Death Threats and the Death of the Book Review

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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.

Dean Fetzer

Column by Dean Fetzer

Dean Fetzer is originally from a small town in eastern Colorado, but has lived in London, England, for the past 21 years. After a career in graphic design, he started a pub review website in the late 90’s; He left that in 2011 to concentrate on his thriller writing, as well as offering publishing services for authors, poets and artists. When not writing - or in the pub - he can be found in the theatre, live music venues and travelling.

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Comments

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 7, 2014 - 7:33pm

Short blurb reviews only matter to me in an aggregate, zeitgeisty way (unless they're very clever or come from someone I trust and usually aggree with).  Long, thoughtful, intelligent reviews can be interesting even if one has not and never will read the book under consideration.  Neither of these statements are any less true for negative reviews.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions March 7, 2014 - 10:32pm

I believe we'll need a shift in terminology--what are being labeled reviews today are not really reviews, but reactions. 

When Toni Morrison's Beloved receives a one star Amazon review, it does not come from a critical reckoning with the work, but from the individual's assertion of self.

Proper criticism has been supplanted by a culture of like and dislike. It's just not the same thing.  Star ratings aren't even a proper tool for fiction. They're an Amazon tool for commodification.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art March 8, 2014 - 7:32am

MattF has a good point - "reactions" over "reviews". More often than not I'll write a well thought out mini-essay in anything I review on Amazon, but I realize I'm a minority. Hm. It's a good distinction.

However I will fully admit that I go straight for the 2 and 3 star reivews when I want to buy anything book wise - more often than not I'll end up buying what the "reviewer" hates because all of their irks land on all of my love buttons. But then again, I suppose it's easy to enjoy vitriol when it's not dripping on yourself...

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 March 8, 2014 - 7:38am

As someone who writes book reviews, I have to agree with MattF: most Amazon "reviews" are really nothing more than reactions or commentary. Those have their place, absolutely, but I think we should all get on the same page here.

As for negative vs. positive reviews, personally I believe there are merits to just about any book, and to pass over those good qualities and pan the book completely is a disservice to the author. Be honest if aspects of the novel don't work, but don't be an asshole about it, and find the things that DO work. I've never received a review of anything I've written, but I have received critiques, and if someone decides to put on their nasty cap and talk trash, I instantly disregard any criticism they have, valid or not. However, when someone goes about criticizing constructively, I will listen. I ultimately may not agree, but their comments will be considered.

It's very easy to be a troll, and many people believe if something is easy it is also, by default, fun.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 8, 2014 - 1:16pm

As someone who's just started doing book reviews for a journal, I know that I did it as a direct reaction to the kneejerk standards that Amazon allows, i.e. the star review system, or as MattF already mentioned perfectly: the reaction over review phenomenon. I remember reading book reviews in high school and college by very articulate, intelligent people who, even when not giving a rave review, still managed to make their critiques about where a book could've improved or possibly went astray just as informative and legitimate as their praise. There was no snark involved, no obvious attempts to one-up a previous reviewer, either for the better or the worse. If I'm going to take the time and energy to parse through a novel, I will at least give the author the respect of my full, justified, hopefully well-reasoned and argued critiques. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 8, 2014 - 7:00pm

I aggree. [sic]

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books March 8, 2014 - 9:48pm

I don't think that an author should be obligated, or even necessarily encouraged, to read reviews. That's insanity to me. Now - the expectation that they should read EVERY review? Come on. When would writers write? Most book reviewers I know (not Amazon reviewers) do it for the free books. At B&B we usually get the books for free, and that's part of the reason it stays "worth it" even though we barely cover expenses (the other part is that it is a hell of a lot of fun). 

I think the book review on Amazon is... eh. I don't really read them or trust them. When I have read lay-reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I see a lot of reviews from people who obviously just didn't get the book. Meaning - they literally did not comprehend what they read. Now, I've recently seen a review at a respected reveiw site that was vitriolic and seemed to miss the point entirely, but that's a little more rare. I think book reviews are only worthwhile if they are written by someone who reviews consistently and objectively, so I grow to trust them over time. 

justwords's picture
justwords from suburb of Birmingham, AL is reading The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson; A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby March 9, 2014 - 3:23pm

Reviews have certainly lost a lot of their value to me as I have a hard time deciding if that person is being objective. But if you only read reviews by the same person(s) because you think the same way they do or they have the same taste in material that you do, then you're not expanding your experience or learning anything new. One of the things I really am enjoying about this site is the the book of the month recommendations. Many of these have been books by authors I wouldn't ordinarily pick up, and even if I find it not to my taste, I have learned something from each of them. I had been in a reading rut, and I'm enjoying this and discovering new favorites, so thanks, everyone!

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami March 10, 2014 - 7:03pm

Book reviews have absolutely no influence on my purchases. Mary Poppins, She Wrote was labelled to have some scenes be considered padding. Guess what? I love the stuff that turned out not to be padding, and I love the book.

So evidently the reviews that took it down to 2.5 stars weren't what were actually worth 2.5 stars. This is why star ratings serve no purpose to me. What ultamately influenced my purchase was an excerpt. Let's start calling amazon opposite stars.

That's not to say a negative review doesn't have it's place.

But I've stopped posting reviews in places like goodreads, because I know nine times out of ten it's going to be lost in a horde of reviews that would really only be published on places like goodreads. I think my care about book reviews is becoming more limited.

Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books March 11, 2014 - 11:20am

I can't take reviews on Amazon seriously. As an example, I saw two star review for a short story collection because the stories were "too short". That was the only complaint, short stories were short.

Seriously?

MattF made a great point; too many online reviews of media are simply broad statements for or against a piece based solely on projection. This means that folks love or hate something based not on the quality of the product, but whether it aligns with their world view.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 4, 2014 - 7:21pm

I recently saw a review on Amazon, that said Noah was a bad book because ... its not the true account of Noah.

Really? You know the original story was like 500 words right? With a topic so big, it needs a novel treatment.

Thats the kind of insanity I see on Amazon and Goodreads.

I can understand complaining about the cruel genocide, but not an accurate account? Even though there isnt a shred of evidence it happened?