Hey, Mom! The Explanation.

Here's the permanent dedicated link to my first Hey, Mom! post and the explanation of the feature it contains.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Old Blogs that never got Posted pt.2


LISEY’S STORY REVIEW - originally drafted August 1, 2007

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is what you’re getting into if you start reading...How much credence do people put in reviews by readers posted to sites like Amazon?
Sub-question B: Do potential readers see the problems, the inherent flaws, in taking these reviews too seriously?
1.READERS ARE IMPORTANT
2. IS ANYONE LISTENING?
3. MOVIES ARE DIFFERENT
4. SHOULD CRITICS HAVE TO QUALIFY?
5. PEOPLE ARE EASILY INFLUENCED
6. TOO MANY CHOICES (and blogs that are too long)
7. I DON’T SHARE YOUR PERSONAL TASTE BUDS: Personal taste is not a useful criterion for reviewing.
8. DO ONLINE REVIEWS AFFECT SALES?
9. AND FINALLY... MY REVIEW OF LISEY’S STORY
9A. IS IT FAIR TO HAVE EXPECTATIONS?
10. WE HAVE A BINDING CONTRACT
11. FINAL THOUGHTS

THE WHOLE ENCHILADA

In our continuing series of things that bug me as well as the continuing series of half-finished blogs that have been languishing on my hard drive far too long and need to get posted no matter how out of the date, I pose the following question:

How much credence do people put in reviews by readers posted to sites like Amazon?

Now before I delve into that question, I have to present the first of many neurotic disclaimers in the true spirit of the neurotica that is Sense of Doubt (thank Mr. Bowie). I started this blog entry over a year ago, and the more I wrestle to bring it to some form I feel is worth posting on the Internet, the more I think I come off like a hateful, elitist snob. And it’s not my intent to be perceived this way. However, some online reviews of books (and other works of art) strike me as reckless and dangerous or at least deeply flawed. And so, blog I must.

Prepare yourself. It’s a long one. And I think throughout this long, long, VERY LONG treatise to reviewing and posting online, I am questing. I am trying to figure out why my neurosis and annoyance is triggered by some of the obnoxious reviews I see all over the Internet (well aware, that I myself may be obnoxious in sharing all of this).

Back to the question at hand...or rather sub-question B:

Do potential readers see the problems, the inherent flaws, in taking these reviews too seriously?

Because if people are dissuaded from reading a book like Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story due to reviews by any reader with the compunction to express her/himself online, then the reader is missing out on a rich and rewarding reading experience. I might make the claim for other books, too, but it was seeing reviews for Lisey’s Story that inspired to me write this blog.

Probably these views are not overly original. But I am seized with the ire necessary to write a column like this one, even over a year after my first draft, and so, I inflict it upon whatever readers I may attract here now or in the future (can’t do nearly enough about the past to suit me).

Ultimately, my thesis has more to do with expectations people have for a work of art, such as a book, and with the important difference between an evaluation of quality and personal taste. But for a while, my thesis may seem like it is about how people should think before they write... but that’s a deeply flawed opinion to argue, and so let me meander through a hazardous mindscape of ...

VARIOUS CAVEATS, MEAT PIES, DISCLAIMERS, AND TEA COZIES
1.READERS ARE IMPORTANT - I am not dismissing the opinions of readers. Readers are important. And the opinions of readers are important. After all, it is regular readers, not professional critics, who buy books and generate income for writers.

The Internet provides a marvelous open forum for posting reviews, even ones that I find lacking in substance, merit, thought, or insight. I want such a forum to exist. Because if I shell out actual cash money for The New York Review of Books, I want to see reviews of thoughtful insight executed with some standards.

And it’s not that I think so-called professional critics are more “right” or even more “worthy” than readers who like to share their views on web sites. Hardly. Actually, I am not a huge fan of critics. Being one myself and publishing reviews in newspapers and magazines for over 20 years, I understand with what critics are full. If there’s a book I want to read or a movie I want to see, I am going to see it anyway and make up my own mind regardless of what one or a dozen critics write.

It’s also kind of funny that a book by Stephen King inspired this diatribe because he’s an author who is going to sell a lot of books and a lot people are going to read his books no matter what some online hack posts. I am more concerned about how such posts could hurt the book sales and readership of writers who don’t have a following like Stephen King’s (or not following at all).

I want readers to have a voice. I think discourse about books is valuable and in most cases helps the industry more than harms it. However, the Internet has allowed anyone with a computer the ability to “publish” any opinion whether it has been thoughtfully considered or dashed off in the heat of anger and frustration, and I think there are some problems with that freedom (which I wish to preserve) that should be acknowledged, considered, remembered when looking at online reviews.

2. IS ANYONE LISTENING?

I question the validity of making a decision on whether or not to read a book based on the online posting of someone whom you have not met, do not know, and may not like if thrust into a social situation together. I question the need for these ramblings and stewings of readers who seem reckless and quite thoughtless in their “reviews” of books posted to Amazon or other book review sites. Many of these “reviews” strike me as reactionary and overly emotional.

Many potential readers are probably going to be able to discern the unreasonable reviews from the well-reasoned ones. These over-zealous reviewers often negate their credibility with language that betrays a lack of sophistication and immaturity. Whereas others who basically have the same opinions but state them with more thoughtfulness carry more weight.

2.5. OH, THE IRONY

Yes, I know... how ironic (and I don’t mean in the Alanis Morissette sense)... I am condemning the content of some people’s online book reviews in a blog that is itself an online book review. I am warning against taking to heart anything written by a stranger in a blog entry that may be either read by strangers or at least by “online” acquaintances. Yes, yes, how amusing. You’ve caught me.

I am de-pantsed and yet still typing away in what will be another long blog that has sat on my computer way too long without being posted (another in a series). Fine.

But where else am I to assemble these views? This is an awful lot to write on a bathroom wall with a sharpie. Thanks for reading, though. I shall endeavor to be both perspicacious (always a favourite word of mine) and not too ostentatious with polysyllabics. (Okay, fine, maybe this would improve with an editor, but I don’t have one right now, so if you’re amused, please read onward, and if not, well, then, I have no idea what you will do...)

3. MOVIES ARE DIFFERENT

Movies are different. People will often invest two hours in a movie that receives mixed or even poor reviews, especially if there is an attractive celebrity involved, but may not be willing to commit to reading a 500-page novel if they see even one negative review, especially of the inflammatory and puerile kind that so often appear on sites like Amazon.


4. SHOULD CRITICS HAVE TO QUALIFY?

I hate the idea of “qualifications.” Just because a critic has a certain amount of education or expertise does not make her or him more qualified to opine about the worth of a book in a post to the Internet. When it comes to reviews of books, as long as someone is not spewing something truly hateful and violent, then most every opinion is valid on some level.

However, I jump immediately to the issue of qualifications when I find a review I don’t like. It’s not enough to simply disagree. When a rival theater reviewer writes something about a show I review that I think is wrong, I don’t just disagree. I attack the writer’s credentials often claiming he or she knows nothing about the theater, has never studied the theater, and/or has a poor penmanship. I go farther with my fallacious condemnations for the so-called reviews I read online: “that person obviously never finished high school,” “people who can’t spell should not post their crap online,” and “this person is a waste of oxygen.” Those are all emotional reactions. I am pissed off by the review. But once I get past my initial emotional reaction, I am not comfortable censoring people because I don’t think they are qualified to express themselves (because who is, now, really?), and neither should sites like Amazon or the book reading applications linked to Facebook.

The only qualifications for reviewing should be the ability read and the ability to write.

Granted, most readers are not going to take the time to write a well-considered review in a quick, little, Internet post. Many are going to dash off a few quick thoughts, a few sentences, something very brief and which does not do the book justice. So, that’s a reason for these damaging and straw-stuffed reviews, but is it an excuse? No.

Maybe what we need is reviews of reviews (Metacritic anyone?). Maybe what we need in an open medium of public discourse is more means to criticize those who recklessly unleash their opinions, ill-considered as they may be, on us the reading public.

5. PEOPLE ARE EASILY INFLUENCED

It would be great if we could have an enormous blog-world of open dialogue integrated within one sole buying mechanism online. Sadly, until we have nanobots in our brains that can interface with the entire debate about reviews for a single book and input all of this data into our consciousness in a distilled format, people are going to do no more than glance at the first few reviews that pop up on the page before purchasing (or not purchasing) a book.

I know that some readers are diligent and will examine in depth or will just ignore all the reviews and buy based on some other criterion (recommendation from a friend, favourite author, interest in the book’s subject matter, following of a genre, etc.) I am not worried about these folks.

I worry more about the subliminal effect of reckless reviews on the casual reader, less prone to analysis, who may pass by an excellent novel like Lisey’s Story without realizing that he/she has been influenced. In fact, I suspect that many of these casual surfers may claim, if asked directly, that most of the so-called reviews on sites like Amazon are junk and not worth their time. And yet, how often have they looked at these comments anyway? Or worse, not even really read the comments but glanced over the page and some fragments of information entered the mind, which caused the person to be influenced without realizing it, clicking away from the page, not buying the book.

Probably no way to measure those who consider and click away, no way to measure whether bits of words filtered into the consciousness subliminally and affected the choice to move away from the page, to not buy the book, to no longer consider ever reading the book.

6. TOO MANY CHOICES (and blogs that are too long)

Too many choices. Too much information (running through my brain, too much information driving me insane)... (okay, sue me, at least I am having fun).

Surely, online reviews posted at the purchasing page can help readers sort through the sea of possible choices because, honestly, there are too damn many, and so customers are seeking relief from the vast number of choices they make in a given day.

As described in the book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, studies demonstrate that people are more dissatisfied than they have ever been, despite having more material wealth than at any time in history. According to Schwartz, as we have been given more and more choices, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions we have to make. This observation may be applied to the inundation of product selection in stores and on the Internet.

A term coined by UT professors Susan Broniarczyk, David Hoyer, and Leigh McAlister, Hyperchoice aptly describes the new dilemma of overwhelming numbers of choices needed to navigate even a quick trip to a mini-mart.

Historically, selection was the reason people chose a store. And though many still choose a store based on selection, it is becoming clear that shopping in such an environment (hyperchoice) can lead to frustration, fatigue and regret. Strategies such as category management and selection editing aid people in navigating the vast world of brands, products, and choices. Yet those feeling overwhelmed often just shut down. They stay away from the store. They stay out of Amazon or ebay. Because to be sucked inside is to lose one’s self in a diaspora choice as one item cascades into five and five expands to fifty and there’s no end in sight.

So, all of that said, we get to the core of my long-winded post.

7. I DON’T SHARE YOUR PERSONAL TASTE BUDS

Personal taste is not a useful criterion for reviewing.

Readers who post reviews online seem unaware that there’s a difference between what they may not like, what may irritate or bother them, and a reasonable examination of a book’s intended goals.

Personal taste is not the same as employing some standard criteria to evaluate a book’s merit or its quality.


Examining reviews of King’s Lisey’s Story, I see that one constant criticism in Amazon reviews has to do with the idiomatic expressions Lisey adapted from her own family and that she used in her marriage with Scott. Many people found the expressions irritating. For instance, “Smucking for Pete's sake. Along with other silly and annoying terms supposedly coined by Scott. Everyone knows what she means by smucking, so King should have her use the "f" word or nothing--as most adults born after the 1950s often do, especially in books; and forget this dopey made-up language.”

See what I mean? The core of this argument: it annoyed ME (the reviewer). Not that the slang terms did not work, interfered with story, were inconsistent, but that they were annoying to this reader, who then attempts, making assumptions galore, to justify this view by speaking for all adults and the way they (all adults) prefer to use idioms. But the reviewer is really just continuing to her/his irritation not really making a cogent argument.

The criticism boils down to personal taste, and personal taste is not a relevant criterion for evaluating a book. It’s fine if this reader (CA Book Lover) qualified the remarks with “I prefer the real f-word” or “maybe this wouldn’t bother others” or even “King’s a masterful storyteller but the techniques employed here just rubbed me the wrong way.” No, none of that. (BTW, there’s plenty of f-word-ucking language along with the “smucking” but maybe CA Book Lover just smucked over those parts.)

Now, I have no problem with CA Book Lover posting this review and wanting to vent his personal taste online. My problem is with how this very subjective review (even more subjective than reviews inherently are already) might subconsciously affect the choices of potential readers.

In the reviews, I like best the reader has made some attempt to evaluate the book’s quality on its merits. The reader has not applied mistaken expectations, wanting a book about dogs when reading a book about cats, or rather wanting another Dead Zone or Dreamcatcher. Yes, reviews are subjective. But I want insight not rants based on some violation of someone’s personal taste buds.

8. DO ONLINE REVIEWS AFFECT SALES?
FROM: MARGINAL REVOLUTION

How do consumer reviews affect book sales?

Judith Chevalier and Dina Mayzlin have studied the impact of consumer reviews of books on word of mouth and subsequent sales with the following findings. (Locate the studies via links at the source website).

1. Most consumer reviews of books on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com are very positive.

2. The reviews at Amazon are longer and more extensive. They are also more critical on average.

3. Better reviews on one site boost relative sales. The use of two sites gives us a controlled experiment to determine that word of mouth does indeed help authors rather than being a mere side effect of higher sales.

4. A bad review hurts you more than a good review helps you.

5. It remains to be seen whether allowing consumer reviews increases aggregate sales or simply shifts around sales to more suitable titles. Even a shifting affect, however, may increase consumer loyalty to the on-line site. If you know that Amazon helps you discover good books, you may be more likely to buy from Amazon.

My advice: I don't put much stock in how favorable the Amazon reviews are, whether I am buying books, movies, or music. (I am most likely to buy music from Amazon.) This well-known example is one reason to distrust the reviews, although I think bad taste is more common than masquerades. Instead I look at how many reviews have been generated. I take this as a kind of sufficient statistic for how much passion the item has generated. Since I am at the tails of just about any distribution of taste, and since most cultural products disappoint in any case, look for something that creates a spark in people. I then see some chance of finding a product that I truly love. This advice will sometimes steer you wrong, but a little added intelligence will allow you to make the necessary adjustments.

Here’s some good info with data.
This is about sales and not much about reviews but there’s lots of great data here.
And some more good ruminations in the blogosphere.

So, clearly, bad reviews can directly affect sales and more significantly than good reviews. Potential readers will pass by, click on to the next option, and avoid a very good book like Lisey’s Story simply because a couple of these odious reviews popped up on the page, even without reading them in any depth, just after a glance.

Lisey’s Story Reviews breakdown Amazon

443 Reviews
5 star: 32% (146)
4 star: 15% (68)
3 star: 17% (77)
2 star: 13% (58)
1 star: 21% (94)

Lisey’s Story annoyed, bored, or turned off 94 of the 443 reviewers on Amazon. Sadly, percentage wise that’s second place to the 146 five star reviews. Quite a disparity.

More baffling is that readers seemed to often revel in their inability to understand or “get into” King’s book. One wrote simply that he “couldn't get past the first few chapters. Does anybody else miss the old Steven[sic] King writing style? King used to be my favorite author. However, his last few books may be seem better to critics but to the unwashed masses..they suck.”

I might be more inclined to purchase the book after seeing that review. I don’t consider myself either unwashed or part of the masses. Why would this guy? (Plus I know how to spell the author’s name especially when it’s right there on the page!)

I would rather follow the advice of Michael Chabon and Nicholas Sparks who wrote the blurbs for Lisey’s Story than unknown readers who post their insipid remarks to Amazon.

And that’s my problem with online reviews. Thankfully, they vary greatly. Some (maybe even many, I am not going to do a quantitative study here) are quite well-thought and insightful.
9. AND FINALLY... MY REVIEW OF LISEY’S STORY

In my word processor, I am on page ten. If anyone has stuck around this long, or even scrolled down here, thanks.

I will wrap with a brief though relatively substantial review of Lisey’s Story, which, as I have written before, I really liked.

Lisey’s Story is by no means a perfect work of art. But it’s one of the best Stephen King novels I have ever read (and granted I have not read them all). And it’s one of the best books I have read this year (2007), last year (2006)... I know two facts dependent on what I am reading and no measure of books published. I would hazard to argue that Lisey’s Story deserves to be in a top 100 books published in the last five years in the fiction market. It’s that good.

9A. IS IT FAIR TO HAVE EXPECTATIONS?

People expect certain things from certain artists. This is natural and to be expected, but is it fair?

But sometimes people have expectations seemingly based on nothing. It’s the same problem I had with most of the criticisms I heard of movies like The Perfect Storm or Twister. It’s as if people expected some other movie than the one the creators had made. Their criticisms had nothing to do with the movies themselves but with some failure of the film to live up to an expectation that they created themselves, as opposed to one constructed by previews or by the first act of the film itself.

I disliked the romance in Titanic more probably because of the gaga-popularity of the stars involved than the construction of the story itself. And yet, I thought the romance did not serve the story of the ship wreck best. As ONE story among many, it would have been welcome, but as the sole story, the main focus, of a film about the most famous ship wreck of all time, it detracted from the film’s purpose. I did love the interpretation of how the ship sunk and how some may have survived as the ship broke apart and went down. But the film as a whole did not meet my expectations for what kind of multi-character, multi-storyline film I think should have been made. And yet, are my views fair to the film? Did the film fulfill its intended purpose? Was my only real problem with the romance of Titanic about the hype surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio and NOT the way the story was rendered by writer/director James Cameron.

Stephen King is well known for writing certain kinds of novels in the horror genre. Readers come to expect a certain kind of book from Stephen King, and if their expectations are not met, then they react negatively to the book.

Often these expectations are not grounded in reality. Often readers have this idealized image of Stephen King in their minds that is more of a conglomeration of his work. Or these readers may have limited experience with King’s work. A fan of The Dark Tower: Gunslinger novel will not find anything remotely resembling it in Lisey’s Story.

Luckily for Stephen King, his book will hit the best seller lists and remain there for a decent period of time solely because it bears his name. Many more people will ignore negative reviews or comments by friends and read a Stephen King novel simply because it’s a Stephen King novel; these same people may not forgive bad reviews of an unknown author. Furthermore, it’s possible that the majority of reviewers who write the kind of reviews I want to dismiss as banal or inane may not have heard of blurb writers Michael Chabon or Nicholas Sparks, and so their endorsements carry even less weight.

10. WE HAVE A BINDING CONTRACT

THE CONTRACT: a story makes a contract with the reader. For ease, I will dispense with the double nouns and confine my remarks to stories in writing, novels primarily, even though the idea functions with any story be it in film or on television or in a comic book.

In creating the contract, the author establishes from the beginning the basic parameters of the story. Often the synopsis on the book’s cover is the first stage in the writer-reader contract. Readers build expectations based on this contract. Surely, the previous work of an author factors into this contract, but there’s a difference between expecting certain things from one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and expecting Stephen King to push the same buttons and hit the same notes with each of his books, some of which fall into the horror genre, while others clearly do not.

So, a lot of the bad reviews of King’s Lisey’s Story come from the belief that he has violated the contract. Readers wanted another Dark Tower or another Misery, even, and they get a bool hunt with smucking Lisey.

And a lot of the readers hated the idioms. But the idioms, invented language, special terms are so integral to the story and to the characterization of Scott, Lisey, and both of their families that the book would not work, would not even exist, without them. This language is one of the things, maybe the chief thing, that makes Lisey’s Story such a unique novel, so captivating. There would not be a Lisey’s Story without the boolhunt, the smucking, and the bad gunky, there’s no character in these characters, that stuff IS THE CHARACTERS.

Now, if the readers cannot grasp this integral aspect from reading the book jacket and some synopsis, even a few pages, then don’t read the book. But it should be quite obvious what they were getting into. King’s “failure” to deliver the book that is a special picture in the heads of these readers is not his fault.

Book jacket material: “Lisey’s Story is about the wellsprings of creativity, the temptations of madness, and the secret language of love.”

Does that sound like another rewrite of Cujo?

11. FINAL THOUGHTS

Lisey’s Story has it flaws.

The follow up on the Long Boy was weak. He just goes away. No showdown for Lisey with the Bad Gunky.

The Book also seems to promise more of a reunion with Scott. The resolution of Scott’s past is worthy and well-handled, but the book seems to promise a healing for Scott, which never develops.

Lisey is healed but her future is only sketched out with broad strokes. Will she strike up a romance with the flirty deputy? Will she sell the house she lived in with Scott?

Lisey’s handling of the threat on her life is also somewhat weak. She is established as independent and strong woman, and so eventually it is no surprise that she decides to take on Dooley on her own. But she is intelligent enough to at least consider other alternatives before dismissing them. Like with millions, why not hire round the clock security? Plot flaws like this seem glaring and manufactured to keep her alone.

So, to the end, long blog, and not that I have finished, I am writing a summary for the top.

Thanks for reading. Watch for other old blogs that need to get off my hard drive soon.
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