by Lillian Csernica on May 1, 2014
Reviews have become very important in today’s literary marketplace. On Amazon, on Goodreads, on Smashwords and elsewhere you can find the many and varied opinions of those who have read the books and short stories they then choose to review. Unfortunately, “Caveat emptor” now works both ways. Has that person read the entire book? Does that person know the writer, and may therefore suffer from the natural desire to cast the review in a positive light to promote sales? Is that person also a writer and in competition with the writer under review? Perhaps a given writer’s friends have decided to “help” that writer by badmouthing the works of his or her competition.
This kind of thing is going on. If you don’t believe me, watch your Twitter feed and see how many ads scroll by boasting of “18 five star reviews!!!” Take a look at Goodreads and see what’s happening there. You will find quite a few intelligent, informed, and meaningful reviews. You will also find bare-faced cheerleading. The private citizen exercising his or her right to free speech is under no particular obligation to even know how to write a review, much less understand the mechanics of using language properly along with the art and craft of constructing a piece of fiction.
There is another type of reviewer, one whose reviews appear regularly in an established venue. I review short horror fiction for Tangent Online. I review what my editor sends across my desk, not just the fiction I gravitate toward. I have to read it in a thorough manner, and I have to apply a standard that is credible, useful, and fair.
Credible – “Traditionally, modern credibility has two key components: trustworthiness and expertise, which both have objective and subjective components. Trustworthiness is based more on subjective factors, but can include objective measurements such as established reliability. Expertise can be similarly subjectively perceived, but also includes relatively objective characteristics of the source or message (e.g., credentials, certification or information quality).” This is taken from Flanagin and Metzger (2008), Digital Media and Youth: Unparalleled opportunity and unprecedented responsibility.
I want to draw your attention to the word “expertise.” This means I have to know what the elements of good fiction are, along with what distinguishes truly creative fiction from recycled, rehashed, and reupholstered cliches. How do I demonstrate my expertise, my credibility? I have written and published fiction in the horror and dark fantasy genres. I know how to evaluate a story, to see its strengths and its weaknesses. I have been in the field long enough and done enough reading to have perspective on the story set against the backdrop of what has already been published.
I am not blowing my own horn here. The same can be said of Tangent’s other reviewers.
Useful – From Dictionary.com:
1. being of use or service; serving some purpose; advantageous, helpful, or of good effect: a useful member of society.
2. of practical use, as for doing work; producing material results; supplying common needs: the useful arts; useful work.
A reviewer’s job is to help the reader decide which books, anthologies, magazines and/or short stories are worth the time and money to read. When I run across a “review” on Amazon that’s little more than unskilled gushing, I get really annoyed because that person has just wasted my time. The same is true of a hatchet job that says nothing about the story that would merit such criticism. Neither “review” is USEFUL. A solid, worthwhile review will “supply the common needs” by providing expert analysis on the quality of the story and its execution.
Fair – the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice; evenhandedness.
Now here’s the hard part. When I read an issue of a horror magazine, I have to read all of the stories in it, whether or not the subject matter appeals to me, whether or not I’m offended or disgusted or appalled. My job is to read the story, evaluate it, and write up an informed and useful review. I must confess that I do express my personal opinions about some stories. I try my best to do so in an evenhanded manner. There was a story involving an angel that really annoyed me. I’m very touchy on the subject of angels because of my religious beliefs. However, once I’d read the entire story and given it some thought, I had to admit that by the end the writer had won me over. I said so, right there in my review, because that showed real skill on the writer’s part and that skill deserved to be recognized.
It’s not easy being a reviewer. Sometimes people take things personally. Sometimes people cannot separate the work from themselves, or the work from the person who wrote it. And sometimes those people take it out on the reviewer. I suppose I should be happy to know people are reading, but are they? Has the convenience and accessibility of Amazon, Goodreads, et al turned what should be a competitive marketplace into little more than a popularity contest? Yes, to an extent it really is a popularity contest, as shown by who makes the Bestseller lists. In a perfect world that popularity would be based on the quality of the work itself, not on the cult of personality built up around the writer.
When I write a review, I will tell you if the Emperor is bare-ass naked. I may be risking professional repercussions, but to do any less is to break the social contract between the “official” reviewer and the reading public. There are people in this world that I do not care for on a personal level, but I will be the first one to tell you if they are damn fine writers, and some of them are among the best.