Columns > Published on March 7th, 2014

Death Threats and the Death of the Book Review

Book reviews are part of our lives now — particularly if you’re a writer — but what do they actually achieve? I started mulling this over after reading about a case where a book reviewer stated what she wanted in return for her reviews. It made me wonder: What’s the point of a book review in the 21st Century?

Expectations and entitlement

Authors obviously want good reviews. I mean, we don’t slave over our laptops pushing out words to get bad ones, do we? Keith Rawson touched on this recently, so I won’t get too far into it, but suffice it to say bad reviews aren’t what we’re after.

But what do reviewers get out of the relationship? Or more to the point, should reviewers get anything out of it? Maybe they ought to just write them out of the goodness of their hearts, right?

A lot of reviewers have made names for themselves by writing solid, thoughtful reviews — not always positive ones, mind — and have hoards of loyal followers. Is the internet big enough for every reviewer to get thousands or millions of people hanging on their every word? I’d say ‘no’.  I can’t even tell you who my favorite book reviewer is, if I’m being honest.

Do people pay any attention to book reviews?

The post I referred to earlier was from a site called Bookie Monster, written by one Shana Festa. In it she, as a reviewer, explains what she’s after:

So I happen to look at my Amazon reviewer ranking and wondered why I’m not increasing my rank…then I looked at my reviews and noticed so many of them had zero votes/tags for have been helpful. That means that not even the author that submitted their work for review cared enough to take a half a second and click the stupid button??… I’m disappointed for the first time at the lack of reciprocal respect for my time and efforts to support my authors. I shouldn’t have looked, because now I feel like shit tonight for trying to do something nice. Good reviews generally equate to sales for a book. The only thing I ask in return is to help me grow my brand…should I possibly rethink things?… I don’t think it’s unreasonable to request at least the authors visit each location and share/like them. [sic]

Uh, okay. Festa then proceeded to list the things she wanted authors and readers to do with her reviews once she’s posted them. It’s surprisingly long. And demanding.

The nature of book reviews is changing, much as the industry itself is changing.

The post got the response she should have perhaps expected on some levels, but readers went waaaaaayyy over the top on others, ranging from abuse and nasty name-calling to worse — she even received a message “threatening me bodily harm”. As Harry Connolly put it in his follow-up post, “Over a book review policy?” Exactly.

Festa did have the sense to post a follow up and at least took the positive criticism to heart, changing the way she does things and even admitting she doesn’t actually feel the authors “owe” her anything. Good for her.

Positive vs negative reviews

About the same time, an article appeared on the New York Times, from Francine Prose and Zöe Heller about the merits of negative reviews entitled “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?”, which ultimately became a discourse on the nature of reviewing. The resultant article features the not entirely opposing viewpoints of two bestselling authors, and they make some interesting points.

Prose talks about how she wrote negative reviews in the past, but stopped reading books she disliked because “life is short”, deciding to only promote books she liked. I understand that — why read crap when you don’t have to? (But then, how do you know it’s crap?) This didn’t last, of course.

But in the last year or so, I’ve found myself again writing negative reviews — as if, after quitting for three decades, I’d suddenly resumed smoking, or something else I’d forsworn… It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can phone it in, and that no one will know the difference. I’m annoyed by gossip masquerading as biography, by egomaniacal boasting and name-dropping passing as memoir. It irks me to see characters who are compendiums of clichés.

Heller points out that criticism that only strokes an author’s ego isn’t particularly useful — after all, we’re adults.

This, I would ask them to consider, is how authors feel about being reviewed. …most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published. Being sentient creatures, they are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. I know of no self-respecting authors who would ask to be given points for “effort” or for the fact that they are going to die one day.

Her point reminds me of a scene in a TV show or movie (I can’t remember which now) where parents are watching a Little League game where no one is keeping score and one of the dads interjects loudly, “C’mon, we all know they lost!” Of course they did.

The internet makes us free

Then of course, when we’re talking about the internet, the subject of trolls and haters comes up. They always seem to be out there: the ones hard done by an author, who have an axe to grind, you know the type. It’s the entitlement issue probably most succinctly set out in Neil Gaiman’s 2009 post, where his famous quote, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” comes from. I think Gaiman put his finger on it: for some reason, we feel we’re all entitled to something, whatever that is.

Yes, the internet makes us all reviewers and some of us take that seriously and others use it as a platform to spew vitriol over the rest of us — something we, more often than not, don’t want. And it’s a problem that keeps raising its ugly head. Just this weekend, another author entered the fray over at the Do Some Damage blog. Joelle Charbonneau addresses the issue of this venom, attributing it to the ease with which it is possible to say things online that have no personal repercussions.

Because it is a world that is explored from the seemingly anonymous and safe place behind the computer screen, many people say things on the Internet that they would never say in real life.  You see evidence every day of this on Facebook, Twitter, and in the comments of every political news article.  Words that would never come out of someone’s mouth if they were having a discussion face to face rear their ugly heads. Why? Well, I can only guess.  However, it seems to me that many people feel words typed on a screen and posted on the Internet have less meaning than those said aloud.  And you know what, if that is the case those who believe that are wrong. Words have power. 

What has this got to do with book reviews? you ask. Well, a long time ago a friend of mine and I talked at length about the nature of reviews on places like Amazon, and we realised the bulk of reviewers there only review things they love or they loathe. Whereas, in reality, if everything is weighed up equally, there should be a bell curve with the bulk of books (or movies or music) falling in the middle of the curve. Truly bad or particularly good books would only make up a small portion of the list. So why are these reviews important? Maybe they’re not.

The future of book reviews

I don’t claim to know what the future holds for book reviews — I’m still not psychic. But it’s obvious from the continuing conversations we’re having about them that the nature of book reviews is changing, much as the industry itself is changing. I think there’s still room for negative commentary, but at the same time, that’s not all I want to read.

Do you pay attention to book reviews? Are you more likely to read the bad ones? They do tend to be more interesting, although not always worth the effort.

All I do know is that they shouldn’t involve death threats.

About the author

Dean Fetzer is originally from a small town in eastern Colorado, but has lived in London, England, for 21 years now. On reaching London, he worked as a graphic designer and web consultant before starting a pub review website in the late 90’s.

His current book series, The Jaared Sen Quartet is set in near-future London, but also encompasses historical elements, reflecting his fascination with missing artifacts and conspiracy theories.

Dean left pub reviews behind in 2011 to concentrate on his writing and to set up a new company offering publishing services to authors, poets and artists as well as blogging and writing book reviews on his website at www.deanfetzer.com. He lives in east London with his wife and two cats and dreams (often) of a house in France.

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