Reviews have come to be thought of as almost synonymous with “marketing,” which is a shame. True, a good review from a trusted source can be helpful in generating interest, but the current algorithm tends to equate volume of reviews with merit. That’s not only a mistake, it’s potentially dangerous.
First we’ll talk about reviews from trusted sources. Dead End Follies recently reviewed Bad Samaritan and had quite a bit to say, both good and not so good. What I like best about it is that Benoit Lelievre takes a stand on what the book is about. He doesn’t just rehash the plot and conclude with “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it,” or “It was okay.” He invited readers to draw their own conclusions and go a few rounds with him. (“I'm simplifying here, but if you read the novel in its entirety, I'd be glad to debate its representation of women via email.”)
In short, the review is fair and thought-provoking, at least for me. The overall assessment is encouragingly neutral. (“Not bad. File this one as ‘interestingly flawed’, but it could've definitely been a lot worse.”) It’s in the particulars where the review is most worthy.
On one hand, Lelievre appreciates the depictions of the kinds of violence women have to routinely deal with. On the other, he’s less than satisfied that the confrontations are mainly between protagonist Nick Forte and the men’s rights advocates and other cowards who ate the book’s antagonists. That’s a fair criticism. Forte has shown issues with the treatment of women in other books, and I wrote this to show how his preferred resolutions have become more violent as his personality grows darker. The problems are two-fold:
1. It’s extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to reasonably portray this issue from the perspective of a man who feels compelled to interject himself as the solution every time he perceives an injustice toward a woman.
2. It’s too much. All of the subplots involve the same issue, and Forte’s attempted resolutions are too similar. It gives him too much credit to call what he does “resolutions.” His heart’s in the right place, but he’s an oaf, doing things for his own reasons that may or may not result in the resolution the woman prefers, whether she appreciates his “help” or not.
This is a review that clearly passes the $25 test. (The key element of any review is to help a potential reader decide if the book is worth $25? Or $15, or $30. Whatever it costs.) It also gives readers—and the author—things to think about based on what’s in the book. I follow Dead End Follies regularly. Its purpose is to try to raise the level on internet criticism. To me, he’s going about it the right way.
Now let’s contrast that with passes for internet criticism more all the time: online reviews. This is a difficult subject because I’m close to touching the third rail for authors: arguing with a reviewer. I’m trying to make a point, though, so bear with me.
Benoit Lelievre did me a solid by posting an Amazon review distilled from what he wrote in Dead End Follies. He gave the book three stars and said: File this one as "interestingly flawed.” BAD SAMARITAN is a fundamentally sound detective story that's somewhat bogged down by an overbearing theme. Its heart is at the right place and it wants to expose violence against women, but it's more about male's perception of the problem than about the problem itself.
It's appropriately funny and goofy at times, it's a classic case of a book trying to do too much.
Again, a fair assessment with which I have no issue.
There’s another three-star review directly beneath it.
Story felt too rushed and didn’t flow well.
I voluntarily read an advanced copy.
Let me start by saying I take no issue with the criticism. This reviewer isn’t the first to say I get in and out too quickly. (Fortunately my wife is not among them.) It’s just that that’s all there is.
First, I am not aware of anyone who forces people to read advance copies, so saying one “voluntary read” the book is, at best, a pleonasm. Given the disclaimer is 42% of the total review, it can safely be said not a lot of thought went into the rest of it. This strikes me more like someone who’s trolling for free books. I checked—because investigations are what I write about—and found no fewer than eleven reviews posted in the previous week.
Really? What level of thought can have gone in to any of them? Why even bother to write them up, unless there’s some frequent reviewers award you’re gunning for?
I don’t mean to hold civilian reviewers to the same standard I hold the pros. I also don’t mean to compare this review to those one-star pieces of shit some give because they didn’t like the cover or thought the book was too expensive or found a typo. Still. Online reviews are supposed to provide a service and not just provide yet another forum for onanistic proclamations. Maybe Amazon needs some review standards beyond checking for foul language and looking to see if the author is a friend of the reviewer. Maybe there should be a standard before any review is acceptable.
What should it be? Twenty-five words? Fifty? Fuck if I know. I’m the author. My job is to get people to think, not tell them what to think. This small sample shows a failure in both regards. The review I care about showed me I was too busy trying to tell people what to think. The second implied I didn’t get that reader to think at all.