Science fiction and fantasy
Reviews Are Useless Without Context
4th July 2012
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I don't know exactly who will read this post. Maybe some of my Twitter friends, perhaps a few random strangers from around the world who have never heard of me before. Most likely it'll be a mixture of both, but for newcomers to this website what does it mean if I say I like one book or hate another? I can back my opinions up with quotes and other evidence, but they're more valuable if you know what my usual style is, and how my reading preferences line up with yours.
Pauline of Pauline's Fantasy Reviews highlights the issue of context in her (long) essay on the publisher-blogger relationship. In particular, she comments on the unhelpfulness of ratings systems when they don't mean the same thing to readers as they do to the blogger.
"There are some reviewers who give 5 stars to 75% of all the books they review. That's not so much a rating system as a whitewash. Even if they are incredibly selective, or incredibly easy to please, it's hard to see any value in such a system. Equally, reviewers who only write about books they liked, or books they finished, or who have a rating system where 6 or 7 is as low as any review goes, are distorting their opinions. If I see a review with a rating of 8 out of 10, that sounds pretty good, right? But not if it actually means it was just middling."
The problem is, these kinds of statistics aren't transparent on all blogs, or even on most. How is anyone supposed to navigate between the generous horror fan, the paid shill, and the controversial snarkster. When you want a review of How To Train A Wild Troll by Debbie New-Author, you don't want to read through the reviewing history of everyone on every blog you come across. There has to be a shortcut.
FragmentationAt Staffer's Book Review Justin comments on the somewhat haphazard relationship between bloggers and publishers. He writes: "... I don't think publishers have any idea how to best interact with bloggers. I think they're guessing. ... When they should be asking for blogger input, they choose instead to push swag. I'm not sure if they're understaffed or just lacking the appropriate tools necessary to track books, reviewers' tastes, and blogs' niches."
If publicists whose job it is to track blogs are having a hard time, what hope is there for readers? The online reviewspace is more fragmented than ever. In some ways this is great, because authors no longer rely on a small selection of print and broadcast reviews for getting the word out. On the flipside, as well as a few very prominent bloggers there are thousands of others, and no-one can be familiar with all of them.
What to do about itThere are some bloggers who insist on not giving ratings, and that's fine if you want the kind of analysis that can't be reduced to a conclusion and has to be read in its entirety. However for those who do, I'd like to see more statistics. I'd like to see this as a standard, rather like it's good practice to see a review policy.
This isn't just about a blogger demonstrating that he or she isn't an industry shill. It's also about putting our biases in context, because we all have them and the more we acknowledge them the more useful our opinions can be to others.
These are my statistics from the 556 reviews I've posted to date. 339 of them are book reviews, and as you can see I tend to be more favourable towards them (there's more that can go wrong in a movie, I think). I also lean more towards fantasy than science fiction, often because I like a good character-driven story.
© Ros Jackson