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!