February 15, 2010

Reviewing Reviewers

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:42 pm

The world of reviews is changing, I think we all can agree on that.

Newspapers are folding left and right, taking their book review sections along with them. Consonant with this, the internet has made everyone a reviewer, or potential reviewer.

Books, movies, theater, restaurants…how do we assess which are good and which are bad? Or, which ones you will like and which I will hate?

The latter is the goal of a review, to my mind. Not a blanket assessment of value, pretending that there is no such thing as taste, or a subjectivity factor, but rather, a tailoring of one reviewer’s likes, dislikes, and appraisal of value to a reader’s tastes. In an ideal world, I would hardly even have to read the review, except for my own enjoyment. I would know that Reviewer X’s tastes were so aligned with my own that I could buy or disregard a book based on her say so.

The rise of a vast web of reviews and reviewing will enable this latter approach, by simple mathematics. The increase in the number of reviewers will give more people a chance to find someone whose tastes reflect their own.

There can be a sort of wisdom of crowds approach to judging material. If a lot of people like it, chances are you may, too. And with many people reading, more books can be offered up for consideration. Again, simple mathematics.

Amazon has constructed the Vine program, which seeks to put this approach into effect. Late last year, PW reviewed their efforts.

The article speaks to some of the snags in this approach, but I also wonder about a few others.

A review utopia, where we all peacefully coexist with our likes and dislikes, can only exist provided we can find our way to truly good reviewers. Otherwise, no one will be able to pinpoint which material steering us to what is worth reading is in itself worth reading. The whole thing will disintegrate into a morass of unfiltered content.

To prevent that from happening, I thought I’d put out a few sources that I personally feel are of the utopian variety.

I have touted the great Oline Cogdill’s reviews for the Sun Sentinel–which are often picked up by other pubs–several times here. Oline coined the term “family thriller,” which describes my favorite type of book, and movie, too.

Recently I discovered a new-to-me review site, which I keep coming back to. If you’re a mystery lover this blog will steer you through uncharted waters without risk of capsizing–and with some wonderful exploration of texts along the way.

The Book Grrl always points me to someone I need to check out.

And I love to hear what Kaye Barley is reading as soon as she reads it.

Gloria and Theodore Feit offer reviews that are at once cheeky and substantive.

I am probably leaving out some sources I have already come to rely on, in this not-quite-post New York Review of Books world. As they come to me, I will put them up here.

What about you? How do you feel about the way the art of reviewing is trending? Do you have any reviewers you count on to bring you to the shores of a great, new read every time?


  1. Hi, Jenny —

    I think it’s good and bad. Back in the 90s, when my first series of books was being published, there were some really dependable print reviewers, especially for mysteries: Dick Adler, Tom Nolan, Tom & Enid Schantz, and a few others. Today, only the Schantzes are still regularly in print; Adler reviews online (and for Barnes & Noble) and I don’t know where Nolan has gone, but boy, were they good.

    What’s good? They managed, in, say, three graphs, to give you an idea of what the book was about, to place it in a sort of spectrum of genre, if it fell into one, to praise its string points and, regretfully, to point out its shortcomings. I didn’t always agree with them, but I always knew why they felt the way they felt.

    Today, there are many fewer professional reviewers and a lot more amateurs, and while some of the amateurs are terrific, some are a lot less so. I am actually less critical of the ones who seem to like everything (perhaps for fear that a bad review will stop the ARCs from coming) than I am of the ones who will just tell us why they don’t like the occasional book.

    I think we’re getting to a point where reviewing expertise is going to be much more widely spread, and that the bad reviewers will gradually be winnowed out and the good reviewers will find their audiences. And, in the long run, that’ll be for the good.

    Comment by Thi Hallinan — February 16, 2010 @ 2:14 am

  2. Nice picks. But Off the Page doesn’t seem to have published anything since September, and I Love a Mystery since November-December. Does this mean that even online reviewing is under the same threat as newspaper critiques?

    Comment by Pageturners — February 16, 2010 @ 2:57 am

  3. I have learned to ignore the negative reviews posted on Amazon.com. Experience shows that real reviewers don’t take the time and effort to post one star reviews of books that others are giving 4-5 star ratings. There is usually a hidden agenda that has nothing to do with the quality of the book.


    Comment by Burl Barer — February 16, 2010 @ 3:33 am

  4. Incidentally, you might look at my own review site – click on ‘Pageturners’ below. I review bestsellers of all kinds, but some of them are mysteries.

    Comment by Pageturners — February 16, 2010 @ 3:36 am

  5. I would also suggest the review site (for mysteries) http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com. Yes, I review for that site. I also review for the Amazon Vine program, and have no idea why I was selected; I spend almost no money at Amazon (less than $50/year).

    A comment on your site: I found it difficult to read. The black ink on the pink background kind of shimmered. Thank you.

    Comment by P.J. Coldren — February 16, 2010 @ 8:40 am

  6. Thanks for the comment, Tim (and the optimistic perspective). You’re lucky to have had such lauded eyes on your work–I really hope they remain.

    Burl, this sounds wise–and restrained of you! I’d be afraid of looking–and then brought down for a month.

    I’m excited to look at the Pageturners site–as per this post, I am always looking for new “like minds”. In terms of length between reviews posted, I have to say that I have such an enormous TBR pile that this really doesn’t bother me–I can hardly keep up with all the great suggestions I get. But whether it bodes ill or doesn’t, I’m not sure…Any thoughts?

    PJ, how neat that you do reviews! I think a lot of the Vine reviewers are unsure how/why they got chosen. Thanks for the feedback on the site–do other people find it hard to read? It doesn’t shimmer on my end, but I’ve passed this on to my web guru(husband)!

    Comment by jenny — February 16, 2010 @ 9:31 am

  7. Ideally, reviewers should be published writers further upstream than the writer they are reviewing. (That is, debut authors should be reviewed by authors with no fewer than two published books, etc.) But it doesn’t help a writer to give a critical honest review: feelings are hurt, grudges ensue. So, writers either opt out of reviewing or they give 4-5 star reviews to friends and acquaintances. (In fact, those stars are like graduate school grades where 4 stars is the dreaded grade of B and a slap in the face, while 3 stars simply isn’t done.) If you want knowledgeable, educated, literate reviewers to take the inevitable flak of writing honest reviews (and therefore whose praise is credible), you have to pay them. Few are paid. Everyone’s a reviewer, now, and opinions are increasingly personal and useless. It’s been a long, long time since I read any review that considers theme and structure.

    Comment by Sara — February 16, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  8. Sure seems someone or some ones could leap in and fill in a much much needed gap here and create a great review site. It is obviously a hard and difficult thing to maintain a blog that works as hard as necessay to review the steady large numbers of mysteries being published. It would take a real go getter to step into the breach but yeah there is a breach, a cavern, a crevasse, a hole in the bucket that needs filling.

    Comment by Robert W. Walker — February 16, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  9. Sara, that’s exactly what I was wondering about with the proliferation of content. How to separate grudge (or friendship) reviews from the real deal? Rob’s idea for a site would ensure that none of the above make it on…but how do you do that? Are their hallmarks of let’s call them false reviews versus professional (whether done by a pro or an amateur) or not–ways to differentiate?

    Comment by jenny — February 16, 2010 @ 10:19 am

  10. I’ve been reviewing crime fiction for over ten years in a variety of on-line and traditionally published venues. I believe there is a single term that should distinguish good or professional reviewers from the casual or non-professional.

    The term is consistency. Whether you agree with the reviewer or not, if you can trust their position, you, the reader have a rational basis for evaluating the review.

    I know I can trust certain sources, PW, Kirkus, NYTBooks, Mystery Scene and Crime Spree, as well as online sources such as ReviewingTheEvidence and
    some blogs to be consistent in their attitudes and professional in their approach. I know certain people whose reviews show up on AMAZON and Barnes and Noble will be even-handed in their approach, whether I agree with their assessments or not. Kevin Tipple is an example of a professional blogger whose reviews can be trusted.

    It’s all about a professional attitude and consistency.

    Comment by carl brookins — February 16, 2010 @ 11:05 am

  11. I agree with all the comments here. It would be neat to see a major critical website emerge. While it’s interesting to see what people “think” of their books, I increasingly find reviewers I believe to be under the age of 13 blathering about “this was kinda something like I like” or things that are totally irrelevant to me. I find I have to scroll through more and more reviews to find something even barely coherent, much less trustworthy.

    Comment by SapphireSavvy — February 16, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  12. I’m not looking so much for reviews as I am for descriptions of what’s out there. I also don’t need to hear yet another glowing review of a bestselling author. Knowing that the reviewer doesn’t know my taste in books, I just want to know what the subject matter is and the direction of the plot.

    To that end, I have The Murder Circle. It’s a gossip column of all things mystery, at all levels. I don’t even read the books, I just blurb what sounds interesting and let readers decide. It’s on my website: http://www.sunnyfrazier.com/MurderCircle

    However, love the fact that that you’ve all given me new reviewers to add to my growing list.

    Comment by Sunny Frazier — February 16, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  13. Great collection of links, Jenny! (and the commenters who have added).

    Man this looks like a topic ripe for a datageek–someone who would compile what everyone else was writing about books in a single place so we could go see in summary, what people thought, find reviewers we mostly agreed with, and become groupees.

    There are a bazillion book reviewers out there, but I sadly suspect most of them are reviewing for their 40 followers–so how on EARTH are readers supposed to find ‘what to read’–I mean sure, if you know about a book to go look for it, you can find reviews (thank you Google), but finding a reliable list of recommendations… now THAT reviewer is one I want to find (but am not willing to look for *cough*)

    Comment by Hart — February 16, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

  14. Carl, that’s an excellent point and not one I thought of. But you’re right–it virtually removes the risk of either friendship or bile playing a role in a review.

    Sunny, now Murder Circle is on here, but I will add it in a more prominent place at a future date. I’ve really been enjoying it’s colloquial, close knit tone.

    And Hart, sounds like you and Rob need to team up! You’re right, this is just what’s needed. Looking for that needle is a momentous task…

    Comment by jenny — February 16, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

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