Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday Forum: The Reader-Centered Review

The most interesting blog post I read this week was Greg's interview with an author he reviewed at The New Dork Review of Books. The author responded not because Greg wrote a negative one, but because he wrote that the book was mediocre. (Is there a book out there about mediocrity? I would read this. I am not sure I am happy with what this says about me).

The interview touched on what a fair review is, what an author wants from a review, and the delicate balance between being honest and being respectful. It's a good read for book bloggers, reviewers, authors, and really anyone that's interested in reviews of any kind.

What struck me as being left out of the conversation is audience. Reviews aren't primarily for the author nor are they primarily for the reviewer; they are for potential readers.  One thing the author Greg interviewed couldn't see from the perspective of a guy with a book to sell is that calling a book mediocre is a great service to readers, who have to martial their time, money, and attention.

I have to admit I often forget that most people who read my reviews haven't, nor probably will they ever, read the books I am writing about. This frames the task quite a bit differently than how I normally approach it, which is to babble incoherently about stuff I noticed. The first and perhaps most important realization is that virtually everyone who reads my review is not me. This might seems obvious, but for many reviewers, your humble ape included, the expression of personal reaction is foremost in our their minds.

This led me to the idea of the "reader-centered" review, a review that exists primarily to serve readers. It seems to me that this way of thinking affect many aspects of writing a review, but my theorization here is still in a larval state.

So I put it to you: what do you thinking of this idea of "reader-centered" reviewing? Does it seems interesting? What about a review serves a reader? What kinds of reviews do not serve the reader?

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  1. I worked as a tutor in a couple of college/university writing centers for several years, and I can't tell you how many times I had the who's-your-audience? conversation with students working on all kinds of writing assignments from blog posts to magazine articles to marketing copy. I can't decide if I'm surprised to see the same issue come up in this context or not.

    Spot-on conclusion about book reviews.

  2. Kudera's defense of the "if you can't say anything nice..." principle is basically that it's really, really hard to write a novel - and so, if a reader/writer didn't like it, just be cool and leave others to assess it (read as: buy it) on their own.

    Of course, as bloggers and reviewers, we can't agree with that. As you say, we have a modicum of responsibility to our readers to point out both the good and bad - it's a credibility issue. But even if we didn't like a novel as a whole, there's always something positive to be gained from reading it (unless it's Dan Brown), and it's worth pointing out those positives within the context of the overarching negative, I think.

    I'm sympathetic, certainly, to how hard it is to write a novel - and if some jerk at Clemson had written a negative review of a novel I spent three years (that's just a guess) of tears and sweat to produce, my own response would be something along the lines of suggesting the blogger take a very long walk on a very short bridge.

    Kudos to Kudera for being willing to talk with me in the first place, and for being willing to turn this into a conversation instead of an argument.

  3. Writing is hard, yet the hardest part is submit the fruit of your inhuman efforts to the cold judgment of somebody. But guess what? It's part of the game, just like rejection, snobbery, bad sales and every hardships a writer can face. Reviews are a part of the game and writers should like them, good or bad as long as they are sincere and earnest.

    I think a good review (from a reader's point of view) should highlight the high points of the novel/story in order to convince or turn off the reader. If the review concentrate on the book, it satisfies me as a reader. Too bad if writers don't like it, it's a part of the game.

  4. Olympia--The book in question, mine, is all about the kind of tutoring work you did. Alas, of course assessing audience is critical, and I'm grateful that Greg, in the original review, tried to suggest a proper audience for my 2011 IPPY Gold Medalist Fight for Your Long Day. Now I'm late for daycare pick-up!

  5. I changed the tagline of my blog from some literary quote to 'reading books so you don't have too' because ultimately, that is the purpose of my blog (that and creating a reading log for myself.  Oh, and lolz.  I enjoy a good lol).  This came up a lot at the Book Blogger Convention, but my personal and self-proclaimed responsibilities and loyalties are to myself first, my readers second, and authors and publishers third.  

    There are Too Many Books, and if I can save you the bother of reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog so that you have time to read something excellent and tell me about it (or accidentally terrible, and warn me off of it) then we have achieved our purpose.  I mean, my purpose for us.  

    I get that not everyone blogs for the same reasons, and I wouldn't want anyone to tell me how to run my sandbox so I can't exactly point at the positive-reviews-only people and say, You are doin it rong.  But I don't believe that's the most effective use of these here intarwebz.

  6. I agree pretty much with everything Raych said, especially regarding loyalties and responsibilities. If publishers and authors get some benefit from what I do, that's great, but I'm more interested in what my readers get from my writing. Information that helps them decide whether to read a book is a huge part of that---and I'll add that I don't consider my positive reviews to be recommendations. Not everyone shares my taste, so I'm unlikely to say everyone should read a book I loved, but I'll try to point out what made it good so they can decide.

    But besides helping readers make choices, I think good reviews can be interesting to people who've read the book already, or who have no interest in reading the book at all. They promote discussion. That, to me, is the most difficult thing to do. It's one thing to point out various qualities of interest in a book, but another thing entirely to get lots of people talking about it.

  7. "Reader-centered" reviewing is a great way to put it and a very good idea in general.  Traditional print reviews were all "reader-centered" in-so-far as their ultimate purpose was to sell magazines and newspapers.  Book bloggers all want readers, some of them say they don't care about readers but I've never believed them, but very few of us are selling anything.  So, I suspect the essential purpose of book blog reviews is much more "writer-centered" than it is "reader-centered."  

    While I do pick up/purchase many books I find mentioned on book blogs, I also read plenty of reviews about books I've no intention of ever reading or of re-reading.  Which could take your post to an interesting point.  Why do so many people comment on posts about books they have already read instead of on posts about books they have not read?  I suspect that a large percentage of book blog readers are looking for something other than what to buy or read next.

  8. The basic problem with reader-centred reviewing is that all readers out there are different. I find I hesitate to state what other readers will make of a book I've read. If I've loved it or hated it, who am I to stand up and announce that my response will be the same as everyone else's? I hate the thought of closing a potential reader down on a book just because it didn't please me. Or of encouraging another reader to part with cash on something I fully engaged with that won't work for them.

    So reviewing, for me, is about describing the book as accurately as possible, showing others to the best of my ability what's going on the book, what it wants to do. I'll also say how it struck me and what my response was to it, because after all, I can hardly pretend objectivity. But I really do want other people to make up their own minds, and I think it would be egotistic of me to imagine I could make their minds up for them.

  9. I do like your tagline. 

    Could you explain what your responsibilities to yourself are? I feel like I have a sense of this, but I find it hard to articulate what this might mean.

  10. First, you are totally right--we have no way of predicting what a reader will make of a book; I hope that's not what it seemed like I was implying. In fact, I am not especially sure what the tenants of reader-centered reviewing might be, only that I am interested in this as a reviewing mindset.

    Maybe just keeping the question of "How am I serving the reader in this review?" in mind is all it might take.

  11. The problem/challenge of writing for people who will not read the book is fascinating. What can I say to them that will be interesting?

    Sometimes I try to use the occasion of something about a book as a discussion point that extends beyond the text itself. For example, in my review of THE CURFEW, I tried to write a little about weight/lightness in the hopes that even if someone doesn't read the book, the review itself might be interesting to them.

    I am not sure, however, that this is an achievable goal.

  12. I think you've hit on the crux of the difficulty, when thinking of "reader-centered" reviews, you have to remember that there are multiple kinds of readers, including, but not limited to, those who will read the book, those who will, and those who will not. I am not sure if it is possible to write reviews that will be interesting for all of those groups, but I would sure like there to be.

  13. I think that is hard truth for writers to hear: no one cares that it was hard to write the book. What they care about is whether they will enjoy it or find it interesting. That's the beginning and end of the matter, no matter how nice of a person you are or how well-intentioned the reviewer is.

  14. Yea, this is right. At it's core, reviewing is providing information. To leave out some of that information taints the whole data set, at least to my thinking.

    I think there is a way to be sympathetic to the difficulty of writing/selling while still doing interesting, informative reviewing. And, frankly, I think you did that with your original review. 

  15. I think writers at all levels struggle to remember audience. Blogging presents a particular case where the private/public lines are fraught with strange gray areas. 

  16. My reviews of books are very reader-centered, but in an unusual way because most of my audience has already read my selections, or has plans to in the future. Since they already have formed opinions about the books, I'm not out to persuade them. I'm out to bring lofty books down to earth, add a silly perspective, and maybe make the books less intimidating to those who have kept them on the shelves because they're Just. So. Big and Fat. I'm giving people the opportunity to admit that they loved/hated a classic for reasons that aren't accepted in more...uhh...serious circles. It was boring! Too many descriptions of the countryside! I hated the characters! These sort of reviews are taboo, but I provide them. I think some people find them refreshing. 

    Because of this, and because most of the authors I review are dead, I don't care what publishers or writers think of my reviews. I suspect that if Dickens still existed, he would call me a flighty trollop or something. And I would HEART IT.

  17. I found Kudera's "if you can't say anything nice" remark because it seems to be coming from someone who doesn't use reviews as a means to finding a book, and dismisses the idea that a middling or negative review can bring readers (or at least attention) to a book. On almost every negative review I've done on my blog I've gotten a comment that reads like, "this is different than other reviews I've read, it gets me more interested in checking out the book." A diversity of opinion should be viewed as a valuable thing, because as long as reviewers and bloggers are reviewing "responsibly" (explaining themselves in full, defending their opinions, rather than writing "this was awesome" or "this sux") they're helping readers find their way to books they might otherwise not have found.

    Part of what I like about book blogs, as a blogger, is that (apart from a few who treat supporting publishers as part of their blog "mission") reviewers are generally honest and clear, that they're not spinning their reviews or writing dishonestly because they want to preserve connections in the publishing world. If we stripped negative reviews out of blogs, we'd be taking credibility away from the blogs. There are some bloggers who set out saying they'll only write positive reviews, and I think that a few of them, like Books are my Boyfriends, have done a great job of it. It's hard to define what reader-centered reviews are, but I'd say BamB does them, and that the bloggers who are devoting real time and space to reviewing books are doing them, and that we should be viewing brief, blurby positive reviews that don't say anything bad about a book (but don't tell us much about it either) as far less valuable than the eight or nine hundred worders that may not come out dripping with praise for a novel but do respect the time and effort the author put into the work by giving it a review worth reading.

  18. I love the idea but it's difficult to achieve I think, personally anyway. I always want to blather on about this or that and discuss things that happened in the book... but then I often read things that are more obscure and I realize most people will never pick it up. So I really should think this way more!

  19. What if you tried to say something about the book that even people who probably will never read the book find interesting? Maybe you already do this, but this seems like it could be really helpful. It also would serve your own memory of the remarkable features of the book.

  20. Man, the pulling-punches to maintain connections does seem like a real problem. This is one of the many problems caused by the dwindling number of full-time professional reviewers; these folks don't have to worry about having their next book black-balled and so can speak honestly and openly. Say what you will about someone like Kakutani, but I don't think anyone would argue that she doesn't write exactly what she thinks.