Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Should We Trust Customer Book Reviews?

Amazon customer reviewers are "at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated," says Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Dickstein's comment was part of a recent conversation among professional book critics on the future of book reviews, reported on in last week's Daily Beast by Jane Ciabattari, vice president and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.

Several participants raised concerns about the trend of customer reviews replacing reviews by professional reviewers who have literary qualifications. In particular they deplored the way opinion replaces analysis in customer reviews. In Dickstein's words, "Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence."

We agree. We find ourselves bewildered by some customer comments.

An example. My daughter Laurel's Kindle novella, Looking for Ward, is a short tale of love and loyalty written mostly in the form of emails back and forth among the characters. Last week, Amazon made Looking for Ward free to match promotions we were doing on other sites. Over 20,000 readers have downloaded the book and a few have commented. Most comments are positive like this one:
"This novella drew me right in from page one....I liked this book and would recommend it as a fun read."

But Looking for Ward also got this comment:
"This format is my absolute most unfavorite in the entire universe. So much so that it annoys the bleep out of me. Honestly, leave the email messages and memo formats at the office. To me, it's just too annoying a format and distracting."

Okay. You don't have to like the format. But the product description for Looking for Ward says, "The story is told through a series of e-mails," and explains that Laurel originally sent it in email installments to fans of her chic lit novel, Following My Toes. Even if you didn't see that information and downloaded the book by mistake, it's a free ebook. So why complain rather than just deleting it?

Even worse are customer comments that make you wonder if they are talking about a different book.

Most of the customer reviews of my  mystery novel, Too Near the Edge, say things like this:
"With an unusual and quirky cast of characters, this book kept me up reading all night long. I definitely enjoyed the myriad of twists and turns, as well as the author's writing style. Overall, this was a home run!"

But last week a customer wrote:
"The first issue is that it begins really slowly, for the first few pages it drags in building up the plot. The author made the rough choice of writing in the present tense, which is never the best option unless the author is a master. It's just very limiting."

I could simply tell myself that every customer is entitled to his/her own opinion--which I truly believe. But I did not make the "rough choice" of writing in the present tense. Too Near the Edge is written entirely in the past tense. And, as for beginning slowly, a character falls to his death from the rim of the Grand Canyon in the first paragraph. Maybe this customer was having a bad day and needed to vent somewhere, which can happen with a professional reviewer as well, but at least a professional reviewer would get the facts right.