Is the (good) book review dead?

What is the value of a book review today– can it be trusted? On the surface, it’s one person’s subjective (and sometimes biased) view on a text. Why read it unless that person’s tastes are similar to yours and unless the reviewer has no vested interest in the author’s financial fortune?

I realized that the reviews I was reading in newspapers and journals had gradually morphed into unsubtle sales messages for the books they were covering. I concluded therefore, that the serious impartial reviewer had gone the way of the dodo bird, replaced by the “mutual admiration society”—aka writers helping other writers, especially their friends, a situation created out of necessity, given that publishers rarely paid for reviews these days, and the only person who would sacrifice time to read and write something about a writer’s work would be a friend, potentially another writer; and the chances are that he would write something nice, and expect something nice to be written about him too when the time came to call in the favour.

There was also the “syndicated review”—the one that hogged prime space in all the national newspapers simultaneously to the exclusion of the hundreds of other good books vying for attention. Big money talking here, not big writing, I concluded.

And what about those paid reviews—I mean, author•paid—a service offered by reviewers who were once held in high esteem for their credibility. What sorry times we had sunken into!

Oh, and don’t forget that other phenomenon taking place, mostly on the web and in social media: “hate reviews,” by those wanting to discredit the author for reasons political, commercial or otherwise. We heard of Amazon and other online sites being bombarded by the infamous “1 rating” (aka “very poor”). Even the lofty J.K Rowling was humbled by this onslaught from unseen forces. And how credible were these reviews?

I have written a lot of book reviews over the years, myself. I started writing them when I began forgetting the plot lines and characters of the many books I had been reading. I felt I needed to keep cheat sheets on them. Soon, I had over 200 reviews and that number has grown. In a desire to share and engage, I placed these review on the web. A few websites liked what I was writing (Goodreads and e•Zine Articles among others—even mighty Amazon deigned to publish some of my reviews as long as they weren’t too controversial and did not adversely impact sales), and so I began posting my reviews for the wider world to read via these sites, for free. Although I was interested in the books themselves, I had no personal interest in the authors as I did not know any of them— many were dead or too famous to bother with little me. And none of them were going to reciprocate by writing reviews of my books (Imagine reviews written on my books by the likes of Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan et al? Dream on, Shane!), so I did not have to pull any punches. And now, over the years I seem to have gathered a small but loyal flock of readers of my reviews, ones who will be influenced to pick up a copy of the book after reading my review on it. Likewise, I have compiled a list of independent reviewers whose opinions I hold in regard over all the others I skim over in my weekend newspaper.

So in order to restore credibility to the book review, we must reduce it to a DIY industry, it appears. In future, serious readers will follow self•selected reviewers, in small flocks, not in hordes via mass media or on those websites that are used as weapons of mass author•destruction. The Book Review is not dead, the good ones are just a little hard to find amid the myriad wannabes cluttering up the Book•o•sphere today.

Who are your favourite book reviewers? Do share…

Swinging both ways

A reader recently asked me why I swung both ways, i.e. played on the other team as well. I reminded him that I was heterosexual and played only on one team. “But you write book reviews,” he reminded me. “So?” “But you are a writer yourself.” “So?” Then he went onto clarify that writers should not write reviews as that often put down other writers, especially the weaker ones. “Writers should endorse other writers, particularly their friends,” he said. “You could very soon be kicked out of the writing fraternity for your critical views on certain authors.” “Balls,” I replied, and decided to make a list of reasons for why I write book reviews:

1) To remind myself of what I have read
2) To learn the craft and make points that I want to revisit later
3) To remind myself that my books too should be subjected to this rigour by others. Together we should source good writing whoever’s it is, and expose mediocre stuff
4) To share my views with whoever cares to read them, and to help others choose books wisely
5) To engage with other readers and discuss the merits of books we share a mutual interest in

I am sure that I will come up with other reasons why, but the above are enough to keep me “playing on the other team.” Besides I don’t get paid for this endeavour, so who should care but me for the time put in? And as a fellow writer, I am conscious of the writer’s day•to•day challenges and try to look beyond the missing punctuation and other grammatical inconsistencies which should have been an editor’s job to take care of anyway.

There have been occasions when I have written reviews of books of writers whom I know. In the situation when I did not like the book, I have sent the review directly back to the writer in the hope that it would help him (or her), and the matter ends there; nothing is published, unless the writer insists that the review be put on public display.

And as for writing fraternities, or fraternities of any kind, they have existed from time immemorial. Like gangs, they provide security and protection for members while in existence. And like gangs, they can become insular and unwelcoming to newcomers who do not fit the profile. Writers are notorious for their gangs, which gather in strength and occasionally jettison one of their stronger members to make his way in the rough and tumble world of publishing. I have belonged to some of these fraternities, but have outgrown them, or they have outgrown me. They have however, been useful pit stops on my writing journey. But even established fraternities are under siege today while newer ones are forming in the age of Internet 2.0. In this environment, isn’t it prudent to play on as many teams as possible, for who knows of who will be left standing when Internet 3.0 comes around?

So, for now, I will continue to play on the other team as well. If money and the fear of viral criticism were not concerns, it is indeed a great time to be a writer in this era of Internet 2.0, for like this blog, there are many ways for writers to express themselves today. Reviewing books and sharing that learning online is one of them.

Social Networking – a must-have or a time waster?

A couple of years ago, a reputable speaker at a literary conference told me that if I did not build a social networking platform I would be of no use to publishers in the future. In other words, I had to bring the audience to me, which in the past I had thought the publisher did. I guess he had outsourced this job – to me! Having no one else in the distribution chain to pass the buck down to, I complied, and got into heavy social networking.

Let’s see, I registered my own domain name as www.shanejoseph.com and built my own website with e•commerce capability, populating it with new content weekly (I’m not a Yahoo or Google who can update content hourly – at least, not yet!). I blogged and twittered, and joined lots of online forums where writers and readers gathered. I syndicated my blogs, became a reviewer on Goodreads and copied my book reviews over to Amazon whenever I was mindful of the p’s and q’s in my content. I Facebook’d and Linked•In’d and even started giving talks on the value of building an online platform – heck it was fashionable, why not cash in? However, I recall, so were beads and bell•bottoms and drainpipes and sideburns and “give peace a chance” love•ins, once upon a time. Very soon, I was spending several hours a week on my growing platform. I was famous but still poor.

I even thought of opening my website to advertisers and giving away all my books as free e•book downloads. Heck, I could deliver free copies to my huge platform of readers – numbering in their thousands at this point – and claim to be a best•seller, or at least, “the most widely circulated.” I’d obviously incur the wrath of my fellow writers who were trying to make a living out of this vocation; I would be banned from the writer’s union, and would never be guaranteed that any of those free copies would ever be read (people don’t even read paid•for copies anymore as they function better as doorstops, coffee placemats, bookshelf adornments, and claims to literacy rather than as vehicles of enlightenment). I might even end up turning the existing, broken book publishing model on its head. Or I might be ignored as a crackpot and dismissed with, “His writing must suck, because good things are not free, and free things are not good.”

If getting people to read your books is the end•game, then operating an online platform is essential but insufficient. You need to put the book in the reader’s hand and say “read it,” and they in turn need to put the book in other readers’ hands and say, “This is a damned good book – read it!” The online platform creates awareness and builds mystique, but there is a much longer journey from that point on the continuum to turning curious browsers into readers and endorsers.

I am not dismissing the online platform. It seems a necessary burden in these times. But I need to balance this effort with focussing on my writing and making it the best ever. I want an unprovoked reader to read my book, put it up on his social networking site and say, “Hey, listen up! Read this book, it’s so cool!” Now, that endorsement would indeed be a desirable end•result, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!”