Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Are book reviews worth all this fuss?

Sandra Parshall

The whole Jodi Picoult/Jennifer Weiner vs. The New York Times episode has raised some fascinating questions about the way books are reviewed, where they’re reviewed, and which authors are among the lucky chosen few.

In case you’ve just returned from vacation on Mars and haven’t heard about the uproar, the initial cause of Jodi Picoult’s protest was the extraordinary attention The Times has given to Jonathan Franzen’s new book. Weiner quickly joined in the complaint that The Times devotes a lot of space to literary novels by “white male writers” and little to works of popular fiction written by women.

After Jason Pinter interviewed Picoult and Weiner for the Huffington Post, the comments left by readers were even more provocative than what the writers had to say. For example, one person said, “Franzen is a writer. These two women are great storytellers. There’s a difference.” A debate raged over the relative value of popular and literary fiction, men’s writing and women’s writing, and it all sounded sadly familiar. The increasingly dire shortage of review venues is what gives the discussion a fresh twist.

One thing is clear: authors in every genre and subgenre see themselves as victims in these days of shrinking review space. Writers of bestsellers believe that precious space should be devoted to “the books people actually read” – their books. Authors of literary fiction say bestsellers don’t need any help and reviewers have a duty to tell readers about books that might otherwise go unnoticed. Crime fiction writers feel marginalized. Mainstream and literary writers, on the other hand, think crime fiction gets more review space than it deserves. And women authors in all genres feel they’re often treated as second-class.

I can’t speak with any knowledge about the comparative figures for reviews of all fiction, but I know for certain that The Times and most other publications review significantly more crime fiction written by men than by women. Sisters in Crime’s Review Monitoring Project has documented inequity in review numbers for many years. According to Julianne Balmain, chair of the Monitoring Project, 66% of the mystery/thriller/suspense novels reviewed in The Times in 2009 were written by men. In 2010 so far, books by men make up 72% of the crime fiction reviewed in The Times. (The overall number of crime novels published each year tends to be almost evenly split between male and female authors, with men having a very slight edge.)

How do you feel about all this?

With space for reviews in newspapers and magazines constantly shrinking, how should those valuable column inches be used?

Should reviewers concentrate on books that appeal to the most readers?

Should reviewers spotlight literary novels and nonfiction on important topics instead of giving space to books that will be bestsellers in any case?

Do reviewers have a duty to call attention to new writers?

Do you feel there’s any particular genre or subgenre that deserves more review space?

Do you believe publications should ensure that books by women are given adequate review space?

Do you think print reviews have lost their importance? Do you look to the internet more often than to newspapers and magazines for book news and reviews?

Do book reviews of any kind influence your decision to buy a novel? If not, what does?


Robert Carraher said...

Working on a blog post that says yes. I read them religiously, sometimes for the wrong reasons. If a particular reviewer pans a book, I want to read that book for sure!

Sandra Parshall said...

Reviews in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and especially Library Journal are important to librarians, I believe -- they help acquisitions librarians decide what to buy for their shelves. That's why writers cherish those reviews and pray for good ones.

murderbytype said...

I only review books I like on my blog or on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Borders.

First, if I don't like a book I don't read it. With so many wonderful books to read, why waste time on something I don't like?

Second, tastes in reading are very personal. I don't want to cost an author some readers by posting a negative review. Someone might pass on an author because a review was negative or less than enthusiastic.

Authors need reviews from readers to be posted on sites like those of the major booksellers as well as on blogs. Mid-list authors do not get much help, if any, from their publishers. If we like an author, we need to make that known by posting reviews. Librarians pay attention to readers preferences when they have to make hard decisions about which books to purchase for their libraries.

I have found a number of authors whose books I miss. Their series were canceled because of lack of sales and lack of feedback from those who read the books and wanted more.

Publishers can't know who readers favor if we don't make an effort to get the word out.

Sandra Parshall said...

Great comments about reader reviews. They're part of the "word of mouth" that all writers crave. These days a lot of people do most of their "talking" about books online, and far more readers will see online reviews and comments than will ever see a NY Times review. But those newspaper reviews, especially in The Times, retain their magical aura, and most writers want them.

cncbooks said...

I'll post a negative review but in courteous terms and I'll explain exactly why I wasn't overly thrilled with it, usually personal tastes. The other day, someone on DorothyL asked why more than one review of any book gets posted there---my feeling is any honest review is worthwhile and broadens the potential reader's upfront information. As for the NYT and crime fiction, I think a lot of the bias comes from their dismissal of traditional or cozy mysteries, even softboiled, mostly written by women and therefore not worth the NYT's lofty notice (unless the author has attained bestseller status).

Lelia Taylor

lil Gluckstern said...

I am guilty of reading the NYTimes book reviews, but I am increasingly careful because so many of their books are about miserable people going through miserable things. I have discovered many fine mystery writers through Marilyn Stasio's reviews, but I find the blogs have the most important influence on my book buying habits. The problem is paradoxical, I think: great reviews do not mean best sellers, reviewing any of James Patterson's books would not change his success, and all of you writers whom I think deserve to be best sellers are not mediocre enough to be on The List over and over again. I get upset for you guys, and I do use word of mouth, request books from the library, and show with my monthly allotment of book money at my local bookstore, as do many of my friends. I do think your blogging on several sites helps spread the word. I wish you luck.

Martha said...

My local paper is down to one page a week on books. A portion is given up to the best seller lists and where and when authors are going to be reading in the area. The remaining portion is reviews. I have not found a book I wish to read on that page in years. They just don't review books I have any interest in. These days all the 'heads up' I get on books worth reading come online. Thank heavens for the internet!

carl brookins said...

Absolutely, reviews are useful. Of course, as a reviewer, I'm likely biased in this regard. Most people deny that reviews influence their decision-making process in regard to purchasing. We also deny that advertising makes a difference. In both cases, I think it's clear both play apart in raising name recognition for the book. Good or bad reviews, they do help get the word out to readers.

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Good reviews, bad reviews, as long as they get a writer's name and the book's title right, it's promotion for the book. Readers are savvy enough to know not everyone loves every book or hates every book. On whole, though, I'll take good reviews.


KK Brees said...

I'm reminded of how much the book business has changed just in the past few years. Then, snail mail submissions were the norm. Today, email has almost totally replaced the old method.
Print media - newspapers and magazines - are fast going the way of the dodo. Courting online reviewers probably makes more sense, but I have a suspicion that word of mouth is still the best advertisement.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I read reviews, and if a book sounds intriguing, it often goes on my TBR pile. As for the NYT...I often skim through, but the gender inequity is distressing.