TIM HALLINAN ON THE NOT-SO-FINE-ART OF WRITING A BOOK REVIEW

When I read Tim’s post on the blog Murder Is Everywhere, I planned on writing a comment for this blog.  Then I realized that readers should have the benefit of reading Tim.

I appreciate seeing my name in a blog post from one of the best writers in the mystery/thriller genres.  I sent it to all my relatives.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Reviewing the Evidence

Time was, a writer put out a book, gritted his/her teeth, and waited first for the trade reviews and then (if he or she was lucky) reviews from the consumer press. Sometimes the reviews reaffirmed a writer’s faith that he or she had made the right career choice, and sometimes they made him or her long for a nice, undemanding life on an assembly line.

Good or bad, though we knew what we were going to get: a relatively brief, professionally written review by someone who had churned out enough of them to know it wasn’t an eighth-grade book report and that spoilers were a no-no. Occasionally, there was what everyone since Malcolm Gladwell calls an “outlier”: something off the general statistical curve, a review by someone who either just hated the book or gave it a rave. We all knew which kind of review we preferred, but we also understood the structure that produced them; reasonably competent people, under pressure and underpaid, sometimes exceeding expectations.

Now, though, we live in a strange new world. Print reviews are disappearing from print publications (and the publications are disappearing, too), and the ancient and occasionally admirable literary form called the book review is now being done overwhelmingly by amateurs.

In principle, this is fine with me. I’m actually more interested in what a mystery reader thinks of a book than I am in Michiko Kakutani’s opinion. But the new system is open to new kinds of abuse.

We’ve all seen books with the invariable two or three five-star ratings from people who may well be the author’s friends and family. These are often offset by a substantially larger number of one- and two-star reviews. Several writers have recently been outed for attempting to address that imbalance by opening multiple Amazon accounts solely to write five-star reviews for their own books. Some have even written such reviews under their own name, which strikes me as almost endearingly clueless.

More meretriciously, some assholes (sorry, but it’s the right word) have been creating multiple accounts in order to post one-star pans of books chosen for purely malicious purposes. These reviews are distinguished by their barely literate prose and by duplicating whole sentences from review to review. These damp squibs are so badly written they’d draw an F even on a low curve, but they also plagiarize each other. They’re the Amazon version of graffiti, and if I had my way the people who write them would have their fingers Superglued together so they’d have to type with their elbows.

At the other extreme, we now have book bloggers such as Beth Crowley and Jen Forbus who are both skillful and responsible, by which I mean that they understand what it takes to write a book and never sink to the level where they use someone’s year of work as a straight line for a wisecrack. These people are becoming an indispensable part of a traditional publisher’s game plan.

Writing a book is a risky activity. We sit all alone for six months to a year, nursing an idea in the wholly subjective belief that it’s branching out and assuming a kind of structure, that it might eventually be something that someone, somewhere, might want to read. And then it comes out and some twit who probably couldn’t spot the verb in STOP HERE squishes it with something he/she thinks is clever. And I don’t care what the other reviews say, most writers’ first reaction to a negative review is, “busted at last” because almost all of us feel like pretenders.

All writers really want is uncritical adoration. But we’ll settle for a fair shake. Generally speaking, I think the preponderance of amateur and semi-amateur reviewers is probably as good a sifting mechanism, or even a better one, than the old meritocracy of professionals. So now, with THE FEAR ARTIST coming out in a couple of weeks, I’m in the familiar state of suspended animation to see whether people like my new baby.

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