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Reviews and Pornography

The first comes from Damien Broderick on the ASif Forums:

"What reviews apparently don't do, I'm told, is make the slightest blip on sales figures. Even killer reviews apparently don't dent books that you'd think should have been strangled to death in the womb, and the most glorifying praise evidently doesn't shift although many extra copies. Word of mouth, that seems to be the ticket."


Which is interesting, I tend to think. I'm just getting this handle of the reviewing thing, and while it's a sort of interesting past time thing I've begun for reasons a bit too long and complex to get into right here, I'm not sure I agree with Broderick. A review helps word of mouth, surely? And it influences people, yes? Either way, one of the things I've discovered is that, in its own way, good reviewing is its own piece of work. It can be read independently from the work itself, though of course, if one has read the work, they join the conversation and debate about it. One of the things that I enjoyed about writing my phd was how I could offer a view of a piece of work for a larger critique, or to use it to reference social and cultural issues. It's one of those things that I want to bring to the bits I do now, though in a variety of ways.

But anyhow, reading Broderick's bit, I wondered, really, what is it that people think reviews should do, and what it is that people want them to do.

The second comes from Alan Moore on his new graphic novel with artist Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls:

We are also demonizing any reference to child sexuality. We are denying that children actually have a sexuality, which I think probably doesn't jibe with our personal sexual experiences. Children have a sexual imagination from the age of four or five, and at the same time, as we have all this outcry, we also have a society that covertly is sexualizing children, and is using children as a form of sexual currency. The Spice Girls can have every 8-year-old in the country wanting to really, really really want to zig-a-zig-ha, without having any idea what that phrase means - not that I have either. You've got this sexualization of young children in their 'pornstar' T-shirts and this is apparently okay, as is having a magazine called 'Barely Legal,' where you've got models the publisher promise are 18, and that isn't really the point. The point is they look very young. So the impulse in the mind of the reader is exactly the same, it's just got this veneer of respectability that no laws are apparently being broken.

"So you can get these really unhealthy undercurrents building up in society, encouraged by our culture, and they can erupt in really unpleasant ways. Whereas, perhaps, if we can look at those urges in the safe arena that is afforded by pornography in the form of writings or drawings about wantons. That is just one of the issues that can be talked about. What are we actually feeling here? And is it okay to think about things? Is it possible to police the sexual imagination? No, I don't think it is.

Comments

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girliejones
May. 26th, 2006 01:58 am (UTC)
Yeah I thought Damien's comment was interesting. I think you can learn a lot about writing and reading by writing a review. That's definitely something I'm noticing with myself. And the exercise of editing reviews has definitely improved my critical thinking (whcih was nigh on close to nonexistent in the beginning).

But as for not affecting sales. I have to admit that after reading 160 reviews on ASif!, I have definitely gone out and bought books I would not have bought otherwise. Maybe reviews don't affect New York Bestseller type book sales. But surely being aware of something through a review might get you to go buy something?
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 05:06 am (UTC)
i don't think i've ever bought a book i've never heard of before because of a review. certainly i've seen people talk about it, followed links, done the online word of mouth deal, but the whole review? i'm not so sure. i struggle to remember that.

however, i have (or have not) bought books i was iffy or interested in due to reviews. that i have done.
girliejones
May. 26th, 2006 05:52 am (UTC)
But that's you. I can think off the top of my head of say 8 books I've bought this year because I read someone's review of it or they reviewed it on their blog. I mean, to think you would have heard of all the books printed just via word of mouth is crazy.
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 05:58 am (UTC)
i don't put blogs int he same category as reviews. i put blogs in the word of mouth category--most people aren't reviewing them properly, anyhow. just sort of bashing some ideas out to various success of coherence or not.

and no, i'm not saying i will hear of all books via word of mouth, but i don't want to read all books. i think what makes word of mouth so attractive is that it is discriminating... find the right word of mouth, and you fine the line tot hings you like.

and for the people whose review you read, did you know them (was it for ASif)? cause i would say that was more word of mouth, too, than a review.

anyhow,it ain't no big thing. i'm just thinking about how i buy books. we all do it different.
girliejones
May. 26th, 2006 06:05 am (UTC)
You don't count ASif! as a review? Whats a review then?

And no, I read other reviews other than those I edit. surprisingly.
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 10:48 am (UTC)
no, i didn't say asif wasn't a review. but for the purpose of our discussion, you're reading of asif reviews, and possibly being influenced by them... well, given your relationship with the site and reviewers, it's not the average, every day person relationship to reviews, yes? it's not word of mouth, but it's something akin to it i think.
ratmmjess
May. 26th, 2006 02:39 am (UTC)
I'm very, very curious about what's going to happen with Lost Girls. It apparently shows children having sex with children--I don't know how graphically, but it won't take much, in contemporary America, to create a very negative reaction against it, and quite possibly legal proceedings against the publisher.

While I'm sure Damien's right about reviews when it comes to best-sellers, I think a negative or positive review can have a significant effect on sales of small press books. Admittely, Night Shade or MonkeyBrain or Midnight House losing sales on 10 books due to a negative review is a lot different than Tor or Baen losing sales on 10 books, but proportionately the impact is going to be a lot greater.
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 05:10 am (UTC)
i'm totally looking forward to LOST GIRLS and i hope, i really hope, it's the kind of thing that ends up positive. i have this feeling that things are going to turn on moore for this, but i guess we'll see. still, i am ordering the book--i'm hoping to be able to review it, actually, because it looks like the kind of bookt hat will be interesting to write about. but we'll see.

i suspect you might be right for smaller presses, though i think it might be more that reviews are how they begin generating word of mouth.
sirius2canopus
May. 26th, 2006 03:50 am (UTC)
Reviews
After reading a review of Damien’s Godplayers that criticized his plotting, I remember thinking, “Oh Good, I must go out and read that book, because I bet what we have here is simply a postmodern, rhizomatic plot structure that will give me a challenging read, but will be well worth it”. And of course it was.

Answering your question, ‘What do people think reviews should do?” As an emerging writer, I use reviews in three ways.

Firstly I use them as a way for me as a reader to figure out what I want to read next.

Secondly I use them as a way for me as a student to learn what makes a good story. What people like, what people don’t like. I like the review to be well argued with examples, historical references and evidence that the reviewer has actually read other books with themes relating to the book he/she is writing about. I like to see relevant comparisons and contrasts.

Lastly, as an emerging writer, I read the occasional review I have had of my own stories with the hope that the reviewer will point out my strengths and weaknesses without making a meal of my deficiencies so that my hackles will rise and I won't see commonsense and therfore not appreciate the valuable feedback this person of authority has gone to the trouble of giving me. I’ve seen some reviewers do that to people over the years and find it very difficult to take their opinions seriously for ever after.
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)
Re: Reviews
Lastly, as an emerging writer, I read the occasional review I have had of my own stories with the hope that the reviewer will point out my strengths and weaknesses without making a meal of my deficiencies so that my hackles will rise and I won't see commonsense and therfore not appreciate the valuable feedback this person of authority has gone to the trouble of giving me. I’ve seen some reviewers do that to people over the years and find it very difficult to take their opinions seriously for ever after.

i never use reviews for that. i think the last place any writer, new or old, ought to be looking to learn a bit about their own craft is from a reviewer. in fact, i thinkt he best thing you can do as an author is ignore all the opinions reviewers give you--they are, generally speaking, not writing for you, so you're not their target audience. and in addition to that, why would you want to pay attention to a reviewer so much that you would alter your writing? its just the opinion of one person, and is, therefor, no better or worse than another person's opinion. in the case of the reviewer, you probably don't know him/her, so it's likely that you;re giving them too much credit, i think.

that'sa blanket statement, of course, and just my opinion.
sirius2canopus
May. 26th, 2006 06:52 am (UTC)
Re: Reviews
i never use reviews for that. i think the last place any writer, new or old, ought to be looking to learn a bit about their own craft is from a reviewer.

But isn’t that a bit like putting your head in the sand? I’ve yet to meet a new writer who doesn’t look for reviews about themselves. (Hands up anyone and I’ll be amazed) Maybe I’m idealistic, but I know that reviews are not the same as writer’s critiques, but I prefer to think that a review is for the benefit of the reading community, and you can’t have readers without writers. Any writer who says they ignore reviews is also kind of ignoring their readers, don’t you think? Yes. The trick is to sort the truth from the wank. Even really bad reviews have some truth in them, though. The trick for reviewers, I think, is to deliver that truth convincingly. A reviewer can tell the reading public a piece of work is crap, but if they tell them in a way that makes it look like the reviewer is being gleeful about it, or just trying to make him/herself look superior, or isn't really taking enough into consideration, I tune out. As a reader I’m not convinced. As a writer, I’m too irritated to care. Kind of counterproductive, don’t you think?
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 10:58 am (UTC)
Re: Reviews
well, no, i don't think it's putting your head in the sand.

sure, everyone looks to see reviews of their stuff. i do it. i imagine nearly everyone does. to a certain degree it's how you gauge a response to it. but i wouldn't take any advice from a reviewer. that'd just be stupid. firstly, the function of a reviewer is not to offer insight to a writer, and secondly... well, if some person off the street walked up to you and said, 'hey, your story sucked. you know what you should do to make it better?' would you listen to them? of course not. what do you know about these people? nothing. a reviewer is pretty much the same thing, and there's nothing--absolutely nothing--that places them in a position of authority over the writer so that you have to listen to them.

if a reviewer says something and it gells with you, sure, that's fine. but it's your thought first. if you're seriously taking advice from a complete strange just because someone gave them your work and they happened to complete english at highschool... please. (actually, it doesn't matter if they went beyond that.)

i personally don't mind if reviewer is gleeful in telling me something is shit, or good, or if they are superior. i'm fine with these things because reviewing is its own form of writing, and to tell a writer that they can't do these things because it makes them unpleasent, or irritating... i dunno, so long as its entertaining, and i get something out of it, i'm more than happy. this idea that a reviewer has to be fair and impartial, it's only something that authors say so they don't get kicked round. which is fair enough, but as a reviewer, i wouldn't listen to the advice of an author. and as an author, i wouldn't listen to the advice of a reviewer.

there are different ways--more thoughtful, more interesting--ways to get advice from people you know and respect.
sirius2canopus
May. 27th, 2006 02:56 am (UTC)
Re: Reviews
if you're seriously taking advice from a complete strange just because someone gave them your work and they happened to complete english at highschool... please. (actually, it doesn't matter if they went beyond that.)

Sometimes useful info can be mined from the most unlikely of sources. Just because I'm not part of a reviewer's targeted audience, doesn't mean I can't benefit from his review as well. If an unknown high school student writes a good reason why my story doesn't work for him, I might pay attention. If I think he's made an honest mistake, I'll hope that a more astute reader will see that mistake for what it is. I'd also realise that a less astute reader might read my work and make the same mistake anyway. If a PhD grad with a 40 year sf background bagged my work without giving a good reason why, I'm more likely to go practise a few tae kwondo kicks -- an entirely inappropriate response, I admit, but that's all that sort of comment will get from me.


i dunno, so long as its entertaining

What motivates a person to write a review? Some altruistic desire to tell the reading public about his experience of reading a certain book? Or a personal desire to make a few dollars on the side or a name for themselves by showing others what they can do? When someone writes a review, they are doing it on the back of another writer's work. No work, no review. No review and the reviewer has to make their money and their name all by themselves. Often that reviewer is a writer who is in competition against the author they are reviewing. Therefore, shouldn't there be some kind of 'ethics of reviewing'? If someone wants to make money or a name for themselves by bagging my work, don't they at least owe me the courtesy of bagging it in a professional manner. Isn't constructive criticism a whole lot more useful and trustworthy than destructive criticism? Mind you, the latter probably requires a lot less thought on the reviewer's part? Is destructive criticism really a form of entertainment? Entertaining for who?

there are different ways--more thoughtful, more interesting--ways to get advice from people you know and respect

Not all new writers have the luxury of getting their work read by people who know enough about the field to give them the sort of feedback they are looking for.
benpeek
May. 27th, 2006 09:53 am (UTC)
Re: Reviews
Sometimes useful info can be mined from the most unlikely of sources.

well, sure. insight can come from anywhere. but this is not what we're talking about here--what we're talking about is specifically going to reviewers for insight about your work, and changing accordingly, so long as they are polite and thoughtout. which is, of course, ridiculous.

Not all new writers have the luxury of getting their work read by people who know enough about the field to give them the sort of feedback they are looking for.

then those writers ought to join writing groups online.

as for the rest of your comments, i think they might make a good blog post, so i'm going to do that.
ataxi
May. 26th, 2006 04:16 am (UTC)
Peer groups affect sales. Reviews can encourage word of mouth recommendation in those groups.

Posting a review of an identifiably sf novel on an sf site/blog/forum and providing avenues for commentary by an active community may well spur positive word of mouth.

Wanting to be able to discuss a work with others is a common motive for consuming it. The amount that something is discussed is a stronger indicator of commercial success than its artistic merit. The Leonardo Da Vinci Code is a good example.
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)
yeah, i tend to agree with that.
deadcities_icon
May. 26th, 2006 08:44 am (UTC)
I'm still unconvinced whether a good review can actually affect sales. In most cases, I think reviews are a lot like ads for books; they're there to remind people that a particular book is on the shelf at the store waiting for them. As a sometime reviewer, I also like to tell myself that reviews are important and useful and worthwhile and people pay attention to them... but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm wrong, which may explain why I'm more drawn to theory rather than reviews.

On the other hand, I DO believe that negative reviews can affect sales. If a novel is universally panned by all those critics like Michael Dirda or John Clute or etc., I think people may pay attention and avoid said novel.

What we bump into, however, is the ratio of readers that actually READ reviews to those who are oblivious. Unfortunately, I just don't think there are many people out there who read reviews. Maybe you ought to run a simple yes/no poll or something and find out how many of your readers read reviews?

Where reviews matter most, if they matter at all, is within the publishing industry. Reviews are used to sell books to book buyers inside the industry moreso than outside. For instance, a review in Booklist or Library Journal pretty much determines whether a book is picked up by libraries. A review in PW determines whether a book is picked up by indy stores, etc.
benpeek
May. 26th, 2006 11:02 am (UTC)
you know what i'm beginning to like? i like reviews that come with a knowledge of the scene, with a bit of theory, and with a bit of critical approach. in other words, i think i like reviews that you can read outside it as a seperate peice of work, and having nothing to do with the work its based off.

today i was toying with the idea of making the independent short story press in aus my next academic area of research. i'm not sure if i would, though, since i'm sure it'd only bring me hassles... but lately i can see my fiction drifting out and away from the local scene here, and i was toying with an idea of how to keep interested in it.
clarionj
May. 26th, 2006 02:09 pm (UTC)
... I've discovered is that, in its own way, good reviewing is its own piece of work. It can be read independently from the work itself, though of course, if one has read the work, they join the conversation and debate about it.

I agree. One of my favorite courses was on the history of literary criticism. When reading the criticism samples for each movement in history, it didn't matter that I hadn't read the text. Yes, I could have debated it, gained a new understanding of the text being reviewed, etc., but that wasn't the point for this class. I was learning about writing, about how readers read, how society affects our reading and writing, how trends in philosophy infiltrate how we review...Maybe a good review does a little of both--reviews the work and places it in the context of literature and the world now and in the past.

As in music--why do we still read Lester Bangs when you can click online anywhere for a quick album review?

As for kids and sexuality, I was happy when raising my kids to have read Dr. Spock (of all people, someone traditional) who said that kids are sexual and not to be alarmed or offended if they want to ride horsey on your leg, or tuck animals between their legs at night. They're just feeling natural pleasurable feelings in their bodies. Can't say it isn't a little weird when you're a parent anyway; our society isn't exactly free and easy about these things. He did say to suggest to kids that some things are meant to be private, which seems to make all of us more comfortable.
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