Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When is a review not a review?

Mary Cassatt - The Reader

In these days of rapid publishing, quick downloads, fast reading, and trigger-happy reviews, one must wonder about the meaningfulness of it all. The very definition of the word review is becoming skewed and market-shaped. Never has the consumer had more power to influence than now.

What? The reader ... a consumer? That comment alone would have been viewed as sacrilege eight or eighteen years ago.

Reviews are not merely opinions, they are REACTIVE opinions: the opinions one forms as consumers of anything these days are dubbed 'reviews'. Restaurant meals, small appliances, wine, television programs, digital games, mobile phones, breakfast cereals ... their makers and retailers create places where consumers can leave their opinions. And REVIEWS is the best word they could use.

When we have a reaction, as ordinary readers, we feel we need to warn off the rest of the world, or give it the come hither beckon. This kind of REACTIVE review is what one generally finds on Amazon and other online retailers' sites. And readers and authors heed these knee-jerk (or keyboard finger-jerk) reactions with the same attention and weight as they might have - a decade ago - given to a critical review.
The CRITICAL review is different. The word does not mean that it criticizes... it means that the review comes from a career CRITIC, one qualified by experience, education, occupation - or all three - to draw an objective perspective on a literary work. Objective is the operative word here, which still does not remove a CRITICAL review completely from the realm of the subjective (formed from an opinion).

There used to be a time when authors, critics, and publishers had more or less equal understanding of these terms. All that is gone - we have authors who are learning as they go, readers who think they qualify as critics, and the publisher is of course a bit of a dinosaur. What kind of a USEFUL dinosaur this is will be shown in the next five years.

Publishing houses now value (at least ostensibly) readers' reactive reviews very highly - as highly as those that might be written by a 'real' literary critic, whose job, these days, is largely supernumerary, redundant, pushed to the corners of the reading earth. Online reactive reviews are counted, observed, announced, and publicized like never before. Never has so much fuss been lavished on so little of value. The spotlight focussed on deleted reviews from 'competing' author peers on Amazon last year was intense.

Never has so much fuss been lavished on so little of value.

So  how much weight, attention and value should an author place on random reviews? Because of their perceived importance, it is definitely worthwhile to have a few. It is also important to have a number of less-than-glowing reviews, if only to indicate the collection is formed by bona fide readers, and not the fawning family and friends of the author. It is important to have at least a couple of 5-star reviews to indicate that the work in question is worth some consideration.

The necessaity lies, however, in understanding the meaningfulness and the evolving role of the so-called review when it comes to books. Rather than taking them personally - even if chock-full of praise - the author needs to see they are (or ought to be) directed at the work, rather than its creator. The necessity lies in seeing reviews as what they are: reactive opinions, unless they come from a bona fide literary critic with a wealth of background reading against which to place the new book.

If you have taken on a new understanding of what reviews could mean to you as reader or author, leave a comment.

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  1. Hi Rosanne,
    What damage the writers have done when it was discovered that some were writing their own reviews. It belittled the whole process and devalued the genuine reviews. As a writer, I review books I enjoy as I know how valuable these authentic reviews are. But again, I think sometimes these issues distract writers. They simply need to focus on writing the best books they can. A review is a bonus and after all, it is one person's opinion.

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  3. Terrific article. I like the term and definition reactive review.

  4. Well said, Rosanne. The role of reviews in the changing literary and publishing world must be discussed and delineated. I hope that when my book is published this year I can attract reviews that are informed by a background of wide reading and show some thoughtful analysis and evaluation of the text.

  5. Great article, Rosanne.

    Sometimes you think reviewing a book must be very easy. You liked it? 5-stars, you didn't? 1-star. Everything in between is a "yes, but" in the higher or lower tail of the distribution. Some writers take a 3-star as if the reader had said "as if I haven't read it".

    It needs much more than that. In this year, when I decided to make my writing public for the first time, I spent a great deal with people, reading all possible reviews in Amazon and goodreads, and other sites too. Bloggers and reviews from groups and guilds who do essentially that: read books and share their impressions.

    Let me add with comments on the same topic from my goodreads blog:

  6. Sometimes I have to remind myself of the difference between true critical reviews and reader "reviews." I've been fortunate to have received some excellent critical reviews, which helps when the stuff at Amazon is brutal! I just pull out the Publishers Weekly reviews and remind myself that the negative comments came from amateurs!

  7. I was an occasional reviewer at The Specusphere (a now sadly defunct e-zine) so I know what you mean and it also means I tend not to look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews.