Monday musings on Australian literature: Social media reviewing

I’ve been a bit distracted lately by life and so missed an article which appeared a few days ago in the online journal, The Conversation. Luckily, there’s Twitter, so I didn’t miss it entirely! Isn’t social media grand? Except, of course, when you botch it. And this is where this article I nearly missed comes in …

Written by Jane Messer of Macquarie University, it asks, perhaps a little too cutely, “Should authors Rushdie to judgment as book reviewers?” The article springboards from a recent brouhaha involving Salman Rushdie giving “public 1-, 2- and 3-star ratings to books by well-known and esteemed writers such as Kingsley Amis, the late father of his friend Martin Amis, and Hermione [I think she may have meant Harper] Lee” on GoodReads. He was not a popular man, but claims that he didn’t realise his ratings were public.

However, my focus today is not Mr Rushdie, but social media reviewing. Messer quotes Charlotte Durack, Marketing Executive at Pan MacMillan Australia, who told her that GoodReads “is the most important site at which authors should have a presence, ‘as this is where the majority of reviewers live'”. Social media, Messer says, offers authors the opportunity “to engage with readers and the industry” in all sorts of discussions.

Messer’s focus in her article is authors reviewing authors. She continues:

The negative reaction by other authors to Rushdie’s book ratings demonstrates how sensitive writers can be to the public discussion of the literature of their peers or literary antecedents. But why shouldn’t an author as reader, or expert reader, give however many stars they like to a book?

Stars without reviews can be “glib” she says, and GoodReads, unlike Amazon, does not provide “ethics guidelines or even tips or warnings”. I must say that I tend to be bemused by these sorts of guidelines. Should we have to be told that it’s not ethical, if you’re an author, to post anonymous negative reviews of other authors (or anonymous positive reviews of yourself)? (What is wrong with us that we need to be told this?)

Anyhow, Messer’s point is that writers are readers too – and the literary world, she says, encourages critics and reviewers to be courageous when speaking publicly. She quotes a number of sites as supporting this philosophy: Sydney Review of Books, the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge (woo hoo!), and the Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. She continues:

These relatively new initiatives are having influence and impact, by expanding the depth and range of reviews of books and writing, and a diversity of reviewers, among whom are authors (my emphasis).

She’s certainly right about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge where several authors – such as Annabel Smith, Amanda Curtin, Jessica White and Jane Rawson, to name a few – are among our reviewers. The challenge team greatly appreciates their contribution to and engagement in the process. The more perspectives we have, surely the better for Australian literature – and authors, I find, can often have quite a different perspective. I love hearing their thoughts about how a book is put together – they know intimately the challenges of getting a plot to work, of making characters engaging, of not upsetting readers with incorrect facts!

Social media reviewing is, of course, a mixed bag – and users need to recognise that many (most, even) of the reviews they read are by amateurs who vary greatly in interest and skill, and can, in fact, have different ideas about what reviewing is. It’s not all great, but it’s not all bad either. Indeed, George Orwell suggested in his essay “Confessions of a book reviewer” (my review) that amateurs could be fine reviewers of novels.

Anyhow, I’m rather glad that this article came to my attention now, because it has given me the opportunity to announce that the Australian Women Writers Challenge has just made available the ability to search all reviews (some in blogs, some on GoodReads) posted by challenge participants since the beginning of 2013. Reviews posted in 2012, the first year of the Challenge, will be added soon. The search page is still being tweaked, and sometimes a bug or two appears, but we’d love readers to start using it and give us feedback. You can access the page here.

Now back to Messer who concludes her article by saying that:

Authors need to be very digitally literate to make the best use of their voices.

But that, I’d say, is true for all social media users. The consequences of digital illiteracy may not be as dramatic for us “ordinary” readers, but they are there. Best to be wise before the fact!

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Social media reviewing

  1. It’s just a week or so ago that I read an article by Helon Habila (Nigerian author of Waiting for an Angel) in which he said it was disappointing that there were fewer authors reviewing each others works these days. He felt that in the early phase of Nigerian post colonial writing, authors had supported each other’s work, not in the sense of positive reviews but in the sense of interrogating the ideas in the writing, which helped to create a robust literary culture. So clearly he thinks that authors have a lot to contribute to the review culture.

    • Thanks Lisa … that’s wonderful (and fascinating) to hear. I think quite a few of our authors here do review each other, and do a nice job of it. It’s one of the things I commented on in one of my early AWW Challenge round-ups, but I’m not an author, so it’s interesting to here an author argue for it.

  2. I didn’t see the article but I did hear about kerfuffle with Rushdie. I thought it was kind of funny and don’t think it’s a problem for authors to “rate” literature past or present. Rushdie likes to be a bit, um, inflammatory, so I’d take his ratings with a grain of salt. Still, I would like to see more authors writing about each other’s works, poking holes in the overrateds and bringing to attention more of the underrateds. Also, reflecting more on what they think literature should do and be and why. These days everyone seems so worried about ruffling feathers.

    • Yes, good points Stefanie. I suspect some raised eyebrows at Rushdie’s statement that he didn’t know his ratings would be public. I can understand that he mightn’t have known, but also the opposite. It’s fascinating that his ratings caused such fuss …

      I think with authors, there are two pressures – one is fear of ruffling feathers but the other could also be wanting to support your fellow creators. They know best what a tough road it is. There’s a fine line though … I think you can critique constructively, pointing out what works and what doesn’t work, without being insulting or purposefully crushing, can’t you?

  3. Don’t know if you remember a scandal involving Amazon reviews a few years back when authors who’s been using fake names and trashing books were revealed through some sort of computer glitch. It seemed to be a very mean spirited thing to do.

    • Yes, Guy, I was alluding to that when I referred to anonymous reviews but didn’t want to focus on the negative here. Unethical, and mean, whereas what I see mostly here is a lot of supportiveness.

  4. I read that article too, then looked up the reviews of Jane Messer’s books on Goodreads. I was surprised, given her argument, that there are so few. I still review fiction for the Age and SMH, but am very conscious that, when reviewing, I put on my ‘reviewer’s hat’. I’m being paid for an opinion on a finished product, not to give feedback on a work-in-progress, where comments about the nuts and bolts of the creative process might be appropriate. That said, I’m sure I do approach the task differently from someone who is not also fiction writer. I can’t forget the blood, sweat and tears that goes into any creative effort. And lastly, I think the biggest and most significant contribution to opening up the discussion about literature, and to bringing authors and readers closer together, is being made on blogs like this one, and Lisa’s, Guy’s and Stephanie’s, not on Goodreads or Amazon.

  5. Hi Sue, last week you were discussing the launching of Marion Halligan’s book by Carmel. Both authors and obviously good friends. I often see books that have a recommendation on the cover or back of a book from another author. I have seen Helen Garner’s name sometimes on books she recommends the public to read. Usually young new authors. It maybe only one line, but enough to encourage me to usually read the book. I also like it when an author mentions another author in the story they has written. I am reading An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. He mentions Helen Garner in the story; and the novel is recommended by Colm Toibin on the cover.

    • Good point Meg … I have been thinking about that recently too. I think there’s a thin line sometimes where an author is acknowledged as a mentor in the writing and then has provided a blurb. Is that too close I wonder?

  6. I found Goodreads impossible to manage. I also found that their ‘customer service’ area appears not to exist; for I was totally unable to find anyone to help me understand how the site works.

  7. I used to review for AWW, but I’m not doing it this year. That’s because I found it too difficult to balance reviewing honestly with concern for other authors’ feelings. I just don’t have the fine-tuning skills needed. If my reviews were brilliant I might feel differently, but I don’t think they offer readers enough to be worth causing pain or anger (particularly in such a small, close community) for other authors. So no more!

    • Jane, I have this worry in a couple of cases… by the time Susan Johnson’s My 100 Lovers came out, we’d had too many long personal and private email conversations and also a friendly lunch together for me to review her book. I would have felt compromised if I’d done it. But there was a simple solution with that one because it had been widely reviewed so I wrote a post explaining why I wasn’t doing it myself and linked to all the reviews I could find.
      But in a similar situation with a forthcoming debut novel that isn’t likely to be reviewed as much, it’s much more awkward. I’d really like to give that author whatever publicity my blog offers, but I don’t think I ought to review it myself. A guest review is a possibility, but guest reviewers are few and far between.

      • I remember that situation Lisa. There is a fine line, and I think some disclosure is worth making if you have met and feel you are getting to know and relate to an author. I’ve been starting to think about how formal such disclosure should be versus some indication in the text of the review. As you say, you want to give exposure to new or under publicised authors but … how to do it in these circumstances is the challenge.

    • Fair enough Jane. I can understand that. This year is so young I hadn’t really noticed you’d stopped … Or just assumed your focus was elsewhere. It’s a shame as you contributed wonderfully, but it’s not worth it if it causes you worry.

      • Hermione Lee is a well known writer in UK (she wrote a very fine biography of Virginia Woolf). Anyone reading Orwell’s hilarious piece would be left with very few illusions about the business of book reviewing.

        • Thanks Ian. Ah yes, I have heard of that biography (and I think she did one of Edith Wharton?). I believe, though, that it was Harper Lee that Rushdie rated (from the article of the story that I read) though maybe he rated Hermione too?

          Totally agree re Orwell’s essay. I love reading him!

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