A Little Less Conversation?

The Huffington Post books section isn’t going to do reviews, according to Amy Hertz:

#1. This is NOT a book review section. Let me say that again, because I know about 72,000 publicists just plotzed because they have no idea what to do other than ask for a review. Huffington Post Books is not a review — there’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies.[…]

And now you’re thinking, If I can’t send you books to review, how does anyone get attention for them on your site?

I thought you’d never ask.

#2. Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog. You, your authors, your authors’ friends. And especially editors. Yes, you can come and blog about the books you love, the ones you are publishing, just make it clear to the reader who you are and what your relationship to the book is.

I can feel Jonathan’s righteous outrage building even as I type. But as Adrienne Martini points out, in many ways this is the most interesting quote:

Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.

In the comments to Martini’s post, Russell Letson argues:

Of course it’s a conversation, and the fact that in its traditional mode it is nearly always one-sided doesn’t mean that it stops communication. I’ve been addresssing imagined audiences via Locus and other periodicals for going on thirty years, and when a (perhaps non-representative) sample of readers gets to talk back, say, during a convention panel, it seems to me that I haven’t even slowed down the conversation. But then, I’ve never had to write the thumbs-up/thumbs-down buying-guide kind of review and never needed to do a killer review. Those might indeed be conversation-stoppers. Instead, I get to read what I think I’ll enjoy, describe what’s in front of me, and account for it–think out loud about why it’s enjoyable or interesting or new or comfy-familiar and where it came from and what other books it reminds me of, and anything else that pops into my tiny mind while my fingers are on the keyboard.

Obviously, I find the concept of the Huffington Post Books section as soul-shrivelling as the next good LRB/Locus/etc reader, and Letson is right that reviewing is a kind of conversation. But it’s not the kind of conversation Hertz wants. I wonder whether it isn’t precisely the argued judgement that Hertz sees as blocking the kind of conversation she does want, more than, as Letson speculates, buying-guide reviews. A well-written review of that kind, after all, covers off a lot of potential rebuttals, because the reviewer has already thought of them when composing their argument, so there’s a bar that anyone reading the review has to cross before they can enter into discussion with it. It’s not universally true, but reviews that get the most comments, particularly on blogs, tend to be those that are open-ended in some way.

However, it’s clearly not the kind of conversation that Hertz thinks is most effective at selling books. She thinks promos along the lines of Scalzi’s “Big Idea” slot are more effective. io9’s book group would probably meet with some approval, too. (Speaking of which, Paul McAuley answers questions about The Quiet War here.) Maybe she’s even right, on average. But personally, I’m glad the internet has many other places for me to get my books coverage.

8 thoughts on “A Little Less Conversation?

  1. Actually, I have a degree of sympathy for her position and I said so in a comment yet to appear at Locus.

    Regardless of how we feel about reviews, they don’t spark debate and discussion in the way that we think they should. The only time you get lengthy discussions surrounding reviews is when someone says something outrageous to some group and a storm-in-a-teacup situation erupts.

    Reviews tend to affect the way that a work is perceived but in a quite subtle way. When, for example, the Clarke shortlist is announced, I think people tend to think about it in terms of the reviews that have been written. The content of those reviews might not have been discussed but everyone will bear, for example, Martin’s review of The Ask and The Answer if it makes the cut. The reviews have impact but we’re not discussing them per se.

    Also, if you look at places like Rotten Tomatoes you see that a lot of people are actively hostile to reviewers. You even see it sometimes on Strange Horizons. A lot of the time, when reviews are engaged with, it’s out of a sense of injustice or a desire to immediately discount a dissenting opinion. That’s not a basis for healthy conversation.

    So I recognise that there’s a problem with the form. In the age of the internet when we’re all talking about shit all the time, you’d expect us to be talking about reviews a bit more.

    However, I’m not sure that the kind of self-promoting hype she is talking about will remedy the situation. When hype dominates discussion, discussion of books and films are not about the books and films themselves, they’re about the people doing the talking. They’re exercises in validation of purchasing decisions. It’s like when the owners of different consoles argue over which is the best, they’re not actually interested in programming languages and chip-sets, they’re angry that someone is suggesting they might have bought the wrong thing and at a time when people express themselves through purchasing decisions, that’s a big deal.

    So I’m not sure that hype starts the right kind of conversations even if it does manage to start them.

    On a side note, I think there should be a special level of hell reserved for self-promoting authors. Let your stories do the talking for you instead of making sure that everyone on your facebook friendlist is also signed up to your fan page so that they can be kept abreast of every story you sell and every deal you have lined up. There’s demystifying the artistic process and then there’s making it abundantly clear to everyone what a careerist hack you really are.

  2. If you are talking to a friend and it turns out you’ve both seen a movie, read a book, etc., 99% of the time the next thing someone says is, “What did you think?” That is most definitely the beginning of a conversation.

    I think the problem with published reviews is they serve a dual purpose. Many (most?) readers of a review want to know if they should spend their valuable time and money on the work in question. But then there’s the group who already read the book and want to know what other people think. Now for the first and perhaps traditional audience for a review, there’s not much conversation to be had. The reviewer liked or didn’t like the work, the reader hasn’t read it, not a lot to discuss generally. But for that second audience, the review is definitely a starting point of a conversation. When I’m looking up reviews of a book I’ve read, I don’t just read one, I read the top five or six on Google and weigh them against each other and my own opinion. In an era where people are generally pretty sensitive about spoilers, writing a good review for the second audience is difficult to do without alienating the first audience.

    One of the (many) problems with getting good review-based conversations going online is the fragmentation of the modern literary market. It’s hard enough to get a book everyone within a somewhat niche genre have read (for instance when people were talking about The City & The City I hadn’t read it yet), and the overlap is even smaller for a general-interest site like the Huffington Post.

  3. What Matt said: it’s hard to respond to, or engage with, a review if you haven’t read the work under consideration. And if you have read the work under consideration then there’s a fair chance one of two situations will obtain: (a) you agree with the reviewer, in which case there’s little to say (what point is there in posting ‘I agree!’ to a comments thread?); or (b) you disagree. In many cases your disagreement will be parsed via a sense of personalised outrage — because your love of Book X is an expression of the sort of person you are, and if Nasty Reviewer shits all over Book X then they are shitting all over you as a human being too and nobody should be allowed to get away with that. This, of course, leads to a lot of posturing and anger and rarely to dialogue that could be described as constructive.

    As for Jonathan, well clearly he will strike down upon with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy our genre.

  4. Surely the problem is: how do you orchestrate a discussion of books that isn’t either review-based or essentially academic in its analysis?

    Television, for instance, has an appalling record of trying to do books programmes, and failing. They end up as either biographies of the author (thereby implicitly buying into the assumption that the life informs the work) or dramatisations of scenes from the work.

    Occasionally you do get a good discussion about books (last night I witnessed an extraordinarily good discussion about Simenon between John Banville and John Gray, for instance), but in the main these seem more a result of chance than intent. All too often they can disintegrate into an exchange such as: I like X, well I don’t like X. And the more people are involved in the discussion, the more quickly it is likely to reach this point.

    In the main, even best sellers are not that widely read. There are always going to be more people who don’t know the book than who do. So those who have not read the book are going to need some sort of review-analogue in order to give them the basic grounding they need to be able to participate in the discussion. But once you get that you’re back to the review as the starting point of discussion. And of course that puts you in the position that Matt and Adam describe.

  5. This is an interesting discussion. I’m probably just re-iterating what’s been said, but typing it might help me think…

    I have mixed feelings about reviews. If I haven’t read the book I really just want someone (whose opinion I trust) to say “you should read this”. And then maybe say something about what it’s like, a bit. Which is pretty much the style I use on my blog, by no means in-depth or critical, more like I’m recommending (or not) a book to my friends down the pub. If I have read the book then maybe I’m interested in what other people have said, but as pointed out, a review is perhaps not the best format for that.

    The most interesting conversations are definitely when the participants have all read the book. Again, the pub analogy works.

    It’s also got me thinking about why there seems to be much more conversation around SF TV shows online. I’ve always thought it’s because they’re quicker to consume, but in this context it now makes sense that there is a conversation *about* the programme, rather than a review of an upcoming programme. And I’d guess that most TV show reviews, on an episode by episode basis, are written as though the reader has already seen the episode?

  6. The HuffPo policy is a lazy way of getting reviews without the person in charge of that section having to ask for them. The likeliest response to it will result in more noise and less signal… a gull rookery. On the Internet everyone can hear you scream — hence the ascendancy of the proud loud.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s