The OF Blog: Thoughts on a few blogger/reviewer-centric matters

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Thoughts on a few blogger/reviewer-centric matters

Now that the dust clouds are beginning to settle down from the past week's controversies surrounding who said what and how much was said about a pre-release book, time to stir it up again (only a little, I hope, since I really don't have the time during the work week) and explore a few interesting patterns I've noticed in the past few months.

The first thing I've noticed in the ease in which certain bloggers can be "demonized."  Since his name was never directly stated in the original post on Floor to Ceiling Books, a lot of the talk has been about Pat St. Denis of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.  Now I'm not a fan of some of his approaches to reviewing books and I certainly disagree with his political views (and have parodied that on several occasions), but I do feel that there was too quick of a reaction to attack him for posting initial thoughts on that WoT book.  Considering that the majority of those waxing eloquent and emotional about review "embargoes" were those who weren't even visible bloggers (if they even had a blog in the first place) when the previous volume of the WoT series was released last year, they probably didn't even consider that things might have been a bit different and that there might have been an assumption that things could be the same this time.  That's how I was able to misinterpret the request (for which I have said my piece earlier) and that's why I think Pat felt he could post what he did.  Regardless that I think his post was a bit too direct in a couple of places, I don't think it was as egregious of an error as some of the newbie bloggers have made it out to be.

The sad thing about this spectacle is that it opens up quite a few cans of worms.  Two of the more vociferous critics of this past affair, Amanda Rutter and Aidan Moher, have written columns/reviews that are hosted on Tor.com.  While Tor.com is a separate arm of Macmillan (who owns Tor/Forge, who in turn publishes the WoT series), there could be a sense of "impropriety" in which those criticizing the most are in fact those who have the most vested in others following the publisher's wishes.  I note this not because I believe either one to have this consciously in their minds, but to raise the question of the entangled nature of reviewing, online and print alike, and its relationships with publishers.

It can be very easy for an uninformed, casual reader of several blogs, websites, and Twitter/Facebook accounts to wonder if those sites (including this one, I suppose) are a bit too "close" to the objects of their posts.  Yesterday on Mark Charan Newton's blog, I wrote about a need for a "healthy distrust" (or "skepticism," which might be more apt). on the parts of reviewers (or critics, but since quite a few seem to despise that term for one of a reviewer's jobs, I'll just merely note that semantic tension and leave it for now) when it comes to reviewing books.  Too often, I read comments where some, usually newish or more obscure bloggers but not always, state that receiving review copies is a "privilege."  If that mindset is the dominant one, then no wonder why so many online review sites have problems with credibility beyond their inabilities to review at a greater depth than a fifth grade book report bolted onto a "feelings" summary that has a blurb stapled to it!

In an ideal world, reviewers would be equally likely to rip apart a book they receive from a publisher or author as they would a book they had purchased.  It doesn't happen.  There are some built-in biases and pressures.  I know I have to be extra careful in reading/reviewing books by people I consider friends of mine because I worry I'll be too forgiving of their books' faults when I read them.  Sometimes, I might in fact be harsher in my opinions of those books precisely because I'm trying to counterbalance any initial personal bias.  But even in these cases, some could rightfully question whether or not my own entangled webs affect the reading. 

There has to be some sort of distance.  It is almost a case of the speck/mote and the beam/plank in the biblical parable of things in people's eyes being pointed out here.  Some of the people criticizing others for their actions perhaps do not realize that their own positions are tenuous at best, based on the tricky relationships in which they find themselves.  But instead of pointing fingers at others and trying to account reiterations of "J'Accuse," perhaps it might behoove all of us to get our own houses in order, try to have as few ties as possible to the objects of review (unavoidable when one is working in other areas, like I have been over the past year with editing and translations), and focus more on correcting our own faults rather than pointing out the foibles others commit.  It has, after all, been a remarkable quarter year or so for backbiting in some quarters and I regret contributing to some of it.

14 comments:

gav (nextread.co.uk) said...

I really don't want this to turn into a pick on Pat post so I'll repeat when I said on Mark's post. You can't claim ignorance or business as usually when you start a post saying:

Okay, so I'm about 2/3 into Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight (Canada, USA, Europe). But you should know by now that there is an embargo on reviews, so I won't get to post mine until November 2nd.

And if you are seasoned enough to acknowledge an embargo and then reveal information you know that others don't because you have a copy of the book you are breaking the spirit/purpose of an embargo in my book.

Accidents happen but saying there is an embargo and posting about a book anyway just doesn't commute in my book.

Now lets look at distance.

It depends on what you want from your blog. Do you want to seriously examine the merits of a novel exploring the depths that the writer has gone to in order to create their vision or do you want to have fun and talk about exciting things like covers, new books, get books early and generally get to give an outlet for this book fetish you have?

You can do both but most serious examinations are only going to fully understood by people that have read the book and the other fun stuff is likely to excite other readers who share your choices and they are going to enjoy see you talking about books beyond the contents. As superficial as that is.

Now personally I want to give enough of a feel for a book, flaws included, without spoiling the experience, which can make a superficial examination but I think that if you follow a blogger long enough you get to see their tastes, biases and can see where you agree or not.

I've got a couple of examples when James Long praises something I have to remember he has a thing for Medieval History and that whole gritty fantasy thing - I don't - which will explain why I hate Twelve and he loves it (and why my review is harsh on it).

Paul Magrs and I do converge a lot on books but he's a huge Dr Who fan who loves Michael Moorcocks Terraphiles book and I didn't get it but I can understand why fanatics of both might.

But when I read their reviews I can see their knowledge passion and judgement. And I trust them in what they say and I know how my own views of the books we've both read match.

Now then that assumes that the usefulness of a blog is about the reviews themselves, which it isn't. I view a few blogs where I don't read the reviews but just take not of the books they mention as they seem to home in on books I miss and I can make my own decisions if it would be for me or not.

Now the passion thing for books extends, when you've been blogging a bit to getting offered things like free books, early info, interviews with those authors that you love. You do get to do things that normal fandom doesn't allow outside conventions or signings or festivals but those events are as welcoming in my experience and you get to meet authors and do the fan thing without all the other expectations that come when you stick up a blog and announce your expertise.

I've said for ages you should choose your critics (or in this case bloggers) wisely and most people can, after reading a few reviews of books they know, can spot those they don't get on with.

I'm sure everyone has different motivations for putting up post after post. Mine was when I started to see some the books I liked getting attention, which wasn't the case way back when, and now it's mostly the same.

You don't see me writing many paper-shredding reviews partly as I still don't like doing spoilers and sometimes it's the only way of explaining your problems with a book but mostly it's because I haven't been able to finish them.

It's a hobby and we want to be do things we enjoy mostly and writing negative reviews isn't that enjoyable.

This might not make us the best critics but it does make us feel better not having to do it.

gav (NextRead.co.uk) said...

A couple more things on distance.

The only reaction I get when I've posted negative review about a book from a publisher is 'I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it' - the publicists want to place a book with you because they want to to enjoy and promote it form that mindset. They tend not to send books you won't like.

And even then I'd feel odd critiquing a chiclit book as it's way outside my normal reading.

I'm not sure this whole thing is about 'he who casts the first stone' - it's more that there are a wider circle of bloggers and that they are all striving to stand out. And there is no better place than your blog for calling people out on stuff you disagree with.

At then end of the day - the bloggers I encounter are some of the most passionate people I know and I'd happily take recommendations off most of them and the book world is much happier place for them.

Larry said...

Gav,

A request (or "embargo") on reviews is different from mentioning vague impressions. If Pat wrote his reviews in a similar style to mine, then what he wrote wouldn't be anything near a formal review. However, I've already addressed that in passing at the beginning of this piece.

As for your comments on "distance," I'm referring to something else, more or less. I'm referring to someone's distance from the object being covered. There are times that I have "exclusive" information (although most of the time, I sit on it until I am ready to cover it), but I am not "distant" from it; I have a vested interest. For example, I had known for a month that Best American Fantasy was being discontinued when the official announcement was made, but I said nothing in public because I had a vested interest in it. I posted the "longlist" of stories that I had selected for guest editor Minister Faust to consider for his final selections because it was in the interests of those authors whose stories I had enjoyed and thought worthy of reprint publication to know that they had written something. Lack of "distance" isn't always a "bad" thing, but it certainly is something about which reviewers have to be honest if they are reviewing such a work.

In regards to being a "fan": I suppose one might be able to balance that with being a critic, but it has been my observation over the years that "fannish reviewers" mix those two separate elements together in ways that are detrimental to the subjects being covered. A lot of people like to criticize Pat for being "too close" to the industry without admitting to themselves that they do so many of the same things, albeit in less blatant forms, that they accuse him of doing. Sometimes, you just have to know when to rein it all in.

The "hobby" excuse can only carry one so far. I don't do this "just" as a "hobby" and that sort of excuse usually gets the brush-off from me after a while.

Aidan Moher said...

Larry,

While I understand your sentiments about the potentially incestuous nature between bloggers and reviewers, I don't really understand why you've drawn me into the embargo debate, especially as 'one of the most vociferous critics' of the hooplah. And, yes, I do blog for tor.com.

Besides a twitter post linking to Pat's article, a twitter comment to Sanderson's assistant that yes, I do believe Pat broke and embargo, a tongue-in-cheek comment on Pat's blog and two comments on Jeff's Genre Reader (confirming a a fact, with no personal opinion, and a comment thrown Pat's way telling him I feel like this is all a case of spilt milk), I've had almost no hand in the matter. Certainly I've not written anything in public about my stance (which is that the matter was best solved between Pat and Tor), as I just don't really think it's an issue worth my time. I'd rather go read a book.

I'm just surprised to continuously see my name brought up (here and in other comment threads), when there are others (Harry Markov, Amanda Rutter, Mark Newton, Yourself, Jeff, commentors on all those blogs), who've written at longer length and with more 'vociferous criticism' than I have.

Larry said...

Aidan,

Your name was mentioned because I wasted part of my Saturday afternoon "catching up" and seeing quite a few comments (as in more than a one or two off) on Twitter and the blogs you mentioned. That is a fair amount more than most of the others who just stated something once or maybe twice total.

The reference is not so much as to what you or Amanda said or even to where the two of you have posted as much as it was a mere "bridge" or transition from a specific point to a more general one about relationships. I've only glanced at Twitter in recent days and I did see where a few were upset by the explicit name references, which is odd, considering I have a tendency to refer to specific matters/people to address more general issues, with several of the most direct comments being directed to my ownself.

Aidan Moher said...

Ahh, I don't mind the reference in terms of the slow blending of bloggers with publishers (which is something that is going to be *very* interesting to watch over the next few years), just in relation to the latest St. Denis-gate.

Looking back through my twitter history, there were 3 tweets (not 2, as I had said) on the subject, over a span of maybe 5 minutes. If I've forgotten about other comments I've made, please enlighten me.

gav (nextread.co.uk) said...

Ah, got you.

Sorry went off into my own little world. It's a nice place surrounded by books.

It seems what you're saying is that we're being a little too personal on occasion and could do with being a little more closed and do things behind doors? Something you'd see in most professions?

You're probably right. Everyone likes to talk and social media is social at its heart. But it might be giving an impression that isn't indented or healthy.

Alec said...

For those that are interested, and in reference to Pat's post, I got this as a semi-official response from a Tor publicist.

"Regarding the embargo, there’s not much I can say. We very rarely ask for something like this (maybe once a year, if that), and when we do it’s only when there are huge spoilers we don’t want to get out. It’s not fair to fans or the author. I really appreciate that the vast majority of our reviewers understand and respect it. What I can say is that if someone’s unprofessional enough to break it (especially when they’ve openly promised otherwise) they won’t find themselves getting all the stuff from us that they’ve asked for and gotten in the past."

For all the debating doing on here, the issue is really very simple. I personally wasn't pissed because Pat posted a review (didn't see what you wrote Larry, if anything) but simply because it was full of spoilers and pretending not to be. At the very least, a warning would have been courteous given that no one was expecting an honest to god review at this point. The rest is between Pat and the publisher.

Larry said...

Alec,

It's never "that simple." Outside of reference to an event that was pretty much referred to elsewhere (although the specifics elude me at the time), Pat's commentary was very much the same as what he did the previous year. And speaking of that, I shall quote part of an email then to note just how easy it can be, for those of us who received multiple years' copies, to assume things are the same:

Your copy of The Gathering Storm!(to arrive by this Wednesday- no spoilers until Oct. 27th please :p) Tracking # here: [redacted]

Hi Larry!

Per our email conversation many months ago--Yes, at long last, it is here and I'm speeding it to you a little early ... And while you're waiting for it, some new WoT stuff below:


A bit different than the almost NDA-like assumption that some received, no? I'm not defending anything more than noting that some of the rhetoric was a bit overblown. As for that email quoted, since I don't request materials anymore, what does that matter to me, outside of the regret that things were misunderstood so badly?

The point still remains that it is precious that some are condemning matters/mistakes done by others while not admitting that they are far from being "distanced" reviewers.

Neth said...

this has all gone on far too long - particularly the talk of Pat and the embargo. I look forward to it fading into obscurity.

But your post is more interesting for some of the other points it makes, most of which I will not comment on. But, one specific part I do have a bit to say. I know you really dislike review scores (and mostly I do as well), but it does allow statistical comparisons which can be very revealing. I took a look at review scores I've given over last 4.5 years in comparison to books received vs. purchased. It was interesting, but the key point ended up being that there was no statistical difference between the two (link). I found it very reasuuring.

Larry said...

I agree, but you know it's bad when I decide to defend Pat a bit, even if it's in self-interest as well! :P

I remember that post. I didn't have the time to comment then, but that certainly was interesting to see there was not much variance in the two groups of reviews.

Neth said...

the only reason I do scores anymore is for the statisitcs - it's fun and informative. My next excercise with them will be a comparison through time. (it'll probably be a while before I get to it)

Larry said...

That would be something interesting to see.

About to start writing some reviews, I think. Funny how few reviews ever make that top 10 "popular posts" feature I activated several weeks ago. Better yet, none of these reviews will be for books that are being chatted about in certain circles.

Amy said...

What an interesting post! I think you raise some interesting points about vested interest and about reviews. I love getting review copies... but that doesn't mean I'm not going to rip apart a review book. Some of the ones I riped the most (well, all of the ones I really hated) this year were review copies, I think, and I sure didn't let that soften my opinion. I had one author ask me to change a review and I was shocked that authors or publishers would dare to ask such a thing - I certainly wouldn't, even if it meant no more review copies from that source. Ick.

 
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