Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This is Supposed to be Fun, Right?

There are many different angles to this hobby I call Internet reviewing. There are those of us who take it way too seriously and review everything we can get our hands on in order to have a greater opportunity to increase our rank. Then there are the people who just want to use it as a means of getting the word out on things they've enjoyed. I started out in that camp.

Among those who take things way too seriously are the Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society. Now I have no love of Amazon's #1 reviewer. Her "reviews" aren't helpful and are getting sloppier by the month. And a little mocking of her rather major mistakes is fun. The group is also on the lookout for other major cheats on the site. However, these people will take on anyone that doesn't live up to their standards. They also only allow comments from people who have been approved, so their site is nothing but an echo chamber of their own wisdom. And one of their biggest issues is people who only post positive reviews.

Yesterday, they had a post up linking to a blog of an Amazon reviewer who only posts positive reviews. His reasoning? He doesn't want to spend any more time thinking about something he didn't enjoy. Naturally, they were all over this, stating that he has just proved he's nothing but a shill who can be bought by publishers. How they can know him that well from some reviews and a blog post is beyond me.

Now I will admit I am suspicious of people who post one review a day and give nothing but 5 stars. Still, this poor reviewer's argument is a good one.

This is something I wrestled with during my first year or two of reviewing. But I decided early on to review the good and the bad so people can get a feel for my tastes if they are so inclined.

However, I can make a good argument for avoiding the bad - the feedback.

Over the years, I have gotten some interesting feedback from authors and readers when I've left negative reviews. One author did acknowledge the particular book was weak (it was several years old) and hoped I'd give him another try (I really keep meaning to, but I haven't yet.)

Then there was the author who sent me an e-mail demanding I remove a line from a mostly positive review where I questioned one detail's historical accuracy. He offered no proof, just said he was right and I needed to change it. I didn't.

Another time, I complained about some inconsistencies in a novel. The author e-mailed demanding to know what they were. When I didn't respond in a couple days (I was very busy at the time), she e-mailed back and said that she and a friend had reread it and found nothing, therefore I was wrong and needed to change my review immediately. I haven't read anything by her since.

Over a year ago, Amazon added the ability to leave comments on reviews. It can be a fun feature, but it is a chance for people to take their fights public, something the HK Society does when they target a reviewer. Mine have been mostly positive, although I got some nasty comments on my review of Third Day's Christmas CD. (I objected to a rather depressing song and got raked over the coals for being insensitive, which I probably was.)

However, this last week has been very interesting all the way around. (And it all comes together.)

This year, I started out by writing a negative review of the movie The Kingdom. Basically, I thought the story was weak, the characters cardboard, and the camera work so shaky it was hard to follow. In addition to the negative votes (I sure wish Amazon users would stop using the NO button as a "I disagree with the opinion button), I got a comment from a reader. Most of it was stating his side of the story, which is fine (although a review would be a better place for it.) However, he starts out his comment by pointing out that I am a fan of the star of the movie Elektra (which I haven't seen) and gave the Father of the Bride remake 5 stars (I'd just reviewed it the week before.) I can take comments when the person disagrees with my opinion and lays out the reasons why. But to attack my tastes and reasons for seeing a film? What was the point of that? (And I stated I saw this movie because Jennifer Garner was in it to give people an idea on how seriously to take my comments.)

Then comes my review of The Fault Tree. I was given an advanced review copy of this book, so I posted my review the first day. I called it a thriller in my title, and gave it a negative review because I found the story dragged on too long and the ending preposterous. And here's the comment I got. "As a top 100 reviewer you should KNOW the difference between a mystery and a thriller. The book has on the cover - "A Mystery". Therefore, your review is one of ignorance in NOT knowing the pacing and difference between the two. It's sad that your review was even allowed to be published with the title you gave it. Sorry, but true." So, I guess there was some kind of test I had to pass to become a top reviewer that I missed? Sorry, but I can call any book anything to so desire. I missed the fact that it was called a mystery on the cover, but I feel the book reads more like a thriller.

So the post at the HK Society and these comments were swirling in my brain yesterday when I got the phone call.

Back in October, a member of my church stopped me and asked if I'd written a review of his book. When I said yes, he thanked me. I was rather surprised since it had been a luke warm 3 star review. He then asked me when I was going to review the second. When I said I didn't have a copy, he gave me one.

As I feared when I read it, it was even worse then the first. Instead of just never reviewing it (which would have been the wise thing to do), I wrote an honest review, which was negative. And I waited for the backlash.

Yesterday was when it came. I answered the phone here at work and listened to a several minute long diatribe about how I had been in his home (true) and he considered me a friend and how a brother should not do this to a brother. He also pointed out that he has some weight at church and here at the college. At this point, I asked if he was threatening me. His response? "If I were threatening you, I'd be in your office and you'd know it." But he once again said he had written an e-mail and would be sending it to someone depending on how I responded. He finally stopped denying that he was threatening me, but he also didn't say he was.

I apologized that my review offended him, but it was my honest opinion. He came back by pointing out that I was an accountant and couldn't hide behind journalist ethics. Only later did I think I should have pointed out that with over 1000 reviews at Amazon (and almost 700 at Epinions) I do have a reputation to uphold.

He tried to make this a Matthew 18 reconciliation issue. Hate to break it to him, but that's about sin, not about someone making you angry.

It also came out during our conversation that he hadn't read my review on his first book when he gave me the second one. So whose fault is that?

When it became obvious to him that I wasn't going to back down (which was about five minutes after I was through listening to his threats), he announced, "Well, I can see we won't be getting anywhere" and hung up on me.

I haven't heard anything else about this, and it will be interesting to see if I do.

And before anyone points it out to me, I do know I am showing how thin my skin is by complaining about the way thin skinned people have treated me.

So this is a long winded way of defending only posting reviews of books you loved. Am I going to go with that approach? No. I'm too stubborn. But people who want to do this occasionally just for the fun of it should be allowed to do that without being attacked (like I will be by the HK Society followers if/when they find this post).


Anonymous said...

I used to do online reviewing -- and some print media as well -- but gave it up after awhile. I tended to only want to review the stuff I liked because I rarely bothered finishing the works I didn't.

From an author's perspective, there's an incredible variety of quality in online reviewing (yes, the same case could be made for print media as well). You can sniff out the author's friends. You can see the author's enemies. Some reviewers truly DON'T seem to have read the book -- major, major details are wrong.

Others obviously take pride in their analysis and crafting of reviews.

For independent press authors, online reviewers can be an incredible boon. Often, print media is obsessed with the big houses and major names and won't consider smaller presses. It's discouraging.

The only time I ever wrote anything negative to a reviewer of my books was in my hometown. The journalist at one of the local papers made several catty remarks about mysteries in general and those overshadowed her review of my work. I sent her a private note thanking her for enduring the entire read of my book since it was obvious she so disliked the genre.

Yeah, I know, I could've been more gracious. But if you hate the genre, your reviews will reflect that loud and clear.

My best,

Mark said...

I really do try to take into account my own feelings about a genre when reviewing. It's why I often give some background on my tastes in a review that is out of the norm for me. That way, someone who does love the genre can judge for themselves how seriously to take my comments.

And your response to that review? If I had gotten something like that after writing that kind of review, it would have stopped me cold and made me reevaluate my reviewing style. But that could just be me.

Anonymous said...

Mark, perhaps this will put your heart at ease: of course if you've posted fifty reviews in ten years and they happen to be all positive, it's entirely OK -- you probably read many more books than you've reviewed, some of the books you've read turned out not so good but you didn't want to bother reviewing them: fine. At least it's not impossible!

However, when we see reviewers who review multiple books a day, every day, with an overall record of thousands of books, all of them five stars, we cannot reasonably assume that such reviewers read many more books than those they've reviewed. Is it possible that one's total reading is on the five-star level? This is a rhetorical question.

Mark said...

Yes, that does set my mind at ease some.

Lonnie E. Holder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lonnie E. Holder said...


I too have run afoul of negative comments from time to time. It is sad when someone gives you a book or DVD and you have to point out that it is not very good. Oh well. I think some people need to remember that a review is just someone's opinion, as long as the "facts" they state, when they do state them, are accurate.

As for the so-called "Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society," they are a small group of people who think that reviewers should follow some arcane set of rules that the twelve or so members of the society have concocted. Some of the rules actually make some sense, but the main rule seems to be that they are upset that they are not in control of the world so they created the Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society where they can be in control, keep out those people who do not think precisely as they do, and laugh at everyone who does not think in the narrow-minded way they do.