17 February 2004

Reviewing Situations

By now you must have heard that Amazon.com's Canadian site had a bit of a glitch and revealed the identities of anonymous reviewers of books. I ignored the story for a few days, thinking, "So what?" I can be very obtuse at times. This is an interesting story because some of the anonymous reviewers turned out to be the authors of the books themselves.


The ethics of reviewing can be frustrating to think about. I've always taken Amazon's customer reviews with sea-sized grains of salt, because, of course, anybody can write a review. Many of the reviews seem barely literate. And yet sometimes they're written by intelligent and informed people, and are quite helpful. It just never occurred to me that authors would review their own books and hide behind a pseudonym. (Have I mentioned the fact that I can be tremendously obtuse? Or, as someone less polite than I might say, stupid?)

I have written a number of reviews at Amazon (the number being around 60), though not recently, since this blog keeps me plenty busy expressing my opinions. Most of those reviews were written when I was working on a deservedly ill-fated novel, and I would write a review as a warm up before working on another chapter. At first, I tried to draw attention to little-known books by writers I knew or cared about. Very occasionally, I had such a strong reaction against a book that I felt obligated to write something negative, but the vast majority of the reviews simply aimed at informing potential buyers of what they were in for, because those were the sorts of reviews I appreciated reading, and still appreciate.

The fact that Amazon is not really a reviewing organ, but rather a marketplace, makes the reviews function in ways a review in, say, Locus might not: the reviews are read, mostly, by people who are considering spending money on the book at that moment. Hence, I can understand why authors feel like they need to plug their book or to answer negative reviews, particularly if negative reviews are posted by people with an axe to grind against the work in question.

It seem clearly unethical to me, despite being understandable. Hiding behind a pseudonym in such cases is just that: hiding.

The weblog phenomenon makes the ethics of reviewing even more complex. Anybody with an internet connection can create a blog and write whatever they feel like. I could, if I wanted, make The Mumpsimus into the "Anti-Writer X Blog" and write horrible, nasty things about Writer X. I could hide my identity. I could lie and cheat and try to steal. I've put my name prominently at the top of this blog not because I think it's particularly beautiful or will draw in hordes of readers, but because I want everyone to know right from the beginning that these are my thoughts, the thoughts of one completely fallible guy who often writes too quickly but tries his damnedest to be fair, if not accurate. (I also hoped the title might cause some people to look up and thinking about the definition of the word "mumpsimus", the choice of which was a coy way for me to try to avoid all presumptions of accuracy from the get-go.)

Anyway, the challenge I soon faced was: What do I do when I want to write about people I know or have corresponded with or who have been nice to me in one way or another? (Since no writers or editors have so far been particularly mean to me, I haven't yet had to deal with that, thankfully.) Of course, I want everyone in the universe to buy every single word ever written by such magnificent people as Jim Kelly and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whom are in my personal pantheon of Heroes, but therefore if I write about their works, I'm likely to write differently than I do of an author who is a stranger to me. The eventual solution I came to was simple honesty: I'll admit every bias I'm aware of in the review itself, allowing readers to judge if my partiality has gotten in the way of my vision.

It also helps, I suppose, that I'm not interested in thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews. In some ways, that's what distinguishes reviews from criticism -- though, being a fan of genre-blurring, I like to incorporate elements of both types of writing. I like writing this sort of stuff because I like figuring out how stories work, what elements I respond to as a reader, and how the piece in question fits in to whatever larger scheme seems appropriate. My motives here are mostly personal, and are expressed best by E.M. Forester, who (reputedly) once said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" (There's a lot more to writing than that, of course -- sometimes I frankly don't care what I think, I just want to write a nice sentence, which is much more difficult than either thinking or saying -- but it suits my purposes for the moment.) Because I'm primarily interested in the hows and whys of writing, it's relatively easy to say, "Okay, so I've got a reason to like this writer other than just their writing, but that doesn't mean I can't analyze what they're up to."

Evaluation is more difficult. I've stayed away from writing too much here that's negative, but the reasons for that are many -- if I don't like something, I often give up on it and move on, and I haven't (quite) gotten desperate enough yet to write about works I haven't read or viewed all of; I have eclectic tastes and generally am willing to give writers the benefit of the doubts; and there's so much good stuff out there that I hate wasting too much time talking about works which seem less than interesting. I do know that evaluating why something doesn't seem to work (that is, for me) can be useful, and certainly it can be fun, particularly when in a bitter mood, to write nasty, snarky posts about All That Is Rotten (a la Dale Peck), but ... well, it just seems like there are better things to do with my time. If I were a reviewer for a magazine which required me to write about the free books I got, then of course I'd have to write negatively about some books, since I'd have to finish reading books I didn't like, and I always resent that. In fact, when I was in college I wrote theatre reviews for a year and half for NYU's school paper, and I had to review whatever shows the editor sent me to, which were usually quite awful. To vent my frustration at having wasted time at boring and inept productions, I wrote vicious reviews. Eventually, I got bored with this, partially because the catharsis of writing sharp reviews just didn't make up for all the lost hours at horrible productions. But it also felt like I was getting predictable. After all, not being a genius, I have very few Truths to convey to the world, and once both of them are out there, I haven't got much to do except repeat myself.

What's the point of all this? I've forgotten. Oh, yes, just a simple note: I'm not reviewing myself here. I'm trying to remain ethical, while recognizing the limits of ethics. And sometimes I can be obtuse.