I read a fair amount of books for children and young adults. In the course of my reading I write reviews. I do it for my MFA program, I do it for professional journals, and I do it for my other blog. For the MFA program I have had to analyze these books for elements of craft and storytelling, sometimes for essays and sometimes just to understand what was going on beneath the surface. The reviews I write for the journals are cursory at best, little more than a short summary of the plot and a hint at the quality of the writing.
But when I blog a book usually it is because I feel like there’s something I want to say, something about the experience of reading the book has compelled me to not only try and articulate it but to do so in a public way. When I blog for Guys Lit Wire, where I am one of many, I am sharing a title I think would be of specific interest to a teen boy and am hoping to draw attention to a worthy (and perhaps overlooked) title. Those reviews are site specific and, by nature of the enterprise, always positive.
Over at the excelsior file I write for myself. This means occasionally I write negative reviews, because not everything written for children is stellar in my opinion. And that’s what it is, my opinion. It was the the response I had upon finishing the book and the review is my documentary record of that response. Because I am sharing that response publicly I also do so with an eye that there are others who might, for any number of reasons, be interested in knowing what another person thought about that book I read. Teachers, parents, librarians, authors, friends, the curious, any number of people of the years have commented and let me know that I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness.
Now occasionally I do something goofy. Sometimes I take my reviews and repost them elsewhere. LibraryThing gets my reviews because it permits me to be part of a program their Early Reader program where advance copies of new titles are made available to members. I also contribute to a wiki specifically for children’s book reviews, a sort of clearinghouse for people to see what others are saying about specific titles. And then there’s Amazon.
Amazon likes to give its customers the opportunity to voice their opinions about products they sell as a way of building a community. They do not do this for alturistic reasons but because making people feel like they belong helps build a psychological sense of comfort into what is basically a cold, impersonal business. Giving customers a chance to rate and write reviews about purchases provides the false sense of being part of something larger. But for Amazon, customer reviews serve as salespeople, subtle persuaders that could tip a customer toward making a purchase they may have been on the fence about.
Oddly enough, this is not what a true review is about. No film reviewer or book or theater critic is trying to sell a consumer on making a purchase, they are bringing their personal (and occasionally trained) eye to the subject. What a reviewer does, ideally, is a sort of cultural reportage, presenting the material at hand and saying “Here, this is what I saw, this is what I got from the material.” To a lot of people, reviewing and criticism is gatekeeping, or snobbery. And true, some critics do appoint themselves as bastions of taste and are snobs. But in the end it is only one voice, one collection of thoughts, one opinion.
However Amazon customers seem to approach their reviewing task with a different eye, one of exuberant zeal, where quantity wins over quality of thought, with exclamation points and democracy for all!!! A book is scarcely released and already there are half a dozen fans extolling the joys of the author’s latest work, often repeating the same plot summaries and noting the same quptes as those who came before them. It is occasionally difficult to believe these reviewers aren’t paid to write these five-star reviews. And what does one make of a person with over 10,000 ranked reviews on Amazon in the last four years? Aside from the time taken to write so many reviews (6.8 reviews per day, every day, for four years) how many of those were actual purchases?
Of course people post reviews of things they haven’t purchased at Amazon. I do it, and when I do it is because I want to add something to the dialog, to add a different voice to one that has already been heard. If I didn’t enjoy a book, and reviewed it accordingly, and then happen to see the book has twenty-five five-star reviews and nothing else, then I will repost my dissenting opinions in the off chance that someone would appreciate it. You see, my review has always been “see/read/hear everything and judge for yourself.” Don’t let a couple of chuckleheads give a movie two thumbs down determine that your won’t go see a film you were interested in before you heard their take. Go in with an open mind and decide whether or not you agree with them.
Yes, obviously, something prompted all this. A couple months back I wrote a review and cross-posted it to Amazon. Yeah, it’s a little snarky and, okay, perhaps I give away a bit too much of the plot. The point at the time was that there were nothing but five-star reviews and I thought it deserved a two. I put the review out there and thought nothing more of it. Except that today I got my second “scolding” for not warning people about spoilers.
Okay, let me get this out of the way: If you don’t want to have the book/movie/theatre experience “spoiled” for you, don’t read reviews in advance. Ever. Because what is a spoiler to one person, isn’t to another. It isn’t the reviewer or critic or ANYONE’S responsibility to protect you from the rest of the world.
Now I’ll back down, but only slightly. No critic or reviewer should go about deliberately giving away the ending or key plot points to a story just to ruin the experience for a reader of that review. However, where those elements are key for discussing what is wrong with article under review, it is imperative for the reviewer to cite specifics so that the reader can better understand the point in question. One cannot discuss a revival of a work of Shakespeare without noting key differences between previous productions, and unless they were radical departures from the original (Hamlet lives!) they cannot be said to be spoilers because the audience is at least familiar with the work.
Ah, yes, for the familiar, it is okay, but what about new works? In my case the book under review felt so derivative of of not only a specific comic book series but a particular set of movies made from comic book series that I felt it would be irresponsible not to call the emperor naked. In doing so I gave away some character and plot points that bolstered my claim, and I tried to do so in an offhand way that didn’t draw too much attention to the fact that I was giving away too much. A couple of Amazon customers thought I’d given away too much. Oh well.
I’ll loop back around now and point out that I read and review children’s books, but… who is the audience for my reviews? I write as an adult, primarily for an adult audience, because I presume kids either don’t read reviews or they at least don’t read reviews from adults. Kids have their own peer groups and can find lots of ready reviews aimed specifically for them. To that end, I suppose Amazon is an entirely different audience as well, and perhaps my reviews aren’t one-size-fits-all. Based on the anecdotal evidence it would appear that book reviewers (and their readers) on Amazon prefer lots of gushing, little to no analysis, and basically only want to hear good things in this world.
In a democracy a citizen cannot afford to live sheltered.