Roundtable on Reviewing

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Increased access to social media and sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble with their customer review tabs have leveled the playing field as far as reviewing goes. These days, anyone who wants to can espouse an opinion on the internet and see his or her “brilliance” preserved in electronic print for all eternity. It’s a shame that there are no standards for limiting such recognition to posts that are substantive, informed, and meaningful–or at the very least, for winnowing out those that are illiterate and mean-spirited. But so it goes. As an editor in the book publishing arm of Barnes & Noble, I can tell you that publishers do pay close attention to these customer comments. As a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, I can also tell you that the proliferation of these reviews has had an impact on trade review journals. Booksellers used to rely on PW, Kirkus, and other sources when making their decisions about whether to buy a book, and in what quantity–they now get all of the information they need, often as far in advance as is necessary to make their decision, from non-vetted reviews.

Those of us who review and who look on the reviewing process as engagement in dialogue with others will continue to patronize reliable review sources. But as to why the subject of reviewing and standards is entering the zeitgeist?–lets face it, we probably all feel that standards of taste and expertise that we respect are under siege by the mongrel horde.

Marie Brennan

The issue of sockpuppet reviews and the devaluing they bring makes me think of Harriet Klausner. She was still fairly new when my first novel came out, and I remember my editor being so excited about her as a reviewer because she would only comment if she liked the book — no fear of a bad review! And she got through so many books!

And now Klausner’s reviews have become an industry joke. The one she posted for In Ashes Lie appeared to have been based entirely on the cover copy and the first four pages (you would have thought Thomas Farynor was a main character; in fact you never see him again), and I’ve seen others that seem like they were auto-assembled by a text generator. Her “brand” got devalued in amazingly short time.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Yes. And when we read a piece like this (including his pleasure and education as a reader of good criticism) it makes me wonder about Stefan’s phrase about the levelled playing field. I usually agree with him, but here I’d rather suggest a significantly altered game, not a levelling. That’s what I was fumbling with when I proposed that perhaps we need a language that treats much of social media book comments and amazon reviewing as marketing, not appraisal. Is it possible, at least, to wince and lament a little, while not actually dissenting from the comment about the ‘need to build a brand’? Is joyous embrace the only proper response?

Blog reviewing is more complex, to my mind, there is a very wide continuum there.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

No, Guy, we’re still very much in agreement. My “leveled the playing field” comment was largely in reference to the fact that now just about anyone can get a “review” (i.e., opinion) published, regardless of standards or substantiveness. In fact, retailers like Amazon and B&N almost certainly prefer pithy customer comments to the types of reviews that we all write. They’re retailers, and they takes those comments as a gauge of what their customers want. There’s nothing necessarily bad about that–it’s just a shame that it has had a negative impact on review periodicals, if not reviewing itself.

Peter Straub

Guy’s point about “marketing”seems both apt and useful to me.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Agreed. What’s more this type of marketing and promotional hype existed long before Amazon came into being or B&N developed a dotcom arm. It’s just that now it’s more prominent. But whereas it serves a function at the retail sites where it appears, it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction (yet) with publishers of the very books that are being promoted or trashed. I’ve yet to see a publisher blurb a back cover with “More than 200 positive reviews on” or “Followed by more than 10K tweeters.” (Mind you, with Amazon starting up its own publishing program, this could be an idea whose time has come.) Publishers still prefer name authors and name publications to take their quotes from.

4 thoughts on “Roundtable on Reviewing

  • November 13, 2012 at 2:46 am

    Spot on, Stefan: “Booksellers used to rely on PW, Kirkus, and other sources when making their decisions about whether to buy a book, and in what quantity–they now get all of the information they need, often as far in advance as is necessary to make their decision, from non-vetted reviews.”
    A new landscape I recently learned anew when I published BOWL OF HEAVEN with Larry Niven and found that some opinionaters follow Larry around on Amazon and elsewhere to trash any collaboration he does. Maybe they want him to go back to writing novels alone?
    In any case I’d never seen such a pile-on before; quite disquieting.
    Thanks for this discussion of an area more important than you may know. You reviewers are still the primary way those of taste navigate these chaotic days in literature. There’s a lot of great news in the liberation of genres, and a lot of turbulence too.

  • November 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Greg: regarding bad reviews by readers on Amazon John Scalzi takes a certain amount of perverse joy in them:

    One thing I would ask of reviewers: if you liked the book … please for the love of Cthulhu have something quotable in your review! One of the things that drive publishers of all sizes are those positive reviews that have essentially nothing quotable in them.

  • November 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    There are reviewers on Amazon whose sole purpose is to be the “guy at the bottom”, and trash everything they encounter. And there are the right wing relgious who slam anything that smells of liberalism, and the opposit extreme also ferments too.

    I do reviews because often I find I have information to impart no one else has (like for my review of Simon’s DEAD NAMES.) or to pass on that I really enjoyed something. Or there are a few things that are really awful.

    You can just pick a classic title on Amazon and read the negative reviews. I suggest to go with CATCHER IN THE RYE on ON THE ROAD.

  • November 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Russian author Boris Strugatsky passed away yesterday. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky were among the most famous Russian writers in SF and all of literature. One of their novels could be considered among the best in the 20th Century.


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