Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reviewing reviews...

Writers block - I've read some excellent articles on this recently which I think address the more serious variety of writer's block and offer insight, advice, solutions and hope if you are locked in mortal combat with the creative side of your mind -  this one is good.

This post by Bernard Beckett on why NZ YA literature is or isn't used in our classrooms is an interesting read. Teachers are too stretched and understandably go for the easy option of (generally overseas) YA titles that have movie tie ins, have been dissected and reviewed ad nauseam on easy to find online sites and are proven winners. This makes it too easy to ignore some excellent local content which already suffers from an embarrassing level of neglect. This site Hooked on Books aims to redress some of the balance (awesome work people!!!) but we have a LONG way to go before we are even truly accepted let alone embraced. While I agree it is best to be positive about small gains I think we should expect more. Look what happened to NZ music when we were obliged to hear more of it.

And if you want an easy lesson on how to start a fight you need look no further than this article by Iain Sharp lamenting the apparently too cosy nature of book reviewing in this fair country. He's only commenting on adult literature here, because reviewing children's literature is an obscure movement that seems to operate on the same level as dark matter. However, for my purposes let's pretend children's literature is part of the reviewing discussion.

I guess I agree on some points. Sometimes reviews are just a blurb, or the synopsis, without commentary on the key elements by which we assess books. On the one hand this gives us no real clues as to the merits of the book but it IS a mention which (due to our lack of cultural embracing) is pure gold. I am thrilled when my books are mentioned (even just by title) by someone other than myself or a member of my family or circle of friends, in some public fashion. We should be a little sad that such small things excite us so much. Round ups, therefore, are a simultaneously good and bad thing.

And the majority of reviews are a bit of a love fest, but then an absence of any mention at all in the places where book reviews hang out can be rebuke enough. As my mother always says, "if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." And clearly I wasn't the only one in NZ raised this way. We would rather spend our time talking about things we do like, than things we don't. And this is especially true in a country as small as this one. Our tribe is too small. Too close. We avoid confrontation. We don't wish to offend. This doesn't mean our reviews are bad, just highly curated. And, nice isn't always nice. Sincerity, or lack thereof is detectable. Having some overseas reviewers involved might be a good thing but New Zealanders know their own literature best. Goodreads, of course, is immune to all of this and very educational on the subject of reviewing, partly because its structure encourages reviews of everything you have read, and partly because it's an international boundary-less site where people seem to eschew any kind of filter on their comments. If they feel angry about any aspect of your book, whether real or imagined, they feel a duty to let you know. Some of the most insightful reviews I have read have been on Goodreads.  And some of the nastiest.

And everyone has an agenda. Writer Elizabeth George (in an article published in our own Herald Canvas magazine some years ago) said reviewers were looking to their own careers when they write reviews, and the content should be judged on this basis. She made her comments about big name overseas reviewers so are her comments relevant here? Should they be? or is it better if they aren't? I think reviews anywhere can reveal as much about the reviewer as they do about the book.

I've had my fair share of reviews. Some have just repeated the synopsis and made no real comment on the qualities of the story. Some have been insightful criticisms both positive and negative. Some have just been mean-spirited. Some referenced things which weren't in the books. Some seemed to be written by people who hadn't even read my book but felt compelled to comment anywho. And the advised practice (which I agree with) is that authors never respond to reviews, so errors (or misreadings) in reviews go unchecked. If authors can't respond, how much licence is it okay for reviewers to have (and please don't review that sentence, it's a bit rubbish although the content is still meaningful and relevant). We have no right of reply and must take our medicine. Reviewers should keep that in mind.

So are we gutless reviewers? For my own books I hope for honesty and erudite insights. For the books I wish to read I want a feel for the book, the style and quality of the prose, the complexity of the themes and plot. How satisfying is the ending (but no spoilers). When I review books on Goodreads I believe that what I don't say has as much weight as what I do say. You can easily tell when I think something is a must read. And if you have agreed with my past assessments my reviews will be more useful to you. I know who to trust as a reviewer. A reviewing history carries a lot of weight with me.

It's crucial to remember too that reviewers in the media don't necessarily have control over how much they can write, the format in which their reviews appear (round ups), or sometimes even the books they are able to review. They do what they can within the constraints of the current environment.

In the end, the same book can receive scathing reviews and adoring ones. I look at the kinds of comments made and depending on the language used, the issues noted, and the tone of the piece I get a fair idea of whether a book is for me or not. A nasty review isn't necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes it is the opposite. Give us some credit for being able to read between the lines (cos that's what good readers do) - a review isn't the last and only word.


Brian Falkner said...

Excellent post on reviews. Insightful and accurate. It is never ok for authors to respond to criticism, that path leads to flaming, trolling hell. Which doesn't make it any easier when a review is blatantly incorrect, darkly-coloured by the reviewers own belief system, or just mean-spirited. Our only recourse is to take refuge in the good reviews (and hope that star rating twinkles brightly!)
The alternative is to read no reviews, but I think this is counterproductive. We can learn from reviews, even when the reviewer appears to be a complete moron who has read a different book altogether.
At the end of the day, as you say, the best we can hope for in a review is honesty.

Anna Mackenzie said...

One of the issues seems to lie in the selection of reviewers. Paul Cleave recently used the example of a travel columnist being asked to review crime fiction. What can that add? A review should be built on a body of knowledge of the genre. It should certainly be built on something more than 'liking reading'. Does eating three times a day qualify you to be a restaurant critic?
Is someone who dislikes fantasy the right person to review fantasy? Is an elderly Oxbridge academic an appropriate reviewer of a novel primarily about contemporary NZ relationships? (both examples from NZ Books, who should know better.)
How about a review of the final book of a trilogy which begins "I haven't read the first two books of this trilogy but..." WTF? And yes, an intelligent reader of reviews might immediately reduce the weight they'd give to a review that starts in that vein, but wouldn't it be better to use a reviewer who actually does the job properly?