American Culture

Angry bards and Amazon reviewers…

In which one author tells another, to paraphrase one well known critic, nothing can please many nor please long but representations by the general public…

One hopes book reviewers read the books they review (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In a recent New Republic essay, author Jennifer Weiner takes author Margo Howard to task. Weiner’s reason for castigating Howard? Howard seems to have reacted negatively to some of the reviews she received on Amazon.

Okay, stop laughing at the Weiner’s intentional or unintentional disingenuousness and bear with me as we discuss this.

Weiner’s contention is that Howard’s cries of foul because some of her Amazon reviewers write misguided, perhaps even stupid or malicious reviews, are condescending and passé. She points to evidence that seems obvious – some of those who started book blogs have become mainstream book reviewers writing for publications such as The New York Times Book Review. She also notes that mainstream media book reviews can write misguided, perhaps even stupid or malicious reviews of books that they don’t understand – or like. So, Weiner contends, Howard needs to suck it up and understand that in the Brave New World of the Internet and the gifted amateur, we have real democracy and the opinions of Amazon reviewers should be suffered in the same way as the opinions of book reviewers at The Times. 

Well, maybe.

As I’ve noted above and again here, reviews at Amazon (and at Goodreads, BookLikes, and other “open” review sites) can be fake, can be written misguidedly, can be malicious. Howard’s reaction is human and believable; given that all of these sites have advice for authors concerning how to respond to bad reviews, it should be clear that a standard expectation for any author whose work appears on these sites (and any writer who wants readers – that would be all writers, methinks – has their work appearing on these sites) should expect that some reviews will be negative.  Weiner makes a solid point that Howard’s “Who do these people think they are criticizing my work?” attitude is condescending and misinformed.

But Weiner’s defense of book bloggers and “Amazon reviewers” has to be taken with a grain of salt. Despite the overwhelming noise that the Internet makes claiming that everyone is entitled to a critical opinion and that all opinions offered are equally valid, a couple of doubts seem worth expressing. The first is this: in many cases, reviewers, whether casual Amazon contributors or seriously committed book bloggers, are not widely read, nor do they have any training in critical reading. By this, I do not necessarily mean trained in literary criticism. I simply mean that reviewers seem to have little or no training in critical analysis of any kind (this is the reason colleges have spent the last couple of decades bewailing their students’ lack of critical thinking skills that are transferable from one field to another, and have tried to stem the tide of ignorance about critical enquiry in which we are more and more engulfed with, at best, indifferent success). Equally as problematic, it becomes apparent to anyone who cares to go randomly peruse book blogs, is this: many, many book bloggers tend to be sadly narrow in their reading pursuits. For example, they only read YA – and usually only a specific genre of YA such as paranormal romances like Twilight. Such limited reading may give one expertise in the nuances of one subgenre of books; what it does not do is give one any credibility as a book reviewer of breadth of knowledge. Maybe breadth of knowledge no longer matters.  But doesn’t it seem as if it should?

This may sound condescending, but I beg to differ. To paraphrase Sir Francis Bacon, reading makes one “full” – of information of all kinds. Reading a wide range of work, both fiction and nonfiction, gives one an appreciation of many kinds of writing (thus reducing the chance of misguided readings). Getting some training of some kind in critical thinking makes one better able to see how a writer succeeds and fails at the writing task attempted. These are not, nor should they be considered, elitist expectations. They are expectations anyone who values an educated society and rational discourse about books – which are the artifa cts of educated, rational societies should have.

So Weiner’s critique of Howard, while it is valid on one level (yes, the Internet has changed the nature of book reviewing and given voice to many more reviewers than the old mainstream media gateways ever would/could have), it ignores an important truth about this transitional period between old media and new: book reviewers need to develop their critical thinking skills and read as widely as possible if they want to contribute more than white noise to the literary discussion.

9 replies »

  1. I get how this can be infuriating. I like nothing more than the review and feedback of intelligent, informed, genuinely critical thinkers. And there is nothing I care less about than the opinions of those who do not know what the fuck they’re taking about.

    We have convinced everyone that how much they LIKE something is a legitimate reflection of its QUALITY. So if I don’t like a book, it must suck. Can’t be because I didn’t pay attention in class. Can’t be that taste and critical faculties are different things.

    Personally, I know that there are a lot of things I like that are not great. There are things I dislike that I know, intellectually, are very worthy. The Beatles are the greatest band ever, but there are many bands I LIKE more.

    Elitist? Yes. Yes I am.

    • Sam, as long ago as the late 18th century Hugh Blair pointed out that our ability to make aesthetic judgments is colored by our likes and dislikes of whatever sort work we are considering – artistic or rhetorical. What he argued for was our making sure that we saw the aesthetic quality of works even if we didn’t like them. He (and many others) set out reasonably agreed upon criteria for making aesthetic judgments that moved us past mere liking/disliking.

      That’s not elitist – it’s rational to use criteria to make judgments. What we have now is a culture that believes (or has been trained to believe) it wants purely emotional responses to serve as our only criterion. By such criteria whatever pleases the mob is considered good.

      What is scary is that when cultures revert to this method of making aesthetic judgment, they are inevitably spiraling downward.

  2. I always thought of book reviewing as one person’s ‘opinion’ about another person’s work, basically. Lousy punctuation, which I have problems with, still, poor grammar, and trite sentences all speak for themselves. However, when I seek a book review, the primary question I seek answered are these: Was my book enjoyable? Did you like the Storyline? Did my book hold your attention? Could you identify with my characters? Was my book predictable?

    Everything else can be fixed, but if the story isn’t worth reading to begin with, why bother fixing anything?

    • Saying “I like this book” and “this is a good book” are two very different things. The problem is people who can’t tell the difference. If you review a book and tell me why you like it, that’s cool. I might like it, too, and for the same reasons.
      But when your review confuses your taste with informed critical analysis, we have a problem.

      Sadly, I just described most Americans.

        • Given the state of publishing today, Mike, you have won a prize in the lottery. Not PB, of course, but a nice Pick 3 or something… 😉

          Seriously, it’s fine to like bad books – or to dislike good ones. What one would like to see is the ability, sadly lacking in too many, it seems, to assess whether a book has merit without “I like it” being the sole criterion for quality assessment.