Saturday, 4 April 2015

Book Critics - What Are They Good For? Absolutely Nothing!



At last, someone (Professor Michael Luca) has come out and said what we've always known: there is absolutely no difference in the quality and accuracy of a book review by an 'ordinary' reader on Amazon, and a professional book critic. Moreover (and we all knew this, as well) critics were more likely to praise a book when the author was well-known/a prizewinner/had garnered press-coverage/ was connected to some media outlet.

I am leery of reviews, whoever writes them, ever since Dark Side of Midnight was compared unfavourably on Amazon to a certain well-known children's writer in the same field. This happened so many times, that the words 'stitch-up' came to mind. I have also read reviews of books by writers whom I know share the same publisher/agent. Or where some personal spat is being used to exact revenge.

The fakery of the 'professional' critic was no more clearly exposed than when Robert Galbraith, crime fiction writer, whose first novel had been rather indifferently received, was exposed as J K Rowling. Cue for more 5 star plaudits than you or I have had hot dinners. And it is always ironic when Sunday Review sections ask writers to suggest their summer/Christmas best reads how often the same old familiar authors appear in different papers. No money or favours have been proffered ... of course not.

Both my Victorian Crime novels have garnered a slew of 'ordinary' reader reviews on Amazon, veering from Five Star  'Best book ever' to One Star 'Didn't like it'. They've also had a couple of mainstream reviews in The Lady, The Mitford Society Magazine and similar publications. Honestly, if you switched reviews, you'd be hard put to tell who was 'the professional' and who 'the ordinary reader'. (Well, except in the case of the One Star people.)

Charlotte Bronte was equally sceptical. She wrote in 1850, over the sisters' decision to adopt the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell: 'We had the impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes used for their chastisement the weapon of 'personality' and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.'

Interestingly, when Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, Ellis Bell was praised for the strength and passion of 'his' tale. As soon as it was revealed, however, that 'Ellis' was in fact 'Emily', the reviewer slated the book as being 'odious and abominably pagan'.

Nul points, that critic.

22 comments:

  1. ...it’s good to see honest reviews which the author can recognise for that honesty... after a wee while, it becomes easier to spot those... but also as an author to take ANY review with a pinch of salt, as by definition, each review is merely sumb’dy’s opinion... to which, I say, if they’ve spent money buying yer WURK, they are totally entitled to have... I don't have to agree with them! Mwaah :)

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    1. Totally agree.... and Amazon reviews are really for other writers. I never understand when writers go on social media and weep and wail about aa bad review. Suck it up! Plus, it only draws attention to it. My one stars sit forlornly at the bottom of the pile ..clearly saying what they are.

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  2. Great post, Carol, and I didn't know that about Wuthering Heights, although as it's my all-time favourite book, perhaps I should have! Incredible. Lately an 'insider' told me some very interesting stuff about how new books suddenly appear at No.1 on the bookshelves at supermarkets or as 'Richard and Judy' recommended reads - interesting but demoralising. Hey ho! Onwards and upwards and I'll take a genuine reader review over the spin any day - even the 1 or 2 stars have proved useful to me as a writer (when criticism is constructive) and good writing will eventual rise - fingers crossed!

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    1. ALL these R&J or front of house at Waterstones books have been paid for out of the publisher's publicity budget. End of. This is why you never see small Indy or self pub books.....no publicity budget. When I was with OUP, I was told that they weren't going to bother with my 3rd book, as they'd decided to spend all the money on another well-known childrens' writer. I left.

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  3. I suppose the one thing that can be said for media reviews is that they have, at least, read the whole book. I have review from someone who suggested I spent all my time in Nepal shopping - and so had clearly not read it!

    Publishers have been doing deal with newspapers and booksellers for decades - maybe that is highlighted now with the proliferation of amazon etc reviewers - I hope the old-boys' network (and they are almost all boys) is getting a bit of a shake up, along with the rest of the publishing industry,

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  4. A review is just someone's opinion, that's all. And who better to give their opinion than the reading public, who have no axe to grind! If anything, their reviews are MORE valuable. So yes, I agree with you. I disagree, however, that Amazon reviews are for the writers. I have, many times, heard (read!) people say that they bought a book of mine, or of others, on the strength of its reviews, or on a review I have written - if I thought the purpose of the review was just to stroke a writer's ego, I wouldn't bother to write them. I always read the reviews before I buy a book and yes, I've sometimes decided not to click that 'buy' button if there are a few that outline the same weakness in a book. Totally agree what you said about writers weeping and wailing because they get a bad one - what, so someone doesn't think you're marvellous? Get over it! Aside from anything else, you can learn something from their comments.

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    1. Ah. Don't think I said reviews were for writers ...they are often written by writers for their writer mates. Or mates for their writer mates - you can always tell those coz they never say anything other than ''this writer is fantastic.'' Reviews are, as you and I both agree, for readers to make up their minds. And like you,if I am in any doubt, I will read the reviews to see what others think.

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    2. Ah, sorry, I misunderstood you. This bit: "and Amazon reviews are really for other writers", in the reply to Seumas Gallagher. I agree that some are, which is why I wrote that article about authors reviewing authors!!!! Yes, they're really silly. I often see little groups of writers who ALWAYS give each each other 5* saying every single book is fantastic. Sorry, yer not fooling anyone!

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  5. It's all a bit disapointing really, is nothing real any more?
    Whenever I review a book, it is always with the aim of telling the writer how much I enjoyed their work. I have never approved of the so-called mean mouthed critics who love nothing better than to trash someones work.

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    1. sadly there are a lot of them. I have seen a fellow writer almost destroyed coz she dared to suggest Rowling should stick to kiddy fic and leave adult fic to writers who needed to earn a living. Her opinion, but it generated a HUGE slew of 1 Star reviews on both Amazon sites.

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  6. To quote the wonderful Brendan Behan ...."“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”

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    1. LOVE LOVE THIS!!!!!! Sums up the whole blog in one tart sentence

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    2. Totes correctly, Ms Gargoyle! Love it!

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  7. A really great post. Very sad that a lot of indie books don't even get a look in with regards to reviews or shelf placement. The world is being denied a great many wonderful books. And, I didn't know that about Wuthering Heights either and its also one of my fave books!

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  8. Good post, yesterday a publisher laughingly accused me of not writing a "professional" review to a level they expected to read in The New York Times, as a book lover who reviews book for free in my own time I have never committed to providing a professional service it reeks of payments in exchange for 5* reviews.

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    1. And isn't it tempting? I NEVER (or rarely) solicit reviews from mates ..for that very reason. And I've learned the hard way that if I review someone's book whom I know and give an 'honest' assessment, I will get slated and unfollowed.

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    2. Ha - there are a few writers with whom I share a mutual love of each other's work (I'm sure there's some tautology in there somewhere but I can't work out where), and in the past I've said, don't review my book yet or it will look as though we've done a review swap!!! Though we actually became friends because we like what each other does... I've found myself committed to reviewing books that don't really work for me now that I review for Rosie, and so try to make it as balanced as possible, by listing the things I like as well as the weaker points. So far I've only had found that a couple of people have said nothing at all to me, and in some cases still thanked me for my time - as any mature and reasonable person would.

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  9. When I was working in a bookshop, most of the stock (and a large proportion of the orders) were governed by what had appeared in the national press. We also received approaches from indie authors, but the proprietor was very reluctant to stock their books (no matter how good they were) except on the basis of sale or return. Sad but true.

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    1. And there you have it! Add this to the way the national press (often) uses biased or influenced methods to review..and the pool of ''interesting'' and ''original'' talent on mainstream bookshelves is becoming shallower by the year

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  10. Really interesting post Carol and loved reading through the comments as well! The reviewing game at the top end seems to me to be a sham anyway - give me an honest review from an actual reader any day and these stand out a mile on Amazon when you read through them.

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  11. Carol, I agree that the Amazon reviews are more honest and encouraging. The critics often tear works down to shreds and shake the writers confidence as a writer. And yes, both Emily Bronte and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) chose pen names for this exact reason. Lynn

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  12. As the inimitable Grumbler has said in one sentence….no seriously, I'm sitting here nodding at everything you've said in your post and in most of these comments too. Many reader reviews are very carefully considered, well written and honest, so just as valid as a professional's - if not more, as readers are not paid...

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