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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: Reviewing Reviews

April 15, 2010

I started writing customer book reviews on Amazon in February of 2001. I read a book called “Engines of Dawn” by Paul Cook and it really sucked, to the point where I felt I needed somewhere to vent about it.  So on some random impulse I went to Amazon and set up an account and wrote a little review.  You can view that here.  As you can see it’s short and really not very good.  The best thing about it is the title “Animal House Saves the Universe,” which I still think is an apt description for the plot.

Over the last nine years I like to think I’ve gotten better at it, at least most of the time.  I think what helped was going onto the Metacritic site and reading movie reviews.  I especially like Roger Ebert’s reviews and keep his site separately bookmarked.  Most of the time I don’t really have any interest in the movies being reviewed, but sometimes it’s interesting just to find out how terrible or how good other people think a movie is.  Anyway, I think subconsciously I applied some of the same principles to book reviewing so that the reviews, at least in my opinon, became a little more insightful.

Part of what drove me into writing customer reviews besides a need to vent was the naive belief that it might help make me better.  I thought it might help me engage my critical thinking and as a result of seeing what I like or don’t like in other people’s work I might be able to apply that to my own work.  It didn’t really work that way.  That should be the topic of another entry.

One feature of the Amazon reviews is that other customers can vote on whether a review is helpful or not.  I used to be obsessed with this to the point that I tracked helpful votes in an Excel spreadsheet.  Then Amazon screwed up their scoring system and I deleted a bunch of old reviews so that it didn’t matter anymore.  At any rate, I liked to keep track because I naively thought that it meant something.  Then sometime in 2007 or 2008 I had someone juvenilely mark a whole slew of my reviews with a “not helpful” vote.  When there’s a whole swath of them that gets a not helpful vote within like 24 hours it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.  From then I was pretty skepitcal that “helpful” votes really meant anything.  I mean it could be someone who actually put some time and thought into it or it could be some 14-year-old pressing buttons randomly or it could be someone taking revenge because you left a comment they didn’t like on a review of theirs or something.  Such is life.

It does still bother me sometimes when people (whether with malice and intent or just as a random impulse) vote not helpful on a review.  Sometimes I know a review isn’t going to be popular, like my review of “Next” by James Hynes where I decried its deux-ex-machina ending.  Or my review of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” where I slipped up and revealed the ending without “spoiler space,” which led to a number of annoying comments even years after the review so that I finally edited it to include the blasted spoiler space.  Other times, I’m still left baffled by why someone doesn’t find a review helpful.

Take this latest review of “The Serialist” by David Gordon:

I was predisposed to liking this book as I wrote a very similar character to Harry Bloch in my novel Where You Belong. That is a writer who gets by writing under pen names that sometimes are not of the same gender as the real author. In my case the male author wrote a YA sci-fi series under the pseudonym of an Irish woman. In “The Serialist,” author Harry Bloch writes porn, sci-fi, “urban” detective novels, and lately vampire novels by using a variety of aliases; the pseudonym for the latter series is actually his mother’s identity.

Despite publishing dozens of books, Harry has never published under his own name and he makes only enough money to get by. He lives in his mother’s former house, alone after his ex found greener literary pastures. The closest he has to an agent is a 15-year-old girl named Claire whom he “tutors” by writing term papers for her.

So it’s not much of a surprise that Harry jumps at the opportunity to ghost write the autobiography of notorious serial killer Damian Clay. Clay is on death row and slated to be executed in just three months. In exchange for providing his story, Clay wants Harry to visit some of Clay’s fans and write perverse stories about them for Clay’s amusement. While Harry is reluctant to go along with this, ultimately it’s an opportunity he can’t pass up.

From there things take a deadly turn. Really the second half of the book plays out like a two-part episode of “Murder She Wrote” where Harry takes on the case. Actually it would make for a good series on the USA Network with the unconventional detective and his equally unconventional sidekicks Claire and a stripper named Dani who’s the sister of one of Clay’s victims. The last fifty pages especially drag along as Harry unravels the last few clues of the mystery and things run their course.

I suppose, though, that if this never turns into high art or “literature” that’s keeping in character. It’s hard to believe someone like Harry could suddenly create a stunning masterpiece. Then again it’s hard to believe he does a number of things he does in the book, so here we are.

Anyway, the narrative is witty and engaging. Harry is a lovable loser, not a Sam Spade-type detective, which makes the story fun as it goes along. I am disappointed though that, as I said, the second half comes off as a TV detective show, but then I was probably hoping for something too much from a mere serialist.

That is all.

Other than my shameless plug, what’s wrong with that?  I summed up the overall plot without giving away any huge details.  I stated in brief what I liked and what I didn’t like.  So if you’re a customer reading the review, how is this not helpful to you?  I could have included more detail, but since this was a sort of mystery I didn’t want to inadvertently give away any clues.  Heck, even the shameless plug related to the book in terms of why I liked it; it wasn’t just a freaking commercial.

Maybe it was just a random button pusher or someone voting out of spite or maybe someone who was pissed that I only gave it four stars instead of five.  Who knows?  That’s the frustrating part of it.  Unless they leave a comment, there’s no way for you to know and thus there’s really nothing you can learn from if a review gets lots of helpful votes or not.

And really, I’ve found a few times that what I call “semi-coherent rants” have received plenty of helpful votes.  My favorite was my initial review for “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”  At least 37 people found it helpful.  I certainly found it helpful as a way to vent poisonous thoughts from my brain.

Then again part of the problem might be that like in everything else I don’t focus on writing reviews FOR other people.  I just try to honestly say what I think from my point of view.  Since I don’t have a degree in literature or English, that point of view is usually more of an Average Joe, Man on the Street type as opposed to anything learned or scholarly.  At the very least, then the reviews might not be helpful to other people but they are helpful to me in venting my thoughts.

In my opinion, the reviews that aren’t helpful are those that are two or three sentences that just say “this was the best book ever!” or “this book really sucked!”  If you can explain in a semi-rational way WHY you liked or didn’t like a book then what more can a fellow customer expect from you?  In my mind, the three things you need for a successful review are:

  1. Plot description
  2. What I Liked
  3. What I Didn’t Like

That’s really all you should expect because this is Amazon, not Harvard.  We’re not analyzing symbolism and metaphors and all that bunk.  In the end what you’re trying to do is tell someone whether a book is worth buying, not establishing its significance in the literary world.

And now it’s too bad there’s not a Helpful button for you to press.

Come back Sunday for another surprise entry!

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