The Book Review is Dead. Long Live the Book Review.

 

book review 1Would it surprise you to learn that, on the eve of the release of my first novel, I am peering closely at the business of book reviews?  What I observe, as both an author and a reader, is not re-assuring.  In fact, it’s downright perplexing!

Much ink has been spent in recent months on the decline of professional book reviewers, including several articles in the New York Times and a thought-provoking blog by author Susan Weidener (see links below).  The decline reflects both a reduction in the number of publications that offer book reviews (e.g., many local newspapers no longer offer book reviews) as well as a decline in the number of professional book reviewers.

As a reader, this phenomenon is disturbing, as it makes it harder to determine which books I’d like to read. But as an indie author, it is not a primary concern, as I would not expect to be reviewed in the Atlantic Monthly or The New York Review of Books, unless I had already achieved very considerable market awareness.

No, my concern is the book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the two primary places where readers provide feedback. Based on my experience with my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, the system is flawed.

Of the three dozen or so reviews on Amazon, more than half are 5-star, the highest ranking a book can get. I am, of course, thrilled to have them, particularly those that provide thoughtful commentary on the quality of my writing, the structure of the memoir, and the extent to which the reader experienced a “shiver of recognition.”  

But I am puzzled by the number of readers who, in effect, have ranked me alongside Barbara Kingsolver or Sue Monk Kidd.  I am a good writer, but not that good.

The problem lies, in my view, in the reliance on a simple 1 to 5 star ranking, with input from a self-selected segment of readers whose qualifications as critics are rarely known and whose motives are often suspect. This system allows readers (including personal or professional friends of the author) to make public judgments about a book without necessarily providing—or even having—any specific criteria or rationale for their opinions.  Such reviews may puff up or deflate the author’s ego, but do little to help readers determine whether a book will be of interest or whether it is a genuinely good read.

Take, for example, a 5-star review that says only “I loved it” or a 1-star review that says only “I hated it.”  What does a reader learn from this? I’d like to know if the reviewer only reads short books, or only reads memoirs, or only reads sports stories.  I’d like to know if the reviewer prefers action-oriented adventures or character-driven stories. I’d like to know whether the reviewer sticks to familiar topics and settings or enjoys exploring challenging new environments. I’d like to know if the reviewer loved the writing, or a liked a good yarn despite mediocre writing or liked the story but hated the writing.

The issue is further complicated by the reluctance of many authors (myself included) to put anything less than a 3-star review on Amazon.  How, in this environment, does a reader identify a poorly written book with a thin plot and/or bad editing or one that is a real gem.

Goodreads appears, at first glance, to provide a more reasoned approach, as the preponderance of the Moonbeam reviews are 3-star or 4-star.  The problem here is that Goodreads reviewers can “rank” a book without so much as a word of explanation as to the basis for the ranking.  

I am stuck with the system as it is, but I wonder how you, as a reader, think about reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Do you rely on these reviews?  Do you write reviews?  How would you change the system?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Suggested Reading

Susan Weidener: What’s Up with Book Reviews?

New York Times, Colin Robinson, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader”

New York Times, Maureen Dowd, “Bigger than Bambi” 

The New Yorker, Lee Siegel, Burying the Hatchet” 

 

Inside the Writer’s Brain

 

brainWhat happens inside the writer’s brain? Is there a direct link between what a writer feels and the words that spill out onto the page? Is there any correlation between what happens inside the writer’s brain and what the reader experiences based on the writer’s words?  

These questions are not new. As I noted in a recent blog, the expression theory of art argues that there must be some degree of resonance between the writer and the reader if the book is to be considered art. But much of the discussion over the past century has been from a philosophical perspective, looking at what ought to be, rather than what is. Until recently, there has been no way to document what was inside the writer’s brain or the reader’s brain, let alone how similar they were. 

In the last ten years, however, the expression theory has taken on an empirical dimension. With the emergence of the field of neuroesthetics, researchers can use an array of sensors and cameras to monitor the brain waves, heart rate, skin condition and facial expressions of both writers and readers.

Testing the Theory

One of the first guinea pigs for this new brain imaging technology is Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg, who is completing a work of fiction. While he writes, Grunberg wears a plastic cap fitted out with electrodes. As part of the experiment, Grunberg tries to limit each section of his writing to one dominant emotion. The sensors and cameras, developed in the Netherlands, track his cursor and can match what he has written with his physiological and neurological data.

Gathering data on Grunberg’s process of writing is only the beginning. When his novella is published in 2014, fifty readers who agree to use an e-reader under laboratory conditions will face the same array of sensors and cameras.

According to a recent New York Times article, the Dutch researchers will then scour the data, looking for “patterns that may help illuminate links between the way art is created and enjoyed, and possibly the nature of creativity itself.”

“Will readers of Arnon’s text feel they understand or embody the same emotions he had while he was writing it, or is reading a completely different process?” said Ysbrand van der Werf, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. 

I, for one, can’t wait to see what the researchers learn from this study. As a writer of a soon-to-be-published novel, I definitely want my readers to resonate with the experiences and emotional responses of my characters.  But many of my readers will come from a cultural, educational and/or economic background different from mine.  Why would I expect them to feel exactly the same emotions I did while writing? 

And does it even matter? 

Writing for My Readers – Part II

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly in this series on recurring themes in my novel A Fitting Place, I mused on the need to create characters that resonate with my readers … to make my readers shiver with recognition as they follow the hopes and fears, the defeats and triumphs of fictional individuals whose life situations may be very different from their own, but whose emotional responses they recognize instantly.

The need for resonance from my readers looms large in my mind as I complete the final draft and incorporate the insightful suggestions of my editor.

It is a bit of serendipity that this final phase of my writing coincides with a semester-long course in the Philosophy of Art where we have repeatedly asked how to determine if a created object rises to the standard of art.

Herewith a few thoughts on how selected theories of art apply to getting resonance from my readers:

  • An early approach, going back to Plato and Aristotle, was the theory of representation, which required that art imitate life. While the focus of the theory was on the intentionality and skill of the artist, it implicitly required that the viewer—or the reader—recognize and appreciate the aspect of life being portrayed.
  • This theory went by the boards with the arrival of modern (e.g., abstract) art, to be replaced by the theory of expression. Here, the artist/author had to be motivated by an emotionally significant experience and transmit the emotion to the viewer. There has been ongoing debate about the need for the viewer/reader to experience exactly the same emotion as the artist/author, but without some degree of emotional resonance, it cannot be considered art.
  • A third approach is the theory of aesthetic emotion, for which the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant was a key proponent. In Kant’s view, appreciation of art is a wholly subjective experience that we assume others will share, but which cannot be defined or explained in conceptual terms.  In other words, adhering to the rules of the writer’s craft matters not if my readers don’t respond with a sensory feeling connected in some mysterious way to the meaningfulness of life.
  • My personal favorite is the theory of the text, proposed by Roland Barthes, a 20th century French literary theorist and critic.  Barthes makes the case that meaning is not created by the artist, but by the reader. In other words, it doesn’t matter what story I intended to tell, or what emotions I intended to convey.  What matters is whether my readers, as they engage with the words on the page, experience that shiver of recognition, that moment of aliveness that comes from being in touch with the universal human condition.

As I worked on A Fitting Place, I have pored over dozens if not hundred of articles about the craft of writing … things to do and things not to do.  The serendipity of the philosophy course, coming at this particular moment in time, lies in its timely and frequent reminder that, however skilled the craftsman, it is not good writing unless it touches the reader’s soul.

What do you think is required for writing to rise to level of art?

 

This blog continues the discussion on themes related to my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like join the discussion by doing a guest blog. 

 

A Shiver of Recognition

A shiver of recognition.  

Isn’t that what all creative writers want … to have crafted a passage so powerful and compelling that the reader physically trembles at the emotional memory or the sudden insight triggered by the words on the page.  

The first time I heard that phrase was last week in a workshop run by one of my fellow trekkers in Nepal. A full-time teacher of creative writing, Yasmina has taken on the daunting task of getting each member of the trekking group to share his or her experience in written form. Many in the group have little experience with creative writing and struggle with how to even start to record their thoughts and feelings.

Yasmina walked us through a series of exercises that were thought-provoking even for an experienced writer. But when she threw out that phrase–“ a shiver of recognition”– as the goal of our scribbling, it seemed a moment of synchronicity.  

I was meant to be there.

I was meant to be there because my “job” for the foreseeable future is to complete the final draft of my novel, A FITTING PLACE.  I’ve had great encouragement from beta readers, who connect with my characters and love the plot. But as Yasmina’s phrase echoed in my brain, I knew what is still missing from my story.  My two primary characters are interesting because they are more than a bit out of the ordinary. But if I cannot write their out-of-the-ordinary story in a way that causes my readers to have that shiver of recognition, I should stop now.

I will not stop.  I will write it so that my readers tremble.  The question is how do I do that.

And what about those of you who are writers?  Do you struggle with that “how”?