Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘reviews’

Am I Killing Literature?

My purview is not reviewing books. As far as I know, I haven’t reviewed any books on my blog as of yet. For one thing, it’s not really my area of expertise, and  when I read for pleasure I’m not really evaluating a book for its literary quality. I do enough reading and evaluating of writing at my work and in my courses. When I do get time to read a book, I’m not spending time reading it as a writer; I’m reading it as a reader. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll try to explain the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. When approaching a text, I’m of the opinion that you can read it through several different lenses. The main two for me are as a reader and as a creative writer (I also read as a copyeditor and as a peer tutor, but those are nitpicky subsets that aren’t really at issue right now). Reading as a reader is what we all learn in high school: looking for symbolism, reading for themes and motifs, identifying figurative language and other literary goodies. Reading as a reader is what most undergraduate lit students focus on: evaluating the text merely from the end product, not the process of producing it. Writing majors look down on lit students sometimes, because we snobbishly think, “That’s not that difficult. I learned how to do that as a freshman in high school. Big deal.” Of course, reading literature as a reader well and truly analyzing it at a high level is incredibly difficult, so I do not mean to discredit the work of literary scholars. But writing majors get stuck up because reading as a writer takes a whole different skill set, and usually when reading a piece, you have to read it as a reader and as a writer, which is usually why when I’m reading a piece for a creative writing workshop, I read it twice. First, I read as a reader to get comprehension and get that out of the way. Then I read it again as a writer, looking for how the writer crafted the piece and how well he or she did it. I usually ask myself, “What is the writer trying to do, and how well is he or she doing it?” I look for how well they structured the piece, how well the language works, if the rhetoric fits, if the diction works, and so on. Reading as a writer takes a certain level of maturity, because you can’t evaluate a text on whether or not you personally like it, but whether or not it’s written well.

When I was an editor for eleven40seven, the acquisitions staff often hit these snags about personal opinion versus literary evaluation. One of the editors on staff was quite opinionated, but she could not back up her opinions with, “Well the literary allusions he/she employs are trite and cliché” or “The structure of the piece is too confusing and convoluted to effectively tell the story.” She simply would stubbornly put down her foot and say, “I hate this piece. We are not publishing this if I have anything to say about it.” The result was that the whole acquisitions process was like pulling teeth, and we all ended up hating each other. That’s besides the point. The main issue became persuading this editor that we didn’t give a damn whether or not she personally liked it; she needed to support her opinions with commentary and how well the piece was written. I recognized that some of the pieces I really enjoyed were actually not all that good–I merely identified with the subject matter or was in a good mood when I originally read it, so I backed off when no one else liked it.

Wow, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, if I’m going to review a book, I’d review it as a writer, not a reader, and that takes more time and brain power than I’m willing to give. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I loved it. It was a whodunit where my jaw literally dropped when I realized who had committed the murders. I think I might have actually said under my breath, “Oh. My. God.” while eating dinner at my kitchen table. But I’m not going to review it, because I read through it at lightning speed because I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to be able to give a well-reasoned argument on why it was good. I loved it as a reader, but I couldn’t tell you if the book had merit from a writer’s perspective.

So, I’m not a reviewer of books, but I’m a blogger. I don’t have great credentials just yet. I’ve been published, and I’m just a couple months away from receiving a BA in Writing from Texas Christian University, but apart from that, I can’t provide any solid reasons why anyone should listen to what I have to say about literature apart from the fact that I love to read and that I’ve spent the past three years honing my craft and reading works from a literary standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint, from an acquisition editor’s standpoint, from a copyeditor’s standpoint, and from a writing tutor’s standpoint. That’s a lot of perspectives, but I don’t work at a publishing house, and the only awards I’ve gotten for my writing have come from TCU. I don’t have ethos, as a rhetorician might say.

However, I still took offense when reading this article about how book bloggers are harming literature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a book blogger himself, is of the opinion that the mass of online opinion about books is damaging to the literary world. Stothard claimed, “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics…then literature will be the lesser for it. There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion….If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed. Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”

Apparently, there are snobs toward the snobs such as myself. If I go ahead and start reviewing books, I’ll just be white noise in the buzz of literary criticism,  and I realize that, which is part of the reason I abstain. But I think there is a lot to be said for people going online and saying what the they think about books, even if they are not credentialed reviewers. For one thing, literary critics may have the literary background to give sound, well-argued opinions, but I like to hear what “regular people” are saying about books. If I find many favorable reviews online, I’ll probably discount a few as paid for by the author, but I have to believe that at least one or two are the real deal. And I like knowing that real, live people, not just regular reviewers, are liking and reading the book I’m considering sinking my teeth into. Although I’m a bit of a snob of people being able to read like writers, I think that anyone who reads a lot can get a feel for whether a book is worth reading or not, even if they can’t clearly articulate why.

I think that the practice of online book blogging should be encouraged and definitely should continue. If there are people out there who are still passionate about reading and recommending books, then we should celebrate that. Simon Savidge fortunately disagreed with Stothard, saying, “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.” We should want people being so moved or annoyed by what they read to share it from the world or shout it from the mountaintops.

I’m going to keep blogging, because I love to read, and I love to write. If anything, bloggers are keeping the literary world alive and continuing to practice of loving literature.

 

Also, Banned Books Week is coming up! I’ll be having a post on whether or not YA books should have rating systems. Happy Banned Books Week in advance!!

Advertisements

The Title Tidal Wave

I am an odd mixture of idealist and cynic. I tend to think the best of people and believe them at face value (read: gullible) except for politicians, corporate executives, and celebrity gossipers. So imagine my surprise and horror at reading “Social Media Scamsters” by Laura Miller (full article can be found here: http://www.salon.com/2012/08/09/social_media_scamsters/). Apparently–and this never occurred to me for some inexplicable reason, authors will hire companies to write fake reviews: “In addition to services that will churn out fake five-star Amazon ‘reader’ reviews for a fee, an author can hire a company to produce his Twitter feed, faking a relationship with his fans (if he has any to begin with) in a medium that once promised a form of direct contact.” I was disillusioned. Why? Because I trust reader reviews and use them as a way to find new books to read. As Laura Miller’s friends agreed together, “‘You always have to read the reader reviews first, before you buy anything…'” Unfortunately, this was my approach, too. I would see a title in a magazine or a bookstore and then look it up online to see what other readers were saying. I don’t necessarily go to traditional reviewers from newspapers, because I’m at the whim of the personal opinions of the reviewer. I went for breadth rather than depth, quantity rather than quality, for my reviews. Browse through the reviews, see what they say, buy or not buy. A fairly simple process. Now I’m not so sure who I can trust.

Part of the problem is that I struggle enough as is just narrowing down the huge flood of books that come out every week. Yes, we always have obvious frontrunners appearing at the big display when we walk into the bookstore (but is based on the actual quality of the book or the size of the marketing budget?), and the New York Times bestseller list can give us a few suggestions. But the sheer volume of publication is staggering–not only do we have the titles from the dozens (if not hundreds) of publishers pouring out on every subject in every style, we also face the river rapids of self-published works. I don’t even know where to turn anymore or where to begin. I walk into a bookstore and feel almost paralyzed by the options. And online retailers are no longer very helpful. Unless you know the exact title and author of the book you’re searching for, online booksellers are fairly useless. For one thing, Amazon sells much more than books, so their welcome page is cluttered with ads for other items based on the cookies that your computer has accumulated. And believe you me, these cookies can be wildly inaccurate. I recently looked up what Google guessed about my interests, gender, and personality based on what I had browsed on the Internet, and apparently I’m a 65-year-old woman who enjoys hip-hop and the urban music scene.

Another problem with these recommendations is that they’re based on subject matter, not style. And Amazon also gives recommendations based just on what you’ve searched, not what you’ve actually bought. For example, I looked up a bunch of Western philosophy books for market research for a book I’m content editing, and now I have a bunch of recommendations for philosophy and metaphysics. Rather than giving me similar titles based on style, syntax, or author, I end up with a list that isn’t tailored to my taste, just my interests. Amazon lacks the sophisticated tools of recommendations in other media: Pandora, the online music radio, has devised a music “genome” so that the music it generates for you is based on over 2,000 focus traits such as syncopation, key, harmonies, etc. Amazon doesn’t provide suggestions based on the underlying features and architecture of the writing, just the superficial traits and characteristics.

Now I can’t even trust reviews. Stephen Leather, a British author, admitted, “‘As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself.'” Of course, you can sift through the many reviews from Publishers Weekly an mainstream newspapers, and a simple search of the book title plus “review” can yield some helpful search results.

I was talking to my boyfriend about this problem I have in finding new stuff to read. I feel so overwhelmed by the vast number of titles appearing weekly that I don’t know where to begin. As he has a BFA in film, I asked him why it seems so much easier to find movies you might like over books you might like. First, I mentioned that there’s no one reliable site for books like Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Yes, you can read the NY Times review, but again, that’s only one reviewer. Rotten Tomatoes is the consensus of hundreds or thousands of reviews. Yes, of course, some people could generate false reviews, but the number of people reviewing a movie far outweighs the number of people appearing on forums and reviewing books. You get a better picture of the quality of the movie because you have more input that might drown out the false reviews.

Second, the number of movies that are readily available to the public is much fewer than books. Yes, hundreds of movies come out a year, but the ones that appear in most movie theaters are limited. There’s a smaller selection, whereas books come out in the dozens from large publishers all yelling into the foray, creating white noise where reviews and recommendations once lived. This leads me to my third point that finding a possible movie to watch takes less time than checking out a book. Serious book browsers have to take the time to open the book, read the inside flap, then the first few pages to see if they like the subject and style. This process can take anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes. By contrast, movies come out in clips and trailers that usually last no longer than 2.5 minutes and require less brain activity to process. Also, these trailers are ubiquitous: on YouTube, on TV, in movie theaters. Books don’t receive the same level of advertising.

There are of course some similarities between the two media. Books are often sold based on author, just as movies are advertised based on director and/or the actors featured in the film. Yet, there are relatively few authors who have attained this household-name celebrity status–the first few that come off the top of my head are Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and so on. And these authors primarily write fiction. Try to think of three tremendously popular nonfiction writers. Can’t think of any? Me neither. Instead, books come out in mass quantities by lesser-known or new authors just trying to get a shout into the din.

When I walk into a bookstore or library, I’m at a loss. I don’t know which way to turn. I can trust the recommendation of a friend, check out what books are recommended by the staff, look at the featured titles on the display tables. But how am I going to know which book I will truly enjoy? At this point, I’ve decided that the best method is one of the oldest methods: guess and check. Pick a book up, read a few pages, then make a best estimate based on what I’ve read so far. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what I have. I’m currently hoping for an invitation from the new site Riffle (more info at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/52628-could-riffle-be-the-pinterest-of-book-discovery-.html) which seeks to whittle down the amount of people writing reviews for a more streamlined recommendation system. However, the site only admits users on invitation, so for now I’m out of luck.

No matter what method I use, I’m still an avid reader. I’ll never read everything. After all, there’s only so much you can consume. But perhaps it’s the journey of finding great books that makes the trip so worthwhile. You read good books, okay books, mediocre books, bad books until you find one that truly touches your heart and engages your mind. It gets a special place on your bookshelf and/or in your memory, because you have to read a few bad books to appreciate a truly spectacular one.

%d bloggers like this: