Reviews, Word of Mouth, Conversation, & Community (Spiritwalker Monday 20)

Where and how do you discover the books you read and media you watch/consume? How much does word of mouth or reviews play a part as compared to research or relying on past experience?

Do you write reviews? And if you do, what audience do you hope to reach?

Do you read reviews? How do you interact with them?

The process of reviewing (as opposed to the critical essay) has had such an explosion because of the internet that both as a reader who reads and as a writer who gets reviewed I’m fascinated by the process of liking what others like, disliking what others dislike, liking what others dislike, disliking what others like, and the worst reviews of all, those of indifference and of the judgment that a work is trivial, unimportant, and ignorable.

There are many platforms where reviewers are clearly reviewing for other readers, for each other, an ongoing conversation about books both in the largest sense of the reading gestalt (what is fashionable, obscure, elided, needed, and trendy or out of fashion at any given time) and of course of individual titles that a person may want to excoriate or praise.

But I also just heard a story about a writer who was emailed directly by a person who wanted to make sure to tell the writer about how much they (the reader) had disliked the work of that writer which they had read. What is up with that? That so puzzles me–not the disliking because people will not all like (or dislike) the same things, but this odd need to inform the writer so as to . . . to what? What does it accomplish? How does it relate back to the larger sense of conversation? How is this part of a productive conversation?

But just as some reviewers are clearly writing to engage primarily or only with other reviewers and readers, others do seem to want to engage — whether positively or negatively — with the writers. There are so many layers and complexities involved.

I don’t review books but I do like to talk about books I enjoyed. I’m more likely to review film/tv, I suspect because I am not part of that community. At the same time, I have no problem whatsoever with writers who do review; more power to them.

Do you feel like you are part of a larger ongoing discussion of books/media that takes place online (and to a lesser degree off line)? Perhaps that is a question already answered by the fact that you are reading this on a writer’s blog. I feel I am often submerged in this ocean of book discussion, as a participant fishing in from several angles, both the reader and the read.

I have to make decisions about how I am going to interact with reviews of my own work (whether to read or not read, and how or whether to internalize the reactions of readers which can be so diverse), how I approach books/media I’m reading and how much I want to say/converse about them, and how much I engage with reviewers and reviews in general even just as a reader. Like anyone, my opinion may be swayed or my interest piqued in all kinds of ways, some positive and some negative.

Everyone makes these decisions from one day or one month or one year to the next. It is difficult, I think, to say that one works or even reads in true isolation, not now.

30 thoughts on “Reviews, Word of Mouth, Conversation, & Community (Spiritwalker Monday 20)

  1. I must admit that I have been tempted a couple of times in the last year. Both times it was with a favourite author whose latest work seemed seriously flawed to me – a major disappointment. I would never bother otherwise, since I really need the ongoing relationship of long readership for it to seem worth the effort.

  2. Okay, lots of queries, lets try to answer them in order;
    Discoveries, normally referrals from trusted sources, though sometimes I’ll see a comment by an Author and decide I like the way they think, so give them a shot(applies to other media too).
    Word of mouth, only if I trust the mouth. 🙂
    No I don’t write reviews, and rarely listen/read reviews except a few trusted sources.

    Now as to the disliking email, this may or may be the context, but said Author recently commented on another book saying she thought their female characters were shallow(paraphrased as I was too lazy to check back for the comment). This actually triggered something in me, as I find her male characters shallow, and temporarily contemplating advising her myself.

    I can’t definitively say that this was the cause/event here as I don’t the writer of the letter, but people who live in glass houses…………….

    I still read that Authors books, but she does frustrate me sometimes. Not sure if this answers your query, or just raises more questions, but hopefully it is something added to the conversation.

    Have ordered but not yet received Cold Magic, so can’t comment/review yet. 🙂


  3. Depending on the medium, movies and games I tend to factor in reviews when making my decision, Not so for books.
    When deciding what books to read I generally choose based on friends reccomendations, if it’s by an author I like or, and slightly embarrassing to say, if the cover looks cool, making me pick up the book and read the blurb.
    I don’t think I’d ever write directly to the author with a negative viewpoint. If I don’t like the book, that’s because it didn’t hold my interest and god knows I don’t have the skill set to critique a professional writer.

  4. I’ve never written directly to an author to talk about a book of theirs I had read. I figure they don’t need my approval if they’re doing things I like; and they certainly don’t need to hear from me if I didn’t like the book.

    However, when I review a book on my blog (or or Amazon), I will critique the writing/plot/structure/etc. in depth, and hold back nothing. Writers who want to read reviews of their work know what they might find and take the risk on their own recognizance.

    But the reason I get into nitty-gritty is for the benefit of other readers and writers. I like reading reviews that talk about the plot or themes of a book in depth, rather than “A fun adventure with fast-paced action!” I like some details to help me decide if a book is for me or not. It doesn’t matter if the review is positive or negative–sometimes a reviewer hates a trope I love, and their “The author does too much X” may make me say, “X? I love X! Gimme gimme gimme!”

    Detailed reviews are, I think, more important if there are aspects of a book I don’t like. I want to figure out what was bugging me. Also, I think it’s unfair to say, “I was bored/etc.” without saying what, in particular, was the problem. Critique should be thoughtful, not just gut reaction.

    This helps me as a writer–the principle of ‘you get better at writing by analyzing and critiquing other writing’–and I like to think that also helps other writers. I like reading thoughtful critiques because they may highlight aspects of writing I hadn’t thought about much before. So I try to deliver that, too.

  5. It’s interesting, though. An author may have taken a direction that the reader doesn’t care for (although other people do); the author may have gotten sloppy (hard to say if the author thinks so, of course); may be ill; and so on.

    There are ways a writer can really disappoint me but they usually (for me as a reader) have more to do if I feel the text is tainted with unexamined sexism or racism or with grinding out tired cliches.

  6. Like you, I have to trust the source for my book recs, although likewise there are people I respect who I know read for very different things than I do, so books they adored might not be to my taste (but still might be good).

    As readers we definitely all (I’m speaking generally) read for different things. There are books I found unreadable on several levels that others love. At the same time, I have had the experience of having Readers X Y & Z love a character while Reader B hates the character, and as a writer I do deal with the reality that I can’t make everyone happy; ultimately I have to do my best to write the work the way it is in my head.

    I will be interested in your reaction to Cold Magic. I guarantee that the male lead is not shallow, although I spend all three books fully unfolding all the facets of his personality. The challenge for me as a writer is showing all that via an outside first person narration (he is only seen from the outside; we never get his pov).

  7. Hey, no shame in picking up a book if the cover looks cool. I do it all the time, and that is exactly the marketing strategy a good art department is going for.

    Interesting about the difference in reviews between movies/games and books. I probably ignore friends’ recs for films and tv most because I find the most discrepancy there (forex I found The Avengers film boring but most everyone I knew loved it) whereas I have a lot more overlap with books with my friends.

    You make an important point, the difference between knowing if a book is “wrong” and if it simply didn’t hold your (generic you) interest. God knows I’ve picked up plenty of books that others loved that just didn’t work for me (and vice versa), but I didn’t think those books were “wrong.” Just not for me.

  8. This all makes huge sense to me. And in fact these kinds of thoughtful reviews are my favorite both for books I may want to read and for my own books. In some cases I strongly disagree with a reader’s take–not for them, obviously their read of the book is the reaction they had to it (except in the occasional cases where some ulterior motive is present but that’s a whole other can of worms)–but then that becomes a matter of mis-matched expectations, I think. There are certainly other cases where a mixed review will highlight something I wish I had done better or decide to work on in the next project.

    Oddly enough, however, it’s books I’m on the fence about that I read reviews of. If I absolutely know I want to see a film or read a book, then I avoid reviews so I can come at the piece with as few expectations as possible.

  9. Most of the books I read are recommendations mentioned by authors I already read, follow, and love. I figure, I like their writing, and their writing is generally going to be influenced by what they like to read, so why not give that a try too? I’ve found a lot of favorites that way.

    I don’t write reviews, but I did contact an author once to let him know how much I liked his book – it was about Isaac Newton and the “birth of the modern world,” so it got into calculus and mathy-things – generally my nemsis – but the mathiness took a back seat to a story well-told, and made it accessible for me. So I wanted him to know how much I valued that.

  10. I think one can rarely go wrong writing to let an author know that you liked their work.
    What is the Newton book? That sounds good!

  11. Lots of questions.

    >>Where and how do you discover the books you read and media you watch/consume?

    Venues like Locus, fellow bloggers and reviewers. Places like SF Signal

    >>How much does word of mouth or reviews play a part as compared to research or relying on past experience?

    Word of mouth is useful for first-time authors or people I am not familiar with. Once I know an author’s work, experience takes over. And I always do research.

    >>Do you write reviews? And if you do, what audience do you hope to reach?

    As well readers here should know, I even did a blog post on reviews. I hope to reach fans much like myself. I understand that some authors will read my reviews, and others will avoid them like the plague–even positive ones. But my reviews are a reaction to a book meant for the author as well as prospective readers.

    Do you read reviews? How do you interact with them?

    I read and comment on them, especially on books that might interest me. Reviews not really in my oeuvre get less attention.

  12. The recommendations for a book are similar to recommendations for a good place to eat. They are personal preference driven. This is the wonderful thing about both food and books. Both can give you bad tastes or wonderful feelings. When we have someone recommend either and we find their taste nothing close to ours, we don’t blast them for it, we wonder what were they thinking. If we really have commonality with them we might try again. If they give us another poor recommendation we abandon them to the poor taste file. Never again listening to their comments about the food or book. The same could be said for films or any other medium we use to engage with others.

    When I post a comment about a book, I put myself out there with the same standard. If my recommendation is off to anyone, they might wonder if I missed it or is this guys taste so different than mine that they won’t read any comments that I put out. The same could be said for writers. Published writers specifically as they have braved the comments of the masses and put their story out there for the world to enjoy, knowing that someone probably isn’t going to like it and heaven forbid hate it or worse yet not finish it.

    It is about being bold enough in your writing to get the words out to those that yearn for the pleasure that the story you tell takes them to a land far away and releases them from the daily grind. It is the story that is shared that lifts us all to find a world with struggles and issues that may or may not be won. It fills us with a joy of sharing deep thoughts that make us better for the experience. That of course is what all books should do. Some stories just don’t make it. We should encourage the writer to continue down the path for better words that leave an impact. Encouragement should be given to the writer as they have more to share. We can leave the negative to their editors as they will work with the writer to get the best.

    That’s what I’m looking for and if I recommend I better give it my best also, knowing that not everyone has my taste.

    I enjoyed reading all the comments. Really!

  13. I find books in a whole variety of ways–everything from word of mouth (mostly online) to browsing at the library. My tastes are eclectic, and it’s important to me to not limit myself by what my friends are reading–some of my absolute favorite books I’ve found through random browsing.

    I read lots of reviews, and also write reviews. Which I don’t expect (or want) authors to read. I know it happens occasionally, and if authors can get something worthwhile out of my reviews, that’s great, but authors aren’t on my mind at all when I’m writing them–a review that tiptoes around the author’s feelings won’t be particularly helpful to a book’s potential readers or particularly interesting to those who’ve already read it, in which case, what’s the point? Genuine constructive criticism would probably take up a lot more words than your typical blog post, let alone Amazon or GR review, and is best done privately anyway (although emailing an author about disliking a book, to me, is super weird. From a reader’s perspective, I’m qualified to discuss a book’s strengths and weaknesses and either recommend it or not, but who am I to tell authors how to do their job?).

  14. Some reviewers are adamant that they write purely for other readers with no interest in whether the author reads their review or not. As I am not a reviewer, I have no opinion one way or the other but I’ve seen a couple of responses now by people who write reviews (like you) that they expect the author to read the review and to some (maybe quite small) degree take that into account.

  15. I do like the restaurant analogy. If you don’t like Thai food then you will avoid all Thai restaurants, and if you’re really unreasonable you will then claim that all Thai food is bad. I see this all too often in the sff field, when entire sub-genres are dismissed or denigrated as fundamentally bad.

    I would rather know how it worked for the type of thing it is. If that makes sense.

  16. A couple of people who write reviews have discussed figuring that the author may well read the review.

    I think ultimately a review is, as you say, of most utility if the reviewer deals with the book and assumes that it is a thing of itself and not somehow psychically bound to the author.

    As a writer, I have noted both really well done criticism, and also times when the reviewer is just wrong or perhaps thinks they are making one point when they are in fact making a different one.

  17. When you say wrong, do you mean like getting plot points and character names wrong? I see a surprising amount of this even from reviews I think come from genuine readers (the folks on Amazon who mangle the blurb/PW review/etc. and then stick 5 stars on it are another ballgame entirely).

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  19. Yes, classic ones are getting plot points and character names wrong, although sometimes if a person reviews a book some time after they have read it that is just part of forgetting some of it.

    Another element of reviews that lies right on that knife edge is trickier to define, when a reviewer didn’t like something but defines their criticism through the wrong lens.

    Here’s an example from Cold Magic: Some readers really dislike Andevai in book one (understandably as he is not very likeable). When a review states: I did not like him, the hint of romance did not work for me, the author never sold me on the idea that Cat would find him attractive, I find the arrogant asshole trope to be overused and I didn’t it here either, etc — those to me are all perfectly valid reactions.

    But every once in a while a review will state “the romance felt tacked on.” Now obviously that reaction is theirs to own, and I don’t mean to deny or disparage a reading reaction (I have my own). But in fact the hint of romance, and most specifically his reactions, are present throughout the story; it’s just they’re seen from Cat’s point of view and she does not always know what she is seeing. But it is all there. So in that sense it seems to me that the review is missing the set up.

    Missing the set up is different than saying the set up didn’t work (for any given reader). Does that make sense?

  20. Hmm, I should start out by saying that I think people get books wrong all the time–it’s probably impossible to read a lot of what other people have to say about books you’ve read without coming away with the impression that some of them are nuts. And certainly some reviewers use a very high-handed tone to characterize their opinion of a book as the final say on the book’s objective quality. On the other hand, it would be awfully cumbersome to modify every statement one makes about a book with “I think” or “for me.” While I loved the romance in Cold Magic, I’m not sure I’d say somebody who said it “felt tacked on” was wrong per se–that seems to me like another way of saying that they thought it was annoying and unnecessary, rather than an insistence that there was no foreshadowing whatsoever.

    In general though, I think to be a good reviewer, one has to be able to sort out one’s own opinions from a book’s objective merits. I need to know when something works for me (or doesn’t) purely based on personal quirks and when an element is actually done well, or poorly. There are those reviewers who refuse to acknowledge taste as a factor–I think this is especially difficult for professional reviewers, because after all, they’re being paid to be the arbiter of what’s good and what’s not, not just to contribute one more opinion among many. But then there are folks who really write more “reactions” than “reviews,” because they’re either unable or unwilling to pass judgment beyond talking about how the book made them feel–which isn’t particularly helpful to other readers. The ideal is to be somewhere in the middle, although I suppose we all get it wrong sometimes.

  21. Replying here because the threading won’t let me reply to your last reply.

    Actually, I completely agree with you that reviews need not be burdened by “to me” or “I think.” And I genuinely have no trouble with readers not liking things (even if I’ve written them!) or with criticism in general or in the specific. I want the same respect shown to my opinion, and if I want that, then I must show it to others. Anyway, realistically, not every work or every nuance is going to work for every reader.

    Also, in my experience, people have very interesting perspectives and things readers say, whether positive or negative, can sometimes be really illuminating. In the aggregate, I have gotten some good information about my work from reading reviews when certain complaints or praises show up repeatedly in different contexts.

    So I guess I am talking less about reactions in general and more about what I would call structural underpinnings and also a related matter of intent or when a reviewer projects intent onto me. Now I admit that this is a trigger for me (when people in general–not at all limited to reviewers–who project intent onto me), so I will react far more strongly to a statement that “Elliott did X because Y” (a statement that I may know is wrong) than to a statement that “I really did not like this thing Elliott did” (because the prose was choppy or the characterization felt cliched or whatever but a criticism that isn’t projecting intent on me as the writer but rather analyzing the writing, structure, or whatever).

    So that’s where I am coming from. I can see how the words “tacked on” can be read the way you describe. I do tend to read them differently, since I identify “tacked on” as something that is not part of the structural foundation of a story but as an element added later on the surface of the story. However, I say this only as my own personal reaction; I don’t expect people to agree or disagree with me.

    And I need to clarify here, if it is not already clear, that I don’t consider reviews to be for me at all. With vanishingly rare exceptions (like this post) I try not to discuss things I have read in any public venue because I think it is, quite honestly, not my place to do so. Obviously I am going to have opinions on things people say if I choose to read reviews of my work, but that’s a matter I really on the whole think I as the writer need to keep private.

  22. Oh, and finally, I’m in complete agreement with what you say about reviews in general.

  23. When I lived in an English-speaking country, I would browse bookstores for new books (aside from picking up my long list of favorite authors). Moving to Spain meant losing that option so I turned to Amazon.

    For a while with my Kindle, I would download samples of all new books in a category every month then skim the excerpts for anything that interested me.

    That, however, ate up a lot of time, so I now rely on Twitter and Goodreads for word of mouth recommendations.

    As for reviews, I used to do mini reviews of the samples, mainly saying why a book didn’t grab my attention enough.

    And I never read other people’s reviews as I may not share tastes with the reviewers so the reviews are meaningless.

  24. Yes, that’s the thing about reviews: if you don’t share taste with them, then they aren’t helpful.

    re: Kindle browsing or, indeed, any online bookstore browsing: I find it really difficult to browse via online bookstores. Maybe it is too cumbersome, I’m not sure. But one of the biggest things I miss (we now have to drive 50 minutes to reach the nearest bookstore) is physical bookstore browsing. I feel like it is hard to find things that way any more (except in the library, whose selection is limited by other factors), and I miss it.

  25. Your answer makes a lot of sense to me, and I appreciate that it’s really hard for an author to discuss these things on the internet, because there’s much less leeway to criticize reviews and reviewers than the rest of us have.

    Thanks for the link–I think I had seen it before, but it answered the question I was about to ask next, which was “what if reviewers hedge these statements with words like ‘seems to’ so it doesn’t sound like we think we’re mind-readers?”

    This has made me think more about the constructions I use in my reviews. I tend to use “[Author’s Name] does X” and “the book does X” interchangeably. The first construction seems like it would feel much more personal to an author who happened to read it, and might come close to the line between speculating about an author’s intent and projecting.

  26. *Some* reviews are useless if you don’t know the reviewer’s taste. It depends on the review, how specific it is and how well you know what makes or breaks a book for you. If somebody says a book is “boring,” or “deeply moving,” or similar, yeah, that’s pretty useless, especially if they’re a stranger.

    On the other hand, a good review shares enough specific information about the book and where the reviewer is coming from that you don’t have to have a prior acquaintance with their taste. If someone quotes examples of the writing, compares the books to others that I’m familiar with, or discusses specific problems that I know are going to be a problem for me (e.g. all the female characters are simply accessories for the males), that tells me a lot.

    Although come to think of it, critical reviews by strangers tend to be more helpful than positive ones. That’s because it’s quite difficult to write a positive review that’s actually specific enough to let people know what’s good and bad about the book. Most positive reviews are fairly generic praise that doesn’t tell you much unless you know the person, but criticism tends to be specific. I know the problems other people often have with books that don’t generally bother me or are plusses for me (e.g. too much description, characters all have personality flaws, themes a bit heavy-handed, adult content) and the problems that are going to be deal-breakers for me (e.g. black-and-white characterization, sexism, clunky writing, lack of research or attention to detail).

    That said, I agree that reading a sample is the most foolproof way to figure out whether you’ll like something. Not perfect, but better than any other method I’ve found.

  27. I have some review sites I’ve begun reading precisely because they can discuss a book with enough information that I can get a sense of the book regardless of how closely the bloggers’ tastes mesh with my own. I value those sites.

    Do you have any particular favorite book blogging sites, Emma?

  28. I’m a big fan of having lots of reviews in one place, so I mostly read them on Goodreads and Amazon. Sorry I can’t be more help with recs.

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