Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I'm a coward, apparently...

As is Aidan from A Dribble of Ink, Dark Wolf from Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews, Larry from OF Blog, Jeff from Fantasy Book News and Reviews, Gav from NextRead, the entire crew at Fantasy Book Critic, and many other book reviewers throughout the genre blogosphere. As are many other book reviewers from other genres. And the professionals who get paid to write book reviews for high-brow publications, such as the Guardian - many of them are supposedly cowards too.

Why?

Well, because we don't put a little number at the end of our reviews.

Or at least, so says Paul Stotts from genre blog Blood of the Muse. In an interview over at Temple Library Reviews, Paul said the following:

" I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors.

So they write reviews that are open to interpretation, using nebulous terms like good, overemphasizing the positive aspects of the book, trying very hard not to have an opinion. It’s okay, you’re entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to take a stand and let people know what you think.

See, words lie; numbers don’t. And I don’t want to lie to my audience. So I score every book on a scale of 100. Like any review, the number is completely subjective; there are no underlying components. I score books by ranking them against other novels I’ve read in the genre. It’s rather simple. But effective."

I beg to differ. To me, the suggestion that all book reviews that don't incorporate a numerical rating are a 'cop out' because said reviewer doesn't want to upset the author and/or publisher, is nothing short of ridiculous.

As those of you who have followed this blog from the start will know, I used to use a numerical rating for my book reviews. Eventually I ditched it because I felt I was not being consistent enough with my use of it, and I decided that in any case it simply wasn't necessary. To my mind, a good book reviewer should be able to make their feelings on a book clear without having to rely on a numerical failsafe. Now, that's not to say that I think reviewers shouldn't use ratings - personally I don't care either way. It's up to the individual blogger to decide. I just so happen to think that - along with a good many of my fellow bloggers - that they just don't add much value to a review, and can actually cause confusion when the number doesn't seem to correlate with the opinions expressed in the review.

Suggesting that us bloggers that don't use numerical ratings are being cowardly is bizarre - I just don't understand where Paul's coming from here, nor can I comprehend what possible evidence he has to support his theory. Just because you stick a number at the end of your review doesn't mean you're being honest and that your integrity is intact. Sure, there are some reviewers out there - probably - that are a little scared to be too critical, and maybe they don't use ratings as a result (note the emphasis on 'maybe'). Even if this was the case, they're still a distinct minority.

I just find it amusing that my credibility is being questioned simply on this basis. If I was a coward and was scared of upsetting, say, Gollancz, then why did I give one of their books a scathing review? What about Solaris - if I was worried about what they thought of me, would I have given one of their books a pretty awful review? As it happens - I have excellent relations with both publishers, and not once have either of them expressed annoyance at any of my reviews and not once have I compromised my own integrity or principles by writing a falsely-positive review in order to stay on good terms with them.

Perhaps Paul could kindly explain his theory a little further, maybe with some hard evidence. I'd also be grateful if he could explain his own rating system to me, because I'm afraid I don't understand what the difference between an 83% rating and an 86% rating is.

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox now. In fact, I think I'll hide underneath it 'cos that's what a coward would do, right?

34 comments:

MarkCN said...

Having no numbers seems to have done the trick nicely for the last few decades at least.

To reduce a book to an arbitrary number seems strange - I didn't realise you could reduce art quite that easily.

Ian Sales said...

Reading that interview, he comes across as a bit of a prat, anyway. And the blog he revers - I hope I Didn't Just give Away The Ending - isn't that the one where the blog owner went off on some bizarre rightwing nutjob alpha-male rant about Richard Morgan's Black Man?

Alec said...

His position is overstated, no doubt, but he is not totally off the mark. I need to read the whole interview to see if the tone is consistent throughout but I will agree with him in part, though for different reasons.

Especially with respect to blogs where the average page view time is shorter than most, readers appreciate a quick quality reference, and a numbered score provides that. I guess it all depends on which crowd you are catering to.

Martijn said...

I understand both views—if someone feels happy expressing their happiness with a book as a number, then by all means, let them go ahead. I respect (and prefer) your strategy: a textual review which I have to read to understand your opinion of the book.

I've been following your blog for a while now. I say ignore people who call you a coward and continue your excellent work.

Ben said...

I think Paul was just explaining why he does things the way he does and wasn't intending to question anyone's integrity or "courage."

As far as whether or not art can be reduced to an "arbitrary" number, I would argue that if the number is based on the reviewer's reaction to what is being reviewed then (1) it's not arbitrary; and (2) there's absolutely no reason that the person's thoughts can't be summarized numerically.

Aidan Moher said...

He fellates Pat, and then calls out bloggers who don't slap an arbitrary (and often useless) number on their review?

Okay.

He should give Shawn Elliot's Symposium on Reviews a read. It deals with Videogames, but the lessons to be learned apply to any reviewer.

~Aidan

Hagelrat said...

I don't use numbers, I don't check other peoples. In fact the most attention I have paid to numerical ratings on reviews is to note that some blogs have really cute things like pints of blood.
I read reviews either because I enjoy the reviewers writing or because I know we share similar tastes and I will take their recommendations.

Iain said...

Ah FFS!! Ahem, excuse the MMO speak there.

If someone can't guage the thrust of a review without having a number attached to the end they probably don't have the deductive powers to follow a novel's plot and shouldn't be reading the book anyway!!

Some people will bitch about anything! Continue with your cowardice James; it has pointed me to several good books over the last year and half.

gav (nextread.co.uk) said...

@ Iain, snap!

I've just put up my own thoughts on the matter here:

I'm also a coward

But it boils down to, in reviewers we trust. That's why bloggers are so important to what I choose. If I don't like your taste I ain't going to read your reviews!

PeterWilliam said...

I posted on this over at Aidan's as well. On the whole "to number or not to number" I'm not sure it really matters. I know some people, like me, have extraordinary short attention spans and, thus, want the quick, fast, short bottom-line. So, I also give a number. However, as James has already experienced and stated, I'm starting to run into problems where I've books with similar ratings and I'm not sure that I would recommend both equally. I can see precisely why that, possibly, I may begin to slide away from ratings.

A Different James said...

I have only just started doing reviews (and as such, can state that they are a bit crappy), but I decided before I started that I wasn't going to go down the score route. I try to make my thoughts clear enough in the last paragraph so that people know where I stand, whether I recommend buying the book, picking it from the library, whatnot and so forth.

I have maybe an average of like four readers and the chances of an author or publicist caring one way or another about my blog is extremely low. So what then, do I have to be cowardly about? I want to convey my opinion through words, not numbers.

Switching gears to a reader rather than a blogger. If a reviewer manages to express their opinion properly in their review, what need is there for a scoring system in the first place? And what of the varying scales? I find Pat's scoring system flawed (seems more a 5 point system instead of a ten) and not all that useful. I also seem to lack the brains to figure out the need for a system that uses decimals.

~ A Different, But Just As Cowardly, James.

Ben said...

I really think you guys are overreacting. It's not like Paul launched some vicious attack at anybody or any particular reviewing method. He simply explained why he does things the way he does and expressed his own views about the shortcomings of other methods. What's the big deal? That's what having an opinion entails...

And I don't see him (or anyone else for that matter) going off on a rant because of the negative things you've all said about reviewers who do use a numerical rating.

gav(NextRead) said...

@ Ben

'I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors.'

So you don't think that he's saying that we are all cowards who don't want to upset publishers then?

Am I misreading that quote?

Number systems are ok, and I'm sure we can explain our preference for using or not using them but he's been direct than that don't you think?

Ben said...

@Gav

No I don't think you're completely misreading the quote. I agree that it is not the most delicate way to articulate what he's trying to say, but really, isn't it clear that he's just trying to make a point about his reviewing style and not trying to attack anyone?

I think by far the more odd thing is how upset people got about it. It's akin to someone saying on his or her blog that Americans are a**holes and me getting personally upset about it, as if it were directed at me specifically when it would be obvious to anyone that the speaker was just trying to make a general point.

Rob Oakes said...

I think that the debate resolving around objective measurements is rather silly. It assumes that a critic is really nothing more than some sort of glorified school teacher. What do you think the role of a critic is? To read all of the existing literature out there and grade it? As though any single person has the power to assign determine whether it is meritorious, or not?

Maybe I should let you in a little secret. I've worked in higher education, and I've been around long enough to learn important lesson. That particular model doesn't work very well; not in education, or most anywhere else.

Maybe that's why I much prefer reviews which don't offer some sort of objective measurement. They require that I read the commentary and attempt to understand the rationale of the reviewer. Why didn't she take to a particular book, what was her response? What did she find interesting?

In fact, I've found that an interesting and well written book review is almost always indicative of a well written book. After all, derivative works bear the indelible mark of the original. I'd even go further: I think that attempting to grade the quality of a book detracts from the quality of the review.

Someone who is lost trying to objectively weight the original work isn't focused on responding to it. The fundamental process of reading is simply too different. Such a reader doesn't allow herself the creative freedom to agree, be moved, or otherwise challenge. Instead, she might as well have a red pen out while scanning the text for errors.

So rather than call it cowardice, I would instead call it intelligence. A non-grading reviewer is free to wrestle with the text, which ultimately results in a more valuable review. After all, we're talking about literature: objectivity be damned.

Adam Whitehead said...

I've found having to come up with a review score quite annoying a lot of the time, especially when I've come back to a book a few days/weeks/months later and gone, "That should have been a star less," but felt it would be a bit cheap to retrospectvely start changing scores.

At the same time, since my reviews on the blog grew out of reviews on Amazon, I've always had to pick a star rating anyway. I think it is useful as an 'at-a-glance' indicator if I think a book is good, bad or meh, but I agree that the reviewers needs to get his opinion across in the actual review itself rather than rely on the score as a crutch (a mistake I have made a few times).

For those who choose not to give review scores, absolutely fair enough, and I have pondered going down this road a few times (in fact, I did with my RPG reviews, since I felt that pen-and-paper RPGs are almost impossible to quantify in such a way).

Ben said...

@rob oakes

Who said anything about objectivity? Just because you assign a number to something doesn't mean you're being objective or trying to be. No one here is arguing that assigning a number in a review is somehow a final determination of its objective worth. Have you ever asked a friend "on a scale from 1 to 10 what do you think about...."? That's what we're talking about here.

Do you really believe that if there's a number after a review that the reader doesn't have to "read the commentary and attempt to understand the rationale of the reviewer" but the absence of a number will make the reader do these things? And do you really believe that because some of us can express ourselves on a scale from 1 to 10 that we don't allow ourselves "the creative freedom to agree, be moved, or otherwise challenge."?

The best part about this entire series of comments is that the original post was about how unjust it was for Paul to criticize a particular type of reviewing and a majority of commenters have responded by simply doing what they're upset with him for doing.

Mark Chitty said...

This is definitely an interesting topic and one I've thought about for a long time. I give a rating in my reviews, but I constantly question whether I should or not.

I don't think it's cowardly to not score reviews as a good reviewer can convey their opinion of the book within the text. I always read a review fully and a number at the end is not the be all and end all of the review, just a little addition.

I guess I like to give the reader a quick reference of what I thought and a mark out of ten is the way I choose to do that. I do feel that my reviews stand up on their own without a score, but I just haven't been able to convince myself to give up the system.

Bottom line, a reviewer should be honest in their assessment of a book regardless of whether they include a score or not.

James said...

Thanks everyone for the comments, it's great to get some debate going on this issue.

@Ben

To be honest, I don't think I'm over-reacting. By saying that its cowardice to write reviews without using ratings, by extension Paul is accusing me of being a coward and being afraid of publishers.

This is entirely untrue and therefore naturally I feel rather aggrieved. I think Paul could easily have made his point without the need for name-calling.

@Rob Oakes

Great post there, Rob. Some interesting points you raise.

@Wert

That's why I ditched numerical ratings - I found it really hard to give consistant scores. For example, I'd read a book and think "Yeah, this is really good - I'll give it 8.5/10" and then later I'd realise I'd only given a book I had liked even more 8/10. That can be a real problem, and it got to the stage where I decided that I'd be better off without. What the hell is the difference between 8.5 and 8.75 anyway?

Larry said...

I'm going to have fun with all this. Give me a little bit and then let's see if my writing will equal my ambitions.

Joe Sherry said...

Larry: I hoped you might, which was why I used you as an example in my post on this.

I've no problem with the using of numerical scores, it's the whole cowardice / appeasing thing that irks the hell out of me. My hell has been irked.

Paul said...

I deliberately wrote that answer to be inflammatory. Using a harsh word like 'cowardice' was certain to provoke people, to get them defensive, and to foster great discussion which was my point with the interview.

The mistake people are making is that it's personally aimed at them. It's not; it's a general statement about my review methodology.

I'm a crappy reviewer. I think if I didn't give a numerical score, I would be copping out. I would be snowing my audience. The number is my crutch. If I didn't give out a number, people should question the integrity of my reviews.

What I think I'm really railing against here is that as publishers get more involved with blogs, convincing readers of a blogger's integrity is going to become more difficult. Really, how do you convince your audience you are on the level?

It's made me ponder potentially publishing a Reader's Manifesto. Something where I promise to tell it like it is in reviews, promise to publish only original material, promise to let people know I'm working off a review copy. A guarantee. And if I break it, it's my ass. It's my integrity.

Larry said...

OK, it's up now.

Paul,

Stop backpedaling here. Just man up and admit that you wanted to get the stir out of some (nicely done, I should add). I actually paid attention to your blog for once. Not my cup of tea in terms of the review style, but mine's not for several as well. But for once, I did issue a scoring system rubric on it ;)

Joe Sherry said...

Paul,

I can't speak for others, but I didn't think the label of cowardice was specifically aimed at me...but where you absolutely failed on every level except coming off as extremely arrogant with that comment is that it isn't a general statement about your review methodology.

It's partly about your review methodology and mostly about why everyone who doesn't use numerical values to make clear what their stance is on a given book is a feckless invertebrate sucking on the tit of the publisher's goodwill.

It may not be what you meant, but it is damn sure what you said.

You flat out questioned the integrity of everyone who doesn't use a scoring system to grade their reviews.

RobB said...

I guess I'm a coward, then too since I think all of my reviews at SFFWorld have appeared without number rankings. Darn, now I'm really upset, another sleepless night for me.

Neth said...

Well, apparently I'm couragous.

I've gotten into this before, so I won't belabour the issue again, but in short:

I started doing scores when I started my blog. I think they are largely arbitrary and I wouldn't do it again if I were starting over. But, since I started I continue to do them - I consider them an after thought since I the words in the review are what are really important. But, I do find that I can do statistics with my numeric scores, and I've found some interesting trends in doing so.

I posted about some of the basic stastics a couple of years ago. Maybe I'll do another one if I can find the time.

PeterWilliam said...

I just collected my thoughts on it. I suppose that my use of ratings is a fusion of what Ken and Joe Sherry had to say. Then again, it's just a supposition - you know, the root for suppository.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

I lose my Internet connection for one day and the whole blog-o-sphere starts talking about an interview I conducted. It's kind of flattering to know that bloggers I admire started posting about something on my blog.

Okay, glee aside I think I should address this as well. :) I didn't feel offended by the answer or the use of cowardice, but yeah thinking on how it is stated here I see it is offensive. Rating reviews is one of those subjects that are solely left up to the individual to decide.

Gail said...

I guess I'm a coward too or my over-inflated ego believes my opinions are worth more than a number. What's a number without something to back it up? And if you back up your opinions why do you need a number?

Simcha said...

I feel that a well written review is much more helpful then a number ranking, which really doesn't tell me that much.
I don't rank books because I would spend more time agonizing over just the right number of stars to give or the exact number between 1 and 10 ( I don't know how he manages 100) that the book deserves, then writing the review itself.

Reader said...

I agree that you don't need a number for a review to be honest. That said, lots of times I read review sonline phrasing a book and downplaying the bad parts. For me, raves are so common that I'm more interested in what the reviewer didn't like about the book (I guess I'm just a negative person...)

Alec said...

Everyone needs to stow the light-sabers and relax. I feel like I am on Larry's blog...

Larry said...

Interesting comment, Alec, considering I tend to have a sense of humor about most anything...if one bothers to look between the lines ;)

ThRiNiDiR said...

I have courage! Haven't read the review, don't intend to, no direspect to Paul.