There is much discussion on the interwebs this week about the state of online book reviews. Is the discussion of books happening out there falsely positive? Or, is the atmosphere overly nasty and negative? (Visit Goodreads or Amazon for a taste of both experiences.)
TOO MUCH PANDERING?
Let’s start with Jacob Silverman’s piece on Slate about the “epidemic of niceness in online book culture.” To summarize: he calls into question the way authors behave on Twitter and other social media outlets. He wonders, with good reason, how a reviewer (“professional,” a blogger, etc.) can write or even Tweet honestly about a book if a friendly author has made a personal connection online with the person writing the review. He also addresses the literary community’s mass enthusiasm for books not yet read, or worse, read and then mentioned everywhere with too much stretching of the truth.
In other words, if every book is a “must read,” and “amazing,” then how can people looking for suggestions take all this hyperbolic Tweeting and Facebooking seriously?
BUT DO WE REALLY WANT MORE SNARK?
On The Rumpus, Michelle Dean wrote a thoughtful response to Silverman’s criticism of the lack of criticism out there in the literary landscape. At the end she questions whether readers (and writers, obviously) truly want or need “more bare name-calling and bitchery on the internet.” (emphasis is Dean’s, not mine.) We probably don’t. Agree?
WHAT TO MAKE OF REVIEWS FROM ASPIRING NOVELISTS?
I publicly addressed a similar concern about reviews (several weeks before Silverman’s article, I’d like to note) when I asked in the comment section of writer Hallie Sawyer’s blog if readers can trust reviews from aspiring novelists. The way I see it, aspiring novelists would never burn a bridge in the publishing world. With that in mind, I’m sometimes suspicious of reviews on those blogs.
Hallie responded with an entire post called: “Can a Book Review be Called a Review if it Isn’t Critical?” At the end she came up with a sensible solution for the book “review” section of her blog. Acknowledging that she didn’t want to write negative reviews (I feel the same way), she changed the book section of her blog from “reviews” to “recommendations.” Obviously Hallie and I encounter books we don’t like. Guess what? We don’t waste space on our blogs writing about them.
THE PROBLEM WITH AMAZON AND GOODREADS
I have heard authors complain about three and four-star reviews on those sites. I absolutely understand where those authors are coming from, but if every “review” is five stars, then what do five stars even mean anymore? Don’t we all know or at least suspect that those over-the-top positive reviews are written by family and friends of the author? And that includes, of course, online “friends.”
On the flip side, there is a disgusting amount of anonymous, rage-filled garbage on those sites aimed at these hard-working authors. We’re talking about people’s careers here. Sure, writers develop thick skin, but nobody’s skin is thick enough for some of the cruel nonsense on those sites.
WHAT DO I SAY ONLINE ABOUT BOOKS?
In the name of intellectual honesty, I want to state clearly that I have never claimed to write reviews on my blog. Okay, I wrote one called 50 Shades Overrated in March, but that was an exception. What I do instead is keep track of the books I’ve read and write pithy blurbs. If I say I “loved” it, I did. If I couldn’t stand a book, I probably didn’t finish it and you won’t see it on the list. (Again, 50 Shades aside.) I’m not going to tweet that I hated a book. And I’m not going to write a negative review on Goodreads or Amazon. I’m just not.
Generally if I devote an entire post to a book, (like I did with MWF Seeking BFF, The Happiness Project, or Click) the crux of the post is more about me than the book. This is, after all, my personal blog and not a book blog or an established place of literary review. That’s the beauty of ninabadzin.com, I get to write about whatever the heck I want.
AND NOW, AN ANNOUNCEMENT
So what is an avid or even a casual reader looking for suggestions supposed to do? I absolutely do not have the answer. (I’m hoping you’ll make suggestions below.) I do, however, have a cool announcement about a new project I’ve been invited to participate in called Great New Books.
Great New Books is an online book club led by avid readers (like me). We will pick one book a month and host discussions on the site. What makes us different from some of the other sites out there? We are not accepting pitches from PR representatives or authors. When it’s my turn to choose, I’ll pick a book I’ve been eager to discuss. There is no other criteria.
We’re still working out some of the other kinks, but I hope you’ll follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with our book choices and chats. In the meantime, I will only respond to the name Oprah. Thanks.
Now please let me hear from you! Do you trust reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or anywhere else online? What if you “know” an author online and don’t love the book? How do you handle it?
And finally, how do you decide what to read next?