On Reviews

I was originally going to open this post with the self-consciously provocative line “I’m going to let you in on a secret: I don’t write reviews” but, unfortunately, it’s literally true right now because I no longer have my old reviewing gig.

But there’s been a certain amount of discussion recently about readers, writers and the status of reviews, and some of it has left me a little confused. Reading other people’s posts on the subject it sometimes feels that when we talk about reviews we’re actually none of us talking about the same things.  I’ve read quite a lot about this over the past few months and it seems to me that there’s a vague sense of there being a “problem” somewhere, and a general feeling that some people are doing reviewing wrong, and that some of these people may be authors, or some of them may be bloggers but, to me, this misses something quite fundamental to the whole business which is that people can both write and read reviews for a variety of different reasons, all of which are valid.

I originally intended to start this post with “I don’t write reviews” because the reason I wasn’t inclined to think of the things I wrote as reviews had to do with the fact they didn’t do the sort of thing I, perhaps naively, was assuming that reviews are supposed to do, which is tell you if a book is good or bad. In fact I was often genuinely surprised when I got comments from people saying, “oh no, you tore apart my favourite author” when, as far as I was concerned, I’d written fairly balanced response to a book that I’d actually felt quite positively about. So, I suppose, if we’re going to have a discussion about reviews, we need to pick a working definition for what a review is and I’m inclined to go for the broadest one, which I would sum up as something like: a short piece of writing, discussing the features of a single book. Thus disqualifying myself immediately since, while my writing is many things, it is not short.

One of the things I think is coming out of the broader discussion is that there are several quite clear but quite different reasons people look for reviews, and several quite clear but quite different reasons people write them. At the risk of way overthinking this, I’m going to try and come up with some categories.

  1. Recommendations / Discommendations
  2. Critical analysis
  3. Community
  4. Hierarchy

I think, roughly speaking, these four subheadings can categorise both reasons for writing a review and reasons for looking for one, and what’s interesting is that people will often a find review useful for reasons that are different from the reasons for which it was originally written. For example, I know some people have decided to read, or not to read, books on the basis of some of my articles.

I should stress I’m very much making this up as I’m going along but I thought I’d talk a little bit about these different reasons for reading or seeking reviews.

1. Recommendations / Discommendations

My assumption, up until I started thinking about this, was that recommendation / discommendation was the primary function of a review. That fundamentally you write a review to say whether a specific book is good or bad, and you read a review to decide whether or not to buy that specific book.  I’ll talk about this more later when we get down to hierarchies but one of the things I’ve noticed people mentioning is the idea that if you only write positive reviews, this lowers the value of those reviews. I think that’s very true if you see reviews as hierarchy (see later) but not if you see them merely as sources of recommendations or discommendations.

There’s quite a well-known psychological trick, or quirk, by which people will overly value things when they are compared to things that are similar but less good. There’s a famous example that’s used in business textbooks in which, I think, The Economist found that sales of their print publication were falling and so they increased the price of their print subscriptions so that the cost was the same as the combined print and online subscription, meaning that people who would previously have bought just the online subscription switched to buying print and online because they felt like they were getting the online subscription “for free.”  This really worked. They really did this.

People often like to feel not merely that they are getting something that they want but that they are getting something that is better than the alternatives and this is, in the technical, economic theory sense, irrational.  If the only choice I have to make is whether or not I will like a book, I do not need to know what any given reviewer thought of any other book. I only need to know what they thought of this one. Obviously I’m not suggesting it is wrong that readers do not always behave in the way that my very amateur understanding of economic theory suggests rational consumers should behave. But I was actually genuinely surprised to realise how many people feel that a positive review only has value when set against negative ones.

From the point of view of the reviewer, a recommendation or a discommendation, as opposed to a hierarchy, is designed to be exactly that: a recommendation that someone does or does not read a particular book. From the point of view of the recommending or discommending reviewer, the context of each review stands alone and, while that reviewer may have a policy of publishing only positive reviews or, indeed, only negative reviews, each review fulfils its own purpose by its own standards.

In a strange way, this is sort of like the Michelin Guide. Michelin stars represent a good restaurant. All Michelin reviews are, ultimately, positive reviews. This clearly doesn’t mean that André and Édouard Michelin wrote puff pieces.  Sometimes all a reviewer wants to do is tell people about books they like.

Interestingly, the recommendation-seeking reader does not necessarily connect well with a recommending reviewer. I have myself been put right off books by glowing reviews and, indeed, been persuaded to read books by terrible reviews. Because sometimes you will read a one star review and just say “wow, you so totally did not get what this was about.” And sometimes enthusiastic reviews will praise things that you personally hate.

I’m not certain but I think recommendation-seeking readers will gravitate towards recommending reviewers whose tastes they share and whose opinions they have come to trust. And I strongly suspect that this will occur regardless of the overall balance of reviews provided by the reviewer.  If someone who I know likes the same things as me likes something then I can be pretty sure I’ll like it, even if they only ever tell me about things they like.

2.  Critical Analysis

Critical analysis is sort of what I self-define as writing. Critical reviewers are interested in talking about books in detail and aren’t necessarily interested in the more abstract questions of whether a book is good or bad, or the more practical questions of whether you should actually buy a book or not. At the risk of sounding biased, I tend to think that critical reviews are the reviews in which there’s most overlap between readers and reviewers, in the sense that people who look for critical reviews are interested in reading about books in detail. Obviously, the sorts of details that a reviewer thinks worth talking about may not be the sort of things a reader thinks worth reading about but everyone is hopefully on the same page.

Despite the unfortunate connotations of the terminology, a critical reviewer – at least as I am considering it – does not necessarily have to write negative reviews and, indeed, to the critical reviewer the concept of a positive or negative review is very much secondary. Despite the other unfortunate connotation of the terminology, when I talk about critical analysis, I don’t really mean that in a formal academic sense. Absolutely anybody can write critically about fiction. All you have to do is want to.

The other thing I very much think critical reviewing is not, is an intrinsically authorly way of looking at texts. I’m kind of thin ice here because I am, of course, an author in my own small way and I do self-define as looking at texts critically, but I consider these two things to be wholly unrelated. I absolutely don’t think being an author makes me better at writing critical reviews and I don’t particularly think writing critical reviews makes me a better author – and, even if it did, it wouldn’t be why I did it.

3. Community

Another, often overlooked, benefit of reading and writing reviews is the sense of belonging to a wider community of readers and reviewers. I sometimes find that I am actually more inclined to read a review of a book if I have read it already than if I haven’t. Part of the pleasure of reading a review is simply finding out what other people thought about a book you have read.

In a lot of ways, community-focused reviewing overlaps strongly with critically-focused reviewing and, as I think I have said many times, part of what I used to enjoy when I was writing my reviews was the opportunity to talk about the books I was reading. Where I think the two are distinct is that critically-focused reviewing can be quite a detached process, aiming to break a text down for the purposes of understanding it (or understanding one’s own reaction to it) whereas community-focused reviewing can (but does not necessarily have to) embrace unabashed love or hatred.

I suspect that a lot of the time, blogs or websites that only post positive reviews (or that only post negative reviews of which the most obvious are specific “sporking” sites) are simply Community-focused rather than Recommendation or Hierarchy focused (as I mentioned above, I’m not sure that “positive” or “negative” are terms that really make sense when applied to critically-focused reviewers). If your purpose in writing a review is not to tell people which books to seek out and which to avoid, but instead to connect with people who like or dislike the same books that you do, a range of ratings isn’t really helpful. Of course, ironically, a community-focused review site or blog may wind up being more helpful for recommendation-seeking members of that community than a recommendation-focused site or blog, because if you already know that people share your tastes their recommendations are going to carry more weight with you.

I should add that I was a little reticent about adding “community” as a specific category on this list for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was a bit concerned that it might sound condescending (oh yes I review critically but you just like to have your preconceptions confirmed) and secondly because “community” is, almost by definition, a feature of all interactions. In the end I left it on the list for two reasons.

Firstly, I felt that squeeing and sporking are two legitimate functions reviews can have, but which don’t really fall under any of my other categories, and I wanted to include them under my broad definition of what reviews can do. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to highlight the value and importance of the Community function of reviewing. A good community-focused reviewer or blog can create a space where people feel safe, included and supported, and that can be invaluable.

4. Hierarchy

I left this one until last because, as I think I’ve said above, I was genuinely confused by people suggesting that a review is less valid if it does not allow for direct comparison with other books. So, basically, I’ve sort of taken the rest of this article to get my thoughts in order.

To oversimplify dramatically, in education there are two different ways you can mark exams: criterion marking and cohort marking. Criterion marking is when you say if a student gets eighty percent on this exam they get an A, if they get seventy percent they get a B, and so on. Cohort marking is when you say if a student finishes in the top twenty percent of their cohort, they get an A, in the top thirty prercent they get a B, and so on.  Both of these approaches have their difficulties. Criterion marking causes problems because, in reality, exams aren’t exactly comparable, and what do you do if one exam is easier than another? Cohort marking has effectively the same problem except for the students. If you’re in a particularly bright year, you might finish in the bottom fifty percent of your group, despite having done better in the exam than somebody who finished in the top fifty percent the year before.

In discussions of criterion versus cohort marking, there are two things to consider. The first is what controls best for variation between years. Is it more likely that the exam was easier or that the students were smarter? The second, and more complicated, is what you think exams are for in the first place. An attitude I find profoundly troubling when it comes to education (and book reviews are not education, they are – as much as I love fiction – much less important) is the notion that the purpose of an exam is to distinguish the “best” students from the “worst” students, rather than to accurately reflect what an individual student can actually do.

Perhaps I’m over-generalising but this is broadly why I’m so inclined to see book reviews as being about recommendation rather than hierarchy. Perhaps I’m just reacting against growing up in a country with a rigidly stratified class system but I’m made quite uncomfortable by the idea that it is inherently worthwhile to rank things from “best” to “worst” rather than merely to judge them on their own merits.

To bring this all back to where it started, this is basically the reason I don’t put ratings on my own reviews.

Having said that, as I’ve got older I’ve increasingly adopted the policy of assuming other people aren’t just being stupid, and if people think it’s important to do something, there are probably sensible reasons for it.

Again, I think it basically comes down to economics. If you are trying to decide whether to acquire something, you need to know how much it is worth. But worth is ultimately arbitrary. And, in fact, contrary to what I said in my comments on recommendation-focused reviewing, there’s an extent to which value only can be ascribed relative to something else. The only way to really know if book A is better than book B by an individual person’s assessment is to get them to answer the question “would you rather read book A or book B?” In this sense, hierarchies are a valuable tool.

I wonder, incidentally, if the reason I feel recommendations are more useful to me than hierarchies is that I am – at the risk of straying onto rather vulgar subject matter – relatively comfortable materially speaking and do not have an overwhelmingly large amount of books I want to read. Essentially, I am never actually going to be placed in a position where I have to choose between reading one of two books. I can always read both. If I was either less financially secure or read more widely than I do then I’d have to start making actual comparisons between books, as opposed to simply asking myself “do I read this book or do I do something else with my time and money?”

Obviously I don’t want to speculate about the motivations of people who approach reading fundamentally differently to me, but I suspect if you see reviews primarily as a means of choosing between very large numbers of books, all of which, on some level appeal to you equally, an absence of bad reviews is a real problem because it simply denies you data with which you could otherwise make a choice. I mean, you could take a “no news is bad news” policy and assume that a book which has received five positive reviews is necessarily better than one which has received three, but that probably involves more admin than most people are comfortable doing in their leisure time.

A tiny part of me, however, does worry – and I should stress I say “worry” only in the sense that it’s contrary to the way I like think about the world – that people also feel the value of a full spectrum of reviews is that it allows a consensus to be built around what the “good” and “bad” books are. And, for me personally, this just isn’t particularly useful.

Obviously my intent here is not to define the terminology for talking about reviewing, or pass value judgements on anybody based on the way I perceive them as reviewing or responding to reviews. I’m just laying my thoughts out in a row, trying to work out what I actually think about this stuff. And, obviously, I’m in no way suggesting that people only ever review or read reviews for one of the above four reasons.  For a start, I’m sure people have motivations that don’t really fit into any of my categories and, on top of that, people do things for different reasons on different days. In defence of my rambling, I think what I’m trying to articulate here is the idea that it’s important to realise that what makes a review good or useful depends very much on what you’re looking for from it. Sometimes I will go to a review to find out if I should buy a book, often I’ll go to review to find out what somebody else thought of a book I’ve already read, and quite frequently I’ll read reviews because I know in advance that the reviewer shares my opinion and is likely to write about it entertainingly or insightfully.

You might have noticed that, over the last three thousand words, I’ve nimbly managed to avoid the question of authors writing reviews. And this is simply because I don’t believe authors are in any way different to anybody else. To me, asking whether authors can reviews book is kind of like asking if bus drivers can review books. I don’t believe authors have a unique insight into literature or a more authoritative take on the genre. I don’t even think authors are more likely than bloggers or reviewers to have personal relationships with the authors they write about. One of the things Kaetrin mentions in her post on this subject is there are some authors she talks to on Twitter but she doesn’t think that this compromises her as a reviewer because it doesn’t really constitute a relationship. And I would suggest the same is true of, say, me. The only mild difference between authors and non-authors here is that authors are more likely to have specifically professional relationships with other authors than most small bloggers are. Although even then it’s hard to know where to draw the line. I was recently poking around Love Vampires because I do, in fact, love vampires. And I noticed they’d done an interview with JR Ward. They also, for what it’s worth, love her books. Should I not trust their reviews of the Black Dagger Brotherhood because they have a relationship with the author and, for that matter, a bias in favour of vampires?

Obviously I can only speak for myself and, perhaps I’m in a minority, but I tend to decide for myself whether to “trust” a particular review or not. And, to me, even the notion of “trusting” a review is slightly odd because, as I’ve just rambled about at some length, all trusting a review can really mean is trusting you will get out of the review the thing you wanted to get out of the review which may not even be the thing the reviewer was writing the review for in the first place.

musing

48 Responses to On Reviews

  1. Anne says:

    **I’m not certain but I think recommendation-seeking readers will gravitate towards recommending reviewers whose tastes they share and whose opinions they have come to trust. And I strongly suspect that this will occur regardless of the overall balance of reviews provided by the reviewer. If someone who I know likes the same things as me likes something then I can be pretty sure I’ll like it, even if they only ever tell me about things they like.**
    yes. This.
    There are only about 3 reviewers I EVER read, because I have found over time they seem to seek and enjoy the same things in books that I do, and shun/avoid the things I hate. I don’t care HOW positive or negative a review is, if the reviewer has been proven to me at some point in time to value things I do not, whatever they have to say on any given book after that, is meaningless to me.
    I enjoyed your reviews, because they were well thought out, even if the story itself didn’t appeal to me- I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it because you never come off as blase’ or off the cuff, you actually CONSIDER the character, the writer, the emotional effect of, or purpose for, an action, BEFORE writing something about it, and then covering ALL of those bases and angles as you give your review.
    I will miss them.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Awww, thank you, but I hope this didn’t come across as a response to moving on from my reviewing gig. It was more an attempt to think about some of the general issues surrounding reviews, and authors, and reviewers lately. To me, readers and can will seek out what they’re looking for and make those judgements for themselves, based on what they want from particular reviews or reviewers.

      I actually read pretty reviews for, weirdly, entertainment. I think a well-written, engaging review is as much a performative piece of writing as any other. As a book even. But, like you, there’s a handful of reviewers I follow quite personally – err, that sounds like I pursue them down dark alleys. I mean, I find my tastes map with theirs, or they write in a way that appeals to me, so I don’t really care *what* they’re reviewing, I just like hearing their thoughts.

      • willaful says:

        I mostly read them for entertainment as well and/or to find out what other people thought of a book I’ve already read. Generally if I already know I want to read something, I’d rather know as little as possible about it beforehand. (This sometimes backfires with amusing results.) Reviews do help me if I’m on the fence about a book, but I enjoy them the most when I’ve already read it.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          Yes, I agree, but I think that’s largely because I’m not actively looking for books at the moment? I mean I have a list of romances to read that will probably keep me going until I’m actually dead 🙂 But, hmm, thinking about it when fantasy was my main reading outlet, I still read reviews more for the engagement factor than the evaluation factor, but again, that’s personal choice.

          When I was reviewing weekly I tried to not to look at anything but text – but, again, as you say, it sometimes backfired. Like I went into NAKED IN DEATH not realising it was sci-fi. I mean I caught on pretty quickly, because I’m not a complete idiot, but I don’t know how much that moment of disorientation affected my reaction to the book – and I know there were some people who considered it actively insulting that I didn’t find out more about it before picking up the text.

          But I do find reviews much more interesting when I’ve read the book myself. I think it just leads to a more discursive structure, whereas all you can say, even to a really well written review, is “hey, great review, I might read / not read this now.”

          • willaful says:

            Or sometimes the book pile-on of “Oh that sounds so terrible I will never read that!” which I find kind of upsetting. I’m happy with “Thanks for pointing that thing out, I don’t think I could enjoy reading that book” or “I don’t think that would bother me, I’m going to read it anyway” and so on, but when tons of people start badmouthing a book based only on a review, it doesn’t sit well with me.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Yes, I agree, that can be kind of problematic. I guess, to a degree, it comes under the community function of reviewing – I mean there’s something very comforting and unifying about joining a hate-fest, just as there’s a deep joy in all getting together to celebrate and enthuse.

            I think where it gets problematic in general is where it intersects with social justice type issues. Because if you feel personally othered or offended by a book, then obviously you’re hurt and angry in a very human way, and other people who care about that sort of representation will likely a) not want to read the book themselves because, hey, who wants to read a book which makes you feel bad and b) will accept that reading and base their actions and reactions upon it. I know that’s not quite the same as hatefesting and obviously even these matters are open to interpretation and what is problematic to one person may not be to another, but the reason I’m not sure how to react to it is because it’s quite common in SFF for someone, for example, to say a book portrays women poorly (because about 80% of fantasy does) and then the fans of that author and that book (usually, cough, male) will descend on the discussion like vultures and generally what happens is that voices who are, you know, against sexist in their books will be de-legitimatised and dismissed because they haven’t read that book, or all that author’s work or whatever.

            I know that’s not quite what you’re saying but like the division between community and critical review and promotional and positive reviewing I’m just not sure where you draw the line and who gets to draw it (and if I think if you’re asking those questions, then lines should not be drawing). I mean, I think it’s very easy to say “you’re hatefesting but I’m engaging in the problematic elements of the text” 🙂

  2. willaful says:

    “Thus disqualifying myself immediately since, while my writing is many things, it is not short.”

    *snerk*

    You know, I’d totally forgotten this but when I first started reviewing many years ago, I didn’t use any kind of grading system at all. Somewhere along the line I got convinced that I needed to and now I’m so used to it that I just take doing it for granted. (I went with letter grades at my new blog, not because I prefer them, but because I thought it would be less confusing for me if I was consistent with Dear Author.) I’ll have to really think about whether that’s something I want or not. I know they are useful for *me* in helping me remember my general attitude towards a book, but I can keep them in my record-keeping without needing to incorporate them into the review.

    Honestly, I think their best use for me is punctuation. They mean the review is over. Thank God.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      GR is kind of insistent on its stars – in some ways, at least before they started having opinions as a business about how people should rightly use said stars, I quite liked it because it allowed for this weirdly specific individualisation. Like you’d see reviews that were would be like “I am deducting a star because I did not like the heroine’s hair.” And on the one hand that seems absurd but, on the other, who gets to say what’s absurd and what isn’t? I like the extreme customisation of it, you know? But equally when you try to standardise it it all becomes a bit mad because … like … one the one hand you’ll have you know, the 1950s pulp classic Attack of the Worm Reavers (that doesn’t exist but it should) which is a shinning example of what it is and … well … Shakespeare.

      I don’t think there’s anything inherently positive or negative about ratings. Again, I think they can really useful for people who are seeking out specific types of recommendations. I just tend not to give them because I over-think them and then I unravel my own brain.

      • willaful says:

        I can really overthink them too. I don’t mind giving five stars to both The Billionaire’s Pregnant Mistress and Emma, because each to me is the top of their particular genre/field/niche/what-have-you. But in a subgenre itself or amongst different books by the same auther, I can split hairs to a mindboggling degree. I’ve learned to just go with my gut because it usually knows what I mean. Which is why the no half-stars policy at GoodReads drove me up the wall. My gut needs those half stars!

  3. PeggyL says:

    Interesting views on reviews you have.

    I read reviews (sometimes a lot of them) before making a purchase decision. Not because of a certain recommendation or otherwise, but whether I *like* the plot/story described by the reviewers (I don’t trust blurbs) enough to read the actual book. Thus, spoilers don’t bother me, even in mystery/suspense (I’m that weird, I know).

    Reviewers can make all the justifications they want to support/defend their stance; ultimately, whether to read a book is my own decision to make. In other words, I won’t blame a reviewer if a certain book is a letdown just because s/he recommended it in the first place. Reading experience is personal.

    Now, non-fiction is another “story”.

    P.S. (and totally off-topic) This piece actually prevented me from writing to you to demand a reply (cheek!) to an earlier e-mail (via “Contact”) of mine, because my question has been answered.

    P.P.S. Can one use that many “to’s” in a sentence?

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I like your icon 🙂 I’m not particularly bothered by spoilers either, unless the plot is *vitally* important, and sometimes not even then. I get a bit soapboxy, actually, because I kind of feel that if you the *only* reason your’e reading a book is to literally find out what happens next … then maybe it’s not such a great book. But then, for a lot of people, the intensity of that initial emotional reaction is important and I get that too.

      I think, as I was saying above, I’m in a slightly weird position because I’m not actively looking for recommendations right now. I have enough books to read to keep me going for, well, at least a couple of years. So that means I’m only really interested in reviews as pieces of writing almost.

      I would never blame a reviewer if my reaction to a text didn’t match those. I think we get onto slightly uncertain ground if I read something and it’s triggering or, I don’t know, homophobic or racist or something, and nobody told me … but, again, those are not absolutes either, and what is problematic to one person may not be problematic to another.

      I think what troubles more broadly are these questions surrounding who reviews and how. I think people read reviews for a variety of reasons and, like you, readers are entirely capable of making up their own minds about what they’re looking for, and what they enjoy, and what they “trust.”

      Also, yes, I’ve been really slow lately so apologies – start term and a bad cold have thrown me off schedule 🙂

      • PeggyL says:

        Why, thank you! I kinda like to think of those are *my* colours, whenever I can “own” them. In fact, I am wearing them on my nails, French style. (I can send you pictures, if you’re interested.) 😉

        • willaful says:

          Peggy, you would love my office! I recently indulged my inner 11 year old girl and painted it purple. I also bought sparkly pink and purple outlet covers and all kinds of wacky accessories. What can I say, I had a deprived childhood. 😉

          • PeggyL says:

            @willaful: I’d say, why not? If that makes you happy (and feel inspired, and productive, etc. etc.) But for unknown reasons, my two teenage nieces *hate* purple colours with a passion – they just avoid anything pink/purple at all costs.
            But mauve has always been my absolute fav – I can’t even remember how young I was when I first “discovered” it.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            And now I’m imaging you in your purple palace, playing your ukulele…. maybe while rainbows and unicorns dance around you.

          • willaful says:

            You’re so right it’s almost scary. 😉

  4. Bev S says:

    I review on GR Alexis, O friend of mine, and can only speak for myself. I no longer buy books based on other people’s recommendations, I buy them solely for my own pleasure, and if I make a mistake and buy something that I don’t enjoy, then that’s tough…but at least it was my decision and there is no-one to ‘blame’ but myself. I bought ‘Glitterland’ based on my own interest in the story as put out by Riptide and the pre-publication review written by a trusted friend on GR, and am SO glad that I did, it was amazing BUT other books that have had 5 star reviews have had me thinking ‘ am I reading the same story as everyone else?’. So it’s back to relying on yours truly I’m afraid…I will rate stories with 5 stars purely based on MY enjoyment of the book, whether other reviewers have given it 1, 2 or 0….I’ve never given a 0 rating in my life, I’m not nasty enough…the book will normally get 2 stars and ‘It wasn’t for me I’m afraid’.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’m really happy GL wasn’t a crashing disappointment 🙂

      Since I’m new to romance, my reading is almost guided by recommendations. I use GRs and there are a couple of reviewers whose tastes seem to map reasonably closely to mine, so I keep an eye on what they’re talking about. And there are a couple of people whose reviews I seek out precisely because I respect the way they express themselves but their tastes don’t really match mine but they help me see books differently. I think I’m quite a grumpy bastard in many ways, so I very much admire joyous readers, who are good are finding the value of texts when I don’t quite see it.

      As far as GR goes I don’t tend to award star ratings just because it sends me int o spirals of angst. Usually I just write a paragraph or two of reaction, if I have the time. But I’m slightly GR lazy, and I mainly like to see what other people are reading. Like some kind of strange book voyeur :/

  5. Karen says:

    I miss your Friday reviews. I was a smitten kitten from your intro post and followed you religiously, hitting refresh like a junkie waiting for your replies in the comments. Like you, I’m not financially in the position where I have to choose between book A or B (aren’t we lucky). I generally only look at low reviews to see if there is something that is a trigger for me. I enjoyed your impressions and analysis, but mainly I just like you.
    I rarely comment (this is my 3rd time in 10 years) but I do read comments and appreciate that your replies are as thoughtful and insightful as your posts. I feel emotionally invested in your reading journey and hope there is a way for junkies like me to get their fix

    • Laurla says:

      Ditto … smitten kitten indeed.

      I miss the Friday reviews too and can’t help but feel that you got a raw deal. Certainly if you moved on totally of your own accord, then that’s different and I can only hope to find and follow you elsewhere. But it didn’t feel that way to this mostly lurker… it felt to me like you accidentally offended the blog host and thus the situation was engineered to make it appear like you could no longer give *objective* reviews. I may be wrong, I guess I hope I am, but either way I wish you luck in climbing your Mt. TBR in Romancelandia!!

      As for your review views – I find that I am much like you. I don’t read reviews for hierarchical reasons and I don’t much pay attention to individual ratings. I read reviews to gain data about the book to help me decide to buy or not – trope, cliff-hanger, part of series, heat level, those sorts of things. I do, however, pay some attention to the average ratings when the number starts reaching upwards of 100 or more. This tells me at a very high level if the book was well received overall. The law of averages (duh!) applies here, but there has to be an abundance of reviews. If 100 people rated a book and the average was 1.5, that tells me there are probably serious flaws in the book and my time and money are better spent elsewhere. But when I read an individual review and the rating is low, that doesn’t generally affect my decision because people like different things and I’m just contrary enough to go after a book that a reviewer has trashed to see if it was REALLY that bad.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        @Laurla (sorry my comment threading has gone all weird)

        And thank you – it makes me really happy that people enjoyed what I was doing. I don’t particularly feel like I got a raw deal. I mean, obviously I would have preferred to stay, because I liked what I was writing and I enjoyed interacting with the community there, but it’s not my site, so the decision was out of my hands.

        As I was saying to Karen, my adventures in romance are continuing over Heroes and Heartbreakers, but we’re stilll hammering out the details: http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2013/09/julie-jamess-something-about-you. And you can sometimes find me guestposting about really rather random stuff over at Wonkomance: http://wonkomance.com/2013/09/12/love-cake-and-vampires-a-guest-post-by-alexis-hall/

        I’m actually wondering if my attitude to reviews will change as I start actively looking for books to read. Maybe I’ll be revisiting this in a year or so 😉 I tend not to look too much at averages, I think, because unless something is deeply deeply hideous or a group of people have actively gone out of their way to rating bomb a book, then most things probably end up bobbing somewhere around the middle, either at the higher or lower end of the spectrum.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      (sorry my comment threading has gone haywire)

      @Karen Thank you, that’s really kind. I’m so glad you enjoyed the reviews, because I really enjoyed writing them. And I really valued all the discussion afterwards – basically I just like talking about books, and I was happy to have that opportunity. Unfortunately because of the way my leaving happened, I didn’t really get an opportunity to thank anyone for that.

      As I said in my, uh, epic ramblings above, I think there are lots of ways to write reviews and lots of reasons to read them. I like reviews as written artefacts in themselves – so I always saw myself as sort of talking about books maybe like you would if you were with friends in the pub. I mean, obviously I wouldn’t monologue for two thousand words but … I was going for that sort of discursive, personal feel.

      I’m doing a bit of guesting here and there, because I’m pretty much committed to my epic reading list now, and I’ll miss writing about the books, and talking about the. I’m over at Heroes and Heartbreakers, although we’re still figuring out my schedule. My first piece is here: http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2013/09/julie-jamess-something-about-you And sometimes you can find me guesting over at Wonkomance, although my posts there are a bit more random 🙂 My first one was about, of all things, The Vampire Diaries: http://wonkomance.com/2013/09/12/love-cake-and-vampires-a-guest-post-by-alexis-hall/

      So as the great Julia Andrews says, when you abstract theological concept of choice closes a door, someone opens a window 🙂

      • Des Livres says:

        I’m another who misses your weekly reviews. Please, wherever you end up, can you seek to ensure we can subscribe to your blog entries? I am also interested in your ongoing reader’s journey as well as in laughing out loud which I quite often do when you’re writing about books.

        Incidentally I clicked on Pamela’s link above which got me onto her fabulous blog, which got me onto read react review’s new post about 7 fab new blogs, and a need I had been feeling – for high quality robust criticism (lately I’d only been finding sites/blogs which seemed like prolonged ads/hype) was happily fulfilled.

        BTW just finished Sherry Thomas’ new fantasy and enjoyed it more than the one romance book of hers that I’ve read.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          Thank you – I honestly miss writing them, but I’ve think I’ve found a new home over at Heroes & Heartbreakers, although I think it’ll probably be every couple of weeks, rather than every week, for the sake of my sanity and not drowning the blog. I’ve also set up a new page here on the site (http://www.quicunquevult.com/reading) so I can keep track of myself.

          It’s hard to evaluate yourself, but I like to think I’ve grown a bit as a romance reader since I picked up The Flame & The Flower. I’ve certainly no wish to abandon my list, or the journey, and as I said write at the beginning, such journeys are always more fun when shared 🙂

          Also, I’m really happy to have passively connected you to Pamela’s blog – she’s one of my favourite romance … uh … reviewers? Analysts? Critics? Bloggers? Although she’s terrible for my TBR 😉

          • pamela1740 says:

            Shucks. I am beyond flattered. The best thing about starting my blog has been discovering lovely and smart people to chat about books with. And also share odd and idiosyncratic responses to books and every other little thing that reading connects us to. Thank you for the encouragement!

  6. pamela1740 says:

    I started out thinking about my newish blog as a “book review blog” but soon came to realize that the kind of writing I was doing was only very loosely recognizable as a book review. I didn’t set out to assign grades, but by about my 3rd post I realized not only was I failing to “grade” books or give a clear sense of thumbs up or down, but I was writing differently structured responses to each book, and not infrequently I wasn’t even confining myself to discussion of a single book. I guess I’m just saying this to you here now because I agree with you that what is interesting and compelling about both writing and reading “reviews” is they way they take a book and use it like a shovel to dig around and look at all kinds of other important and/or entertaining stuff. At least I think that’s sort of agreeing with some of what you’re saying here… and I do realize that this is certainly not what everyone is looking for when they read reviews of romance novels.

    As a blogger, I’m only inclined to post about a book if it causes me to have a strong reaction of one kind or another, and one that connects to something else that’s been on my mind — usually this is something that kind of gets me riled up enough to make a post. But as a reader, I consume/use reviews two ways. I do follow trends and consider what books to read based on “buzz” — usually by getting a general sense from twitter of things that are getting a lot of reviews and/or are controversial in some way. But I don’t actually read full reviews until after I’ve read the book. At that point, I find it addictive and compelling to find out what other people thought about something I’ve just finished. I also love finding new(er) reviews of books I may have read way back when sometime, and hearing what a new voice has to say. Parenthetically, this is how I first discovered AJH on DA — that steamtastic review of Meljean Brooks’ THE IRON DUKE 🙂 I was (am) in awe of your ability to write so comprehensively about the genre, offer a review that is thorough (OK, lengthy…), manage to frame a serious critical response while cracking me up, and then graciously entertain and respond to legions of comments.

    I must admit, though, that I also love reading what you’ve got to say when you’ve got free rein, as here, to range over topics and themes without needing to tether it to a review structure. I like the untethered post: AJH unplugged. And I still hope you’ll write plenty of responses to what you’re reading, specifically! (And let me know if you read that Gaffney book.)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Well, as I took about four thousand words to get round to concluding, reviewing is quite a broad category 😉 Obviously I very much enjoy your blog, which you can probably tell by the fact I keep hanging around it like the party guest everyone wants to go home – I tried to write, and I like to read, personal reactions to books, and personal is a difficult word here because it implies something that isn’t, you know, critical (in the non-evaluative sense) but I like the way you don’t have a standard “format”, you just approach the books individually, and write about the aspect, or aspects, that interest you. Even though it’s not your explicit intention, I often find that kind of writing just as inspiring as something more overtly recommendationy (yes that’s a technical term) – and usually when you’ve written about something, I rush out and buy it so I can contextualise the discussion and Have Thoughts. And I think that’s a really powerful thing, so there’s an extent to which I think wondering whether to call it “reviewing” or not gets in the way of the important thing here: that these are dialogues about books, and there is space for many dialogues, and readers can move between them as they wish.

      I also tend to find reviews much more interesting, as literary artefacts in their own right, when I know the book – and usually that’s when I seek them out too. I write up my own thoughts, and then I dive into the internet only to discover my thoughts are apparently quite strange 😉 And I’m so happy you liked my writing on The Iron Duke, I loved the book and it’s one of the reviews I particularly enjoyed writing, I think because of Rhys being such a muppet such a lot of the time. Actually I’m hoping my review of Heart of Steel is going to go up at H&H pretty soon.
      I will confess I found the weekly format a bit punishing but reading things really fast is sort of my only super power, so I might as well get some use of it, right? As for the comments, honestly, I totally loved it. I know I (accidentally) ruffled feathered occasionally but I was so intensely grateful that people were willing to, you know, talk to me and share their response and experiences. And, hey, I’m English: if someone is kind enough to say something to me, I’ll damn will polite enough to say something back 🙂

      Also, this probably sounds a bit pathetic but I think people often take their own community for granted. I genuinely don’t have anyone to talk about romances with in the rest of my life. Even the people I know of the female persuasion tend to be more into SFF, although they occasionally read romances too, so I’ve had a few crossovers. I’ve vaguely managed to get partner hooked on In Death by ruthlessly listening to it loudly on audiobook until I think his mind just surrendered under the onslaught. But basically that space was kind of my point of connection, and I miss it. On the other hand, there are other spaces 🙂 So this story ends at least with a HFN 😉

      And, yes, in some ways it’s also a little bit liberating 😉

      • pamela1740 says:

        You are much too kind! I am quite sure it is I who am lingering overlong in comments on YOUR blog. Actually, the worst thing is how long it’s taken me to respond to the lovely comments posted here by you and Des Livres. Life intervened and I had to limit my romance and book blog obsession in order to deal with dayjob nuisances. But your thought about the freedom to approach each book (or set of books) individually, and not worry so much about post format, has been a great help to me.

        Also, @Kaetrin – I think I agree about looking for both positive/negative in a single review. In fact, I think it’s almost impossible for me to write anything about a book without giving what for simplicity’s sake would probably be called a “mixed review.” Sometimes it feels like I can’t take a strong position to rec or not rec, because I can see so many angles on a book.

        • Kaetrin says:

          There are a few books where I’ve written in my review that I can’t see anything to pick at or there was nothing I disliked or just that I am so in love with the book I refuse to see the faults. But most of the time there is something I didn’t like, or something I would have liked explained or expounded etc and when I see that in a review it indicates to me that the reviewer has a critical eye and that appeals to me. In this context, I mean critical in the non-picky sense, ie, that the review is a critique. Ultimately, the way I review tends to be what helps me decide about a book or the things I want to know about a book and I find reviewer saying “well, this was great but I wish there had been more of that” helps me develop a feel for the reviewer and whether their tastes are likely to mesh with mine. But that’s very personal and what works for me doesn’t work for all. I do like quotes in reviews as well because seeing an excerpt of the book itself will often be the deciding factor as to whether or not I buy it.

          • pamela1740 says:

            Hmm, that’s interesting – and helpful – about the use of quotes in reviews. I think I’ve only used quotes when the language is exceedingly beautiful, or excessively bad. So I guess I think of quotes in connection with the language, when in fact quotes can be used for all kinds of other reasons, and do give a whoever’s reading your review/post a chance to “hear” directly from the author, even for just a minute.

          • willaful says:

            I find quotes really necessary for longer reviews, otherwise I get sick of the sound of my own voice. 🙂 And they just sort of capture the moment that I’m trying to express. Perhaps they’re another weird form of review punctuation for me.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Yes, I really like quotes as well. Especially because writing is very subjective and sometimes getting a glimpse of the style really helps you decide if a certain book is for you.

          • Kaetrin says:

            I’d have to check of course, but I have a feeling that for my own reviews, the ones least likely to contain a quote or two (or more) are around the C grade. The ones which were okay but didn’t grab me. Higher graded books usually have a line or two that jumps out at me when I’m reading, as do the lower grade books (although, for different reasons). The books I struggle to review the most are often the ones where I couldn’t find a quote to springboard from.

            When I’m writing a review, particularly if it’s been a few days since I finished the book, often the first thing I will do is copy and paste the quotes – that reminds me what I was thinking when I highlighted them and gives me something to say. It is most distressing when I look in my notes and find there are none! LOL

          • willaful says:

            Yes, I think you’re right. It’s the average, pleasant books that don’t have much that’s interesting to quote… and one of the reasons they can be the hardest to review. “Springboard” is a good way to put it.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Ah hah – no, you’re completely right. I was thinking on the macro level, not the matter of individual reviews. Also I’m counting a positive review as a “review in which the reviewers comes out broadly favourable” rather than “a review in which nothing negative is said about the book.” I, err, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything in which I haven’t had something slightly questioning, if not necessarily negative, I’ve wanted to discuss. But equally I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a review that just says “omg, this is amazing, I can’t think of anything I didn’t like.” I think that’s entirely legitimate and looking for reasons to criticise a book is just mean-spirited.

          • Kaetrin says:

            There are a few books I just can’t be unbiased about and so I just say “OMG I loved this book so hard” (but with way more words!), but the vast majority of them, there is at least one thing which I query in one way or another. For me if a reviewer writes *only* positive *all the time*, then I am somewhat dubious about trusting that reviewer. I’d like to think that those who read my reviews can see that the occasional “squee” review indicates that I think that book is extra special rather than that is my SOP. That’s what I was trying to get at anyway 🙂

            I don’t think it’s mean-spiritied to criticise a book (not that that’s what you said of course) but if you have to go searching really hard to find something to criticise that in itself tells one something about the book, I think. There have been a few reviews where I’ve written something like, “there’s really not much to criticize here, about the only thing I can think of is x but that’s a small thing and it didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the book”. When I read that in someone else’s review, it does add a kind of legitimacy (again, only speaking for myself here) in that a) the reviewer really thought about it and b) really couldn’t come up with anything. If, on the other hand, I’m reading a review which picks on little things like they are big things (according to me anyways!) I’m likely to move on to another reviewer.

  7. Kaetrin says:

    Hmmm. I’ve been mulling since I read the OP in my emails. I understand what you’re saying about positive/negative and to an extent, I agree that if a person only writes positive reviews and seems to like what I like, then whether s/he writes negative reviews doesn’t matter. But… There are reviewers who say they love everything (coughHarrietKlausnercough) and I can’t get anything useful out of them. I find, personally, that if a reviewer says “I do like x and I don’t like y” then I can benchmark his/her tastes with mine. Even though my TBR is now over 1500 books I still buy books all the time and I am easily led to a purchase when a trusted reviewer says “get thee to a bookshop and buy this book”. But to build up that level of trust, I need both sides of the argument. There are some reviewers whose tastes mesh with mine in certain subgentres and not in others.

    We all have different hot buttons so I like reviews which disclose them so I can work out whether it would make a difference to me. And, I do think it should be a RULE that there is a warning for a cliffhanger ending.

    I tend to read reviews for a multitude of reasons – sometimes at the same time – if I haven’t read the book, it will be to see whether I should get it, if I have, it is to talk about it, sometimes it’s for entertainment (as well or only) – but I do tend to gravitate to reviewers who aren’t positive only.

    In general though, I think there’s plenty of room on the internet to review however one likes and those reviewers will find their audience one way or another. Diversity is a good thing.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      ISorry for my slow replying – I don’t hate you, I promise.

      I think Harriet Klausner is a bit of a strawperson here. Well, anywhere really 😉 I think I was just trying to present the argument that a blogger who only publishes positive wasn’t *automatically* promotional, partial or useless. For me, I don’t really need to know what someone doesn’t like to decide if I want to read what they do – I don’t think you *necessarily* need negative reviews to orientate positive ones. Although, again, that’s a choice you can make as a reviewer or a reader. I often pick up recs from Ruthie Knox, since they tend to be interesting reads, and obviously she doesn’t recommend books she doesn’t like because … that would be weird … but I don’t think the fact she doesn’t do a Monday Diss to balance her Friday Rec, diminishes either my interest in the rec, or the value of that rec.

      I do, however, with you on the value of diversity – I think that’s largely what troubles me about this whole discussion. The idea that some types of reviews are ‘right’ and some types of reviews are ‘wrong’ and there is a definitive way to categorise them. When, actually, I think most of us just naturally and comfortably gravitate towards what we like and find useful as normal humans do 🙂

      • Kaetrin says:

        I don’t think we really disagree on any of the concepts, even while our personal preferences may be a little different depending on what we are looking for from a review on that particular day.

        But, FWIW, I really meant, for me, I like to see both positive and negative within one review. Maybe I’m just a super critical person but there are very few books that are so good there aren’t any little niggles or problems or “I would have liked more of” etc in there. That’s really what I meant when I referred to both positive and negative reviews. But, that is what works for me and what works for me is not the universal standard or anything. 🙂

        What In Death book are you up to now? Have you met Peabody yet?

  8. Kaetrin says:

    Does that mean you are hooked on the In Death series now too?

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, we are a much hooking household 😉

      • Des Livres says:

        Um, well maybe you can help me with one of the Great Mysteries of the World – lots of people whose tastes I generally respect and admire love love love the In Death series, and priorities it (ie buying hard cover as soon as released etc) over other stuff.

        …and I just don’t get it. I read the first 5 or so, and found them…okay. Not interesting or engaging enough to persist with. The main characters were nothing new or special, the plots … shrug worthy. Yet sophisticated readers with otherwise excellent taste keep following this series decade to decade. This includes readers who do not otherwise engage with genre fiction, men and women. And my reaction was, and still is, a great big shrug. I’m clearly missing something major about these books.

        Any thoughts you might have on what is so “hooking” about the series would be welcome.

        • Kaetrin says:

          I hope it’s okay to put in my two cents worth here. I think if you’ve read the first 5 or so and didn’t think it was worth continuing, the series is just not for you. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or with the series for that matter. Sometimes things gel and sometimes they don’t. (Possibly this is called “the Kristin Ashley effect” LOL). There’s an alchemy to reading and there are plenty of super popular books which I just don’t get and vice versa. I started reading (and listening) to the In Death series after the first 20 or so books were already out so I had a huge glom. The thing I like best is the growth of the characters and the stories of the secondary characters – something which can really only happen when there is 3000+ pages of text I think. So what I started reading the series for is not necessarily why I stay. Although: Roarke. (I do love an alpha carer hero. It’s one of my favourites so I tend to gravitate to them.) And, what hooks me won’t be what hooks others. My mother and stepdad read them and they loves the mystery/police procedural aspects best.

          • Des Livres says:

            I know there is something special about those books. It’s interesting that Nora Roberts has set up this universe she can keep returning to, in a way she hasn’t with her other work.

  9. MikiS says:

    I’m another one who was very disappointed when you disappeared over there. I loved your humor and the fact that you were coming at the genre as a newbie and a male one at that! I’ll admit that Friday’s have been a lot less interesting lately (and isn’t that a sad thing to say).

    Good luck in your future endeavors – whatever they are!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Sorry for my slow reply – I was moving house and I haven’t yet moved the internet with me. I was sorry to leave the DA community, I really was. I loved writing about the books and the discussions that followed. But, it’s not all doom and gloom – you can find me at Heroes & Heartbreakers and Wonkomance, still writing about books at the former, and rather more broadly at the latter 🙂

  10. I’m a bit of a blog-stalker today – sorry if I’m creeping you out!

    But I didn’t put it together that you were the one writing the reviews over at DA, the ones I enjoyed so much and missed when they abruptly disappeared!

    I’ve got your Heroes and Heartbreakers links open now, and will start my reading over there as soon as I’m done stalking you here.

    Sorry if I’m being a goof, but I’m just… you know how exciting it is when you come across somebody who seems to be on a similar frequency? I’m excited. But will try to contain myself now. Sorry.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Not at all, thanks for reading. I’m really enjoyed you enjoyed my reviews. I had fun writing them, and it’s nice to be able to carry them on a bit over at H&H.

      I’ve really enjoyed our discussions about m/m, so thanks for finding me 🙂

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