Friday, August 14, 2015

Not-A-Review: Crit Cultures

I find that I want to think and write about the books, films, and whatnot I experience, but I also find that I am reluctant to do so. While trying to understand my own ambivalence, I realized that at least one of the factors is the nature of social-media review and criticism.
I'll start by saying I recognize that social-media and the technologies that underpin them have changed what and how we encounter and read things. (I use the vague "things" here because "books, films, and television" is too circumscribed and a complete list would be stupid-long: . . . museum exhibits, software, tags on railroad cars, political advertising, closets. . . like I said the list is stupid, long, and stupid-long.)
To begin though, I'm going to focus on a few institutions and "crit cultures" using books as examples.

Commercial Vendors: Amazon is a an example.
"Reviews" here serve as least two functions: 1) They help advertise and move product; 2) They provide an engagement point for the consumer. To be blunt, both of these are essentially about making money for the vendor, but they operate in different ways.
The first purpose raises the exposure of a product to prospective customers. This is hit-and-miss in my experience. Algorithms crunch purchase and search history data and offer things it imagines will please you. Sometimes I just want to pat those little algorithms on the head and say, I can see you are trying very hard, dear. Maybe a nap?  (I'm still trying to figure out why the algorithm at Pinterest thought I should put Venus Williams on my Dead Boyfriends page.) Even without the confounding glitchyness, there is a deep disconnect between my heart's desires and the ratings/reviews on commercial sites.
The second role of the reviews on commercial sites is to provide an outlet for customer frustration: "The delivery was left on my porch and it rained and the book got soggy." or "This arrived late!" or "I haven't read this book, but I understand it is bad. Buy my friend's book XXX because it is good."
I haven't left a review on Amazon or any other site for a very long time. I'm not certain that they can achieve the tipping point that changes the "rating" of a book.
I won't even get into the "paid review" racket.

Consumer Communities: GoodReads is an example, but I could also cite YELP etc.
The culture depends on the community—that must be admitted. There is a difference between one 4çhan thread and another. Sometimes there be dragons. Sometimes there be pissants. I vacated GoodReads a while ago (four? five years?) for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was only giving five stars to the books I listed. Second—going to verify the truth of my claims. Verified—the books I was evaluating were esoteric and not exactly GoodReads fodder. I wasn't contributing to the community, and I understood that was likely to be true in the future. This was way before I published any of my own books, BTW.
 via GIPHY
Occasionally I still visit GoodReads, but not to find books I might like to read. My interests are more perverse. Worst thing I've seen develop lately: GIF based reviews that don't mention any specifics about the book under discussion.  Feels a bit like YouTube poops, but those reviews are not, to me at least, useful.

Book Bloggers: I've been online long enough to see these evolve. Some of them are triumphs. There are some book bloggers I will always love, not because they gave me glowing reviews, but because they reveal who they are and why they read. There is something exquisitely personal and fundamentally trustworthy about my best-beloved bloggers. They make me a better reader and writer.

Click-Baiters: I don't even know if these mouse-turdists belong on this list. I get that they are paid by the click and that YA fiction, in particular, is clickbait, but the sensationalism and reductionism is. . . It  makes me want to lie down with a bottle of Jack is what. Most recently, an expert on cookbooks on . . .  No. I can't. I just can't. I won't give these people the clicks.

Industry Reviewers: These are the publications that have enough readership, heritage, and clout to change the course of the general readership. They help shape library collections. They compile best-sellers lists. Some of them are straight-up artists of opinion. (Pauline Kael and Dorothy Parker are good examples of dead ones.)

I'm running out of steam, so I'll bring this to a close. As I write about things I want to be personal, insightful, and honest about my own subjectivities.

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