Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Prefer "Analytical Response," Myself

Personally, I try to avoid using the term "negative review." But Eric at Pimp My Novel doesn't mind using it. He did a post last month called On the Importance of Negative Reviews.

Among the things he has to say:

" of the principle reasons why, à mon avis, the negative review should be written: to help correct the bias generated by solely positive reviews, since such reviews are oftentimes met only with silence by those with dissenting opinions."

"...rarely do we question a positive or even neutral response to a book, but as soon as someone indicates that they didn't like—or even flat-out hated—that book, we immediately want to know why."

I would go even further and say, Rarely do we hear shock over a positive or even neutral response to a book. Okay, people sneer over The Da Vinci Code and the multiple Twilights, but when do you see an outright attack on a review recommending those books? It's not at all unusual, though, to see outrage expressed because someone pointed out some flaws in a fan favorite.

Why are we so put out by what we consider misplaced negativity, but we let misplaced praise roll off our backs? Critically speaking, isn't one just as bad as the other?


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Is Kirkus Back?


Thanks to the Kidlitosphere listserv for this news.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Congratulations To Chris Barton

Chris Barton's book The Day-Glo Brothers was just reviewed in The New York Times. The review is part of one of those round-up columns that covers three books at once, but Day-Glo received plenty of attention. The kind of attention you want your book to get from The New York Times, too.

I think this review, Alarmingly Bright Futures by Rich Cohen, illustrates what's so great about traditional analytical reviews. Cohen says of the books he's discussing, "Each follows the reliable three-act structure of Horatio Alger or “Rocky”: the early breakthrough, the reversal, the triumph." Read and learn--that's what I did with this kind of review when I was a young writer.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts On Book Reviews From An Editor Of Same

Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits interviewed Keir Graff, a senior editor at Booklist, on the future of book reviews.

I do hate the use of positive and negative when discussing reviews. Graff's explanation regarding Booklist's original policy regarding so-called "positive" reviews makes sense, though--as a publication for librarians looking for information regarding what to purchase, what was the point of publishing anything but solid recommendations? He says that now, though, "there are books we recommend because there will be patron demand, but that we think are horrible, and we say that — hopefully helping larger libraries know how many copies to buy."

(I think, myself, that there are books that fall well between horrible and requiring a real recommendation that many librarians and readers would be interested in. Just a little aside.)

Graff makes a good point later in the interview: "Much is made of the web’s ability to give people exactly the experience they’re looking for, and that’s exactly why people should be wary of it. So it’s my belief that niche or specialist or genre blogs are terrific but should be balanced by some more general-interest reading, which, at least in terms of book reviews, is what we offer."

An example of what he's talking about--I read a tremendous number of kidlit blogs. My knowledge of what's being published in adult fiction is nowhere near as great as I'd like it to be. I'm guessing the same is true for readers of scifi litblogs, mystery litblogs, or any other specialized blog.

So we need to find review sources that deal with both analytical responses to books as well as a wide variety of types of books. Hmmm. Sort of like Kirkus Reviews. Except, of course, that's gone.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Holy Moses!

I literally have my coat on and am about to leave the house. But, having that little obsession problem of mine, I checked one of my listservs first. Thus I have just heard that Kirkus Reviews is on its way out. Or maybe it's already out.

This means that the funnel through which books come to the attention of the reading public has grown even smaller. I'm sure we're going to be hearing that book blogs make traditional review journals unnecessary, which may or may not be the case.

A lot of people didn't like Kirkus, anyway, though the people there usually treated me pretty well.


Monday, December 07, 2009

Problems With Book Reviews

Salon is getting ready to resurrect a feature I don't remember, What to Read. "Every Monday, I'll present a book selected from an assortment of related new titles, tell you why I found this book exceptional and, when warranted, explain why others didn't make the cut. What to Read will regularly recommend a book we think you'll really love."

The columnist, Laura Miller, is being totally upfront that this feature will not be a traditional book review. It sounds as if it's going to be more like a blog recommendation. I, of course, am most interested in reading about the books that "didn't make the cut."

In the Salon article announcing the coming of What to Read, Miller discusses some problems with traditional book reviews that go beyond the fact that they don't generate advertising revenue and are thus being dropped from newspapers. Two of them:

1. The assignment process (editors doling out books to reviewers) can't guarantee that the reviewer will find a book "noteworthy," and thus many reviews don't make for great reading. A reviewer who is a fan of an author's earlier work may be biased regarding a lesser work under review. Reviewers who are also authors may pull their punches.

2. Readers usually know nothing about reviewers' tastes and how they shape their judgments. (My own example--reviewers who don't read widely in children's literature raving about an adult writer's first foray into the field because they aren't aware that the book under review isn't ground breaking because they have so little knowledge of the "ground.")

Presumably What to Read will avoid the first problem by publishing recommendations ("what to read") instead of regular reviews, which could go either way. A recommendation suggests the person doing the recommending does, indeed, find the book noteworthy for some reason or another. It will avoid the second problem because, after a while, readers will learn Miller's tastes and biases and judge her recommendations accordingly. (Though I suspect regular readers of her book writing for Salon have picked up on that already. I only read her reviews if the book interests me, so I have limited knowledge of her work.)


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wasn't It Just A Couple Of Years Ago That Everyone Was Looking Down At Blogs? That's All Over.

A New-Media Read On Books At Huffington Post in the Los Angeles Times is thought-provoking in so very many ways. I will mention just one:

"Hertz argued that authors, their editors and publicists should all be pushing their books on blogs, engaging their readers in direct conversations and opening their publicity campaigns months earlier than they have in the past."

Presumably she means in their own blogs, which would obviously be about marketing and thus on the up and up as far as the FTC is concerned.

I'm fine with that plan, since that is exactly the kind of blog I have here. But there's something about the L.A. Times article that made traditional reviews seem very...quaint. Though we in publishing liked to make reviews about selling by quoting any possible bit that could make us look good, in reality that's not what their function is. It would be a shame if criticism/analysis can't co-exist with marketing.

Link from


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hmm. What Would I Do For A Book Right About Now?

Many bloggers have been linking to and commenting upon the Interview with the FTC's Richard Cleland at Edward Champion's Reluctant Habits. I found two things particularly interesting about the interview.

1. Over the past year or so there's been a lot of discussion in the kidlitosphere about whether or not book review sites should accept arcs and books from publishers. Could it be perceived as payment for services rendered and thus make the reviews appear biased? It wasn't unusual to see bloggers writing, "What? Do people think I can be bought with a book?" Well, evidently the FTC thinks you can. "If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as “compensation.” You could after all sell the product on the streets." "“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”"

Though that sounds laughable, I do think that I read years ago that Dorothy Parker sold books she was sent for review. For what that's worth.

2. "Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review." My first thought when reading this was, Gee, I wouldn't have known that. My second thought was that I don't think this guy understands publishing. I think publishers send books to bloggers hoping to get any kind of coverage at all. My third thought was that maybe this guy was right. Given that so many bloggers have policies of only recommending books at their sites, publishers may very well have expectations of receiving good reviews when they send them review copies. It doesn't necessarily follow that the books they send are some kind of payment for said good reviews.

I have to say, this whole thing makes me very happy that Original Content is merely a me, me, me author blog and not a review site.

Colleen at Chasing Ray suggests the new FTC rules regarding what is considered compensation for blog reviews will "likely mean the end of receiving ARCs or review copies from publishers. With the ever shrinking print review sections in newspapers and magazines, the negative impact on publishing is obvious."

Stay tuned.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Now This Is What I Mean When I Say Mixed Reviews Are Important

For years I've been a promoter of true critical discussion in blogs rather than limiting posts to book recommendations. Today I found a perfect illustration for my argument at the Excelsior File. David Elzy did a post on Fartiste by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer with illustrations by Boris Kulikov.

Elzy says right up front that "the book fails me due to a pair of fatal miscalculations." He then goes on to discuss them. However, in doing so he gives us a very good sense of the book's subject matter, which many readers will find...ah...fascinating. The book sounds so...mmm...intriguing...that many readers aren't going to be terribly concerned about the drawbacks Elzy points out. The book may very well be...engaging...enough that they'll seek it out, anyway.

But they can't do that if they've never heard of it. By making Fartiste part of the literary conversation at his blog, Elzy is doing both the book and his readers a favor.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Deserving Books

I don't know if the Virginia Quarterly Review blog post Does Every Book Deserve A Review? answers the question it raises in its title. So I will. Or I'll sort of answer it.

Certain books "deserve" a review whether or not they meet someone's standard for goodness, so to speak. They do not have to be wonderful to deserve a review. They deserve to be reviewed even if they can't be highly recommended.


1. Because the authors have a distinguished body of work. Even if they've written something that isn't up to their usual standards, their books should be of interest to the reading public--especially, if, say, the book is a miss because the authors were trying something new. The effort is worthy of being part of the literary discussion. Books written by people like M.T. Anderson, Neil Gaiman, and Lynne Rae Perkins deserve a review.

2. Because the authors have written books in the past that have had some kind of impact on popular culture. Whatever anyone thinks of Stephanie Meyer as a writer, her books have had a big impact on the reading public. Her next few books deserve a review.

3. Because the subject matter is significant in some way. This could mean being significant in a narrow field, even if not significant to the general public. Nature magazines will review significant environmental books, for instance, that general review publications might not. Same for history magazines, food magazines, and on and on.

4. Because the authors have tried to do something different--breaking out of a genre, breaking away from a fad, etc. For instance, somebody, sometime, somewhere is going to write the book that starts to lead readers away from rich-girl-gone-bad stories. That book deserves to be reviewed!

All these kinds of books deserve to be reviewed. Or perhaps a better way of putting it would be that they deserve to be discussed.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

A Book Reviewer Raises Some Interesting Questions

Last month I mentioned that The Hartford Courant, which very rarely reviewed children's books when it had a book editor, has been doing children's book columns maybe once a month now that it doesn't. I'd been seeing columns by Nicholas Brisbane, but last week, The Courant ran a column by Mary Harris Russell, who writes For Young Readers for The Chicago Tribune. (Which has only part of last weekend's column up at its site.) The Courant and The Tribune are both owned by the Tribune Company.

I've raised the point before that the few newspaper reviewers left are going to become incredibly important if their reviews are being shopped around to more than one paper. (Presumably that's cheaper than hiring a lot of individual reviewers.) Aren't publicists and publishers going to be desperate to get their books reviewed by a columnist whose review will be carried in several papers across the country? To say nothing of authors? Is anyone else seeing a movie here about a reviewer being wined and dined and played up to? Oh! Oh! With Owen Wilson or maybe Will Ferrell! There can be some really moving bit at the end about critical integrity. And a wedding. And a dog.

But until then, let's talk about Mary Harris Russell, who probably uses "Harris" so she won't be confused with Mary Russell. In When Mary Meets Harry, an article from 2003 in an Indiana University publication, Russell, an English professor at Indiana University Northwest, has some very interesting things to say about the crossing over that's going on now between children's and adult literature. When that starts happening, does it change the definition of "children's literature?"

"That’s been a big part of the critical discussion in the past 10 or 15 years," Russell says. "Adults write the books, adults buy them—so how do you decide what’s children’s literature? Is it a matter of thematic questions? Formal questions?"

This popped out at me because I've wondered if we won't see children's literature changing as adult readers become fans. Who will children's literature be written for?

"How does the dual audience work?" Russell asks. "Does anyone write just for children anymore, or are they all working to pitch laughs at that second level?"


A good article, even if it is a few years old.

Training Report: Really spent a lot of time in my chair today, doing research and nearly finishing that essay I keep talking about. Yesterday, the essay was dreadful. Today it's not so bad.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

While We're On The Subject Of Reviews

In the past, some of the main review journals directed their reviews toward professionals--librarians, for the most part, who were looking for information on books they might want to add to their collections. That's why some reviews included what most of us would consider spoilers. The reviews didn't spoil the books for the librarians, who couldn't possibly read all the books they needed to know about, anyway, but did give them information that helped them make purchasing decisions.

Library Journal has announced a change in its review policy. "The librarian-centric focus no longer makes sense in an electronic environment where our reviews appear in online catalogs and other resources that patrons use to find titles, place holds or make purchases, or even add their own comments. In the last few issues of LJ, we've begun to direct our assessment mainly toward the reader."

They've also introduced "a self-contained "Verdict" at the end of the review that sends the reader right to the reviewer's opinion." This "Verdict" aspect of the reviews, the Library Journal review editors believe, will make reviews more '"twitterable."' (To quote their quotation mark-emphasized word.) long has Twitter been around? Is it really so well established in our culture that it's time to be designing other media around it?

Link from the child_lit listserv.


Friday, June 05, 2009

The End of "Negative" And "Positive"

I was nearly bowled over by an idea this morning while I was in the shower. Unfortunately, it wasn't related to my writing. It was related to a discussion Melissa Wiley and I had at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy. We sort of highjacked one of Liz's posts to talk about book reviews, book recommendations, book analysis, and other related topics.

At one point I mentioned that I disliked using the terms "negative" and "positive" to describe reviews. I don't believe a thoughtful discussion of a book's pros and cons is "negative." My only complaint about the use of the words "positive review" is that I think it suggests that there are also negative ones out there lurking about.

What happened this morning was that I came up with something to replace them with--analytical response and recommendation. That's it. That's all I'm going to be saying here.

Notice I'm even avoiding using the word "review." For one thing, I think it's very loaded right now. People feel too emotional about it. For another, I always worry that reviews are some special kind of writing (which I think is the case with true criticism) that I know next to nothing about. I'm much more comfortable with "response."


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Has Losing Its Book Editor Made A Significant Difference?

Sometime last year The Hartford Courant, my local big city paper, lost its book editor. So what else is new, right? Lots of papers lost their book editors last year.

I'm guessing the average Courant reader barely notices the difference.

Back in the day, The Courant ran book reviews on Sundays. Maybe you'd see a half dozen reviews. New books from known state authors like Stewart O'Nan, Luanne Rice, Annie Dillard, etcetera, etcetera, would be reviewed as well as buzzworthy books from new literary writers.

In the months since we've been without an editor, we're still getting around four book reviews on Sundays. There's usually a review or an article by the former book editor, such as this past weekend's piece on Connecticut author Chris Knopf. Then we get a couple of reviews that are picked up from some service, such as Sunday's review from Newsday of Laura Rider's Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton. This past weekend we also had a review of Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley, which originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times just four days earlier.

Diversion: If other newspapers are picking up book reviews from services rather than paying for their own, doesn't that make the service reviews unbelievably important? Isn't there going to be a uniformity of opinion on, say, Laura Rider's Masterpice, if a lot of newspapers are all running the same review?

Back to our regularly scheduled post:

So we're getting a lot of the same kinds of things in The Courant that we got when we had a book editor. We're also getting something we didn't get when we had one--reviews of children's books.

Once a month, The Courant carries one of those theme columns on children's books, this one written by Nicholas A. Basbanes. I can't find his columns archived at The Courant's site, but he has the column that I'm looking at in Sunday's hard copy of The Courant up at his own website. According to his "About the Author" info, this column appears in a dozen newspapers.

Okay, a gang/group syndicated kidlit review when the adult books are given individual ones (even if most of them are are syndicated, too) definitely indicates The Courant considers children's books second rate. But the thing is, back when we had a book editor The Courant didn't know kids' books existed, forget about having an opinion about whether or not they were second rate. Every few years it would mention the authors attending the Connecticut Children's Book Fair, usually in a weekly insert that no one I know reads except for me. It might do an article on some phenomena like Twilight or Harry Potter, but only after everyone else in the world had covered it. Real reviews of children's literature--zip.

So a monthly children's book column is actually an improvement over what we had when we had a real book editor. I can't complain about the change.

Training Report: Trouble in family Gauthier. We have an older member with torn cartilage in her knee, which is why last week was such a disaster for me workwise. And I'm not the one in pain. I just managed to get in one segment for the 365 Story Project today, though I do have a new story arc to work with. Plus I now know what a meniscus tear is, and don't think I won't use it.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Gone, Gone, Gone. And Going?

There's probably not much point in discussing the state of newspaper book review sections anymore. In case anyone was in any doubt,'s article Newspapers fold as readers defect and economy sours pulls together the numbers on the newspapers that are just plain gone (and others that may be going), forget about whether or not they're reviewing books.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Maybe He Doesn't Watch Much Television

At the very end of The New York Times article discussed in my last post, historian Douglas Brinkley suggests that book reviews should be subsidized like public television. "I think that just like public television — I think book review sections almost need to get subsidized to keep the intellectual life in America alive."

Good heavens, man! Do you not watch public television? Do we really want the book review equivalent of hours of Peter, Paul, and Mary retrospectives, documentaries on the British royal family, and self-help programming for baby boomers?


How Much Longer Can The New York Times Book Review Last?

The Washington Post is giving up its stand-alone book review section. This means The New York Times Book Review is the last biggy left.

Motoko Rich, the author of the article on the Post (which ran in The New York Times) said that its book review section wasn't bringing in enough advertising to justify keeping it around. Publishers, Rich says, "generally spend very little on newspaper ads. Publishers now focus their marketing dollars on cooperative agreements with chain bookstores, which guarantee that certain books will receive prominent display at the front of stores."

The problem with putting all your money into store displays is that you're marketing only to people who are already in the stores, which I'm assuming is a smaller, self-selecting group, rather than to a more general population. I also don't know that I'd call having to pay to get your books displayed "marketing."

Some of the newspapers that have given up separate book review sections are still carrying book reviews, they're just carrying them in other parts of the paper. About that situation David L. Ulin, book editor of The Los Angeles Times, is quoted as saying, "In a section where there are a variety of elements, there might be people who might not ordinarily look at book reviews who might now look at book reviews...You could argue that putting books into the general mix opens more people to that conversation."

I think he may have a point there. I, personally, don't know many people out here in the carbon-based world who would actually sit down and thumb through a book review section. But if a review just happened to be next to an article on what happened to Caroline Kennedy's Senate bid, they just might notice it.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

But Seriously, Folks...

Joe Queenan (I read his book My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood but remember just about nothing about it) had an essay in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review called Enough With the Sweet Talk. It was an amusing piece about the abundance of "unjustifiably enthusiastic" book reviews. Queenan's angle involved the response of authors who have received such reviews, and he quotes a number of them on the subject. Dave Barry was once called the funniest man in America in a review. In an e-mail message to Queenan he said, "This is a ridiculous assertion; I am not the funniest man in my neighborhood."

As I said, the essay was clever and witty and all that. But, you know, Queenan is touching on something more serious. You do see an awful lot of positive reviews, so much so that I've sometimes wondered if reviewers at print journals get more work if they're careful to only say nice things. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick up on the fact that perhaps not everything is as glorious as it may seem. Is "Will call to mind Holden Caulfield" really praise or a warning that this book has been done before? Is "filled with southern eccentrics" code for run for your life?

When I was a senior in college about to apply for teaching jobs, I was told that school superintendents in Vermont were insisting on written assessments for student teaching for UVM grads because everyone was receiving A's. In a pool of candidates that are all excellent, excellent doesn't mean much.

When all books are wonderful, don't we lose touch with what wonderful means?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

This Is Actually A Good Thing

A review of Paper Towns in The Ithacan Online (the Ithaca College paper) has received some attention in the kidlitosphere. Our young reviewer praises John Green by burying an entire genre. "The young-adult genre has been riddled with uninspiring novels that lack any kind of creativity or originality...John Green is one of the few young-adult authors who has the ability to really tell a story and captivate the reader."

Well, student writers often over generalize. I can tolerate it from them far more easily than I can from their experienced elders. ("...a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichés of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miéville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs." That sounds like spunk. I hate spunk.)

What struck me as positive about this whole thing was that a college paper was reviewing a YA book. That's terrific! You know who you find in colleges? That's right...YAs. Okay, they won't be YA for long, but tell that to all those moms who were reading Twilight.

By the way, I read The Ithacan pretty regularly for four years. Very nice college paper.

Link from Jen Robinson.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Errors In High Places

I've been hearing a lot of talk the last six months about the number of copyediting errors that are turning up in published books. Some folks (myself included) believe we're seeing an increase in the number of errors that are appearing in books from well-regarded publishers.

Kirus Reviews recently carried an essay at its website called Reader Beware in which the author, Vicky Lewis, writes about "one of the best young-adult books of the year", which was denied a starred review because of the excessive number of copyediting errors that ended up in the published edition.

This essay was a hot topic at one of my listservs last week and came up at a second one more recently. I find the whole issue more interesting given that people within the kidlitosphere had already been talking about copyediting problems.

The loss of a starred review may not mean a whole lot if this book truly is one of the best young adult books of the year, as Lewis contends. Presumably it will get plenty of attention, anyway. For mid-level authors like myself, the loss of a starred review can be a very big deal. My own publisher purchases advertising for books that receive two starred reviews, or, at least, that has been my experience. So a modest book that had a chance for two starred reviews and lost one would miss out on support from the publisher and additional sales.

Don't take this as criticism of Kirkus. If anything, I think this is an indication of how bad the editing situation has become.

You should, of course, ignore any copyediting errors in the preceding post.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Best Reason Ever For Writing Only Positive Reviews

I've written a number of times about the need to do real criticism when writing about books and not limit one's self just to positive responses. However, Justine Larbalestier gives the best reason I've ever seen for tossing all my arguments aside.

She says, "As usual I’m not going to mention the books that I didn’t like because I don’t want the authors to hunt me down and kill me."


Some Positive Thoughts About On-line Reviews

Just last year, we were hearing nothing but nastiness regarding blog reviewers. According to the Denver Post, the times they are a-changing.

Link by way of artsJournal.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why Does This Book Inspire These Kinds Of Reviews?

Thanks to bookshelves of doom I learned about this really fascinating review of China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, which ran in The New York Times Book Review. Others have already commented on the lovely tone of reviewer Dave Itzkoff's first paragraph: "I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers...where's the artistic satisfaction? Where’s the dignity?"

One could ask the same question of book reviewers.

What I found particularly interesting about this review is that last March Salon carried a review of the same book in which the reviewer also saw her opportunity to turn her nose up at children's books, for which she called Un Lun Dun an "antidote." "Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans?"

I still haven't read Un Lun Dun, but the impression I'm getting from these both snarky and gushing reviews is that people who don't normally like children's books or may not even read them as a general rule find themselves embarrassed to have to admit that they really, really like this one. Thus they have to find some kind of excuse. If I don't like children's books, but I like this children's book, then it must transcend its genre. Yeah, that's the ticket.

By the way, the column in which The New York Times review of Mieville's book appears also includes a review of Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, which just happens to be waiting for me upstairs.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Amazon Reader Reviews

In Reading the Book: A Novel Approach to Reviewing at Publishers Weekly's Beyond the Book blog, Barbara Vey talks about those Amazon Reader Reviews that can be so very, very...interesting. This is clearly a subject that hit a nerve with her readers, since she received 59 comments.

Vey directs readers to a very recent Slate article by Garth Risk Hallberg entitled Who Is Grady Harp? on the same subject. Hallberg describes a reviewer hierarchy at Amazon and how it can be manipulated. I had a little trouble following the whole social networking aspect of the review system, but, then, I have trouble with social networking, anyway. (Ask anyone who knows me socially.)

I believe some of my reader reviews began life as book reports.

Thanks to child_lit for the link to Publishers Weekly.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Feisty, Aren't They?

Skip the post Ethics in Book Reviewing Survey: The Results at Critical Mass and go directly to the Comments section for a spirited discussion of reviewing (or, rather, the lack of reviewing of) self-published books.

In particular, look for the paragraph ending with the term "gang-reviewing." I do think she made an interesting point there. A little further down, another commenter talked about the assumption "that the few hundred literary agents and mainstream publishers who decide mainstream publication ALWAYS know best, and will publish everything worthy of going into print." I'm not passing any judgment on that one. I just wanted to throw it out there for inspection.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

He Didn't Even Mention Books

Sunday's Hartford Courant carried an article entitled The Decline of the Critic in which author Matt Egan described the decline of music, dance, and movie reviews in newspapers. In spite of the furor this past year over book reviews disappearing from papers, he didn't even mention them.

Not that my nose was out of joint over our neglect. I'm just pointing it out.

Evidently, though, all criticism is on its way out in print newspapers. According to Egan "the era of newspaper criticism, seems to be coming to a rapid and unceremonious end."

You mean, it's not all about the tanking of literary culture? How very thought provoking.

Egan makes many interesting points. "As classical music's audience continues to shrink, along with museum attendance, opera attendance, ballet attendance and newspaper readership, arts coverage has withered with it." Newspapers that once employed critics in various fields now either are using stringers or reporters who work in other areas of journalism for the paper and are just filling in. (Of course, that beats what many papers are doing with books, which is just not covering them at all even though the number of books published every year is going up, not down.)

Reading the work of good critics is more than entertainment, Egan says. It's an education. In the past, some movie critics, such as Roger Ebert (who is still working), for instance, were film historians.

Traditional book critics provided an education for their readers, too. Sure you always had your elitist folks who seemed mainly interested in showing off what they thought they knew to the lesser mortals who read their work. But you also had people who truly shared what they knew. You really could learn something from reading book reviews.

The Decline of the Critic makes it clear that the writing is on the wall for print reviewers of all types for many reasons. It also makes it clear just what will be lost when they're gone.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just What Is A Negative Review?

I'd hardly barely begun reading this month's Carnival of Children's Books over at MotherReader when I came upon Anne Boles Levy's excellent Presentation on Advanced Reviewing from Book Buds. Anne's post has so much serious information on reviewing that I made a hard copy to stash away to reread when I have more time.

But Anne said a couple of things that interest me beyond the technical aspects of reviewing. In her blog post, she refers to Steve Wasserman's article published in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. In it, Wasserman describes the "news of books" as an "ongoing cultural conversation" and says that "reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping" on this conversation. Reading the reviews is a valuable form of eavesdropping on the conversation, but writing the reviews makes you a participant in the conversation.

So that was Interesting Thing Number One. Interesting Thing Number Two? Anne's presentation was given at the Kidlit Blogger's Conference held earlier this year. As part of her presentation, she asked participants to edit "a short, highly critical review" that had been sent to her by a writer looking for editing advice. She says, "I was surprised when many people (authors all) stalled on the idea that the writer would even bother with a negative review.

Many authors simply couldn't emotionally grapple with the reality of negative book reviews, of their being a vital part of that "cultural conversation."

This subject has been discussed in blogs before in the kidlitosphere, so it's something I've thought about and written about. More than once. But after reading Anne's post, I began to wonder just what people mean by a "negative review."

Are "negative reviews" a matter of tone? Are the reviewers showing off their snarky wit at the expense of a novelist, like the blogger I stumbled upon who said his gag reflex was activated at the ending of a particular book? Or are "negative reviews" merely "critical" in the sense of careful evaluation? I'm thinking here of a reviewer stating that an author sacrificed character development for plot, for instance, or a reviewer believing that the writer's pacing was uneven.

I'm with Anne in believing that reviews are part of a conversation about books. As with any conversation, snark gets old fast and doesn't add any depth to the talk. But careful evaluation is what gives the conversation value. Careful evaluation is what makes reviews useful to readers. It makes them useful to anyone who is interested in books.

It's difficult for writers to have to listen to talk of their work being less than brilliant. And, yes, such reviews do have the potential to have an impact on our careers and our pocketbooks. But isn't that true of people working in any art form? What other arts practitioner would even dream of suggesting that there is no place for "negative" or critical, evaluative reviews in their ongoing cultural conversations? Think of movies, theater, TV, art. Does anyone in any of those fields publish only "positive" reviews? And if they do, does anyone take them seriously?


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Related To Reviewing, Not Kidlit

If you're at all interested in book reviewing, no matter what the age-range or genre, you ought to love Blunder at the Book Review, a post at Critical Mass. It's an excerpt from Susan Shapiro's book Only as Good as Your Word.

I found it both illuminating and touching, what with the father/daughter butt-smoking scene and all.


Monday, September 10, 2007

A Plea For Brevity

Remember Goodby to All That? The essay on book reviewing that I told you about last week? Sure, you do.

One of the author's points was that there is a movement toward shorter reviews, which does not give a good critic much space to really analyze a book. He argued for longer reviews. At Critical Mass, I just found a response to that. Michael O'Donnell says, "...rigorous writing—rigorous thinking—is concise, not stretched out, corpulent, flabby. I'll take a lean review, spare as a runner headed round a quarter-mile track. I know I can't be alone in disagreeing with the notion that it takes 2500 words to express an idea, or in feeling a little impatient with those writers who are too grand to pick the important things, say them, and then stop."

No, Mr. O'Donnell, you are not.

While I was reading Wasserman's essay I wondered about the desirability of a lot of long book reviews, too. I wasn't thinking so much of the quality of the writing as I was of my lack of time. (O'Donnell also points out that he's a busy guy.) Even if we all had all the time in the world, there's supposed to be 150,000 books published every year. The reality is that in order to be exposed to as many titles as possible so that I can make decisions about reading as many books as possible, I can't sit down and read too many term-paper length reviews. In fact, since I prefer not to read detailed reviews until after I've read a book, I like something short to make me aware titles are out there, what they're about, and a little bit of the reviewer's impression of the quality.

Now, I realize that reviewing is actually an artform, a type of writing. I should be reading them for something other than my own selfish purposes. I shouldn't be using them to seek out some other type of writing (books) that I want to read. But, well, life is short. The reality is that I have to seek out shorter reviews.

Reviewers really do have it rough. I actually read books, and look what a poor attitude I have.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Little Good News If You Have The Endurance To Look For It

If you decide to read Goodbye to All That by Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review you can just skim a big portion of the first part because it's just a rundown on all the newspapers that have been cutting back on or doing away with their book review sections, which you probably already know about. In the rest of the piece you will learn that: 1. book review sections have been losing money for a long time; 2. Margaret Fuller was the first full-time book reviewer in the U.S.*; 3. literary critics think rather a lot of themselves and of serious readers; 4. traditional newspaper people don't think much of book reviewers; 5. the contemporary reading situation may not be all that bad.

I suspect I'm one of those hairy-chested populists (metaphorically speaking, please) Wasserman quotes Richard Schickel as referring to. After offering up that warning, I will say that I thought there was a lot of interesting material in this article, but I also thought it rambled a bit; it was difficult to determine if there was one overall point the author was trying to make or a number of them. A lot of us who are not New York Review of Books types will probably drift off before we get to the end. But that may be okay with the author. He may not have been writing for us, anyway. provided the link.

*Important if you studied her in your feminist history college course.

Next Day Update: Critical Mass has a post describing this article, too. Check it out for a more detailed account of what's covered in Wasserman's essay.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

And Some Of Those Canadians Have A Way With Words, Too

Blow off all your blog reading for today, and maybe tomorrow, so you can read Adventures in the Reviewing Trade: A Cultural Primer by Alex Good. This is a very, very long piece, but Good has lots and lots of interesting (note I didn't say "good," though I thought of it) things to say about book reviewing. And I'm not just saying that because he agrees with me that a bad review is better than no review. Though he does come right out and say it: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bad review is better than no review at all."

Among the things he discusses:

How books get selected for review at newspapers

The promotional aspect of reviews vs. the critical aspect

How easy it is for reviewers to fall behind with their reviewing given the limited number of reviews they can publish, they huge number of books to review and the short shelf-life for new books

"Positive" reviews or "Making Nice"

Why readers prefer to read reviews of nonfiction to reviews of fiction

And, of course, the Internet

Something I found particularly interesting: "None of the print reviews that I’m aware of runs more reviews, or longer reviews, on their websites than they do in print. They have all the free space in the world – indeed an almost infinite amount –but we’re not seeing any explosion in reviewing. The Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail could double their number of book reviews online just for the cost of paying someone to write them. But they’re not. And there’s nothing stopping the CBC from running book reviews on their web-page. But it’s not very often they do."

I don't know if space on websites is free. Mine isn't. But it is interesting to consider whether or not the print reviews that are cutting back or shutting down couldn't move their operations to the Internet more economically and thus preserve review space.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Do Book Reviews Sell Books?

Critical Mass, "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors" has published a lot of mindless stuff recently that claimed to support print book reviews. I don't know that Thursday's post by John Freeman will do much to help preserve newspaper review sections, but it was extremely interesting and didn't attack anyone.

The question raised in this post was Do book reviews sell books?

I was a little put off at first because Freeman began with "At the Bookforum panel on Thursday, Jonathan Galassi said he felt book reviews don't seem to be moving copies as much anymore, in part because the general readership's knowledge-base has shrunk. So, the logic went, people reading book reviews don't have the context in which to place a value on a critic's conclusion about a book. Therefore, it's simply just another opinion."

I wasn't sure, but I thought this Galassi guy had just called me stupid. But once I got past that and moved on, I learned that Freeman's answer to the question Do book reviews sell books? was they aren't supposed to. "The purpose of a review is to discuss the book at hand and aspire to a minor-but-real art form along the way."

As a writer who wants to sell books, I tend to think of reviews as marketing tools for me, me, me. But I think Freeman has a point. The review should be about the book, not about selling the book.

And this, of course, brings us back to whether or not one should publish anything but positive reviews, which we bloggers have hashed out many times. If the review is only about the book and not about the author's feelings or trying to sell books, then the idea of positive and negative becomes a whole lot less touchy.

"'My personal opinion,' Freeman says, 'is that writing is writing, and good writing (and good arguing) will compel someone to buy a book, no matter where it is published, and whether or not it is a "good" or "bad" review. Furious engagement with a book suggests the book is worth engaging with --'"

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know that I absolutely agree with that.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's A Sorry State Of Affairs When The Colbert Report Has The Best Take On A Subject

Stephen Colbert interviewed Salmon Rushdie on the disappearance of book reviews. Except for one brief reference to the Internet that included no judgments (though I did think I saw Rushdie turn up his nose just a bit), the interview stayed on the subject of why traditional book reviews are necessary.

Rushdie's argument--reviews are necessary because they bring books to the attention of the public. In a world where there are so very many books, reviews push some titles out in front of readers.

There was no talk of how book reviews are necessary because critics "have read and studied literature, the great books, and have some outside knowledge to refer to when critiquing our work." There was no wildly taking swings at bystanders (like litbloggers) who have nothing to do with what's going on in the print media.

Perhaps limiting the time for a response to a couple of minutes helps keep a person on task.

Thanks to BookLust for the post.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

We're Better Than You Are!

When I read things like America's Death March Toward Illiteracy I am almost overcome by a desire to run and turn on my TV for a few hours.

The author had me ripping from her first two sentences. "People who read books are different from other people. They're smarter for one thing." Really? Well, some of them certainly like to think they are. It doesn't necessarily make it so.

A few paragraphs later she goes on with "Soon, who knows? Maybe we'll be burning books in the town square chanting: We don't need no dadgum books. We got Innernet porn 'n' satellite TeeVee!" Keep in mind, this was another save-the-book-section essay. People who write these things just can't seem to make an argument without attacking somebody who has little or nothing to do with the subject at hand.

To suggest that people who don't read are rubes who watch porn is so freaking offensive I am almost speechless. (But only almost.) Do the people who write these kinds of things ever think for a minute that maybe their intellectual snottery is exactly what turns people off from the world of books?

Thanks to the Blog of the Bookslut for this one. Jessa summed up my feelings. "Oh good god."


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Does Anyone Else Understand This?

The way this whole Save The Review Section, Save Western Civilization movement has turned into an anti-literary blog campaign is fascinating in a "Hey! Look at the five-legged frog!" sort of way. How are newspaper review sections and litblogs connected? I know plenty of people here in the carbon-based world (winky for you, Sheila) who get all their news from Internet sources, but I don't know a soul who gets all of his or her book information from the Internet.

Are the traditional book critics just looking for a dog to kick?

I've started visiting Critical Mass, "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors." Yesteryday's post Flat Screen Differs From The Book goes on for a while about the difference between reading on a monitor and reading a book, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what bringing up computers has to do with the writer's passion for books, which she talks about later in the piece, and her desire to see them reviewed. Why bring up computers at all? What was the point?

I enjoy a newspaper book section, myself, and have good reason to want to save them. After all, so long as they exist, there's always the possibility one of my books will be reviewed in some of them. Therefore, I certainly hope the pro-review warriors have a better weapon in their arsenal than complaining about litblogs.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Not Better, Not Worse, Different

Members of the blogosphere (at least the portion I inhabit) are wondering if blogging has had a negative impact on reviewing. This line of thought was inspired by an article in n+1 called The Blog Reflex, which was excerpted at a blog called Jess. (Just out of curiousity, has anyone read the entire article?)

Anyway, Fuse #8 saw the arguments made in The Blog Reflex as being "a slightly rehashed version of the eternal Should a Blogger Post Negative Reviews question that keep popping up."

Read Roger's response was that kidlit bloggers have "created a community of interested parties heretofore unknown in the children's book world...But I'm not sure it has lead to better reviewing: can we truly "all be in this together" at the same time some of us are judging the work of others?"

Here is my spin, which I know everyone is desperate to hear: We should be keeping in mind that the Internet is a different medium. What is published here is not supposed to be the same as what is published in traditional print media. Anyone who is posting "5,000-word critiques of their favorite books and records", as the original n+1 article suggested, hasn't researched her market, as we say in writing. I hate to sound simplistic and simple, but material written for the Internet is supposed to be short. Long stretches of unbroken text are deadly on the Internet.

Readers don't come to blogs to read the equivalent of one of those endless New Yorker articles on say, the quality of literary critism. They come to blogs to learn that those endless New Yorker articles exist and how to get to them should they wish to do so. Literary blogs, in particular, are a sort of directory of, a response to, a conversation about what is being written and read elsewhere and everywhere.

A metaphorical salon, perhaps.

Roger Sutton at Read Roger said in one of his comments that blogging is an "undifferentiated mix of news, gossip, shoutouts, trivia--and reviews." I don't think he meant that to be insulting, and I don't think it is. That is the salon aspect of blogging. The blog is different from other forms of writing. Not better, not worse, different.

Will the "coziness" (again from Roger) of these salons and their blog reviews have some kind of impact on reviewing altogether? I'm not sure. I learned a great deal about writing from reading the New York Times Book Review years ago and not because everything I read there was cozy and positive. Many of the reviews I read (I could get through) indicated a knowledge about writing and literature on the part of the reviewer that went beyond what he or she had to say about that particular book. Blog reviewers may very well have that same knowledge but when they only discuss what they like, they aren't necessarily getting an opportunity to share everything they know. If the coziness of blog reviewing makes the jump to traditional print reviews, I think something very well could be lost.

On the other hand, print reviewers seem to have such a bias against blog reviewers that it's hard to believe they'll be influenced by anything we're doing. In which case, we can all remain in our different worlds doing what we do...differently.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Nice Reviews

In Roger Sutton's post on authors and reviewing, he says of children's book reviewers, "There is also a tendency in the allied children's book fields to be "nice," which isn't good for literature..."

I've been wondering recently if this isn't the case. I often see some at least passable reviews of books that appear to me to be really poorly written. What's the harm, you may ask?

Soon after I got out of college, I read an article in Ms Magazine on whether or not women's literature should be judged differently than...whatever you want to call what else is out there. I don't recall the justification for judging it differently. All I recall is the justification for not doing so.

The author of the article said, essentially, that in our culture "different" often means "unequal" and "unequal" often means "inferior." Thus if the authors of women's literature were going to be judged by a different standard than the authors of mainstream literature, they ran the risk of having their work considered different from and possibly inferior to mainstream literature.

If women writers wanted to play the game as equals, they had to play by the same rules everyone else played by.

If children's writers want to play the literary game as equals, we can't expect to be treated differently than other writers are treated. Being treated nicer can very well mean that our work is being given a pass because we aren't considered as good as writers whose work is reviewed more vigorously.

If we want to be taken seriously as writers, we have to play by the same rules everyone else plays by. That's better for us as individual writers, and it's better for children's writing in general.