17 April 2013

"Poltergeist" and Online (Book) Reviews

By Molly Field

Note: I wrote this post Sunday night, when all was mostly well and Boston was preparing for its marathon. I considered pulling this post entirely in light of the tragedy, but I didn't. I didn't edit it, I didn't change it a bit. Part of me wants to remember what Sunday was like before Monday became horrible. My heart goes out to Boston and all who are affected by it near and far. 

Maybe I'll change my mind in a year or two, but I believe 5-stars are the new 3-stars. Sort of like how 40 is the new 30 25.

When I first started this blogging-to-be-a-writer gig, I was dewy and not unlike Carole-Anne when she fell through the ceiling in "Poltergiest," the first time, all lush and covered in strawberry preserves and completely unaware for what was coming my way or how the hell I'd just gotten there.

I mean, look at her... I'll wait.

image: (c) MGM Studios

I know, right? JoBeth Williams too; all slimy and ready to be smeared into a sandwich. Ready to be devoured by the Internets and judged and critiqued and not at all ready for the intensity of the drive to compete and self-promote and cross-promote and sell and promote ... myself. Something that I wasn't even charging anyone to enjoy or debase.

Then came along the Facebook blog/fan page; a so-called Must Have. It has done nothing but confuse me. Then I got to know other bloggers and I built alliances with people I didn't really "know" and became just more confused:

image: (c) MGM Studios
How'd they get there like that? How'd I get there like that? All I did was open a Facebook account in 2008 and then started a blog for grins and giggles only to end up BEGGING for Likes of a fan page that sucked more of my life away.

How'd I get from someone who just wanted to write about my observations from my cheap seats to hone my writerly skills to a gut-wrenching search for relevance? How?

Here's how: Comments. The comments felt like a kissing cousin of reviews which are only realized through constant self-promotion. I have a modest minuscule blog with a lovely following that I am grateful to have. I have no ambitions of unseating The Bloggess or anyone else, but as humans, we are all looking for favorable consideration. And that universal, human need for "favorable consideration" can eventually resemble biased and loaded boardroom backscratching book reviews.


image (c) www.fourthgradenothing.com
The yearning for unbiased comments and authentic traffic (not China-based bots selling counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags) and the tiresome skulduggery (promoting, sharing, linking, tweeting) behavior has put into harsh relief an ugly fear: maybe objective reviews don't exist.

My thoughts are my own; my craft is writing, but despite all of this, I have been pulled into a direction which makes me uneasy and brings me back to feeling like strawberry preserves -covered Carole-Anne: confused. Social media has availed me to witnessing the unfortunate phenomenon of outright requests for favorable reviews of self-published books. I've heard tell of authors ranting over objective less-than 5-star reviews. I get where that comes from, because books are like our babies, but not every baby places first in the toddler pageant, and some judges won't be bribed.

I don't at all like being pulled in that direction. It feels forced.

image (c) MGM Studios

Neither does Carole-Anne. This was just before her second trip to the afterlife, this time through a giant flaming hole in the wall. 

My take on any book review is this: it has to be truly amazing for me to give 5 stars; we're talking Faulkner or (see, it's all subjective) say, The Bell Jar, which I read in one night and loved with my teeth; or as compelling as any previous NYTBSA (New York Times Best Selling Author) and even then, eeeeeeven then, you're never guaranteed of its quality, says my publishing rep.  I love Nick Sparks, but do I give him 5 stars? I give him 4; he doesn't make me swoon. Maybe I'm a Classic-ist. Nope. I'm just a good writer-ist; I want someone who will tactfully push the envelope.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I don't know who to trust anymore without Oprah's Book Club. Even the almighty Oprah got burned with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces -- that was just a simple matter of genre, he should have never marketed that book as nonfiction autobiography. Just do what everyone else is doing: "creative nonfiction," but I digress.

I do read reviews now when I go to Amazon for a book, but I didn't used to. I've become a skeptic: I also check the dates for most of the 5-star reviews and am grossed out. Say there's 35 5-star brand-new reviews. Of those 35, 27 are written within three days of release, and some of them are reciprocal. Some are completely over the top IN ALL CAPS I COULDN'T PUT IT DOWN I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS BOOK!

Then I like to see what the lower reviews have to say. Sometimes it's totally subjective, "I didn't like the font," or "Not all southerners say y'all." Or "I don't like romance novels, and so I shouldn't have bought this one, but my best friend's cousin wrote it..." Others are really intense: "Georgia bullfrogs don't make calls like that and they definitely don't during the daytime, at least where I live; also, you can't catch a 6-lb rainbow trout in that lake, the limit is 5.5-lbs!!! This author clearly doesn't know what he's talking about," or those reviews written by people with the moniker: "I Will Waste You." Some lower reviews say what I look for: formatting's a mess, dialogue didn't synch up or transitions were weak or nonexistent.  

The proliferation of self-published eBooks bothers me: the quality control is weak. They're like Fan Pages: there are a ton of them and quantity doesn't at all correlate with quality. When it comes to ebooks, quality of the actual product (editing, formatting, etc.) matters to me so much because it's a massive distraction when it stinks. I have stopped reading books when the formatting is wonky or "it's" or "they're" or their ilk are consistently and incorrectly used and/or I get tripped up in the formatting. Don't make me edit this... I was asked once by an eFriend to read an eBook already released, and within the first 11 pages, I experienced about 30 errors and then I started to keep track. I stopped at page 21 when I hit 150 simple errors, including tense and plurality and possession disagreements, bad punctuation, broken sentences, homophones, weird formatting and direct object confusion. I gave up.

Do we have to go through 3rd grade grammar again? YES. I gave those books: 2 stars just for making me wade through their garbage; I felt like this:

image (c) MGM Studios
I couldn't believe I was having to tolerate it. But I will always give more than one star because writing a book is hard. I give mostly 3-star to 4-star reviews if I give one at all.

I wish to give or receive a 5-star review if the book truly moved readers, or if we missed the characters when it ended. I've actually said, "NO!" when a book ended (Kate Chopin's The Awakening). If I learned something about myself, if I highlighted amazing prose or use of language, then I will give it 5-stars. If the artwork captivates me, then I will give it high marks. If it is: mostly flawless and gripping, I will give it 5-stars.

Maybe that's why I'll never publish a book: because I can't play the game and I don't want to waste your time. I'm in this gig to get better at it. I think Anita Diamant hit it so far out of the park with The Red Tent, her stunning debut, that she hasn't replicated it since. "She peaked early," said a good friend of mine. I've become so paranoid about loaded reviews that I'll read reviews in newspapers and then read what people say online before buying.

Last week, I learned that Amazon bought Goodreads. Oh. Dear. Now what? Is this the end of the fair review and awesome reader community? I mean, bully for the Goodreads founders, but many people, including this writer for Salon beg to differ. I can't say I'm surprised. I feel like Goodreads just couldn't resist this:

image (c) MGM Studios

So are they still out there? Do fair, unbiased, unforced reviews exist anymore? What do you think? Do you feel like JoBeth Williams with that skeleton at times?


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