Jules Jones

Yog's Law: Money flows *towards* the author

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
on writing reviews
cat-vacuuming (Suzanne Palmer for rasfc)
This rant has been brewing for over a month, but was finally triggered when I went over to Amazon earlier this week to look at reviews for an html reference book. So when I went back to writing prose rather than html yesterday, the word count was 1700 words of rant instead of shapeshifter smut. :-)

On writing reviews...

We've all seen them on Amazon. The one line reviews that say "This book sucked!" or "This book is great!". They're not very helpful, and one of the reasons they're not very helpful is that they don't tell you _why_ the book sucked or was great. You have no way of knowing whether that person's tastes match yours, and hence whether you can trust their opinion to reflect what you'd think of the book.

The job of the reviewer isn't to say whether she liked or disliked the book--or indeed to say whether the book was good or bad, for it is quite possible to like a bad book and dislike a good book. Ideally, what the reviewer should be doing is providing information that helps other people to decide whether or not a book would be of interest to them. That the reviewer liked/disliked the book is important, but the reason _why_ is more important. If I read a review by someone who disliked a book, but who takes the time to explain what she disliked about it, I may well find that her reasons would be good reasons for me to buy it, and vice versa. We may simply have different tastes; or the book may target a specific audience and be of no interest to those outside that audience. A good reviewer recognises those possibilities, instead of assuming that everyone is looking for the same things in a book.

I have a very specific example in mind. A few days ago as I write this, I was wondering whether it would be worth buying an updated version of an O'Reilly manual. (For those who don't know, O'Reilly publish a much-respected line of IT technical reference books.) The one I'm using is the 1998 edition, and as such dates from the Stone Age in computer terms. It's still useable, but I thought that I should look at whether it was worth buying a newer edition.

It turned out that there were not one but two books that I might want to look at, so I settled down to read the reviews. It rapidly became clear that the technical people didn't think much of one of the books. Too basic, too much repetition of things that were obvious, the author hadn't written the book that they wanted. Most of them were content to slam the book as unworthy of the O'Reilly name. Most of them saw it only as a book that had failed practicing geeks.

The beginners, on the other hand, loved the book. It was pitched to their level, and they appreciated it. That was fine, because that was the sort of book I was looking for. But because they were beginners, I couldn't trust their judgement of whether the book was technically accurate.

And then there were a couple of technical guys who said very bluntly that the book was a failure as far as they were concerned --but who also recognised that ubergeeks were not the only potential audience for the book. _Those_ guys took the trouble to explain why they thought the usual audience for O'Reilly books would find the book a poor buy, while at the same time it was probably a very good book for people who were just starting. They felt that it was at a very basic level and very repetitious, but it was clearly written, accurate and reliable in what it did cover. It was a beginner's tutorial rather than a reference guide, and it did it very well. And they said this without being condescending to people at a basic level.

Those are the reviews that got a "helpful" rating from me. They gave me the information that enabled me to decide whether the book would be useful to _me_, instead of assuming that if they didn't like it, nobody should.

I formed my review-writing habits back in my fanfiction days. I got into fanfiction in the days before net access was that widespread, and I was in an old fandom where most of the existing fiction was in printzines, and wasn't ever going to get online unless someone sat there with a scanner for hours on end. That meant that if you wanted to read it, you had to buy it mail order sight unseen, or at a con where you might not be able to do more than flip quickly through it to get a rough feel for the contents. And zines weren't cheap. So I was very grateful for the advice I received from other fans as to what to buy. That advice didn't just cover the intrinsic quality of the writing, but whether the zine was likely to be to my taste. In return, when I started writing reviews of the zines I bought, I did so with the intention not just of saying whether _I_ liked the zine, but whether I thought other people would like it. I wanted to provide other fans with the information they needed to decide whether to buy a zine, and how much they might be willing to pay to get it, whether or not their tastes were the same as mine. Was it well written? Did it press common pro- or anti- buttons that would make people seek it out or avoid it regardless of quality? Did it have serious spoiler issues? Did it have a lot of coverage of a character who didn't normally get much attention, and thus appeal to fans of that character?

I don't have to _like_ a story to be able to say that it is a well written or badly written story. There were a number of writers in the fandom who were well known for bashing characters they didn't like. I'm unlikely to like a story that bashes my favourite character, but I can still tell whether it was written by someone who knows how to construct a story, or by someone who demonstrates the truth of Sturgeon's Law. And I may not like it, but if it's well written there will be people who _will_ like it, because they don't mind seeing that character bashed. On the other hand, they probably won't want to read it if it's simply a bad story. So they'll want to know--did I dislike it because I wouldn't have liked it no matter how well it was written, or did I dislike it because it was badly written rubbish? A simple "this story sucked" isn't very helpful to them even if they know my tastes, while a more detailed "I did not like this story because..., but it is well-written and I think people who don't mind or like.... will probably enjoy it" gives them a chance to judge whether they might like it even if I didn't.

There's a similar thing for stories that I liked because they happened to hit my buttons, but that I realise are flawed in their execution. People who share my tastes will probably also enjoy them anyway, while others might take or leave such a story.

And I kept any issues I had with the authors or editors out of it. If I couldn't write an unbiased review, I didn't write a review. There were a couple of occasions when I could have written an unbiased negative review, but it might have looked as if I was motivated by spite--and I did not publish those reviews at the time, but waited until much later. That doesn't mean you can't write a review when you're biased, but you must be honest with yourself and your readers that you're biased, whether it's a positive or a negative bias.

I continued in that vein when reviewing commercial material likely to be of interest to my fellow fans--who did I think this was likely to appeal to, was there anyone likely to find it a waste of money no matter how good it was, was there anyone who might enjoy it but should put it off until after they had read or watched or listened to other material?

And I find now that I apply this to general reviews, even to considering whether a book in a series will be accessible to readers who haven't read the earlier books, or contains spoilers for those earlier books. And I wish more people would do the same.

These are some of the things I think about when I sit down to write a review:-

Did I enjoy the book? (Or did I find it useful?)

If I did enjoy it, was it in spite of obvious flaws? Will those flaws bother other people?

If I didn't enjoy it, was it because I wouldn't have enjoyed it no matter how well it was written? If that's the case, do I think that other people with different tastes might enjoy it?

Is it so badly written that nobody's going to like it? (In which case I probably didn't finish it, and unless it's _really_ annoyed me, I'm probably not going to bother spending the time to write a review. Life's too short.)

Does it stand alone, or do you need to read something else first?

I'm not going to write a long, detailed review of everything. I'm not spending a huge amount of time on writing reviews for Amazon when Amazon takes a licence to sell those reviews on to others, with no compensation in return, and on my own blog I may well say in passing, "I've just read such-and-such and it was brilliant!" But I do try to provide a little bit of detail beyond "It was good/bad." It's more helpful to other people. And I know that if I want to influence people to read/avoid a book, I'm more likely to succeed if I provide them with solid reasons for doing so. After all, why should I expect others to pay attention to the sort of single-sentence review that I routinely ignore?

  • 1
Are we still ranting about this? lmao! You had me ranting too by the end of the day. However, when it comes down to it, what percentage of people actually read and/or are influenced by reviews? The majority of the over 2000 books in my library were bought simply because I enjoyed that particular genre, the cover was cool, or the blurb on the back sounded interesting. If I didnt like a particular book, I simply didnt get anything else by that author again. It wasnt until I ran out of room in my house and had to either start getting ebooks or start sleeping on the print ones that I became more choosy about what I was getting.

No, "we" aren't.

I posted yesterday about the rant I was preparing on the subject of review writing. The post you responded to, remember? This is that rant. It pre-dates anything you've said in my blog, although the conversation yesterday was useful and helped me clarify some of the things I wanted to say.

I have no idea what percentage of people read or are influenced by reviews. I do know that I personally will use reviews in certain circumstances, and that so do a good many of my friends. As mentioned at the start of the post, what switched me from muttering "I must write a rant" to blocking out a draft was going over to Amazon a couple of days ago to check out a book, and finding a load of willy-waving "I'm a bigger geek than the author" reviews of an O'Reilly manual -- reviews that did nothing to help me decide whether the book might be useful to me.

I don't buy/not buy a lot of books purely on reviews, but there are times when they are useful. I'm much more likely to rely on a review when it's a reviewer whose opinion I have some reason to trust. That doesn't mean "someone who agrees with me". One of the seeds of this rant was a conversation last year between some rascafarians in which one mentioned that she found another's reviews useful even though his taste in books was very different to hers, because he wrote thoughtful, accurate reviews which gave her enough information to decide whether she'd like the book.

I'm much more likely to rely on a review when it's a reviewer whose opinion I have some reason to trust. That doesn't mean "someone who agrees with me".

So true... and why not all ecstatic reviews are good news. As Mary Renault has her actor say in The Mask of Apollo: "there is praise, after all, which makes you wonder what you did wrong, to have caught the fancy of such a fool".

I once bought a Kazuo Ishiguro novel on the strength of a bunch of reviewers all of whom hated it - because their description of the plot premise sounded like exactly the sort of thing I like. It was, too. Their opinions were useless to me, but the factual description wasn't. In my main genre, poetry, criticism is immensely important: it determines to a large extent what gets anthologised, reprinted, written about, and therefore what lives on. Sad but true, so it matters that it's done well.

Once upon a time I wrote a scathing review of a new york times bestseller. I really, really hated it, and couldn't understand why it was getting such raves and sales. However, I didn't say "I hated it" and let it go at that. I said why I hated it, citing carrative flaws, character shallowness (in depiction, not in the character itself) and all that.

A month or so later I went back, reread it, and decided it was simply too vitriolic to be of any good -- I'd had too much fun dipping my keyboard in poison electrons -- and yanked it. It was too vicious to be really useful.

But I do ahve to say, it was fun writing it. All in all, it was probably the "Hate email" that one should write and never send.

Oh, they're fun. The Making Light thread a few weeks ago that was devoted to shredding Dan Brown was really fun. But it was fun because a bunch of people with decent litcrit skills were explaining in detail why they believed his books to be dreadful schlock -- and were also analysing why the books sell well anyway. A string of people just saying "the books suck" wouldn't have been either informative or entertaining.

Sometimes it really is too vitriolic to post in public, but by God it makes you feel better to write it. The reviewer's equivalent of bottom drawer fic...

The Making Light thread a few weeks ago that was devoted to shredding Dan Brown was really fun.

I should drop in on that thread. I thought TdVC was pretty dreary, and actually started a very, very funny epistolary spoof of it with a fellow with whom I'm no longer in contact. I wrote a chapter, he wrote a chapter...

Basically (beside being ready to scream if I read the term "The Divine Feminine" ONE MORE TIME), the thing that set me off was the entire "he researched this so carefully" promo blitz that happened before and during its release. Part way into the book I read a comment he made about "The Burning Times", when they theoretically burned umpteen million witches in Europe across two hundred years.

Pretty lousy research. Being somewhat witchy myself, I know the number's false. It was made up by a woman in the late 19th century, and has, for some reason, been quoted as fact (or factoid) ever since.

I spent five minutes on the web, with google, to find that, if they had indeed burned that many people in that length of time, they would have killed one quarter of the population of Europe.

Wouldn't someone have noticed?

Don't even start me on Anne Rice or The Bridges of Madison County.

But enough; that's off topic. Yeah, they're fun to write, those poison pen commentaries. I just imagined the woman who wrote the book I trashed reading the review, as I know authors do sometimes, and being hurt or upset by it. I'm an actor; even if I scorn bad reviews, they wound, and I hate to cause anyone unhappiness.

Yeah, they're fun to write, those poison pen commentaries. I just imagined the woman who wrote the book I trashed reading the review, as I know authors do sometimes, and being hurt or upset by it. I'm an actor; even if I scorn bad reviews, they wound, and I hate to cause anyone unhappiness.

I'm certainly not a member of the Cult Of Nice, but I agree that it's not nice to post a poison pen review if it's not actually going to contribute anything useful to people's knowledge of the book. If you had far too much fun writing a review that trashes a book, then it may well be too emotionally involved to be a good review. And I know that both as reader and as writer I don't have much regard for reviews that appear to be motivated be personal spite against the reviewee.

Write it, gloat over it, and then stick it in the bottom drawer along with all the other stuff you had to get out of your sytem but that shouldn't be inflicted on the public at large. :-)

I have never bought or not bought a book because of a review.
I do know people who will only buy books that get stellar reviews.
I used to review until I realized I couldn't be honest anymore because I knew most of the authors, so I stopped. I will review books by total strangers occasionally - or just post a blurb about what I'm reading and if I like it or not (and usually say why - like the Sookie Sackhouse series sucks because Everyone loves Sookie and I just don't see why...)
I wish no one was affected by reviews but I suppose that's wishful thinking.

I go to read Mrs. Giggles from time to time because she makes me laugh - but she's never influenced me about a book.

A lot of books and films I'd never even know about if I didn't read the reviews.

I do know people who will only buy books that get stellar reviews.

I have a word for people like that, and it is not a nice word. I can understand using reviews as a quick and dirty way to cut down a massive stack of potentials, but to refuse to consider a book unless it gets stellar reviews? Do they not understand that some reviewers are idiots most of the time, and all of us are idiots at least occasionally?

"Knowing most of the authors" -- I understand that one. It was a major factor in why I never explictly admitted to one of my fanfic pseuds (although nowadays you can work it out readily enough from information on my pro website, if you know the fandom). It went both ways -- it made it easier for me write honest reviews of other people's work without worrying about them trashing my stuff as a tit-for-tat (and there were people who *did* trash anyone who didn't praise their stuff), and it made it easier for people to review my stuff without thinking "oh shit, that's Jules, better be careful what I say."

It took a long time before I hit the the problem of not _wanting_ to write a review because I knew the author and couldn't deal with writing a negative review of someone I liked as a person, but that aspect did eventually catch up with me as well. Fortunately it's not something I've yet had to deal with in profic, but I recognise that sooner or later it will.

I do regularly use reviews, mostly for non-fiction rather than fiction though.

In fact I did that very thing yesterday. I'm at the research/noodling stage of the next novel and I've decided that the protag will have a dog. I've done cats two or three times already so I want to do something different this time. As I've never kept a dog, I need to research the subject and I used the reviews on Amazon to check whether a book that happened to be on offer was any good.

So basically for non-fiction I usually find reviews helpful, though with fiction it's a lot more iffy.

I quite often use them to check out non-fiction to see if it a) is any good, b) suits my needs. It's rare that I would use a review to decide whether to buy fiction, but it's fairly common for a fiction review to draw my attention to the book's existence.

I do find Making Light to be a major contributor to my Amazon wants list. :-)

  • 1

Log in