Oh, hai! I read books, then I write down what I think of them.
You may have seen Tara Sparling's recent blog post giving the 5 book review rules we should all be following.
The best I can say is that they are offensive nonsense. I don't review books to make writers like me, or hate me, or anything else me. I review books because I want to. If writers have an emotional state due to that, it's fine as long as I'm not expected to do anything about it.
Before we start, it may also help to know I think it's entirely up to the individual how they choose to review. Gifs, txtspk, memes, or overlong essays on the way the book uses bananas as a metaphor for the transformative effect of polyester on 70s fashion: all are good with me. As an individual making a purchasing decision, I will take the useful bits, enjoy the funny bits, and ignore the rest.
1. Have The Guts To Use Your Name
This is the most contentious one and the most stupid. My name does not make any difference to what I say.
Leaving aside all of the obvious safety concerns what, exactly, is leaving my real name supposed to do? Validate me? And what happens if I put Dor on there rather than Theo? I've been called both in the meatworld, but I've also been called by the name those are short for, and by my middle name. Which one am I supposed to use to fulfil this arbitrary requirement? Whatever I'm calling myself, I am the same sack of tea and complaints I always am.
But perhaps I'm supposed to give my full name. How would knowing my surname help? And what if I have a common name? Does that help you? What if I married and changed my name? What if I changed my gender?
It's also worth bearing in mind a name change can happen for practical reasons: Jenny Trout began using that moniker due to confusion with a similarly named author. If my name was Theo Walcott, should I use it? And what if I were called Dor Jones? Would I then face accusations of lying for having a common name?
But really it doesn't matter. If people pay attention to the name on a review, it's not going to make any different whether it's Dor, Dor Does Books, or Dor Jones. It's the label which earned the respect, or not; and it doesn't make a difference if it's what's written on my passport, or not.
Ultimately IT IS MY CHOICE what information to put out there. I choose not to put it out there. I choose not to deal with you knowing my real name, or finding a photograph of me online and commenting that I'd look better if I did something about my eyebrows, or that I needed to lose a couple of stone. I choose not to deal with you judging me for the job I do, or decide that because I find Ian McEwan horribly verbose, I am unfit to do it. I choose not to deal with any of the shit the people calling for this have dished out to people who aren't me.
I chose not to put the information out there because even if I posted my passport, my birth certificate, and a photograph of me holding today's Gruniad, the people behind this call would still find a reason why I'm not doing it right. My opinion is either worthwhile or useless, and that state is in no way affected by the name written on the top of it.
Plus I could secretly BE Ian McEwan, and then you'd all look like proper fools for doubting my bookish wisdom. Stop assuming a pseudonym is only used by people who don't know what they're talking about.
2. Honest Is Not The Same As Judgemental
Well, actually, yes it is. Because some people are judgemental.
There's a review on GR of Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened which states the reviewer hated the book and knows people who would burn it. Honest? Yup. Judgemental? Yup. Did that review inform me I'd like the book? YES.
A review is an opinion. An opinion can be many things - ill-informed, ignorant, biased, judgemental - but it can never be wrong, only disagreed with.
Sparling goes on to say:
There are a lot of grey areas as to what constitutes a fair opinion or not, but suffice to say that opinion is generally considered fair by a person who agrees with it, and not if they don’t.
There aren't any grey areas that I'm aware of.
Plenty of people don't like swearing or smexy times in books. Is that a fair opinion? Absolutely. I don't agree with it but I recognise others do and so it's also a useful thing for people to say in a 1 star review. If they want to judge a book for those things, or anything else - such as the insidious rape culture prevalent in a number of popular romance novels, to take a random example - that's up to them and it's useful to the people who agree with them. The rest of us can disregard or not according to our choice.
3. Be Helpful, Or Don’t Bloody Bother At All
And this is where I refer you to John Scalzi's Fuck You, Pay Me post in which he complains about people asking him to do things for free.
This writing is done for free. The most I get out of it is a free copy of a book and most of the time that hasn't happened: I've either bought the book or I've got it from the Library (which over here means the author gets paid for that too).
I do this because I want to, but I am not your bitch. If you want me to write a certain way, pay me. You'll get to find out my legal name too because it'll be on the top of the invoice.
Sparling determines helpfulness:
These questions should be answered. Anything else is just posturing.
(i) What made you buy the book? Are you glad you bought it? Why?
(ii) Was there anything in particular about the book which made you wish you hadn’t bought/read it?
(iii) Would you recommend it?
(iv) Is there any further information which can help explain precisely why you assigned that particular star rating?
Do you know what happens if these questions don't get answered in a review? Nothing. Actually, no, that's not what happens: the person reading the reviews, who has questions about the book, continues to read reviews until they gather the information they need to come to a decision.
As for posturing - ha! Yes. It is posturing. Except I'd call it personality. And it's what makes me follow reviewers I wouldn't otherwise bother with, hearing about books which would never have cropped up on my radar. I'm never going to visit a single restaurant reviewed by A A Gill, but I still read his column every week because he's entertaining.
People are free to read my reviews or not. But I'll write them any way I damn well please, be as helpful - or otherwise - as I want to be, and unless you have a contract which specifies what I am and amn't supposed to do, you don't get to tell me why I'm wrong to do so.
4. Remember, Some Things Are Not Your Business
True. Some things are not your business, like my legal name, but here we are.
The purpose of a book review is to tell people what the reviewer thought of the book. Sometimes this is going to mention weak or overdone plot points. Sometimes it's going to speculate on how it could have been done differently - different POV, different choices made by the protag. It may even say something like "this is a great idea but it devolves into a second rate romance complete with insta-love".
What it's never going to do is tell you why you might like the book. I don't know you. I don't know why you're going to like something. I can only tell you what I liked and what irritated me and hope you'll be able to work it out from there.
But what I think you're actually talking about here are the uber-fan reviews, the people who give 1 star reviews because a book costs too much, or takes too long to come out, or because it didn't unfold in the way the person reading wanted it to. Those kind of reviews don't matter. Really. Because the people who care will buy the book anyway. and the people who don't will move onto the next review.
5. Wait 2 Hours Before Posting
I agree with this one, but mainly because it's the best way to check your grammar. I'd also add reading it as a preview post because you tend to see things more clearly.
What Sparling actually says is:
Write your review, and then come back to it. Do you really still want to say all that stuff? Good or bad? If the answer is yes, fire away. But you’d be surprised at how much you’ll want to hit that backspace key once you’ve let it breathe.
Maybe in Sparling's world people read a book then write a review. That's not what happens in mine. They get written when I've time, in dribs and drabs, with thought given to what I'm going to say about it.
But again, maybe Sparling isn't talking about people like me. Maybe she's talking about the kind of people who write reviews saying "I got this book for my daughter but she hasn't read it yet"; who do so because Amazon sent them an email asking what they thought of the product. You know, all those people who aren't going to read either of these blog posts and who don't realise what they're doing is a problem. Their reviews aren't a problem either.
Here is the thing though: there are book reviewers, and there are people who write down what they think of books. That second group - of which I'd count myself a member - is no different to people talking about a book down the pub, or in a cafe, or at the library. It's just people saying what they think and authors trying to police it is as ridiculous as them hanging around places people might discuss their book. (I wish I could remember the author who attended a book club discussion of their work incognito - their article was brilliant.)
Consider that. When you, author, sit there reading your reviews, you are basically earwigging on a conversation you are not part of. If you did it in the flesh it would not be acceptable, but somehow the internet apparently makes it not only okay, but perfectly reasonable for you to butt in and tell everybody they're doing it wrong? No. It's often said that reviewers would be less harsh if they had to say these things in the flesh - if authors did what some of them are doing in the flesh how well would that end?
You have no idea how well I understand this issue because you don't know me, or what I do, or what has informed my opinion, so you're not going to listen to me. The very best thing you can do as an author is let people have a conversation. It's not hard - all you have to do is ... nothing. You don't read the reviews, you don't comment on them, you don't write blog posts telling people how to write them - you do nothing.
You let people make up their own minds - about everything.
There will be useful reviews. There will be non-useful ones. Some will have many stars, some will have fewer. Some you will agree with, some you will not, some will happen because the book wasn't a bad one, the person just didn't enjoy it. None of these things are within your control, and that is the real problem here.
Lack of control is a difficult thing to live with. I've learned it, along with a lot of other things and that - the fact I had the learn it - is why this nonsense gets a degree of free pass from me. I'm not going to condemn anybody for having an easier life than me - and that's what you have and that's what you need to remember.
You are educated. I've never seen a blog post on this subject which was so badly written it was unreadable - verbose and difficult to follow, yes, but still with the mark of somebody who has a better than average grasp of the English language.
You have electricity, and a device to write your posts on, and an internet connection.
You have the time and space to do so.
Let's go over that one again: you have enough time to make this an issue. Which is nice for you.
You have enough time to make THIS your issue.
I don't begrudge you, not really. This matters to you for whatever reason. I do wonder if you are aware of the noise, though; writers complaining: about the reviews which don't happen, about the ones which do, about gangsters and bullies and trolls, about what they are owed and how they are just trying to make a living without realising that they, at least, are getting paid for this.
You don't get to dictate how I do anything, least of all express my opinion. If you are targeted, get in touch with the appropriate body: be it Amazon, GR, the host server, or the Rozzers. But stop bitching about things which don't happen; an army of sycophants does more damage than a single trollish review.