11 July 2008

The temerity to write a review

A posting by Sharon Wheeler on Hey, There's A Dead Guy in the Living Room has me so stirred up that I think I will sit on this for just a little while to let the blood cool.
Titled Amateurs and Professionals, it's redolent of the old argument that only trained journalists can write.
Now it's probably not directed at me, but like Samson into the lions den, or Boadicea against the Romans, I feel I can't let this go by.
So after work tonight, I'll be back to take up the cudgels again.
Well, here I am again and still simmering.

Here are some selected bits from Sharon's posting:
To be brutally honest, the standard of online reviewing isn't great – and I reckon there are two reasons for that. One is that old amateur/professional divide..... But the problem with reviewing is that every bugger thinks they can do it. .....I've learned by bitter experience not to bother reading most of what people call reviews on the discussion lists or blogs, because they're not – they're barely adequate summaries... the 'fan' reviewer. A number of these appear to have cosy little niches where authors send them books and they post the 'reviews' on lists or blogs. Because they've had the book direct from the author, most appear to feel they can't then be honest, which renders the review almost useless.

Well, let me lay my cards on the table. A journalist I am not. I have been reading books though for well over 5 decades, and writing about them in some way for nearly all that time. I'm an amateur who's been reading crime fiction for approximately 45 years, brought up on a diet of classics in first of all in the traditional sense and then in crime fiction, honed by a university major in English literature followed by decades of teaching English. I know what I like and I'm not afraid to say what I don't like.

You may look at my 2008 list over in the right margin, and think that I am not very critical. You'll see a couple over there that I really didn't like (right down the bottom), but you see there's a process of selective discrimination that goes on before I even read a book. I generally read, and then tell people about, books that I enjoy. However I do write about all the books that I've read, and it is very rare that I don't finish a book.

That said, I don't see it as my role in life to harpoon authors with cruel words to discourage them from ever writing again. Hopefully Sharon had people other than me in mind when she wrote her post. But I'm defending all those amateurs who post their mini-reviews in their blogs in good faith. Many of them serve their purpose well, help them to clarify their ideas about the book, and at the same time, give the reader a clear indication of whether they will enjoy the book or not. And yes, like me, they are amateurs, not earning a living by their writing. That doesn't make their opinions any less valid.

An editor tried to harpoon me recently by contacting me by email, so perhaps I'm still feeling a bit tender. She criticised a review I posted, one of those at the bottom of my list, telling me I obviously couldn't recognise a cosy when I read one. I deleted her email and now I wish I hadn't. I'm not sure what I would have done with it though.

And I don't mean this posting to be a personal vendetta. I am arguing with the idea, not the person. As well as being a blogger on Hey, There's A Dead Guy in the Living Room, Sharon Wheeler is the editor of Reviewing The Evidence, where a phalanx of professionals and amateurs keeps us up to date with the latest in crime fiction, with candid and well written reviews.


Shaz said...

Hi Kerrie. I'm not sure if I've done my job or not by stirring you up to write a response!

Like I said on Dead Guy, there are some good amateur reviewers out there (I always read your reviews), and far be it from me to suggest amateurs aren't entitled to write reviews. I'm just calling it how I see it in relation to the state of the print (and review) industry and the standard of some of what pass for reviews online!

I'd have deleted the snotty email from the editor as well. I never get into discussions with writers or editors about critical reviews. I simply thank them for the email and say it's not our policy to discuss reviews, given RTE is an independent site and its policy is clearly stated.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I think Sharon is spot on in her post (see my comment to it).
The vast majority of unedited reviews (the type one reads online) are not as professionally produced (in terms of content and presentation) or as interesting/informative to read compared with reading a review in an edited publication. In my opinion, there isn't any piece of writing that can't be improved by editing (but then, I am an editor!).
There are plenty of reviews on the internet that are excellent, and yours are a very good example, Kerrie, along with the other AustCrime reviews. But taken as a whole, my opinion is that most reviews in edited, professional publications are better than those written by individual people on blogs. A great number of blogs are written by people without anything near your experience and education, for two things. I write as a fan of blogging in general, and having read plenty of both types, and written both types.

Bernadette said...

I can understand the 'hot under the collar' feeling you have Kerrie. I have a review blog too, though mine reviews podcasts rather than books. But we have the same arguments in my circles too. To the point where I've actually lost a bit of interest in the whole thing of late. I'm a little sick of being told I don't know what I'm talking about.

Sharon makes a valid point in that there can be a difference between amateur and professional reviewers but I don't think it's as clear cut as it might sound at first. Plenty of reviewers (be it book, movie, gadget, restaurant or anything else) who write professionally get caught out by fandom at times and fail to write genuinely critical reviews. The ones who review for mainstream media can also get into trouble because the things they are reviewing are produced by the same companies who own the publications they write for and they can't be critical for that reason. And the professionals often only review mainstream products whereas the amateurs can often have a more eclectic range of products for review. In short, just because someone gets paid for something doesn't make them good at it.

What I look for in reviews - for books or anything else - is someone who is knowledgeable about the subject and can write/speak reasonably well. But I also like a spark of fandom: objectivity only goes so far in generating my interest. Some professionals are fans too (Margaret and David on the Movie Show or Mark Kermode who is a BBC movie reviewer for example) and I like them but often it's the amateur reviewers who provide that mix of keen interest and sensible criticism. Just like you Kerrie.

Obviously there are amateurs who write rubbish, and the percentage in the ranks is probably higher than in the professional ranks but, as I said, it's not a case of all or nothing. Whether the rise or amateur reviewing is good for 'the industry' or not I couldn't say (and don't much care) but I do think it's good for the consumers who have a much wider choice of reviews these days and who should be seeing the results of greater competition where the cream will rise to the top - be it professional or amateur.

Anonymous said...

What I want from a review is merely an indication that I should, or should not, read the book at issue. That requires some famliarity with the reviewer's tastes. I.e., if I know a reviewer's tastes parallel mine, I'm more likely to heed his or her recommendations. That accomplished, a simple "Read This Book" is more likely to motivate me than thousands of words from an unfamillar reviewer.

That said, the net is indeed awash with capsule summaries posing as reviews. You are not a reviewer if all you produce is an assertion that you liked the book, followed by a blow-by-blow recitation of the action. Leave that for fifth-grade book reports.

Anonymous said...

Kerrie, I happen to agree with what you say here.

I think one point overlooked is the fact that if you are perceived to be taking books from authors and in a little, cosy club where you simply rave about "friends'" novels, the truth will out eventually. Others may read the novel and find it doesn't live up to expectations. Peril will eventually catch up and bite the raver in the bum!

Like you Kerrie, I don't see the point in slashing something. Others may like the novel and I wouldn't want to put them off. Neither would I try to stand in the way of an author gaining readers.

I have received books that have not made it onto my blog as due to lack of time, they didn't make it into my TBR list to start with. Just over a year ago, I threw something down in disgust when I reached page 60. It was so inadequately researched that for me, it destroyed the story through distraction. But I've seen online that someone else enjoyed it.

I like to provide a summary of the opening of a novel, so that someone reading can get an idea of whether they might enjoy it. Then I focus on the positives. I prefer to enthuse. If I can't do this honestly, then the book will not make it onto my blog. Simple as that.

Anonymous said...

There are, to me, two main advantages of blog reviews. One is that the coverage of books is greater, and another is that one can filter what one reads. So in the case of crime fiction, for example, I have filtered my blog reading to about 10 blogs I read regularly and enjoy their book reviews.

There are definitely advantages to blog and internet reviews, eg the two points I made, and others made here.

But, in the main, I find content that is independently edited and produced of higher quality. Same goes for self-published books, on the whole -- I usually think "that could have done with a good edit"!

Kerrie said...

I am in desperate need of being able to reduce the blogs that I read I fear. - you only need to look at the list of blogs I'm watching to see that - but where to start?

Anonymous said...

I've never come across anything like this, though it doesn't surprise me. To be honest, I'd rather read what a fellow blogger has to say about a book than "a critic". After I've read a book, I might read a "real" review, but not before.


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