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Catherine McKenzie Headshot

What's in a Review, Anyway?

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It seems like there's a lot of ink being spilled recently about book reviews, so let me spill a little more.

First there was the "Stop the Goodreads Bullies" movement, which was started in reaction to the perception that there were people who were deliberately trying to sabotage books by writing negative reviews on the book reviewing site Goodreads.

Then there was Patrick Somerville's "Thank you for killing my novel" love letter to the New York Times after it made a factual error in the review that might have changed people's perception of the novel.

Then Jacob Silverman of the Slate Book Review decided that people were actually being too nice to one another in the online book community, and exhorted people not to be in his article "Against Enthusiasm." Which might explain why the New York Times decided to let people know that plenty of online reviews were actually paid for in its expose "The Best Reviews Money Can Buy."

If that wasn't depressing enough (people deliberately sabotaging books + someone complaining about being reviewed in the NYT + someone telling people to stop being nice to authors + fake reviews = why do I do this again?), then I had to learn that Amazon considers three star reviews to be negative rather than neutral or positive. And then, just yesterday, Forbes had an article entitled "Fake Reviews: Amazon's Rotten Core."

Now I don't want to get into a debate about anybody's actions/recommendations in the articles listed above. Mostly because I don't know how to express my opinions on any of it without (potentially) drawing the ire of those involved.

So, why am I writing about it?

Because I don't know how to express my opinions about any of it without drawing the ire of those involved.

And there's something wrong with that, right? In this age of openness and multiple avenues to express oneself, no one should be dissuaded from expressing their politely-expressed opinion (I'm Canadian. I promise that my opinion would be politely expressed), especially not the very subjects of these discussions.

Now some might say that it's just my problem. Nothing's stopping me from saying what I think about, for example, paying for a review, or replying to someone who I think is bullying me, or another author, online. Besides, it's not like I'm the one being reviewed (incorrectly or otherwise) in the New York Times. Who would even notice?

But I think that's beside the point. In an age of shrinking review space, advertising budgets etc. authors (most of us anyway) basically have to be on some sort of social media. And if you're online "properly," that means interacting with others. Which is -- don't get me wrong -- usually an incredibly rewarding experience. But if the articles above are reflective of what's really going on, most authors and people who love books will be driven from social media. Who but the most masochistic amongst us would stay in a forum where people are encouraged to be mean to one another and where everything nice is false?

I'm not that masochistic.

Maybe that's why E.B. White didn't want to open his fan mail?