Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What’s a Review?

Yesterday was whack job Amazon reviewer day, where people went out of their way to ruin the reputation of an already barely credible institution.

First I learned of a “review” of John McNally’s America’s Score Card. I placed quotes around the review because it was really a personal attack on McNally in the guise of a review, even going so far as to drag another member of the Wake Forest faculty into the mud, though the review of that author was even more vicious. (Full disclosure: John McNally was my teacher at George Washington University’s Jenny Moore McKean Workshop in the spring of 2002 and has encouraged my writing ever since.) The reviewer came across as either someone who had been denied admission into Wake’s MFA program, or a student whose literary genius had yet to be accepted by his professors. Either way, the review told us nothing about the book or McNally’s writing, though it spoke volumes about what a whiny douche bag the reviewer was.

Not half an hour later I read of a somewhat similar attack on the anthology The Lost Children. The book consists of thirty stories; the proceeds will aid Scottish children. That’s apparently not good enough for one reviewer, who had nothing to say about the stories or the writing because she hadn’t read the book. Won’t buy it, because the proceeds go only to Scottish children, who, she asserts, already have it pretty well. Why not include Irish or Welsh kids, while they’re at it? Why be so discriminatory?

As someone else pointed out on Facebook, why stop there? Why limit the generosity to the British Isles? Why not include French kids (petit grenouilles, as they’re called in France)? Spanish? Why stop with Europe? Kids need help in Africa and Asia even more. Let’s dilute the gesture so thin it benefits no one and decry it for what it is not—a panacea—instead of celebrating what it is.

This is why I so rarely read or submit Amazon reviews: you play with pigs, you get dirty. There are a lot of well-intentioned people writing Amazon reviews. There are also people shilling for friends and relatives (and themselves, if they’re clever enough), as well as those who will give a book one star because they don’t think any e-book should cost more than $1.99. Then there are the [insert disparaging term of your choice] like the two mentioned above, with axes to grind who have been provided a forum without fear of any real consequences.

I used to write a lot of reviews. I occasionally still do, for books I like. After struggling with the issue for some time, I was led by several reviewers wiser than I to a simple conclusion. The only reason to write a review is to help others decide if the book is worth their time and money. Period. All reviews are subject to the reviewers tastes and experience; all opinions  expressed should be justified in writing. Personal opinions about the author should be sublimated as much as possible. When in doubt, identify them. (The author has been a friend of mine for twenty years. I think the author is a vile glob of pig’s vomit.) Let the reader know how much to discount your opinions.

The key to a good review is always to remember it is not a soapbox, nor it is a forum to show how superior and/or clever you are. Reviews are to help the reader to decide if this book is worth the money. If you can’t do that honestly and with fair intentions, don’t go public. If you don’t like the book, by all means say so, but show what it was about the book that doesn’t work. The reviewer’s conclusions should be supported at least as much as the author’s, especially when reviewing fiction, where the author is permitted a fair amount of license.

And for God’s sake don’t spoil it. Too many reviews are book reports, basically plot summaries with a paragraph at the end to say if the reviewer thought everything held together. Lay out the premise, critique the writing and how well things work, and let the reader find out what happens. There’s more to enjoying a book than the ending.


Steve Weddle said...

Good stuff.
I went to look for the LOST CHILDREN review but couldn't find it.
Maybe it's been trashed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Some of the reviews I read on amazon are clearly just there to sabotage a book. Of course, others are there to help sell it. In these times of few newspaper reviews I know people use these reviews. I see it in my book group. They should toss any review that is too nasty. Especially when it comes from someone who has never written another review or writes too many.

Thomas Pluck said...

It was on Amazon UK, Steve. In the comments. From her Facebook ravings, she hates the Scottish for some reason...

Dana King said...

Review sites like Amazon are great ideas in theory. With more authors self-publishing or using small, e-book only publishers every day, it's nice to have a way to wade through everything that's available. It's ironic to see we may need some way to vet the reviewers, now that authors can bypass the traditional process of agents and editors, but some of these people are doing a disservice not only to the writers, but to those who read the reviews.

I'm sure the majority of such reviewers try to do a conscientious job, but it's hard to know who they are without devoting a large chunk of time to researching their track records and other reviews.

Jim Winter said...

There's a mystery fan out in LA who wants to start a group for self-pubbed crime writers. He said it'd provide a way for newer writers to learn their craft, an MWA-type organization to help build authors' credibility, and keep an eye on small presses, both good and bad.

I wonder if vetting Amazon reviewers might be a good idea if this ever gets off the ground.