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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Reviewers and Reviewing

Okay, I lied. Sue me. I said I would leave this topic alone, but I feel compelled to set the record straight.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, a discussion was started about reviews and reviewing. On one side are people who appear to believe that everyone's opinion is just as valid, just as helpful as anyone else's. On the other side, there's...well, there's me. Oddly enough, despite believing in the total democratization of opinion, their ideas are great and mine are "crap."

This in itself is rather amusing, in that I wouldn't put a great deal of value on any of their "reviews" of my comments, since the authors clearly misunderstood them. You see, I think I was pretty clear.

In any case, I've run into these ideas before, and I'm afraid I may have already lost some of you. So let me hasten to assure you that I do not say, nor have I ever said, that "you" -- the categorical you -- do not have the right to review any damn thing you want to. I do not say, nor have I ever said, that you cannot review outside the genres you tend to prefer. Hell, if I read something, I'll probably review it.

So enough about what I don't say. What *do* I say?

Well, first, I will confess to you the painfully obvious truth that I'm no Leonardo da Vinci. I don't know everything about everything. (Let's not be literal here, folks; you know perfectly well what I mean. Now, I'm going to stop pointing that out. I hope I can count on you to roll with that.)

Second, I'd like to point out that this idea that "my" opinion is as good as "yours" is demonstrably laughable in every field of human endeavor -- except "art." This, of course, includes cuisine, or the "culinary arts." Even the people who espouse this idea don't really believe it, for I think even they would agree that a ten-year-old's opinion of Moby Dick is probably going to be a bit less helpful than a twenty-five-year-old's. Which is simply to admit that limitations exist. And where you find one limitation, might you not find others?

I suppose I should define a couple of terms. And to do that, let me explain the circumstances that have led to this post. A group was created on Goodreads for authors to review the work of other authors. Which sounds pretty cool, right? But one of the rules of the group is that authors will be randomly assigned to books. Meaning that an author of nostalgic romance might be handed a BDSM book to review. Or that a science fiction author might wind up staring at a cookbook. You get the idea. I thought this was quite a dumb idea, and I said as much. (Keep in mind, the author of the post was in no way connected to the group in question. So I figured I was free to express my opinion. Since the post's author has since stopped following me, I guess I was wrong.)

Anyway, and this is where maybe I missed something about the group, it was my understanding that the resultant reviews were to be helpful to the authors being reviewed. No, more than that. That they would be *more* helpful than peer reviews by authors with similar literary backgrounds and interests. I say this because the rules of the group state in no uncertain terms that authors with the audacity to want reviews by people who have some understanding of what they're reading ought to just go and find themselves another group.

I know -- snide remark. But let's look at this logically. If an author asks me to review his book, which is about a magical quest to destroy a powerful cuff-link before it falls into the wrong hands, and if I know nothing about the fantasy genre, then I might very well give the guy a great review. Someone else, someone with a little more genre savvy, is likely to say, "Dude, that's already been done." And unless the author is a rare talent indeed, then it's second guy's opinion that is going to be more valuable.

Yes, all fiction (more or less) has commonalities and, yes, relevant and useful remarks can be made about these by anyone who reads or (presumably) who writes it. Think about this, though, and it starts to sound like the dumbing down approach to reviewing. Hey, everyone, let's just review those elements that we're *all* familiar with!

Does that make good sense to you?

And, finally, one other point. The issue was raised about reading outside your genre(s). It was made because the (mis)understanding was that I somehow thought this was a bad idea. A bad idea? I think it's a wonderful, mind-expanding thing to do. I highly recommend it. And if you then want to go ahead and review what you've read, more power to you.

But here's the thing: If I pick up a romance (which is a genre I've never read before) and I read it, what has happened is only that I have *begun* my journey toward understanding (and, possibly, learning to appreciate) that genre. I haven't all of a sudden become omniscient about all things relating to it. My opinion isn't miraculously as valuable as a veteran romance reader's just because I read one book.

Now, it might be better than "that" veteran reviewer's opinion, if that reviewer isn't a good reader or isn't very adept at expressing his or her opinions. Generally speaking, though, it won't be.

I don't know about you, but I'm not the greatest reviewer in the world, and I'm less good the more out of my element I get. The New York Times isn't begging me to review for them. I can understand that. And I can accept that.

You may say that you have no interest in writing professional-grade reviews. Terrific! A review -- hell, a *rating* -- can be extremely valuable to people who share your particular wavelength. If someone I trust tells me Book A sucks, then unless I'm particularly drawn to Book A for some reason, I don't need to hear anymore. It's off my list. This is a fabulous thing, and I wouldn't ever say it wasn't.

But *if* you review to be read by people who don't know you, it's probably going to help to provide a bit more information. And the better the information -- again, generally speaking (damn it, I said I wasn't going to do this anymore!) -- the more valuable will be the review. And in this scenario, is familiarity with the genre truly optional? If you reviewed a book way outside your comfort zone, you wouldn't even tell the reader that? And if you would, you need only ask yourself why to understand what I'm saying here.

Okay. Enough.

I'm intentionally putting the next bit way down here at the bottom instead of at the top. I hope I didn't offend anyone too much with this post. I hope that even if we disagree we can do so amicably. And I hope that I don't lose any more readers because of it!

Believe it or not, I'm one of the good guys. I'm not a sock puppet and I support wholeheartedly what we're all trying to do here, which is to create a site where the free exchange of ideas is considered a good thing. Yes, even if sometimes the expression of those ideas gets a little heated.

Finally, you can skip the next bit, but I thought I'd show those of you who didn't see the other post exactly what I said in the discussion that led to *this* post. So, here goes.

"I could shorten that. 'This group is not a fan club. Get used to it.' : -)"

This was in response to the rambling nature of the rules, which, I thought, were oh-so-impressively formal.

"This is odd, though: 'If you are only willing to review your own preferred genres then sorry, but you’re better off finding a group that specialises in your preference. Here you might be asked to review fiction/non-fiction, adults’/children’s books, a religious text, BDSM, or anything in between. Allocation is entirely random and there will NOT be any rearranging of the listing to accommodate genre preference. The ONLY circumstance in which you may duck out of giving a review is if YOU provide a stand-in reviewer.'

"Is a review of a romance by someone who prefers sports books *really* going to be of much value?"

The death knell.


"It's in the individual groups (Group 29, Group 28,...). I can see how it would make for some interesting reviews, but honestly, I question whether a devotee of BDSM would care a whit what a lover of Roman history thinks about Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean, just think: anyone unfamiliar with the genre might think the most derivative work is gold."

A salient point...I thought.

"It's not how reading is with me or anybody *I* know. And why have a round that includes obviously pointless reviews? That's like the NFL playoffs starting with a round against high school teams. It's a waste of time. And that's supposing that any of the 'rounds' ever get to reviews by people who are reasonably qualified to discuss the work in question."

Evidently, the group uses reviewing "rounds" to cull out the waste. Since the process itself creates a lot of that waste, though, it seemed to me to be kind of counter-productive.

"Very sensible. And exactly why *good* reviews -- reviews by people who have a background and interest in whatever genre we're talking about -- are so important. Not one-offs by people who couldn't care less."

In response to a commenter who said his (or her) book buying decision process included reading reviews.

"And here I thought you weren't recommending the group. : -)"

I thought this was pretty clever. The author of the post, after initially reading the rule I quoted about authors being asked to review books about which they might know nothing, said that they weren't recommending the group, exactly, just the part of the rules they had originally posted. But my comment was a response to this individual later saying, 'maybe I'll join the group.' Well, it sounded like a recommendation to me.

"Here's my review of my brother's doctoral thesis in astrophysics: Huh?"

This one was immediately misunderstood. I had hoped that others wouldn't take it literally and instead think about what other kinds of mismatches might result from the group's method. Instead, someone suggested (rather too literally) that my example would be like asking someone to read another language.

Which led to my final comment:

"Genre is a language."

You know, I have whole books on the language of various genres. They're about movies, but the principle is the same.

"...Hey, look, clearly we disagree. But I think I've imposed on [the post's author] enough, so I will leave it at that. No hard feelings, I hope! : -)"

And now you see why I said I lied to begin this post.