Sunday, February 17, 2008

Positive Reviewing: a Cultural Error

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience responds to my post on positive/negative blog reviewing by stating that he too (even he) tends to avoid reviewing small press publications negatively and those authors he thinks 'vulnerable' (although he says that if enough writers tell him that they agree with me that they'd prefer a negative review to none at all, then he'll consider changing his reviewing policy).

Well, here are my thoughts on the matter after these last few days' discussions:

Firstly, in my opinion a concern with the 'author' and the author's feelings is quite misplaced in any serious literary debate (and is in danger of playing into the cult of personality). Any serious critic should be concerned foremost with literature, with books and with the more general issues of literary culture, and serious writers worth their salt know that the books they have written, once they are published, are entities separate from themselves, indeed no longer their personal properties but the property of others and components of a wider literary culture.

Perhaps some reviewers are not so concerned with an authors' feelings but worry rather that a bad review will stop a book selling. This concern is founded on the assumption that anyone reading a bad review will be put off even looking at a book. But it's a breathtaking patronization of readers to assume that they'll swallow wholesale a blogger's views. As some commenters have said, they are often prompted by a bad review to read a book and are not only pleasantly surprised but provoked to write a contradictory, positive review. Susan Hill however has stated that she has noted 'lemming' behaviour among bloggers - I hope she's not right. Someone somewhere during this week's discussion (can't find it at the moment, I'm sorry) quoted an American study which showed that while negative reviews do not push up the sales of books as much as positive reviews, they do nevertheless push them up.

Clearly, as I have said, bloggers have every right to set their own agendas, but it seems to me that litblogging can only be a creative force in literary culture (and not just a handmaiden to publishing marketing departments) if it embraces for discussion all aspects of that culture, and I cannot but think that suppressing books and withholding information (for an author's or a book's so-called 'good') is not only too dangerously like benign dictatorship for comfort but culturally pretty well mistaken.

8 comments:

Dan Green said...

You make some very good points, but I still hesitate to give a neagative review to a small press book unless some other, larger point ( a point that transcends the book in question) can be made by doing so. Just to point out the flaws in a book that doesn't have much chance of catching on to begin with just seems like an empty exercise to me.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I agree with you - I think. I would suggest that the only point of ever pointing out the flaws of a book would be for the sake of a larger literary point which you feel is important. I'd say also it's important to write about the merits with this in view although obviously there's personal enjoyment to express.

Lloyd Mintern said...

This whole notion of a reviewer having anything to do with a given books future is really misguided. Reviewers are playing their own games, and are just other writers to begin with; they have no sacred, or corrupt, status, and readers know that. It just is not an interesting question, but ultimately futile-- though attractive to certain critical minds (like Dan Green); and the fact that you bring it up, obviously indicates you are seeking publicity for yourself. At all costs. Very disingenuous, Miss Elizabeth--if I may address you so politely.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well pardon us authors for being in the position nowadays that we have to seek publicity for ourselves, but I do assure you that this is not my motive here - I'm quite aware in fact that it could create a backlash and make blog reviewers determined not to review me for this very reason (because it looks as if I'm seeking publicity). It's an issue with implications for censorship and intellectual freedom about which I feel very strongly.

Elizabeth Baines said...

And btw, I didn't bring it up. I am responding to the debate occasioned by Susan Hill's stated belief that bloggers ought to review positively and quietly put aside anything they can't praise. It is this statement which implies an assumption of the reviewer's power, and it is precisely an overestimation of the reviewer's power which I am trying to challenge.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Or at least question.

Lloyd Mintern said...

"Well pardon us authors for being in the position nowadays that we have to seek publicity for ourselves . . ."

This is where I strongly disagree. Who put you in that position? Family and friends? Certainly not the history of literature. I think seeking publicity is literally fatal to the self-image of an author--which self-image is a vital source of content. You can't write without being on a track toward being well-known? That means you are thinking about this track all the time, and it must affect what you write. And probably poison it. Or, it just means you are in it for thrills anyway, and will eventually run out of content. To each his own; what I can't stand is pontificating critics.

Of course I probably am just talking about myself; "Lloyd Mintern" is a pseudonym, so what do I know? Actually, my current post BATHOS deals with this very thing, sort of.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Lloyd, I read your blog. I think things are much more subtle than you allow for. Maybe you don't want to be read by others but most writers do, and nowadays we authors are put in the position of helping get our books out to readers not by family and friends but by the pressures of the publishing industry. Very few books get out to readers without some kind of marketing push, and the smaller publishers have the smallest budgets and thus require some help from the authors themselves.