A reviewer on reviewing

by Nalini Haynes

In his essay ‘Say Goodbye to the Play-by-Play Book Review,’ Michael Bourne talks about changes in reviewing culture caused by the internet revolution. Michael argues that to merely give a synopsis and indicate if the book is worth reading is no longer valid; instead one must contribute what he considers to be something of significance to the online conversation. Michael says “… this will mean reviewers having the sense to shut up when they have an opinion about a book but have nothing to add to the conversation beyond whether they liked or didn’t like it.” While there is some validity in Michael’s argument, his sweeping statement seems arrogant.

Most paid reviews are written by men. A majority of their reviews are of books written by men. If Michael gets his way, a new wave of female reviewers will be silenced, effectively ignoring a diverse range of books while preventing this new wave from honing their craft by writing and publishing reviews, which process provides feedback. Michael lists some reviewers as good examples but includes only one female reviewer. Michael’s instructions to keep silent if you don’t have anything to add to the conversation is typical of the pontificating male demanding an audience from the admiring throngs of silenced women.

I agree that there is limited usefulness in a review that merely gives a synopsis and declares whether it’s good or bad BUT THERE IS USEFULNESS in this kind of review. Early reviews preceding or on the day of the book launch inform the multitude who haven’t read the book; has Michael forgotten the reason for ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies)? Even when the madding crowd is shouting their opinion, people want someone they can trust to give a considered opinion. How do I know if that rave review on Amazon is paid-for-advertising or from a friend of the author? I hear authors bitching ALL THE TIME about the lack of reviews in spite of sending out review copies: if you’re going to demand a high-falutin’ ESSAY from every reviewer for every book reviewed, you’re not going to have many reviews. And, as indicated previously, male reviewers tend to read books by men, so encouraging female reviewers to practice and hone their craft increases the range of books that will be reviewed in the public sphere.

Different people have differing expectations of book reviews; some want just enough information to decide if they’re going to enjoy it WITHOUT SPOILERS. I’ve read very short magazine-column reviews of books – like Bareback by Kit Whitfield – then purchased the book from overseas because it wasn’t available in Australia. I appreciate that review for linking me to an AWESOME fantasy book, my very first fantasy read that dealt with disability as a trope and did so brilliantly. I also thoroughly enjoy an essay as a review, exploring novels in more depth; for example, Evie Kendal has written a few of these for Dark Matter.   I listen to podcasts discussing books more than I actually read other people’s reviews. While I enjoy podcasts and will sometimes track down books discussed, at other times the books are spoilt beyond reading by the discussion. In short: there are horses for courses, different books for different people AND DIFFERENT REVIEWERS AND REVIEW STYLES for different people. Different review styles can result in different outcomes: too much depth can result in people enjoying the review but not reading the book.

 Dark Matter has a loyal and growing following who are increasingly interested in reviews. Interestingly, even authors are among those who come to the website to read reviews of their own books, there have been tweets! However, value-added posts tend to generate more views, which supports Michael’s assertion that reviewers need to provide more than a basic synopsis and opinion to capture attention. On Dark Matter, there tends to be more interest in a guest blog from an author writing on a particularly interesting topic than in reviews as a general rule. For example, Brian McClellan‘s guest blog on Researching Reality for a Fantasy World comes in at number 11 on the ‘all time’ [since the add-on was installed in mid-October 2012] top posts list. He’s certainly managed to spark my interest in his novel Promise of Blood even more effectively than with a good review.

One thing that Michael ignores is the short attention span of most people on the internet. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to READ a review AT ALL, they just want a star rating and they’re good to go. This attitude cuts the ground out from right under Michael’s feet.

There are millions of people on the internet with diverse tastes affecting their preferred styles of review. Encouraging diversity builds community while developing the contributors of tomorrow. To call for silence from other reviewers smacks of someone claiming the limelight for himself; any reviewer with an audience has a right to speak (with exceptions: hate speech etc). Too much information in a review can spoil a book so it won’t be read but ‘value-added’ posts may get more views: what is Michael assuming as the purpose of a review? Perhaps authors won’t want him to review their books in case their readership declines and readers won’t read his reviews due to spoilers.