I’m writing a book review right now, and it has me thinking about how much the world of reviewing has changed.
Before the web (I’m not talking about centuries ago here, just a decade or so back, when I began to review books), you generally didn’t know what other reviewers thought about the book you were reviewing. You received a galley copy, blind, and you read it. Sitting alone (remember alone?) in Idaho or Maryland or wherever-you-were. Maybe someone else you knew had a copy, but usually not. You were by yourself in a chair, with a book that DID NOT YET EXIST. Of course there were no online “best of” polls or blogs about the “hot new books of next year.” If you were a pre-pub reviewer, you were first (in your own mind, anyway). It was nerve-wracking. You had to decide what you really thought about the book, all by your insecure self. You knew your review would be subjective, and you knew other people might disagree with you, and you only hoped you could make your case strong enough to convince people that you were right. Because of this, reviews were often wildly different. People disagreed. One reviewer would LOVE a book that another LOATHED. Remember that?
I have a sense that this is changing, that reviews today tend to be more… consistant. Not that I think people are consciously manipulating their reviews. I don’t think anyone says, “Well, really I hated it, but Blogger X loved it and Blogger Y thinks it’ll win the Pulitzer, so I’ll say I liked it too. No, I just think there’s a viral affect, of general excitement or displeasure. And then, I suppose, sometimes backlash too. Things tend to move in tides.
Another difference is that back before the web, unless you lived in NY or were a big shot reviewing a big shot, you were fairly unlikely to know the author of the book you were reviewing personally. Now… everyone “knows” everyone. I “know” 4,000 people on Facebook. Technically, I’m not supposed to review “friends” who write books. So, does Facebook friendship count? Can I review someone who is the sister of a friend of mine on Twitter, but whom I’ve never met in person? What if we once had a drink in the same hotel lobby at a conference? What if I know her online, but I only pretend to like her? What if I secretly like her boyfriend?
And now, imagine a perfect storm. What if I got a book to read for pre-pub review, and it was by someone who regularly annoyed me in Facebook by posting vaguely misogynistic pictures, but I didn’t really know him at all, and I was trying to rise above that, read the book with a clear head. Still, I was on the fence about the book, halfway through, and not sure what I wanted to say, yet. so then I was surfing Goodreads, and saw, just by chance, that some other people I know didn’t like the book at ALL. In fact, one friend (Susie-Q) thought the female characters were caricatures, stereotypes.
AHA! Hmmm… I am validated… for my dislike of his FB photostream.
So then let’s imagine that the next day, in my daily trek through the web, I notice the book has been panned by a big trade journal. Hmmm. So that night I’m in a Twitter chat, and people are talking about the review, including Susie-Q. And people are arguing about it, but I really find I’m agreeing with my friend, and so are some other folks. She’s super smart, after all. So in the end I damn the book with snarky faint praise, and feel confident that I’m not alone in my judgement. Other smarter people think the same thing I think!
Now, let’s imagine it’s a year later, and I’m at a party with Suzy-Q, and it turns out that SHE WROTE the original pre-pub review that panned the book in the first place. And then I realize that she was both the start of the Goodreads conversation about the book being bad AND the Twitter chat about it. Hmmm… she really didn’t like that book!
But did I? Hmmm. Maybe I go back and reread the book and find I like it after all.
Probably not! But just maybe…
All I’m saying is…
One wonders where we find our opinions. Alone in a room, one wonders slightly less.
I have other thoughts too, but I want to mull them over. I don’t have an OPINION or anything, and goodness knows I love the web. I’m obsessed with Twitter. And I owe so much to friends online, who have reviewed and buzzed and hand sold my books. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, ever. But this feels like a situation in which technology is changing the world faster than the rules which govern technology. And I can’t help thinking that with the web, a loud early voice or two can really make or break a book, possibly even affecting pre-pub reviews and in-house opinion.
Should someone be able to review a book online, months before it’s out, in an informal way? Should they be out there, making chatter, in so many corners of the world at once? Should people review books by a friend? Is an online friend the same as a rel-life friend? Should different rules govern the big journals and the blogs? Do Goodreads and Amazon reviews “count?” And if so, should the same rules apply to them that apply to, say, newspapers and pre-pub journals? So many things to consider…
I’m inclined to say that if you know you can’t say something BAD about a book, for fear of how the author will feel, you shouldn’t review that book. Friend or no. If you fear the viral connections will bring you into contact with them, and make your life uncomfortable, it’s better to stay away…
And I’m inclined to say that we should be open and transparent in a blog review, when we DO know someone. Like, “Today I want to tell you about this amazing new book by my friend, Jo Rowling!” Rather than creating the illusion of impartiality. Because of course we all want to use our blogs to talka bout books we love, and sometimes we love books by our friends!
I don’t know… Because I just don’t know what a review is anymore.
That said, I need to get offline now, and write mine.
**I want to add here that I truly mean no criticism of people who read and review, because they love books and have something to say. The beauty of the web is that we should all use our voices. What I’m puzzling over is the way we should structure this new world. The speed with which these formats have arisen suggests, I think, that we might need a new way to arrange everything. Perhaps, for instance, trade pubs should get early copies before the floods of Amazon and Goodreads early-reviewer programs, before ALA and BEA, and be required to submit their reviews by a set deadline. Perhaps bloggers should post their rules for reviewing people they know personally. I don’t know, really. But I think there’s a conversation to be had. That’s all I’m saying.