Monday, August 03, 2009

"Roberts Rules. Sigh."

I suspect that many, if not most, book bloggers post their reviews on one or two websites other than their own. Book bloggers are enthusiastic readers who love to share what is ordinarily a lonely pursuit with others of a like mind, something that was impossible to do before the web came along to shrink the world to the size of a basketball. Bloggers are as used to receiving feedback from those who read their thoughts as they are to providing feedback to fellow bloggers. That sense of community is, in fact, half the fun.

One website, though, is more akin to the Wild Wild West than it is to a typical book review site. It is a place where book reviewers can expect to be cursed, laughed at, and otherwise abused on a regular basis (if tarring and feathering or stocks were available, I would really be worried)., though, can be a nasty place for book reviewers with thin skins. Dare to post a review on any political book, either positive or negative, and watch the “helpful/not helpful” votes come rolling in from people who have not read the book - but hate its author. Dare to post a negative, or even a mediocre review, of a book by a big-name, mainstream author and expect to have your very IQ challenged by the author’s rabid fans.

The strangest thing about Amazon is that a generous portion of the abusive comments attached to book reviews come directly from the authors of those books. It is hard to understand what the authors think they will gain by making personal attacks on readers who have panned their books, but I suppose such behavior is cheaper than the therapy from which they would more readily benefit.

Even big-name authors tend to blow their stacks every so often about book reviews but few of them respond the way that Alice Hoffman did publicly a few weeks ago to one newspaper reviewer who dared question the quality of her latest novel:
“Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Anne Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?”
That kind of response creates a “no-win” situation for an author, as Hoffman found out by the amount of scorn hurled her way by the media and public alike. Is Hoffman suggesting that seasoned readers and professional critics not dare review a book unless they, too, have been published? Sales are all about word-of-mouth nowadays and Ms. Hoffman’s elitist attitude makes clear how unhappy she is that word of a disappointing novel spreads quickly in today’s marketplace - no matter who the author may be. More to the point, why should readers even trust reviews written by other writers since so many writers trade cover blurbs and reviews with their friends and colleagues over entire careers?

Even as prominent a book reviewer as Maureen Corrigan (of NPR, book and newspaper fame) knows what to expect from certain negative reviews. However, few handle the situation as cleverly as Corrigan did this weekend when she disguised her review of the latest Nora Roberts tripe as an opinion piece about the frustration of reviewing the books of an author who sells the huge number of books sold by Roberts. (I read Corrigan’s piece in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday morning, but here's a link to the whole review at the Washington Post site.) According to Corrigan:
“It doesn’t much matter what I say about the new Nora Roberts novel; most of the adult female population of the planet is going to read it anyway. It’s a staggering understatement to say that Roberts is review proof.”


“If I pan the novel, I come off as a snooty-pants literature professor, and I’ll be deluged by emails from her ticked-off fans. If I gush over it, I’ll be suspected of trying too hard to be just a regular gal…”
Now that she has done her best to discourage a “deluge of emails” from Roberts fans, Corrigan has her say:
“I’m going to say what I think straight out: Black Hills is synthetic mind candy. It’s not even very satisfying synthetic mind candy, such as, for instance, Clive Cussler in his prime or Patricia Wentworth’s soothing Maud Silver mysteries.”


“This latest smooch-and-shoot saga spans three decades and many twists of the heart. To give Roberts her due, she keeps this fluff aloft for hundreds of pages (partly by repeating the same sex scene every other chapter or so). Black Hills isn’t much of a suspense story and the romance is so silly that it isn’t even good fantasy fodder, but none of Roberts’ fans will give a hoot.”
Next consider that Nora Roberts has written more than 160 bestsellers, 39 of which have debuted at No. 1 and you will better understand Corrigan’s take on this new one. While thinking about those numbers, you might also consider the national embarrassment of what is called the NYT Fiction Bestseller List.

Me, I hope to keep Corrigan’s tongue-in-cheek approach in mind the next time I am called a bunch of names over at Amazon. If it happens to a critic as good as Corrigan, I will just remind myself that I am in good company despite my amateur status.


  1. I don't post reviews at Amazon and you have done a good job of articulating why I don't! I don't have thin skin (I don't think), but I have little patience for the kind of rabid attacks I see over there and I'd rather not be a part of it. I like posting on Library Thing, Powell's Bookstore and my own lowly little blog...I like the friendly attitude of the blogs - even when people disagree with one's review, it is usually done respectfully. I give you credit for having the wherewithal to post somewhere where you know you will get nastiness!

  2. I agree with you, but you do have to admit there is a little bit of irony in thin-skinned reviewers who can dish the criticism, but not taken.

    (That said, I realize the spirit of the Amazon nutty nastiness is something other than true criticism.)

  3. Comments and "not helpful" votes have never bothered me on Amazon - there are so many people who comment and vote on that site for reasons other than having liked or disliked the book (if they've even read it) that I'm actually more imprevious to a negative response to a review I've written and posted on Amazon than anywhere else.

    As for Nora Roberts, and authors like her... well, I'm a Roberts fan myself, but not a rabid one. I may read her newest books, whether they've received bad reviews or not (for authors like her and others, I don't bother to even look at reviews prior to reading, because I know I'll end up reading the book anyway), but that does't mean I'll necessarily like the books. If it ever gets to the point where I start to dislike more of them than I like, then I'll quit. I can understand how a reviewer might wonder if it's even worth it to review one of her books (or something by another super-popular author), though. One way to think of it, I guess, is that if someone who hasn't read something by her wants to figure out what to try first, reviews can help.

  4. I'm not a big Alice Hoffman fan, but I expected better from her. Kudos to Corrigan for her cleverness!

  5. Wendy, I find the politics and underground, sneaky marketing techniques over at Amazon to be fascinating. It is all kind of creepy and dirty but kind of fun to watch. I've been stalked by a creep or two, had reviews stolen and used on other websites, been cursed at,ridiculed and laughed at...but I keep coming back. What's wrong with me?

  6. Alissa, I agree that reviewers are not immune to criticism from others and that they have no reason to complain - until it becomes personal or political. Then I have to wonder about the IQ of the person making the complaint. :-)

  7. Good points, Library Girl. I'm very competitive when scores are kept and I think that's part of the reason I still play the game over at Amazon. It irked me earlier this week, for instance, when I got 10 "not helpful" votes in a row from the same person on ten different reviews I posted there weeks ago. I still haven't figured out his motivation...

  8. Alice Hoffman really stepped in it, Suzi. That was a bad mistake and she will be living with the splashback for a while.

  9. I rarely post reviews on Amazon, although it has more to do with laziness than anything else. I have been called names on my own blog, however, but it doesn't bother me. The majority of authors have been gracious, kind and appreciative.

    I like Alice Hoffman - too bad she reacted so poorly. Whining certainly isn't going to win her any fans.

  10. Susan, my overall experience with feedback from authors and their fans, like yours, has been very positive. If not, I doubt that I would have last almost three years at this. It's still fun - that's the good news for me.