On Reviews

I was originally going to open this post with the self-consciously provocative line “I’m going to let you in on a secret: I don’t write reviews” but, unfortunately, it’s literally true right now because I no longer have my old reviewing gig.

But there’s been a certain amount of discussion recently about readers, writers and the status of reviews, and some of it has left me a little confused. Reading other people’s posts on the subject it sometimes feels that when we talk about reviews we’re actually none of us talking about the same things.  I’ve read quite a lot about this over the past few months and it seems to me that there’s a vague sense of there being a “problem” somewhere, and a general feeling that some people are doing reviewing wrong, and that some of these people may be authors, or some of them may be bloggers but, to me, this misses something quite fundamental to the whole business which is that people can both write and read reviews for a variety of different reasons, all of which are valid.

I originally intended to start this post with “I don’t write reviews” because the reason I wasn’t inclined to think of the things I wrote as reviews had to do with the fact they didn’t do the sort of thing I, perhaps naively, was assuming that reviews are supposed to do, which is tell you if a book is good or bad. In fact I was often genuinely surprised when I got comments from people saying, “oh no, you tore apart my favourite author” when, as far as I was concerned, I’d written fairly balanced response to a book that I’d actually felt quite positively about. So, I suppose, if we’re going to have a discussion about reviews, we need to pick a working definition for what a review is and I’m inclined to go for the broadest one, which I would sum up as something like: a short piece of writing, discussing the features of a single book. Thus disqualifying myself immediately since, while my writing is many things, it is not short.

One of the things I think is coming out of the broader discussion is that there are several quite clear but quite different reasons people look for reviews, and several quite clear but quite different reasons people write them. At the risk of way overthinking this, I’m going to try and come up with some categories.

  1. Recommendations / Discommendations
  2. Critical analysis
  3. Community
  4. Hierarchy

I think, roughly speaking, these four subheadings can categorise both reasons for writing a review and reasons for looking for one, and what’s interesting is that people will often a find review useful for reasons that are different from the reasons for which it was originally written. For example, I know some people have decided to read, or not to read, books on the basis of some of my articles.

I should stress I’m very much making this up as I’m going along but I thought I’d talk a little bit about these different reasons for reading or seeking reviews.

1. Recommendations / Discommendations

My assumption, up until I started thinking about this, was that recommendation / discommendation was the primary function of a review. That fundamentally you write a review to say whether a specific book is good or bad, and you read a review to decide whether or not to buy that specific book.  I’ll talk about this more later when we get down to hierarchies but one of the things I’ve noticed people mentioning is the idea that if you only write positive reviews, this lowers the value of those reviews. I think that’s very true if you see reviews as hierarchy (see later) but not if you see them merely as sources of recommendations or discommendations.

There’s quite a well-known psychological trick, or quirk, by which people will overly value things when they are compared to things that are similar but less good. There’s a famous example that’s used in business textbooks in which, I think, The Economist found that sales of their print publication were falling and so they increased the price of their print subscriptions so that the cost was the same as the combined print and online subscription, meaning that people who would previously have bought just the online subscription switched to buying print and online because they felt like they were getting the online subscription “for free.”  This really worked. They really did this.

People often like to feel not merely that they are getting something that they want but that they are getting something that is better than the alternatives and this is, in the technical, economic theory sense, irrational.  If the only choice I have to make is whether or not I will like a book, I do not need to know what any given reviewer thought of any other book. I only need to know what they thought of this one. Obviously I’m not suggesting it is wrong that readers do not always behave in the way that my very amateur understanding of economic theory suggests rational consumers should behave. But I was actually genuinely surprised to realise how many people feel that a positive review only has value when set against negative ones.

From the point of view of the reviewer, a recommendation or a discommendation, as opposed to a hierarchy, is designed to be exactly that: a recommendation that someone does or does not read a particular book. From the point of view of the recommending or discommending reviewer, the context of each review stands alone and, while that reviewer may have a policy of publishing only positive reviews or, indeed, only negative reviews, each review fulfils its own purpose by its own standards.

In a strange way, this is sort of like the Michelin Guide. Michelin stars represent a good restaurant. All Michelin reviews are, ultimately, positive reviews. This clearly doesn’t mean that André and Édouard Michelin wrote puff pieces.  Sometimes all a reviewer wants to do is tell people about books they like.

Interestingly, the recommendation-seeking reader does not necessarily connect well with a recommending reviewer. I have myself been put right off books by glowing reviews and, indeed, been persuaded to read books by terrible reviews. Because sometimes you will read a one star review and just say “wow, you so totally did not get what this was about.” And sometimes enthusiastic reviews will praise things that you personally hate.

I’m not certain but I think recommendation-seeking readers will gravitate towards recommending reviewers whose tastes they share and whose opinions they have come to trust. And I strongly suspect that this will occur regardless of the overall balance of reviews provided by the reviewer.  If someone who I know likes the same things as me likes something then I can be pretty sure I’ll like it, even if they only ever tell me about things they like.

2.  Critical Analysis

Critical analysis is sort of what I self-define as writing. Critical reviewers are interested in talking about books in detail and aren’t necessarily interested in the more abstract questions of whether a book is good or bad, or the more practical questions of whether you should actually buy a book or not. At the risk of sounding biased, I tend to think that critical reviews are the reviews in which there’s most overlap between readers and reviewers, in the sense that people who look for critical reviews are interested in reading about books in detail. Obviously, the sorts of details that a reviewer thinks worth talking about may not be the sort of things a reader thinks worth reading about but everyone is hopefully on the same page.

Despite the unfortunate connotations of the terminology, a critical reviewer – at least as I am considering it – does not necessarily have to write negative reviews and, indeed, to the critical reviewer the concept of a positive or negative review is very much secondary. Despite the other unfortunate connotation of the terminology, when I talk about critical analysis, I don’t really mean that in a formal academic sense. Absolutely anybody can write critically about fiction. All you have to do is want to.

The other thing I very much think critical reviewing is not, is an intrinsically authorly way of looking at texts. I’m kind of thin ice here because I am, of course, an author in my own small way and I do self-define as looking at texts critically, but I consider these two things to be wholly unrelated. I absolutely don’t think being an author makes me better at writing critical reviews and I don’t particularly think writing critical reviews makes me a better author – and, even if it did, it wouldn’t be why I did it.

3. Community

Another, often overlooked, benefit of reading and writing reviews is the sense of belonging to a wider community of readers and reviewers. I sometimes find that I am actually more inclined to read a review of a book if I have read it already than if I haven’t. Part of the pleasure of reading a review is simply finding out what other people thought about a book you have read.

In a lot of ways, community-focused reviewing overlaps strongly with critically-focused reviewing and, as I think I have said many times, part of what I used to enjoy when I was writing my reviews was the opportunity to talk about the books I was reading. Where I think the two are distinct is that critically-focused reviewing can be quite a detached process, aiming to break a text down for the purposes of understanding it (or understanding one’s own reaction to it) whereas community-focused reviewing can (but does not necessarily have to) embrace unabashed love or hatred.

I suspect that a lot of the time, blogs or websites that only post positive reviews (or that only post negative reviews of which the most obvious are specific “sporking” sites) are simply Community-focused rather than Recommendation or Hierarchy focused (as I mentioned above, I’m not sure that “positive” or “negative” are terms that really make sense when applied to critically-focused reviewers). If your purpose in writing a review is not to tell people which books to seek out and which to avoid, but instead to connect with people who like or dislike the same books that you do, a range of ratings isn’t really helpful. Of course, ironically, a community-focused review site or blog may wind up being more helpful for recommendation-seeking members of that community than a recommendation-focused site or blog, because if you already know that people share your tastes their recommendations are going to carry more weight with you.

I should add that I was a little reticent about adding “community” as a specific category on this list for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was a bit concerned that it might sound condescending (oh yes I review critically but you just like to have your preconceptions confirmed) and secondly because “community” is, almost by definition, a feature of all interactions. In the end I left it on the list for two reasons.

Firstly, I felt that squeeing and sporking are two legitimate functions reviews can have, but which don’t really fall under any of my other categories, and I wanted to include them under my broad definition of what reviews can do. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to highlight the value and importance of the Community function of reviewing. A good community-focused reviewer or blog can create a space where people feel safe, included and supported, and that can be invaluable.

4. Hierarchy

I left this one until last because, as I think I’ve said above, I was genuinely confused by people suggesting that a review is less valid if it does not allow for direct comparison with other books. So, basically, I’ve sort of taken the rest of this article to get my thoughts in order.

To oversimplify dramatically, in education there are two different ways you can mark exams: criterion marking and cohort marking. Criterion marking is when you say if a student gets eighty percent on this exam they get an A, if they get seventy percent they get a B, and so on. Cohort marking is when you say if a student finishes in the top twenty percent of their cohort, they get an A, in the top thirty prercent they get a B, and so on.  Both of these approaches have their difficulties. Criterion marking causes problems because, in reality, exams aren’t exactly comparable, and what do you do if one exam is easier than another? Cohort marking has effectively the same problem except for the students. If you’re in a particularly bright year, you might finish in the bottom fifty percent of your group, despite having done better in the exam than somebody who finished in the top fifty percent the year before.

In discussions of criterion versus cohort marking, there are two things to consider. The first is what controls best for variation between years. Is it more likely that the exam was easier or that the students were smarter? The second, and more complicated, is what you think exams are for in the first place. An attitude I find profoundly troubling when it comes to education (and book reviews are not education, they are – as much as I love fiction – much less important) is the notion that the purpose of an exam is to distinguish the “best” students from the “worst” students, rather than to accurately reflect what an individual student can actually do.

Perhaps I’m over-generalising but this is broadly why I’m so inclined to see book reviews as being about recommendation rather than hierarchy. Perhaps I’m just reacting against growing up in a country with a rigidly stratified class system but I’m made quite uncomfortable by the idea that it is inherently worthwhile to rank things from “best” to “worst” rather than merely to judge them on their own merits.

To bring this all back to where it started, this is basically the reason I don’t put ratings on my own reviews.

Having said that, as I’ve got older I’ve increasingly adopted the policy of assuming other people aren’t just being stupid, and if people think it’s important to do something, there are probably sensible reasons for it.

Again, I think it basically comes down to economics. If you are trying to decide whether to acquire something, you need to know how much it is worth. But worth is ultimately arbitrary. And, in fact, contrary to what I said in my comments on recommendation-focused reviewing, there’s an extent to which value only can be ascribed relative to something else. The only way to really know if book A is better than book B by an individual person’s assessment is to get them to answer the question “would you rather read book A or book B?” In this sense, hierarchies are a valuable tool.

I wonder, incidentally, if the reason I feel recommendations are more useful to me than hierarchies is that I am – at the risk of straying onto rather vulgar subject matter – relatively comfortable materially speaking and do not have an overwhelmingly large amount of books I want to read. Essentially, I am never actually going to be placed in a position where I have to choose between reading one of two books. I can always read both. If I was either less financially secure or read more widely than I do then I’d have to start making actual comparisons between books, as opposed to simply asking myself “do I read this book or do I do something else with my time and money?”

Obviously I don’t want to speculate about the motivations of people who approach reading fundamentally differently to me, but I suspect if you see reviews primarily as a means of choosing between very large numbers of books, all of which, on some level appeal to you equally, an absence of bad reviews is a real problem because it simply denies you data with which you could otherwise make a choice. I mean, you could take a “no news is bad news” policy and assume that a book which has received five positive reviews is necessarily better than one which has received three, but that probably involves more admin than most people are comfortable doing in their leisure time.

A tiny part of me, however, does worry – and I should stress I say “worry” only in the sense that it’s contrary to the way I like think about the world – that people also feel the value of a full spectrum of reviews is that it allows a consensus to be built around what the “good” and “bad” books are. And, for me personally, this just isn’t particularly useful.

Obviously my intent here is not to define the terminology for talking about reviewing, or pass value judgements on anybody based on the way I perceive them as reviewing or responding to reviews. I’m just laying my thoughts out in a row, trying to work out what I actually think about this stuff. And, obviously, I’m in no way suggesting that people only ever review or read reviews for one of the above four reasons.  For a start, I’m sure people have motivations that don’t really fit into any of my categories and, on top of that, people do things for different reasons on different days. In defence of my rambling, I think what I’m trying to articulate here is the idea that it’s important to realise that what makes a review good or useful depends very much on what you’re looking for from it. Sometimes I will go to a review to find out if I should buy a book, often I’ll go to review to find out what somebody else thought of a book I’ve already read, and quite frequently I’ll read reviews because I know in advance that the reviewer shares my opinion and is likely to write about it entertainingly or insightfully.

You might have noticed that, over the last three thousand words, I’ve nimbly managed to avoid the question of authors writing reviews. And this is simply because I don’t believe authors are in any way different to anybody else. To me, asking whether authors can reviews book is kind of like asking if bus drivers can review books. I don’t believe authors have a unique insight into literature or a more authoritative take on the genre. I don’t even think authors are more likely than bloggers or reviewers to have personal relationships with the authors they write about. One of the things Kaetrin mentions in her post on this subject is there are some authors she talks to on Twitter but she doesn’t think that this compromises her as a reviewer because it doesn’t really constitute a relationship. And I would suggest the same is true of, say, me. The only mild difference between authors and non-authors here is that authors are more likely to have specifically professional relationships with other authors than most small bloggers are. Although even then it’s hard to know where to draw the line. I was recently poking around Love Vampires because I do, in fact, love vampires. And I noticed they’d done an interview with JR Ward. They also, for what it’s worth, love her books. Should I not trust their reviews of the Black Dagger Brotherhood because they have a relationship with the author and, for that matter, a bias in favour of vampires?

Obviously I can only speak for myself and, perhaps I’m in a minority, but I tend to decide for myself whether to “trust” a particular review or not. And, to me, even the notion of “trusting” a review is slightly odd because, as I’ve just rambled about at some length, all trusting a review can really mean is trusting you will get out of the review the thing you wanted to get out of the review which may not even be the thing the reviewer was writing the review for in the first place.


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