Saturday, August 23, 2008

How Do You See Your Role in Reviewing Books on Your Blog

As more and more book reviewing shifts from print to online, what are the obligations of those who talk about books on their blogs?

This is a subject that makes me uneasy. I often recommend books on this blog, but I've never panned one. Unlike panning a movie, panning a book on a blog feels too personal, especially on collective blog sites like this one. And I don't feel qualified to write a "review."

I think it's appropriate to talk about books I like. The more the better. But to talk about ones I don't like....well, I just wouldn't.

This is new ground for us and begs the questions-what qualifies someone to review books? With the decline of newspaper reviewing, it might be a good time to talk about it.

A newspaper gives a reviewer a platform to speak from and presumably is responsible to the public for views expressed in its pages. It has the means to curtail a reviewer who doesn't act professionally. Newspapers edit their reviews, vet their personnel. There is an organization to hold accountable behind the reviews.

I expect to see critical reviews in newspapers or magazines, but on a blog, it often seems inappropriate because there's no oversight. The blogger may not be held accountable in the same way that newspaper reviewers are.

Am I living in the past to see things this way? Maybe this "Brave New World" has passed me by. What degree of professional training should we expect of a reviewer? Or should we democratize it and say everyone is entitled to their say?

Is it possible someday soon that a site with nasty reviews of books will attract attention the way various radio shows and political blogs do? Amazon reviews, not supervised at all, are often nasty and unfair. Or so favorable that you can't believe them either.

Do you see a time when people will be held responsible for the content of their blog? That lawsuits and legislation might alter free speech on the Internet.

These are questions we need to wrestle with. IMHO.


Gerald So said...

I think any reader is entitled to share an opinion on a book, but it's a long way from sharing one's opinion to being paid/solicited for it.

I don't think blogs have achieved the credence that newspaper/magazine reviews have, and because blogs are ubiquitous (anyone can start one), perhaps they will never be equal.

Personally, I have no qualms about posting negative reviews on my blog. In studying creative writing, I learned to critique the work without criticizing the author, to give reasons from the text for my dissatisfaction.

This said, if I don't finish or don't like a book at all, I don't review it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I never found it easy in the classes I took to critique other students. And I am even more uneasy here because it's too tempting to act out of rage or jealousy or a basic misunderstanding of the book. Like email, it's all to easy to push that send button and have it out there.
I am not critical of others who do this because this may be the only way some books get talked about. And certainly we don't just want Pollyanna reviews, but for me, I don't feel adequately informed to attempt it.

Randy Johnson said...

I talk about books a lot on the blog. But only books that I enjoyed. Why?
First, I'm not a professional reviewer. I can't break a book down and discuss what the author did right or wrong.
If I don't like a book, I don't automatically assume there's something wrong with it. I hope my ego never gets so large that I think a book is crap if I don't like it.
Most of the time, the dislike could be any number of things, mostly having to do with me. I might be tired, in a bad mood, the subject matter doesn't interest me as much as I thought, the author's style doesn't mesh with my tastes.
I generally use a three strikes approach. If I start a book and can't get into it, I put it aside for something else, coming back later. The second chance, same thing. If there is a third time, I give up on the book. It just doesn't work for me. Again, that doesn't mean it's bad. Just not for me.
When I talk about a book on my blog, I take the approach of a reader. I give a little of the basic plot, try to explain what I liked about it, and why anyone who's reading the post might like it.

Gerald So said...

Reviews posted out of rage or jealousy are usually easily distinguished (and dismissed) from earnest, more objective reviews. Your concern for authors' feelings shows me you wouldn't post reviews in spite in the first place.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I hope not. I posted a poor one once on Amazon, a book that I felt was overly-praised, an insider's first novel. And have felt sick at doing it ever since. Even though I truly do think it was a poor novel, I shouldn't have posted it. You can't take it back on amazon either. Here you could at least.
Randy, I really admire you for giving a book so many chances. Fifty pages and I give up usually. Sometimes less.

Clair D. said...

During my day, as I encounter people, I don't go telling them about the books I didn't like. I may, however, tell them about a book I really liked. If I don't have anything nice to say, I won't say anything at all.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'm just happy you're talking about books. Working in a University, you'd be surprised how seldom books comes up. Except if it's "their" book.

James Reasoner said...

If I really dislike a book, chances are I won't finish it, so I don't post anything about it. I may post a mixed review every now and then, but for the most part, like the others who have chimed in on this post, I prefer to write about books I enjoyed. As the exception that proves the rule, in my case, I recently read the third book in a series after really enjoying the first two. I thought it was awful, but I finished it because I kept hoping it would get better. It didn't. But then I reread the blog post I wrote about it and decided not to post it because it was too critical. I'm just not comfortable ripping somebody's work.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Especially in the case of you're enjoying the first two in the series so much. You run the risk of someone never trying the writer at all, which would be a mistake.

Nathan Cain said...

I'd have to agree with Mr. Reasoner. Books that don't grab me I will often not finish, so they obviously don't get written about.

Still, some books I do finish and still find flawed, and I say so. There's no reason to shy away from criticism. People will generally react well to an honest opinion. I've even heard from authors after I criticized some aspect of their book, saying they appreciate my honesty. If you're going to review you've got to be credible. If you say you love or hate everything you will never have credibility. I think an author or PR flack would rather see a positive review from someone they know is willing to voice an honest opinion than they would from a sycophant.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think you're right about that, Nathan and I don't actually consider my blog as one that reviews a book. I just say why I liked it. I don't think I can bring enough of an historical or literary perspective to it to consider it a review. And often, when I don't care for a book, it's because I don't enjoy the genre or the writing style and voicing that seems unfair. "It's not you, it's me" sort of thing.

susan259 said...

There are several blogs out there that have raised their level of what they do so that it does seem to be at the level of newspapers or magazines or review journals. One of those is The Hip Librarian's Book Blog. They require that you submit a sample of your writing, they post a policy about what they review and how, they required signed reviews, and most of their reviwers are librarians. Another librarian written blog is that of Lesa Holstine. My (newer) blog is also written by two librarians, both of us have many years working in libraries, reading reviews, and reading a wide variety of good and not so good books. I also was a past reviewer for a professional journal. I am working on adding, like the Hip Librarians, policy for what we review and expanding the about us section so that people will know what they getting from our reviews...So I think the answer to your question is a qualified yes. Just like anything else on the internet, you have to evaluate what you are getting. Really, the same thing applies to customer reviews on amazon or anywhere else. You will find some really negative reviews and some really positive ones, and sometimes neither is really deserved. I guess what would be interesting to me, is if/when libraries and bookstores start taking online reviews as a factor about what to order/purchase. I will note that when I looked up a new book n a publisher's site, the only review the publisher referenced was one from an online site. Hip Librarians
Lesa Holstine

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for the great info, Susan. Lesa does a forgotten book for this site every Friday. She's a reading wonder. And you joining in now and then on here is terrific. I really like the fact that oversight is taking place on these sites.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Susan and Patti, for the comments about my blog. As some of the others said, I don't often post negative reviews because I usually don't finish books I don't like. However, when I read a book for another review site, and have to finish the book, whether I like it or not, it may sometimes have a negative review.

I understand it's just my opinion, but I do try to summarize the book, say why I liked it, and, if I didn't, why I didn't like it. But, it's just my opinion.

I think I'm fair to the book. The authors understand it's not personal. And, my reviews are syndicated enough that I think Reuters and are satisfied that the reviews are fair.

David Cranmer said...

I pretty much agree with the majority opinion here that as a recreational reviewer, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable tearing apart someone else’s work just because I wasn't digging it. Occasionally I may throw in the mixed review, but there are so many great books out there to bring to people's attention, why focus on the negatives.

Kerrie said...

This was something that I faced just recently.
But I'm quite willing to believe that even if I don't like a book, others will.
My review wouldn't ever try to pull a book apart,just work out why I didn't like it.

Barbara Martin said...

In Canada, some people who have posted inappropriate comments about co-workers or bosses have been fired from their jobs.

A blogger has to be careful what they post as it is easy for others to misunderstand (it's happened on my blog a couple of times).

As for reviewing books, I would tend to shy away from making a personal opinion except to say I enjoyed it.

Charles Gramlich posted negative comments about a book he had read, refusing to name the author for fear of consequences. It's a shame one cannot comment that they did not like a particular book. It's common sense that not everyone is going to like a particular book.

I list the books I am in the process of reading on my blog, but there are a few that do not make that list: for the reason I didn't like it and was unable to continue reading it. But I have never reviewed any of them except Ceasar. In that review I revealed the areas of the book that interested me in the hopes it might interest my readers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think that's a fair policy if you do want to discuss a book you didn't like, Kerry.
We are all working this out every day since we're in new waters here. The main thing is to err on the side of kindness, to be clear what your motives are, and to talk about books all the time. IMHO

Randy Johnson said...

I have to amend my comment. Though I never posted on it, there is an author I've voiced my dislike in several places around the internet.
I won't mention his name(he's already been beat up on by more learned people than myself.
Let's just say he's a best-selling thriller writer with four novels to his credit. As I was finishing the third book in a row by him(I read them out of order of publication), I realized he was writing the same book over and over, the characters the same types in each.
When I started the fourth(actually the first one published), I determined to figure the villain early on. By page 25, I had my suspect and was not in the least surprised to learn I was right at the end.
He needs a new plot.
Fortunately, all I wasted was my time. I read my local library's copies. If he ever gets around to publishing that fifth novel, he won't even get my time.

Martin Edwards said...

One thing that troubles me (though I don't lose much sleep over it) when I'm reviewing books on my blog is that, quite often, the author will be someone I know, perhaps a good friend. So, sometimes, I mention this specifically. But I don't do it every time, because it would become boring for me and the reader. Besides, I think almost all crime readers soon figure out whose reviews are 'trustworthy' (even if they sometimes provoke disagreement) and those which are not worth very much.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Randy-unfortunately there are a couple of those.
Martin-that must be tough. A good review may seem like you're helping a friend; a bad one possibly that you working from another set of motives. But over time it's probably clear that you're just giving your take on it.eouizm

Anonymous said...

Qualifications is an interesting thing. Speaking about genre books, we sometimes get the short end of the stick in the mainstream media (MSM) because newspapers don't want a mystery book reviewer that reviews only mysteries, or SF for SF, etc. Thus, a review by a blogger whom I know to have vast wealth of knowledge about crime fiction holds more weight for me than the guy writing for the Houston Chronicle. Moreover, there's something to be said for just regular folks writing about what they did and didn't like about a product (a la Amazon). Whenever I review a book/movie/CD on my blog, I always start with a bio, to give the reader an idea into where I'm coming from. That way, readers can make their own judgments about my take on a product. And that does include times where I didn't like a work.

Take my own self-education into crime fiction, for example. That's where I'm coming from and I tell the reader either in the review itself or they can figure it out from other stuff on the blog. I hold two degrees in history and when I review a history book, I make sure readers know that. I'm not a buff; I'm a trained historian. When it comes to music, that's a different story. I'm more fan than professional even though I do play multiple instruments and was in various bands.

On bad reviews, they will come. Since I'm learning about the history of crime fiction, I tend to use the authors/books from Hard Case Crime as a starting point. I'll read anything they publish but I don't necessarily like everything. The Confession won awards but I didn't like it very much. And I'm not afraid to say so. I'm not going to criticize the author but I feel okay criticizing the author's style. I've been in graduate school. Constructive criticism is part of the game. The same holds true for creative writing. We writers have to have thick skins and know that when readers don't like our work, it's not that they don't like us. It's not personal.

pattinase (abbott) said...

There are some crime fiction reviewers out there (Weinman, Montgomery, Woog, Adler, Muller, Stasio,Rainone,Roberts etc). But, as print reviews shrink, who knows. You're beginning to see review sites online get more play in blurbs already.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Although it may be believed that newspapers have the means to curtail reviewers who might speak out on a personal level, I doubt many newspapers meddle much with the review pages. In my (albeit limited) experience most of the editing goes to things that would result in lawsuits or trimming for length restrictions.

On Book Television Canada ( they had a discussion panel on philosophies on reviews. This was a while back, and I did blog on it. It was fascinating, because they pulled up and cited a print newspaper review in which an author was ripped a new one. The point of the panel was to debate whether there was a place for reviews that shred books, and this review they kept referring to went beyond the book to a personal attack of the author, and it was just one of the examples.

It was an interesting panel, and it's an interesting example because it proved (to me) that some print sources will attack personally. To assume that print sources are somehow more balanced than online sources is not always accurate. I think the main difference between the online reviewer and the newspaper reviewer is that the newspaper reviewer is usually paid for their services, and therefore not always in a position to pick their own content and more likely to finish some books that are worthy of criticism.

Simple reality is, if all anyone ever does is praise what they like it becomes white noise. People will tune it out. I've seen those criticism leveled against many well-known contributors to our genre ("Harriet Klausner's never read a book she didn't love"). Harriet's just an easy one to pick on - there are others I know personally who've come under fire with the same accusation.

Nobody takes HK's reviews seriously because a) the volume and b) they're always filled with praise. I don't see the value in volunteering my time if I'm not going to be taken seriously, and I do think that each individual reviewer - print, online or otherwise - creates their own level of credibility. The only thing that matters to me is whether or not I trust the reviewer, regardless of what format they review in. If I feel someone always attacks personally, I'll ignore them as readily as someone who loves everything and therefore doesn't seem to have discriminating taste.

As much as it's nice to consider author feelings, the reality is that reviews are for readers, and too much consideration of how the author would feel will lead to self censorship and a lack of honesty with the review that will only serve to undermine the reviewers credibility. There are ways to make valid criticism without being insulting, and as a writer I have to swallow my pride when I get notes from my agent, my editor or the marketing team and they raise legitimate questions. And sometimes, things slip by all of us and then a casual reader will raise a great question. The minute I'm not willing to learn is the minute I'll stagnate as a writer, but I'm not going to learn if people withhold valid observations because they're afraid of how I feel. I can let personal observations that aren't justified slide, and that's what authors have to learn how to do. It's our job to handle our feelings - not a reviewer's.

Anonymous said...

When someone puts their work out there, regardless of the form, and wants people to experience their work (as is the case with books), they must be prepared for the reactions -- whether they're expressed in newsprint, on blogs, at book readings, etc. These artists are not passive victims. They entered the forum, got paid. ... Bloggers have just as much a right to criticize a book as does a newspaper reviewer. Being a former newsman myself, I can assure you these newspaper book reviewers aren't state certified or board tested, and no one I care about has anointed them worthy of reviewing books for the masses. To me, blogging is an important enabler of the decentralization and democratization of content/media.... Of course, a NY Times review means a lot more than a blog review so I think there's some fairness there. ... That said, I do choose to focus on the books I like, with one exception:
"Eat, Pray Love."

pattinase (abbott) said...

For me, I don't feel I have the credentials to be credible as a book reviewer. I didn't study literature and criticism at university, I don't have the proper historical context to fit books into; I have simply read, without discipline, what I've wanted to
read for forty years. Thus, in my case, even calling it a book review is misleading. What I do think is permissible is talking about my enjoyment of many books. I see what you mean about Harriet but I don't see myself as quite that celebratory or comprehensive.
I just talk about a book I've liked now and then.
I think a lot of "blogs" fall into this category. There are obviously zines and reviewing blogs (like January Magazine or SHOTS or SPINETINGLER which are quite different from a personal blog and I'm not really talking about them.

Greg-that's so funny. Why does that book raise everyone's ire? I have it on my shelf but it doesn't beckon.

Sandra Ruttan said...

The thing is, there are bloggers who review who are given industry credibility. To name a few who were on the list for arcs of my new book: Lesa Holstine - whose blog reviews are more extensive than her summary reviews to Bookbitch - and Declan Burke. The list for arcs from my publicist was an interesting split - the smallest section going to independent bookstores, and then the rest were pretty evenly split between online sources and print sources.

It tells me that some bloggers are achieving a level of credibility recognized by publishers. I don't think the question is whether or not bloggers should review anymore - I think the question is what makes the difference between a credible (industry recognized) blog reviewer and a casual blog reviewer.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I see where you're going and both of them do a great job. Lesa gives this site a review every week.
As I said up front, we are in new water here and it may take a while to sort it out. And older people on here are probably more tied to the ways of the past than the young ones. The main thing may be do keep a dialog going about what we're up to.

Anonymous said...

And then there are reviewers/bloggers who are also writers and their reviews might be tainted by what they might think those already in the industry can do for them. There are also writers afraid to leave some writer-bloggers out of their anthologies (or “top picks of” or E-zines or whatever) for fear of bad or non-coverage ... and I’m sure there are those who benefit with favorable coverage when some of those writer-bloggers are included in their anthologies, etc.

So it goes.

Leave it to the readers. Sooner or later they’ll figure it out on their own.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's clear from these comments that it's complicated issue for those trying to put out objective thoughtful reviews. What if you don't like that genre, for instance. Is it fair to review cozies if you can't name some you've liked? Or noir. Or, well, you get the point. What if you met the author at a conference and disliked him. Or liked her too much. So many things can influence a review.

Clea Simon said...

This is a great discussion. I do feel squeamish about blog reviews. As you've said, there are no qualifications, no requirements. When I review (I'm now writing for the Boston GLobe, Boston Phoenix, and San Francisco Chronicle), I try to read all the author's previous works and be up on their context and genre and be aware of their goals - otherwise I turn the assignment down. Also, I am required to mark all quoted passages with page numbers, so the editors can check that I quoted the book accurately and in context. When I used to review for the NYT (back when they had "books in brief"), it was clear that an editor had also read the book - and any outlandish claims would be questioned. That said, I now link to my published book reviews (when I can) on my book blog - - and I also chat about books, often letting authors guest blog. I figure this is a way to let people know about books and authors without committing to the rigor of a review.

Clea Simon said...

oops - meant to add that of COURSE everyone is entitled to share/air his or her opinion. But as far as taking blog reviews as seriously as published (and, thus, edited) reviews, well, it depends. Some reviewers (as you've noted: David Montgomery, Sarah Weinman, Lesa, etc.) now get respect because they've EARNED respect by writing well thought out, balanced reviews.

No. 1 point, I think, is that a review should talk more about the book than the reviewer's opinion. Give the reader your argument as well as your judgment, and support it with examples from the text. Then the reader can decide for him or herself if he or she will like the book – but will also have learned or at least enjoyed your review.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Clea-Sounds like you go to tremendous trouble to produce a review worthy of the best of books. It must be very time-consuming. Interesting to learn of your process. Thanks.