have the right of first refusal. (Dwight Garner will review on Tuesdays, when the biggest books are published, followed by more recent arrival Jennifer Senior and new third critic Parul Sehgal.) Critics now meet with editors to brainstorm new elements and submit their pitches to the will of the collective. It’s a sea change for the daily, where critics had barely interacted with either editors or each other, and where, per two sources, Kakutani had sometimes been allowed to choose her editors and even copy editors. “For a very long time, Michi got her way,” says someone close to the situation, “until very recently people started pushing back in a big way, and I think that was part of her leaving.”

Link to the rest at New York Magazine

The OP reminded PG that New York City is really a lot of gossipy small towns. In the particular small town in which the OP is set, everybody knows the book critic pecking order and is obsessed by the reviewer who is at the top of that pecking order and every word she writes.

Similarly, the residents of this particular New York small town keep up with the latest gossip about the Times – who’s up and who’s down, what so-and-so said about whoever.

PG has traveled to New York City dozens of times, most on business and a few times for pleasure. Generally speaking, he has enjoyed those visits (particularly when someone else is paying his expenses), so he’s not a New York hater.

But PG doesn’t think New York is the most important place in the world and he absolutely knows that, while some smart people live in New York, the large majority live elsewhere. Since he is an attorney, PG also knows some very good (and some very bad) attorneys practice in New York, but most very good attorneys practice somewhere else.

Without question, New York is a special city. But so is Chicago. And Los Angeles and Dallas and Atlanta and Miami and Denver and Seattle and San Francisco. Plus London, Paris, Brussels, Venice, Florence, Rome, etc. (PG admits a bias in favor of Italian cities.) Like the children in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, almost every city is above average.

A final comment from P.J. O’Rourke:

I live in New Hampshire. We’re in favor of global warming. Eleven hundred more feet of sea-level rises? I’ve got beachfront property. You tell us up there, ‘By the end of the century, New York City could be underwater,’ and we say, ‘Your point is?’

The Funnel Theory of Book Reviews

From The Writing Cooperative:

I read books.

Many, many books….about 125 a year.

Some are pre-release review copies. I read them and post my honest review on amazon, Goodreads and wherever else the author has specified. My favorite guidance from an author was to post my most forthright and honest review prior to release date because any review is better than none.

During a dynamic seminar by Gabriela Pereira, she talked about her stance on book reviews: she doesn’t do them. She is also a prodigious reader with wide-ranging interests and deep expertise. Her view is that if she posted reviews, they would have to be what she thought of the good, the bad, and the ugly — and she doesn’t want to do that. If she did not post negative book reviews along with the positive ones, she reasons that you won’t be able to trust her integrity, intelligence, and discernment: when every book is brilliant, no book is brilliant — obscuring the truly remarkable, important books of brilliance. (Plus, she is a profoundly kind, compassionate, and encouraging person.)

. . . .

While I finish reading approximately 125 books a year, that is not the total number of books that I eagerly borrow from the library or clutch to my chest in bookstores, swap meets, and other venues.

Many, many books don’t make the cut.

The cut is not a well-developed, profoundly considered benchmark. A book makes the cut when I am lost in the story, captivated by characters, laughing out loud in quiet public spaces, or weeping through every tissue. It is a lively experience, me and the words on the page, the story enticing, inspiring, and urging me to think, to feel, to imagine differently than I ever have before. This relationship with the book extends to all genres, all types of fiction and nonfiction alike.

. . . .

My book reviews tend to be positive, because I don’t read books that don’t work for me. It’s a big world with all kinds of readers; what doesn’t draw me in may be the best possible experience for someone else. Let them read it, review it, and attract readers who like that kind of story.

Link to the rest at The Writing Cooperative

What Happened to the Negative Music Review?

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.

Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.

Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.

“It’s actually news at this point when an album does get a bad review,” says Dan Ozzi, a writer at VICE’s music site, Noisey.

The dearth of negative music reviews is due to a number of factors. In the digital era, outlets covering music have become decentralized with fewer dominant players and more outlets running reviews. That’s helped create a new power dynamic between pop stars and the press—one where stars are less dependent on critics and critics are more eager to please artists.

Reviewers generally herd together—especially in praise of megastars like Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift—instead of dissenting or championing less-known artists. With shrinking staff, growing competition and limited space, publications may simply not write about a bad album at all, says Jim Merlis, a veteran publicist who has worked with Nirvana and the Strokes.

A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.

“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”

. . . .

Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other.

. . . .

Public shaming on social media can dissuade critics from being negative. While discussions between critics and angry artists once were private, now they are public, with pop stars sometimes haranguing critics on Twitter. Even without an artist prodding them, fans can attack a writer online. A critic being paid $75 for a quick review may seek to avoid being berated for a week on the Internet, critics say.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter

From Vulture:

Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social-media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons — sometimes before anybody’s even read them.

. . . .

The Black Witch, a debut young-adult fantasy novel by Laurie Forest, was still seven weeks from its May 1 publication date, but positive buzz was already building, with early reviews calling it “an intoxicating tale of rebellion and star-crossed romance,” “a massive page-turner that leaves readers longing for more,” and “an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice.”

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

The Black Witch centers on a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. But when she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs, an ideological transformation she’s still working on when she joins with the rebellion in the last of the novel’s 600 pages. (It’s the first of a series; one hopes that Elloren will be more woke in book two.)

It was this premise that led Sinyard to slam The Black Witch as “racist, ableist, homophobic, and … written with no marginalized people in mind,” in a review that consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things. Here’s a representative excerpt, an offending sentence juxtaposed with Sinyard’s commentary:

“pg. 163. The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”

Yes, you just read that with your own two eyes. This is one of the times my jaw dropped in horror and I had to walk away from this book.

. . . .

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release. Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

. . . .

The harm Mimi describes is central to campaigns like the one against The Black Witch, which are almost always waged in the name of protecting vulnerable teens from dangerous ideas. These books, it’s claimed, are hurting children.

. . . .

Dramatic as that sounds, it’s worth noting that my attempts to report this piece were met with intense pushback. Sinyard politely declined my request for an interview in what seemed like a routine exchange, but then announced on Twitter that our interaction had “scared” her, leading to backlash from community members who insisted that the as-yet-unwritten story would endanger her life. Rumors quickly spread that I had threatened or harassed Sinyard; several influential authors instructed their followers not to speak to me; and one librarian and member of the Newbery Award committee tweeted at Vulture nearly a dozen times accusing them of enabling “a washed-up YA author” engaged in “a personalized crusade” against the entire publishing community (disclosure: while freelance culture writing makes up the bulk of my work, I published a pair of young adult novels in 2012 and 2014.) With one exception, all my sources insisted on anonymity, citing fear of professional damage and abuse.

None of this comes as a surprise to the folks concerned by the current state of the discourse, who describe being harassed for dissenting from or even questioning the community’s dynamics. One prominent children’s-book agent told me, “None of us are willing to comment publicly for fear of being targeted and labeled racist or bigoted. But if children’s-book publishing is no longer allowed to feature an unlikable character, who grows as a person over the course of the story, then we’re going to have a pretty boring business.”

Another agent, via email, said that while being tarred as problematic may not kill an author’s career — “It’s likely made the rounds as gossip, but I don’t know it’s impacting acquisitions or agents offering representation” — the potential for reputational damage is real: “No one wants to be called a racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That stink doesn’t wash off.”

Link to the rest at Vulture

On some days, PG feels like he’s living

Watership Frown

From The Literary Hub:

BACK IN 1974, THE NEW YORK TIMES‘ RICHARD GILMAN WASN’T OVERLY ENTHUSED BY RICHARD ADAMS’ BELOVED RABBIT ADVENTURE STORY

. . . .

“The impulse to make animals represent or incarnate human significances is of long standing in literature, going back at least as far as Aesop. For whatever reason, English literature has for scene time been especially lavish in the granting to animals of human properties: speech, humor, moral values, histories. One distinction of this kind of writing is that while it is mostly directed toward children, adults have enjoyed the best of it as much as children and sometimes more: Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, surely, but also Kipling, A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, even Beatrix potter.

I doubt that Richard Adams’s Watership Down is really aimed at young children, despite his having said that it arose from impromptu stories he used to tell his small daughters. I can’t imagine many readers under 13 or 14, an age when the lines between juvenile and adult fiction begin to blur, having the patience and grasp of extended allegorical strategies to persevere to the end of a 426‐page epic about a community of rabbits. And while older teen‐agers may well enjoy it, I suspect that this tour de force, the Iliad and Odyssey of Oryctolagus cuniculus, is going to find its true audience mainly among the people who have made a cult of Tolkien, among ecology‐minded romantics and all those in need of a positive statement, not too subtle but not too blatant either, about the future of courage, native simplicity, the life‐force, and so on.

I don’t mean to be condescending. Watership Down is in some ways a delightful book, at times an affecting one. But faced with the extraordinary praise given the book in England, one has to draw back some distance. Lacking the high wit and imaginative force of Alice in Wonderland or the triumphant (if occasionally purple) lyricism of The Wind in the Willows, the book seems to me a good deal less than the ‘classic’—with the implication in the word of settled universal appeal—that British commentators have so reflexively proclaimed it.

. . . .

“As in all such fiction, the plausibility issues from the detail and consistency with which the animal life is rendered, and above all from the resemblances we can discern to aspects of our own lives. To this end Adams offers a remarkable wealth of information on rabbit existence and wisely concentrates on matters of sustenance, living arrangement, behavior toward other animals, and the like.

“But as anthropomorphic fantasy replaces observation (the book is in an actual area of Berkshire, England, and Adams is particularly fine on landscapes and flora, weathers and seasons) he sees fit to give rabbits a folklore and folk‐heroes, a mythology complete with creationmyth and, finally, a language …  If I remember correctly, the great writers of animal fiction let their characters unselfconsciously speak the authors’ own languages, and this is proper because the imaginative act is complete once the literary decision has been made to allow animals to speak in words; to let them use their own worth, their own verbal language, is to tempt the pathetic fallacy beyond its acceptable limits. This may seem a small point, especially since the Lapine is a very minor element of the rhetoric, brit I think it symptomatic of what is wrong with Watership Down, or rather what keeps it from being wholly right.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub