update: reviews and accountability

***[this post was corrected and revised after jmc pointed out a misconception on my part; also, links have yet to be updated]***

Last week I wrote a couple posts about the nature of book reviews, specifically on the internet, and my take on the matter of a reviewer’s responsibilities. My reasons for doing this stem from other discussions over a number of different weblogs, in particular an exchange with Jane of Dear Author. That particular discussion took place some months ago on Smart Bitches. To summarize my part of the original debate as neatly as possible, a short bit from my comment:

What really pisses me off about this is that the reviewer has no accountability.

And an excerpt from Jane’s response:

…The reviewer owes the author nothing. NOTHING. Is the author paying for the review? Is the reviewer somehow indebted to the author? How does the reviewer owe anything to the author? WHy the sense of outraged entitlement?

As you can see, I waited until the dust had settled before I posted my thoughts here. Jane commented on that post, and I responded to her comment with a clarification and a question for her. Jane didn’t respond here to my question, which of course is her right.

Right now there’s an interesting back and forth between Jane and many of her readers regarding a book she reviewed and gave a flunking grade, and a summary post about her approach to reviewing. On some aspects of this debate I agree with Jane, and on others, with her detractors. I suggest you go over there to read the whole thing if you’re interested in this greater discussion of the nature and tone of reviews. Jane ends with the observation that nobody is obliged to read her weblog or her reviews, which she writes for her personal satisfaction. Reviewing is a hobby for her and not a profession.

I stand by my position that anybody, hobbyist or professional, who makes a review public does have some responsibilities. There is an unspoken contract between the reviewer and the public. But I am also mindful of this particular definition of responsibility from Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

I find that the nature and tone of reviews and author-reviewer interaction on the internet is evolving in a troubling direction. Part of the confusion that abounds has to do with the fact that the people discussing it (me included) have not always distinguished between matters of content and tone. My two cents: every reviewer is entitled to an opinion, which may be well or poorly argued. Every reviewer has his or her own style. I sometimes find Jane’s style and tone hostile toward the author. The only thing I can do about this personally is to first, express my opinion (which I’ve now done, ad nauseum). And of course I can vote with my feet, something that Jane suggests as well, and I will take her up on.

28 Replies to “update: reviews and accountability”

  1. I can’t presume to speak for Jane, but I believe that today’s (defensive) post is the result of a round of comments posted over the weekend by the friend of an author whose book received a poor rating. The review (IMO) explained why that particular rating was assigned. The friend (also an author, I believe) posted a series of comments that basically boil down to “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

    For my part, I do think a reviewer has responsibility, but not to the author. The responsibility is to anyone reading the review, and it includes the following: be concise; no ad hominem attacks; if the book is an A+, tell why; if it is an F, tell why; if you bring baggage to the book, admit it up front. There’s more that I’m forgetting, but that is the heart of it, for me.

  2. I agree with you on the nature of the reviewer’s responsibilities, and
    I posted a list much like yours in last week’s entries on this topic.

    On the matter of “if you don’t have anything nice to say” — I agree on that point too, though I didn’t (but should have) stated this clearly. In fact I have got in trouble before for taking the position that all positive reviews are detrimental to everybody, including the author.

  3. I kept waiting for someone to respond to one of the comments where a reader of DA pointed out a direct attack on an author in a review – something DA claims not to do. But no such response was made. Instead there were a lot of schoolgirl chants and defensiveness by readers. It’s that attitude that prevents true discussion, the bile and hostility you mentioned in your previous posts.

    I posted to the discussion to point out that the author of the book being reviewed had a very good reason to have her research in order, but then the author’s friends jumped in a way that makes me cringe. I’ve ordered the book and plan to read and post on it myself. I find doing so to be the best proactive step I can take. And I stick with Paperback Reader for my reviews!

  4. In fact I have got in trouble before for taking the position that all positive reviews are detrimental to everybody, including the author.

    I haven’t been keeping up with the whole brouhaha, but I do agree with this idea. I think there can be a difference between being constructive and being positive. It’s possible to say bad things about a work in a constructive way — a way that illuminates — and that doesn’t necessarily turn people off from wanting to read the book. You just go into it knowing that someone else thinks there are flaws, and you can maybe even enjoy it more if you aren’t blindsided by those flaws.

    For example, I read Roger Ebert’s movie reviews all the time because he writes this way. I don’t go to a lot of the movies he reviews, but I like to read his reviews anyway because he opens a new avenue of seeing into movies. He sees beyond what’s on the screen — and I don’t think that’s entirely because he sees movies all the time and has a lot of practice. (There is a particular reviewer for a local newspaper who has the same job and is just awful at it.)

    To me, a good review is not necessarily a positive recommendation, but a good, clear look through someone else’s eyes at a work.

  5. murgatroyd — thank you for articulating a crucial point that was eluding me.

    It’s possible to say bad things about a work in a constructive way — a way that illuminates — and that doesn’t necessarily turn people off from wanting to read the book. You just go into it knowing that someone else thinks there are flaws, and you can maybe even enjoy it more if you aren’t blindsided by those flaws.

  6. LibraryThing’s review function makes me wonder a couple of things on this topic: Is this a semantic discussion of the word “review” as well? The word is applied to so many different things on the internet, in my view. Too many different things, such as shopping advice, simple product descriptions (or plot descriptions in some cases on LT), opinions of authors rather than of the works, as well as opinions about a genre (more of an essay on a genre instead of a (simple) review. I’ve just started reading book reviews in the newspaper and find them so different (in tone) as well as in quality (good quality) that I’m not interested in reading online reviews for the moment. It’s just such an uneven performance standard on the web right now maybe. No offence to those who spend hours reviewing books and publishing their thoughts online, I know there are concientious work being written, but I think I’ve hit my tipping point for wading through bad to find good. I’ll stick with tried and true for now on reviews.

  7. This is all very interesting. Disregarding the person responding to the Tabke review who made a complaint about all negative reviews in general (which was downright silly), I find it frustrating how hard it is to question the tone of reviews and the reviwer’s accountability without the reviewer seeing it as a statement that nothing but good things should ever be said about a book.

    I questioned the tone of DA reviews, first of all wondering what is the point of writing them as letters to the author, and also wondering if they realize that makes it seem like an attack on the creator rather than the creation. I never said they *were* personal attacks, only that that’s often how the tone of the reviews come across (and unnecessarily in most cases), and the only responses I got were defensive comments on how the reviews most certainly are not attacks.

    You summarized it perfectly in your comment over there, Rosina, about how their statements seem like insults toward the author. Well done.

  8. Becca, it’s a relief to have somebody else speak up on this point, which is repeatedly overlooked. Thanks.

  9. I kept waiting for someone to respond to one of the comments where a reader of DA pointed out a direct attack on an author in a review – something DA claims not to do. But no such response was made.

    I assume you’re referring to the following comment by Becca:

    Such as Jane saying to Sylvia Day in her review of ASK FOR IT, “The whole book seemed amateurish, like you are just learning how to write, plot, characterize.” If that isn’t an attack on the author rather than the book alone, I don’t know what is.

    While that probably stung Sylvia Day, I don’t think it’s a personal attack. First of all, the initial clause — “the whole book seemed amateurish” is IMO a perfectly reasonable critique, especially if backed up by textual support (I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on the sentiment itself), and the second part of the sentence again refers to the quality of Day’s writing and the way her experince does not come across in the book. Is that thought phrased the way I would do it? No, but neither do I see it as an ad hominem attack. She didn’t say, “how dare a no talent person like you write a book,” and her grade was pretty in line with what Day’s book received on AAR (and the sentiments, while expressed differently, were similar, as well), so it wasn’t a single shot in the dark, either. Neither review would stop me from reading the book, but I might not use it as my introduction to Sylvia Day — something that MAY make all the difference in whether or not I like her work.

    I posted to the discussion to point out that the author of the book being reviewed had a very good reason to have her research in order

    Unfortunately, Tabke’s marital status to a retired Hayward street cop won’t trump my assistant US attorney and chief of the organized crime strikeforce former Criminal Procedure professor, although Taabke’s husband is probably a lovely man and may have been a great cop. I also downloaded Tabke’s book, and I will trust my legal education and casebooks in reading its crim pro aspects. I think it’s a little scary when we get to the point where an author’s marital status confers research authority on her, regardless of the area of research.

    I questioned the tone of DA reviews, first of all wondering what is the point of writing them as letters to the author, and also wondering if they realize that makes it seem like an attack on the creator rather than the creation. I never said they *were* personal attacks, only that that’s often how the tone of the reviews come across (and unnecessarily in most cases), and the only responses I got were defensive comments on how the reviews most certainly are not attacks.

    What you got from me, Becca, was disagreement (and at one point you actually said “letters are personal” not that they “seem” personal), although it might seem defensive to you because I was defending the Ja(y)nes. That’s okay with me. You also made an assumption that I didn’t care about how the author feels about reviews. You’re kind of right, but not for the reasons I think you mean. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the idea of being burned by the fire of a harsh or nasty review; I’ve been extremely outspoken about bad reader behavior for a long time now. But when I read a book, I’m not thinking about who the person is who wrote it, just as I hope when someone reads an article I wrote they’re not speculating on who I am outside my profession — that seems icky to me. I think the only fair critique we’re going to get and give comes from seeing the work as something unto itself, ESPECIALLY in this day when authors have become so vocal on the Internet, something that has really unnerved me in a couple of instances and forced me to take a break from their books until the memory of their extracurricular words phased out.

    All sorts of things can feel personal to an author; I’ve been accused of attacking an author for pointing out multiple editing errors, and I watched one author take off after a reader who dared to suggest that her POV during sex scenes seemed much more masculine than feminine, prompting the reader to wonder at the gender of the author (oh, did the author lose it over that!). AAR has been the target of outright authorial attack over the years, which frankly baffles me.

    I seriously hate the idea of readers walking on eggshells worried that they are going to offend an author almost as much as I hate comments like “write, bitches, write” or an accusation that the author is the type of woman who picks up men at funerals (now THOSE are over the line, IMO). As Julie Leto said on DA, because EVERY author is addressed the same way, it’s obviously NOT personal. But just because an author might take something personally doesn’t, IMO, provide the only and best standard for deciding whether it’s inappropriate, IMO. As I said on DA, the fact that we can even HAVE that discussion over there suggests to me that it’s not the high school cafeteria environment I’ve grown so sick of in Romancelandia. That DA isn’t perfect I’ll grant you — but women being, IMO, so horrendous at being honest and direct with one another, I’ll take the edginess of the Ja(y)nes as a necessary move away from the dry and IMO often uninteresting “reviews” of Romantic Times and Harriet Klausner. Do you think guys would be having the same argument about those reviews?

  10. I think it’s a little scary when we get to the point where an author’s marital status confers research authority on her, regardless of the area of research.

    Robin, please. This isn’t about her marital status doing more than providing her a verifiable research source for HER story world. If every detail in her story has been experienced by her husband and vetted by him as written, how can you call it bad research when it has in fact happened in real life? You and your sources can contradict her all you like, but you can’t dispute a truth that has occurred.

    But since you want to apply the same rules of your understanding to J.D. Robb’s world (a fictional FUTURISTIC world that can’t possibly be judged by current law enforcement standards since who knows what will happen between now and the FUTURE), we obviously are coming at this from different levels of suspension of disbelief.

    we can even HAVE that discussion over there suggests to me that it’s not the high school cafeteria environment

    I think the fact that Rosina has had to move this discussion proves it canNOT be had over there, not with the constant “get over it” remarks and schoolgirl chants by readers.

  11. If every detail in her story has been experienced by her husband and vetted by him as written, how can you call it bad research when it has in fact happened in real life? You and your sources can contradict her all you like, but you can’t dispute a truth that has occurred.

    I should add that I don’t know that this is the case at all, but I am willing to trust an author with a verifiable source even if her source contradicts the experience of others. She is simply writing one experience from one viewpoint. A taskforce whoever and district attorney might/will have other experiences depending on their own jurisdiction. That does not mean hers is not correct in her situation.

    I live in an unincorporated county area in one of the largest counties in the country, and we are patrolled by both sheriffs and constables, but I would never assume every unincorporated area in the country is the same. Robin in fact said her unincorporated area is policed by a sheriff’s department – a difference right there.

  12. If every detail in her story has been experienced by her husband and vetted by him as written, how can you call it bad research when it has in fact happened in real life? You and your sources can contradict her all you like, but you can’t dispute a truth that has occurred.

    First of all, I haven’t called anything bad research; all I’ve said is that the only defense I’ve seen of the crminial procedure aspects of the book so far have been along the lines of “well, he husband was a cop” or “I was a law enforcement officer” (outside of the technical clarification Lee provided). That doesn’t convince me of anything, since I wouldn’t expect all “law enforcement officers” to be familiar with the 4th amendment search and seizure limitations necessary to ensure that evidence remains admissible. And if the primaries in an undercover operation refer to each other by their own names in the actual location of the op — well, I don’t need to know about the 4th amendment, either, to know that’s not an op I’d want any part of. I don’t know my own reactions to the crim pro aspects of the book yet, but Jane’s legal background hardly makes her a novice reader on that count, either.

    As for the In Death world, they still use some version of Miranda, which means that the 5th amendment must be in place, and if the 4th, 5th, 6th, and select other constitutional amendments are no longer in force, Roberts hasn’t indicated that in her series. So yeah, I think some of the rules are still assumed to apply. I don’t expect Roberts to care about the ins and outs of all of them, but it makes it harder for me to read those aspects of the series without wincing at various points, since Eve, as much as I love her, isn’t really a civil liberties kind of gal, IMO.

    I think the fact that Rosina has had to move this discussion proves it canNOT be had over there, not with the constant “get over it” remarks and schoolgirl chants by readers.

    Constant, huh? I guess I didn’t see it that way. But then again, maybe it’s like reviews: 10 great ones aren’t as visible as that one bad one, which speaks louder than all the rest. Outside of the one or two commentators who were, IMO, on the rude side, what I saw was more intense but civil discussion and debate. But again, I don’t think very many people in Romance, or many women, for that matter, are particularly comfortable with that, either (although we sure don’t have a problem yacking it up behind other people’s backs, do we?). And I think that’s a shame.

  13. Robin in fact said her unincorporated area is policed by a sheriff’s department – a difference right there.

    Yup. Part of this, I think, comes down to what each of us knows and doesn’t know. As a soon to be graduated law student, I would never expect that anyone in my life, no matter how close to me, would be able to write an authoritative book about life in law school, unless they were a fellow law student. As an insider, I just “get it” in a different way. Of course, certain aspects of my experience would be expressed in a completely objective way, but others would be immediately recognizable by law students and lawyers all over the US. For example, when I read Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed, I totally got that she was an attorney because of the way she described a seminal tort law case and its attendant issues of proximate cause in a negligence claim. Most readers are probably like “whatever, let’s move on,” but I wasn’t. In fact, now that I’ve come to understand a lot of legal issues differently, I can barely restrain myself when people talk about certain aspects of the law — because I literally had to make a paradigm shift to get it all, and it’s soooo different than a lot of people think. Tabke MAY have vetted her book with her husband and others, who MAY have had extensive undercover experience (although if it was with a stripper in a club, I don’t know about how long that marriage would last!), and she MAY have done a credible job of rendering some of those details. Somee of them I won’t be able to judge, either, because of my own position in the law. My point is simply that being the wife of a veteran street cop is not by any stretch an automatic research pass for me, and when people put it out there like I’m supposed to stop questioning, I actually get more instead of less suspicious about what’s inside the book. I never did well with “because I’m the parent” or “because I’m the teacher” warnings, either. ;)

  14. There’s no need to coddle an author if the work is seriously flawed. But no matter how bad the novel, You can be direct and still maintain a professional tone.

    Exactly. And what I wished more reviewers understood or took into consideration with their criticism is how much authors (at least me!) can learn from reviews. I’ve changed certain aspects of my writing for the better because of similar concerns from different reviewers. Had those reviews been written in a hostile condescending tone, I would have paid less attention because 1) I’m human, and 2) I tend to glaze over when a review comes across as a snark platform rather than a constructive analysis.

  15. There’s no need to coddle an author if the work is seriously flawed. But no matter how bad the novel, You can be direct and still maintain a professional tone.

    I agree, Rosina, but I have to say that I was also somewhat taken by the argument that a reader blog has a different contract, if you will, than a reviewer site or professional reviewer. Because you and I share an academic background, there will likely be a certain similarity to how we approach the task of reviewing a book. I’m not a professional reviewer, but I can’t change the way I approach a book, in part because of my scholarly training, but also because I have such a strong respect for the craftsmanship of writing, for the art of it, even. But not everyone has that same relationship to Romance novels, which, while a bitter pill to swallow, has, I think, forced me to think about how other people review a little differently.

    I know that when I reviewed Jennifer LaBrecque’s book, some people were waiting to me to take that book apart and trash it, which I didn’t. But because I didn’t, some people thought I gave it a glowing review, which I also didn’t do. To me it was a pretty average read with some notable ups and downs, and I tried to express that the best I could. Although I was mad at what had taken place around that book, I wasn’t going to take it out on a book, LaBrecque’s or anyone else’s. I wasn’t worried about LaBrecque’s feelings or other people’s opinions, and I wasn’t trying to figure out how to be diplomatic in my review. I simply thought about the book as this thing that is part of a whole craft I appreciate, enjoy, and respect. And you know, I’ll bet a lot of people thought my review was an absolute snore. Some people prefer Mrs. Giggles’s style and snark, and there’s no protest from me that she tends to be a little fast and loose with her plot summaries for my taste that’s going to make a difference (although she is often very funny and insightful about the genre).

    I see Dear Author as a hybrid, really, between a more “professional” review site and a grass-roots reader blog; they DO offer textual detail and encourage intellligent discussion on books, but at the same time they can be rough in the delivery of some of their opinions. Personally, I think you could make an argument that the second person format is an ironizing of the overpersonalization in Romancelandia, but I haven’t thought about it enough to do that. Today, I’ve been content to procrastinate on a big project I’m past deadline on (what else is new?), and stay engaged in this earth-shattering discussion!

  16. Certainly I’m willing to reconsider my position and I can be swayed by a convincing argument. That does have to do with my academic training, as you point out, but it’s not exclusively a matter of education or training. My father — who only finished grade school in Italy — could argue just about anybody under the table; he had a natural understanding of logic.

    Oh, yeah; my smartest friends include people who have advanced degrees and those who never went to college at all. I was basically using the academic issue in reference to a certain analytical style that I do really think is common to most academics, a common ground that doesn’t have to do so much with logic, insight, or intelligence, but just with an umbrella paradigm recognizable among current and former academics. In general, I think academics share a certain style of “review,” even across disciplines. I can generally spot people with strong academic backgrounds, not because I find them smarter or their arguments more convincing, but because there’s often a certain tone, use of language, and style of presentation that I recognize somehow. Just like I now have a certain legal vocabulary such that I could follow all the issues in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings because I had read almost all the cases to which they referred. I’m not saying that I had more insight into what was going on, just that I shared the vocabulary.

  17. being the wife of a veteran street cop is not by any stretch an automatic research pass for me

    While for me, it gives credence to her work because of her connections and their experience.

  18. oops, I meant to say “Of course, certain aspects of my experience would be expressed in a completely SUBJECTIVE way. . .” The sheriff aspect of Tabke’s book didn’t immediately pop out to me as an issue for the reason you mentioned, Allison. But a couple of other things did, and I’m going to see for myself if I need to ask more questions about them after I finish the book myself.

  19. crickey.

    This is a very interesting discussion. I can’t comment on the particulars of the novel in question and the quality of the research, but I can make a generalization:

    A reviewer might say: “the police procedural aspects of this novel struck me as off, particularly []. I found this problem so disruptive that the novel was ruined for me”

    Or if that’s too gentle: “I didn’t believe the police procedural aspects, and I was unconvinced by the details. The whole approach was disappointing.”

    Or: “I couldn’t find anything to like about this novel, and the politice procedural aspects were especially irritating.”

    There’s no need to coddle an author if the work is seriously flawed. But no matter how bad the novel, You can be direct and still maintain a professional tone.

  20. While for me, it gives credence to her work because of her connections and their experience.

    Which I think she’s counting on, because she gives her cop’s wife life a lot of play on her website. I always wonder at the impulse of authors to post the photos of their spouses and kids on their website (as well as pictures of their backyard), but maybe it’s part of what I call the overpersonalization in Romance (and other people see as its friendliness or relationship-based marketing).

  21. Robin,

    I find this whole discussion really valuable. Certainly I’m willing to reconsider my position and I can be swayed by a convincing argument. That does have to do with my academic training, as you point out, but it’s not exclusively a matter of education or training. My father — who only finished grade school in Italy — could argue just about anybody under the table; he had a natural understanding of logic.

    As this whole discussion was unfolding today (and I was using it — as you were, as Alison was — to procrastinate) I kept thinking about how this kind of argument/discussion is limited and skewed by the limitations of the written word. In a face to face discussion with an audience, things would play out very differently.

  22. Interesting discussion! I often review books on my weblog about various books I read. I try and be respectful and also let readers know that this is ultimately only my opinion. I agree that the reviewer has a responsibility to the readers of the review. Though I take all reviews with a grain of salt, I do take into consideration the reviewers comments, whether it be on books or movies. I always read Rosina’s reviews, since she seems to have the same taste in books as I do. While a reviewer friend of mine I never agree with and don’t go by her reviews. I think reviews are good if you know the reviewers taste and style and whether they match your own.
    Also the adage of “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” does ring true. If you aren’t a professional reviewer what do you gain from bashing a book or author?

  23. Two observations:
    1. In reviews of books, research, current events, and anything else, we should differentiate between criticisms of a person’s ideas and himself. It’s fine to say the novel’s character, chain of events, outcome, etc. are bad, wrong, good, bad. It’s anathema to me to say the author is bad, wrong, good, bad. These differences have become ignored over the years. I cancelled a subscription to Scientific American because of an attack on Oppenheimer rather than his work (first atomic bomb research).
    2. As I have posted before, I classify these review diatribes as a form of road rage. I don’t know that person and he doesn’t know me. I can trash his work, cut in front of his car, but in line. I can be irresponsible and not take the responsibility for my words and actions as long as no one knows who I am.

  24. I’m not sure if TTTT has been released in trade paperback here in Australia yet, but the initial release was everywhere – I picked up my copy in K-Mart, and both the bookstores at my local mall had it displayed in the New Releases section (with several copies behind it). Marketing for novels is a little different over here, though.

  25. I just called the “Border’s” bookstore on Broadway in Tucson Az asking about TTTT….
    they have no info on it, but did mention that Queen of Swords will be out in paper back in Septemeber.

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