Monday 8 February 2010

Opinionated Speculations: Writers Reviewing Bloggers

You've all read 'Righting the Left Hand of God', right?

If not, go do that. You'll also want to read the review of Paul Hoffman's eagerly anticipated fantasy debut that preceded it. Don't worry; it's not too much to get through, and hey, what better way is there to spend another dreary Monday than by shirking more pressing responsibilities?

Let's push forward on the presumption that if you're here, however, you're already familiar with the two posts Google Analytics tell me now reign supreme on The Speculative Scotsman - although before we do, let me thank everyone who's read the article, as well as those who were moved enough to tweet about it, link to it, or follow it up on their own blog, with their own thoughts. In the end, it's all about the conversation - the power that arises from this speculative collective - and I'm chuffed to bits to have contributed something to the endlessly stimulating dialogue that's followed.

But let's get on with the show.

In 'Righting the Left Hand of God', I discussed how the reception to my negative review of said novel had left me feeling a little conflicted; or, at the least, I certainly meant to. One way or another, to cut a long story short, I didn't launch The Speculative Scotsman in order to bully readers into buying or not buying a book - any book - based solely on my say-so.

Now far be it from me to suggest that any of the readers who said in the comments section of said review that they would no longer be buying The Left Hand of God made that decision based on a single blogger's opinion. I'm sure that wasn't the case, but equally, it's not impossible that in some cases, my thoughts on Hoffman's much-hyped novel represented the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. And no wonder: that camel's got to be exhausted by now, trotting back and forth with all the world's expectations on its shoulders like the first man to set foot on the moon, albeit with humps. And straw.

So. Tome of the Undergates author and seemingly frequent TSS visitor Sam Sykes posted his thoughts on the questions raised in part in 'Righting The Left Hand of God' on his own site, which I'd advise you bookmark or add to your RSS readers right this second.

I don't want to repost his entire blog, so go read his response, 'Do Y'all Wanna Talk About Reviews?' - and then, dear reader, return to me, for I have things yet unsaid to say.

To surmise: Sam - perhaps a little nervous over the perception that if bloggers don't like his highly anticipated debut, people might be dissuaded from buying it - doesn't think that a single recommendation, or indeed a warning not to go near a certain novel, is worth overly much. I find myself agreeing with Sam disturbingly often, and this surely isn't the ideological crossroads at which we must part ways; he's right.

I'm not the magical Scotsman that has been suggested elsewhere, nor need my English degree be any sort of validation of the opinions I presented here on the blog; assuredly, the university I studied at is no universally renowned bastion of education, though I suppose it's a step up from the drive-through colleges you can buy diplomas a dime a piece from. That said, there's nothing more or less valid about my reactions to a novel than any other blogger's. TSS is but a single voice, and though I'm not afraid sing a different tune here than other writers and readers might, that's only because, at the end of the day - as they say - beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What makes a book great to me isn't necessarily what would make a book great to you; my opinions are my own, and I promise you, I'll think no less of you if you do not share them.

Anyway, never one to say a little when I could say a lot, I've only really written all of the above to somehow justify with sheer verbosity my reposting of the lengthy comment I made on Sam's blog, as follows:

"Be it good press or bad, if people are talking about your book, if there's buzz of any sort surrounding its release, there's got to be a greater chance that the average Joe or Jane will recognise it when he or she is window-shopping in Waterstones or browsing in Borders. People aren't like lemmings - as Sam says, we can and should be making up our own minds about whether or not a particular thing appeals to us, be it a book, a film, new food or fashion. As far as books go, a review, whether positive or negative, serves firstly to give people who otherwise wouldn't look twice that first incentive to pick up, say, The Left Hand of God, or indeed, Tome of the Undergates, and make their own decisions according to their own criteria.

"And though a part of me rebels against it, there is that other point that no-one's quite making. The Speculative Scotsman may only be a month and change old, but I've been lurking amongst the community for years, and as such I don't think I would be far off-base to say that a negative review on a blog, any blog really, seems to be an uncommon thing. It's not like there's a chance Orbit or Gollancz would stop sending ARCs to The Guardian or The Times if either made a habit of ripping their publications to shreds - the exposure is just too valuable - but as far as blogs go, I imagine things are quite different.

"Bloggers are in the unenviable position of either buying just the books they want to read, and therefore leaning necessarily towards covering only those novels that they're likely to react positively to, or relying on publishers to send them a selection of the good, the bad and the ugly alike. In that latter case, the bloggers in question must then decide how important the relationships he or she has with those publishers are before publicly savaging a book they've particularly disliked. There's certainly bad press to be had in the blogs, but largely I think it's a case of good press to be lost.

"Now I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that blogs which rely on ARCs and the like are dishonest - I'd only be shooting myself in the foot, let's be frank - but I feel there's an important point to be made in amongst all that thinking-out-loud. At the end of the day, I don't necessarily trust a good review in the way that I do a negative perspective; a reviewer has nothing to lose by saying nice things about something, and much to gain. A bad review, on the other hand, will do him or her no favours - it's akin to biting the hand that feeds. Suffice it to say I don't imagine any attempts I make to establish a working relationship with Michael Joseph, the UK publishers of The Left Hand of God, will meet with much success. For a book to be met with indifference or outright negativity, therefore, there have got to be some real problems for a blogger to take that chance.

"Of course, none of that changes the fact that ultimately, readers must make their decisions for themselves. Better that they're informed decisions, though, and better still that they're decisions made bearing in mind the advice of bloggers whose reactions in the past have been similar to your own.

"But for me, for the reasons outlined above, when I'm looking to add to my collection of books, a single bad review carries substantially more weight than a single good review."

Of course, the larger part of that comment is a story for another time, and that time is not now. I've burbled enough for one day.

But do, dear readers, let me know what your thoughts are on these issues in the comments. Are bad reviews bad things? Do they impact your perception of a book more than a good review might? Can bloggers be considered a source of legitimate criticism if there's anything to the above-mooted opinion? At that, is there anything to it?



  1. Well, I posted a response over at Sam's blog, so I'll re-respond here as well.

    You go a little far in my opinion to imply that bloggers give positive reviews to stay in the good graces of any publisher kind enough to feed them books. I think this is bullshit. Some bloggers may fear this and may give positive reviews as a result, but these bloggers generally would reak of amaturism and probably aren’t all that likely to stick around or get many books from publishers in the first place.

    Now I do agree that blogger reviews tend to be rather positive. I think the real reason for this is that the typical blogger reviewer is a fan first. And they generally have a pretty good idea of what sort of book they enjoy – and those are the books they choose to read. Very few people actually pick up a book they don’t think they’ll like. So, this automatically skews reviews towards the positive.

    As Simon Spanton of Gollancz indicates over at Sam's blog and my own experience supports, publishers want well-written (or close-enough to well-written) reviews and really don’t care if they are ultimatley positive or negative. I’ve never had any publisher hint that I shouldn’t have written a negative review. Heck, I enjoy writing negative reviews even if I don’t do it all that often. They are fun and challenging – especially since I try to write it in a way that someone may still decide it’s the book for them even though I basically trash it – I got lots of this sort of thing when I reviewed a Salvatore book a few years ago – many people were very excited to read it for the exact reasons I disliked it so much.

  2. @Neth - glad to have you here, mate. Now I'm certainly not suggesting that every blogger will review a bad book positively, nor even the nearly majority of us, but there are some, I think - a few I'm sure we could both point to - that are wont to do just that likely for fear of offending a publicist to the point that they're removed from one ARC list or another.

    Simon's point over on Sam's blog is well made, and I know from experience that he's a fine fellow, but let's be frank: they're not all as kind and accomodating as he.

    In my brief time in the blogosphere, I, too, haven't had any problems with the negative reviews I've written - although TLHoG is admittedly the only out-and-out slating I've published. But would Penguin be receptive to any attempts I might make to establish a working relationship with them? I think, in all likelihood, probably not. And this over to a book I bought with my own hard-earned. Perhaps I'm mistaken.

    It's just something to bear in mind, really, far from a slight on the entire blogging circuit; only, it's one of those disclosures that aren't often made which I think readers should be more aware of. Bloggers don't, I suppose, often have publishers helping them out, and when they don't, as I said in the comment I reposted above, they'll necessarily be buying those books they want to read, and thus be responding to them more positively - but when they do, I think it can open a whole of worms that warrants some discussion, at the least.

  3. Sure there may be a few bad apples out there, but I think there aren't that many - in the SFF blogosphere I see very little of it. Now I do see plenty of examples of pretty bad reviewing (some of which are my own :) ) and I see plenty of examples of over-reliance on scoring systems that tend to have very little consistency and make very little sense. But that's a different issue and it's been beat to death.

    I can only speak for myself, and while I get loads of books from publishers (more than I can possibly read), I ultimatley choose those books I want to read. And most of those fall well within the sphere of books that I'm very probably going to like. I do stretch and make challenges from time to time, but I'm more often rewarded for those efforts. And I also specifically request books fairly often - and those are books that I really want to read - books that are very likely to be books I'll enjoy.

    Now most bloggers probably don't receive the number of books I do and may feel more obligated to review the books they do - and those books may not line up well with what they typicaly enjoy. More often than not it seems those bloggers simply choose to not say much about the books they don't enjoy. Personally, I don't like that stategy but I see a fair number who go by it.

  4. I think negative reviews by bloggers really only affect those individuals that really tend to have the same reading tastes as the blogger. Otherwise, a negative review, imho, will only add to the furor with which people read a book, just to see where they stand.

    For example: The Magicians by Lev Grossman seemed to have a polarizing effect on the blogosphere. Blogs that I read regularly either loved it or hated it. I now own the book because I want to see where I stand on the issue.

  5. @Seak - I'm in the exact same position re: The Magicians! Looking forward to clearing the TBR stack some so I can get to it; the diversity of reactions to it really did pique my interest.

  6. Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah, woah, WOAH.

    Sir, are you implying that Sam Sykes is even capable of nervousness, that lowest form of fear? Sam Sykes is so far beyond fear that his urine causes courage in others!

    In all seriousness, though, I made that post because it was on my mind and I wanted to see discussion emerge from it. Once again, I have succeeded.

  7. The best thing anyone can do, if they don't want to give a particular book any more support or sales, is to say nothing. Show no cover, give no synopsis.

    Any bad review lodges in the mind to be recycled, and presented later - for example, upon seeing a book on the shelf in a shop - as "Oh, I remember seeing that name online somewhere." Then the book is in someone's hands. There's a chance they will browse through and purchase said book. Also, someone might see the synopsis of your review and think, "Hey, that doesn't sound bad. To!"

    So if you hate a book - voicing your hatred will create attention over it. As long as people talk about a book, the beast is still alive. And if no one is talking about it... well, you get the idea.

  8. Sam Sykes wins again!

    Can't say I'm surprised. So, apparently we're pushing back the TOME coverage until early March. But would you believe it, we've got a our first giveaway lined up to coincide with the review and interview.

    How's about that for a win, fine Sykesalot?

  9. There can be no surprise, really. Sam Sykes is a force of good and benevolence. All that he touches becomes better, somehow.

  10. For all of the reasons already mentioned, I agree that we blogger-reviewers tend to overrepresent books we like in our reviews. One of the ways I've tried to address this is by including an explanation (a mini-review sort of thing) when I can't finish a book. It's not perfect but it's something, I guess....

  11. OK, I'll forego my initial temptation to review the review (Ken can tell you about my history of doing these sorts of nefarious things) to note that for a topic that tends to crop up like a nasty case of herpes, you and crew have managed to make this more enjoyable to read with the wit and banter than what I am accustomed to read.

    Tempted to blog about this, after two weeks of barely blogging about anything. Should I hate you now and wish pustules and the pox upon you and your house?

  12. Larry! My oh my, I think I've arrived.

    Everyone go here for Larry's response:

    I'm much too tired to get a coherent comment together at the moment, but here's to the morning, and the return of a rational thought process.

    Can't believe I - even in part - managed to get you blogging again after such a quiet period on the OF Blog of the Fallen. As such, Larry, I'll take your offer of pox and the pustules gladly - although I fear my house is already in rather poor shape, so please, let's leave that aside for now.

  13. Larry: Oh, yes, do it! Think of the guy from Minnesota!

    N.R.: I appreciate the thoughtfulness here, though I do also disagree with you on the "positive reviews to appease a publisher" and think Ken (Neth) has nailed it. I think it's very uncommon.

    I'm also just instigating here. I like when Larry reviews reviewers. It's fun (for me) - and I *like* your blog.

  14. Hey, Joe's here as well!

    No harm done, mate. I'm all for hearing Larry review my reviews - although perhaps that's rather asking for it - but from the looks of his recent post on the OF Blog of the Fallen, he just doesn't yet have a large enough "sample" to judge from, so here's to sorting that out!

    While I'm reminded, an excuse: there haven't been many reviews at all on TSS this week, largely because I've agreed to hold a few over to better suit the whims of the great hype machine. Never fear, though, for there are three in the works to be published in the next week to ten days; that should give him a good start.

    I don't know that I should be looking forward to having Larry tear me to pieces quite so much, but there you go. The characteristic perversity of a speculative Scotsman.

    As to your point, Joe, I don't disagree that it's uncommon for bloggers to write positive reviews to appease publishers - at least the bloggers we all make a habit of reading - but I'd still warrant that a negative review is more truthful more often than a positive one for the reasons outlined above. Also more fun, in my admittedly limited experience (which is to say as far as TLHoG goes) and certainly more stimulating in terms of reader response than anything else I've offered my critical opinion of.

    I'm going to have to find a few more books to hate on, aren't I? Oh my.

  15. "I'm not the magical Scotsman that has been suggested elsewhere"

    I am slightly crushed by this statement....

    but I will offer up my thoughts about reading bad reviews --- I order books for our library, so I actually don't mind bad reviews, because they can give me an honest opinion of something. I take into account not only good reviews, but bad ones, to give me an honest sense of the book beyond what some gushing blurb has to say about it. I don't decline a purchase based on one bad review (if every single review is bad, that's another story).

  16. "More truthful more often?"

    Still not sure I agree. Am I more truthful for being middling about Nancy Kress's Steal Across the Sky, for having a whole host of issues with Twilight, or for unabashedly loving The Gathering Storm?

    Or are all equally truthful because they were each written with an equal degree of honesty?

    See, this is where I think it gets to who the particular reviewer is and not so much whether she writes 90% positive reviews because she self-selects as much as we all do - or has nothing to say about some of the crappy books.

    I think we all figure out sooner or later whether the reviewer is spewing forth dishonest garbage or has no sense of judgment - whether by hating every book, loving them all, or having a balance between love and hate and disinterest and mild approval. The merit of the reviewer lies in the hands of the reader. (feel free to discuss amongst yourselves the finer points of my merit, or lack thereof).

    Which goes back to my original thought that negative reviews aren't necessarily any more honest more often than positive ones. The work in question may just have hit something in the reviewer to spark a more passionate response than the norm. That's not *more* honest.

  17. My oh my!
    What a can of wiggly book worms has been let loose! In reading all of these ping-pong posts & ripostes, I can't help but have a chuckle, although I acknowledge this is certainly very serious business. Writers all; you are certainly great entertainment. I bow down to the master wordsmiths and rhetorists among you. :o)

  18. I thought one didn't "arrive" until someone like Neil Gaiman linked to one's blog... ;)

    Well, I was about to start blogging again (I have another post up, this one devoted to making quite a few reading this green -or something- with envy), but this was a good excuse to write an essay, so I took it :P

    Joe, you're so sadistic, wishing that on the equivalent of a fair maiden. I don't think most would like to lose their blogging maidenheads in that fashion ;)

    But as for the more "truthful" bit, I like to think when I dismiss a rather bland book in my reading lists (usually posted 1-3 times a month) with a "meh", that I've summed up well those works that don't merit more than a single-word comment that hints at the depths of blandness to which those works have sunk. Sometimes, brevity and/or silence says more about a work than any amount of praise or invective.

  19. I'm sick of the suck ups and whores who never give a bad review. Go nuts.

  20. @Larry

    Good to see you come out of relative hibernation. It certainly looks to me like Niall and Joe for that matter) are begging for critiscm. Or perhaps Mr. Newton should jump into the game since he was hinting at reviewing reviwers some time ago (and I think it's been over a week since he posted something controversy, so I'm sure he's looking :P ).


    I'm with on this. Negative reviews aren't any more honest than postive reviews. I've seen examples where a negative review seemed little more than a concerted effort to be different from everyone else and much less about the book than prevailing opinion/buzz/hype.

    It comes down to good reviewing versus bad reviewing and the ability to communicate one's opinion well. I very much liked Larry's discussion on voice in a review - I strive to have voice by investing something of myself in each review. How well I actually achieve this I don't know, but it feels to me like I do (and since I'm a blogger we all know that it's really all about me ;) ).

  21. Ken, I'll never under that sadistic/masochistic streaks that people have. I think I'd rather have my nad hairs removed with a tweezer one by one rather than be on the receiving end of that...

    As for the hibernation bit, part of that was due to my right wrist needing time to heal properly and part due to not having much to say, hard as that might be to believe :P

  22. To address Neth's post: it's true that some bloggers are accused of, and occasionally do, give negative reviews because they're more concerned with appearing clever than actually reviewing the product. Sometimes, as in the case of Yahtzee, it works well. Most times, it's a little off-putting.

    Fortunately, it's pretty obvious when they're trying to do this at the expense of actually doing the book justice.

  23. Ken: As Simon Spanton of Gollancz indicates over at Sam's blog and my own experience supports, publishers want well-written (or close-enough to well-written) reviews and really don’t care if they are ultimatley positive or negative.

    Oh come on! Does anyone really believe that publishers don't prefer badly-written positive reviews to well-written negative reviews? Spanton is talking about something slightly different, appreciating well-written reviews and not taking punative action against negative reviews. As he points out: "Someone doesn’t like one of our books but then likes the next one people will get a sense of the sort of reader they are and when they have that they’ll start trusting them."

    Mark: The best thing anyone can do, if they don't want to give a particular book any more support or sales, is to say nothing. Show no cover, give no synopsis.

    If this is responding to something earlier I might have missed it, in which case apologies, but is anyone talking about denying a book support or sales? Or are you saying this is a reason for publishers to be blasé about negative reviews?

    Ignoring that, I'm not convinced by the picture you paint, it seems to be missing an awareness that reviews don't exist in isolation. It is rarely a case of no-one talking about a book, it is usually a case of who is talking about it.

    In your example, if you have a bunch of people who love Book X and a bunch of people who hate Book X then the only responses which will be published are the positive ones which will give the impression that everyone loves it. In the real world, you will instead get a mixed response.