Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Book Reviewer's Conundrum

Book reviewers and bibliophiles worldwide remain divided on two complex questions that fuel and pertain to their work and love of literature.
1.       Why do we review books?
2.       What is the best way to rate a book?
These two questions, aside from a pure love for literature and reading, drive the industry today.
Purpose of Book Reviews
Initially, one would assume that as a book reviewer it is the obligation and responsibility of reviewers to take on any book they accept. Although true, it is but one approach. What is the greater disservice to the public, not writing a negative review resulting in hundreds of dissatisfied consumers spending their time reading a poor novel or never getting to that new author on your reading list whose work is brilliant and reaches thousands because of a positive review? To many, including myself, this is quite the predicament. However, W.H. Auden, I believe, puts it best when he states, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” Take a moment to really let that soak in. The significance of this quotation lay in the breadth and reality that many works of art and great masterpieces are never discovered or truly valued, but works not worth remembering are just that; not remembered over time.
Therefore, I now think it clear that I, as a reviewer have a responsibility to both warn patrons about negative products and also laud works that don’t receive near enough attention. If a choice has to be made, as some irrational reviewers have predicated, I find it my personal responsibility to readers that I review and introduce a positive work over a lackluster piece that will be forgotten in a matter of time without my involvement anyways. Furthermore, it is a bit sadistic and shameful to take part in anything that can tarnish or hurt another’s reputation. This assessment must and should be made aware to all that review and consider ‘positive reviewers’ as nothing more than ‘marketers and profiteers’. It is far from the truth. The reviewer’s greatest duty is to write and inform authors and consumers about the quality and significance of books. The greatest crime committed in that confidence and trust by consumers given to reviewers is the failure to acknowledge and make them aware of truly marvelous literature.
Some of you are now considering the thought that the aforementioned is a utopian ideal. Not all reviewers are alike and the majority of reviews found out there are not from reputable and professional reviewers. Websites have had frequent issues with authors glorifying their own work or hiring others to do the same. To contrast, some authors and reviewers deconstruct books in order to tarnish a competitor’s reputation. This is a reality and I am not so na├»ve to believe it does not happen. Despite all that, I have faith that reviewers, overall, seek to provide readers and consumers with accurate reviews to help in their buying decisions and development of future works. What choice do we have? The freedom to review and read whatever you like is more significant than the censorship of the whole lot for a minority’s obstructive actions.
Ratings and Book Reviews
To this point, I have discussed the validity of reviewing methodology without even so much as mentioning a rating system aside from a formal written critique. Large online websites such as Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes & Noble use customer reviewing systems in which nearly all can post reviews based on a five star system. Many issues arrive from this style of rating printed material. The lack of limitations and easy accessibility regarding this rating system style is a blessing and a curse. All customers have access to writing their own reviews. This generates a vast amount of reviews to help customers in their buying decision, but amateur reviews can often be dishonest at the worst or misguided but true at best.
Customers and others can post reviews and select stars in this fashion:
1 Star - I hate it
2 Star - I dislike it
3 Star - It’s OK
4 Star - I like it
5 Star - I love it
In order for the review to be posted or at least submitted for publishing, 20 words or a video must be submitted and a star rating MUST be submitted. Therein lay the real issue. Is a five star rating system the best way to rate books and printed materials? Most reviewers and critics say no. Simply submitting a star rating for a book does little justice for the author, nor does it aid consumers in deciding on the purchase; at least it shouldn’t. Plainly put, customers look at reviews to decide whether or not to read or purchase the product in question. While some look only at the stars very quickly, most readers, after taking the time to click the reviews link, will go through a couple of the reviews. Depending on where they are at in the decision/buying process they will either find the shorter concise reviews or take the time to methodically go over the longer reviews with greater depth. Most importantly, this process saves them time and sometimes money in the long run.
The greater irony is that professional and reputable websites like industry titans, The New York Times and so forth formulate written critiques. Their exempt status is due to, for lack of a better phrase, no true rating system. It is ironic that the best and most respectable reviewers in the business are not expected to give the books they review a rating or number of stars when consumers navigating major websites gravitate toward the number of stars like a moth to a lamp. On the contrary, it is entirely sufficient for reviewing giants to use their words alone to either flatter and champion literary works or tear down their very foundations so all that is left are a few sputtering words that fall upon deaf ears. Many blogs do the same and maintain an exceptional identity as scholarly and well thought out.
Furthermore, the stars seem to be more of a point of controversy than a true value as evidenced by descriptions for the separate ratings. ‘Like it’, ‘Love it’, and ‘Hate it’ are subjective, and often times, vague terms when associated with literature. Despite opaque meanings and terms from the eyes of the literary world, the five-star ratings are easy for customers to understand and with a large enough quantity of ratings average out to a reasonable rating. Arguments (some have proven to be factual) have arisen about publishers and authors creating accounts in order to lionize or defame a book in the rating.
Should one and two star reviews be given on these web sites and considered credible? Yes, of course they should be. If a credible reviewer finds they have the time, energy, and desire to write and post a negative review, more power to them. Customers truly appreciate saving money when valid points are made regarding the inaccuracies and poor writing of a book or novel. There are both substantial and insubstantial 1-5 star ratings across the web. It is more important to keep consumers informed and educated regarding how to sift through poorly written reviews. That is something that has yet to really be undertaken and would most likely need to be the work of website moderators/editors than credible reviewers themselves.
Until that day comes, readers need to be made aware of how to analyze reviews on major websites. This can be done by asking questions and looking for certain topics. To generalize (there are always exceptions!), most online credible reviews on these websites will contain a short plot summary, some sort of purpose or directive, a critique of the author and writing style, and an overall decision as to whether they would recommend the work to readers and sometimes even a certain audience. Look for those things book readers!
Regarding the stars, analyzing that can be a bit trickier. I would hypothesize that the ratings would follow a standard distribution or deviation (sorry for getting statistical). I would presume that if an experiment was conducted looking at the number of ratings for an author and their work would show the following results: a mainstream and well-marketed work with a reputable author will receive more ratings and will more than likely find a fair value in the law of averages whereas a lesser-known book with fewer reviews will be skewed in one direction. In other words, the more reviews a work has the better chance that the average stars shown at the purchase screen are honest.
Alternative Rating Systems
The argument as to whether or not books should be rated on a five-star system seems a bit too late at this point due to how Amazon and others have become ingrained in the lifestyles of consumers and reviewers alike. However, there are alternatives to the traditional system that can be utilized by reviewers and customers alike.
One alternative may be to extend the stars into a seven-point scale which gives a more accurate account of how the customer or reviewer feels. For instance:
1: Poorly Written and Don’t Read it
2: Pretty bad, but not as bad as it could have been
3: Slightly bad
4: No preference or sentiments
5: Pretty good
6: Quite good, but not as good as it can get
7: Well written and a Must Read
This seven-point scale offers more options while maintaining clear and defined parameters in each category. A ten-point scale can leave too much room for ambiguity and categories too close in meaning. However, this method is simply an extension of the current methodology and offers little in terms of finding a voice and rating system singular and effective with literature and books.
What may be the answer is an edgy alternative more like a survey than rating. If customers and reviewers are presented with a series of yes or no questions, with values attributed to the answers, a final tally could be assessed and attached to the novel/book. What would this value carry or mean? Whatever you like; quills, bookmarks, two thumbs up. Any sort of value would be adequate so long as the professional and literary world agree upon it. This series of questions may include inquiries like, “Would you say the book was poorly written and difficult to understand?” or “Was the depicted setting vivid and fitting for the plot?”. I am not the best source as to what these questions should be nor do I claim to be an authority on the topic, but it is an intriguing idea and could transform the way reviewers can rate and apply a value to a novel without having to decide between ‘like’ and ‘really like’. [1]
It is evident, from the two predicaments facing professional and amateur reviewers alike, that although the issues are complex, solutions are in the making and final resolutions can come from new and innovative thinking. The introduction of the internet and its impact on daily life and globalism has truly changed the world. Reviews are more readily available and this has meant an exponential growth in the number of reviewers. Rating systems need to be reevaluated and customized to the characteristics of books. A five star rating system in which the same standards are given to a lamp and a book should not be the case. Furthermore, reviewers must ask themselves why they write reviews and if that reason is a worthy of the authors who take so much time to write the works and consumers that spend hard-earned money on the product.
Do your reviews emphasize the importance of literature in today’s world and its role in educating, entertaining, and remembering what our minds alone cannot retain? Do your reviews identify and recognize the efforts of unsung authors? Do you aid authors by pointing out methods for improvement and ways to enhance their style and content? Do you think about your role and importance in the publishing process?

[1] L.D. Mackay and R.T. White, “A Note on a Possible Alternative to Likert Scales” (http://www.springerlink.com/content/h4n8612106265812/)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wikipedia's Ascent

Paper due tomorrow. You don’t have a single inkling as to what Transcendentalism is. What do you do? Easy.
1.       Click on the URL bar
2.       Type in google.com (or Bing for all you bingers out there or whatever search engine suits you best)
3.       In the search bar type t_r_a_n_s_c_e_n_d_e_n_t_a_l_i_s_m and press enter
4.       In the first three or four results will be Transcendentalism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5.       Click on this link and voila, now in front of you is the beginnings of your knowledge regarding the topic
Now, this isn’t a how-to on the methodology of using Google, Wikipedia, or any other website. Far from it. This is a demonstration depicting what the vast majority of people do on the internet to find information about a topic, person, or other matter. It is remarkable how Wikipedia has transformed the pathology of research and obtaining new knowledge. The marketing and logistical effort by the organization/website is beyond remarkable; especially considering the extent and lengths it has gone to.
Look at the past couple days and imagine the impact Wikipedia’s 24-hour blackout has had on your life. Did you panic without being able to find that piece of information? Did you just go to an alternative website to find the information? Or, did you read up and try to figure out what was going on and why Wikipedia was blacked out? Probably the latter. It truly has become ingrained into our lifestyles and methodology regarding the retrieval of information and knowledge.
A few years ago, the stigma attached to Wikipedia seemed insurmountable. Teachers, administrators, and scholars had placed a vendetta on the website. Were they right? Partially. Information could be submitted to the website regarding just about anything. This led to both odd pages and odd bits of information found within topics that didn’t seem to fit; even some inaccuracies were included. Often if you check the citation for an item on Wikipedia, it is word for word from that source. These questionable practices have resulted in a standoff throughout the years.
However, now we are past that. Wikipedia has easily replaced traditional encyclopedias. How has it done this? The expansion of the internet into everyday life, Wikipedia’s own tireless effort to encompass all subjects, and their webpage often being the first result when utilizing search engines has meant that the public has literally been force fed. This access to such a vast amount of information has not only astonished the public, but also taken it by storm. It is here to stay as well (unless government intervention and limitations has a say).
Onto the larger topic and prevailing question in all our minds. Is Wikipedia a valid source to look for accurate information and what is academia’s take on it? I do not pretend to speak for either Wikipedia or ‘Academia’ but more than likely scholars use or are at least acquainted with Wikipedia. Do not confuse this with approval. Many teachers and professors think Wikipedia is a great website to start research on a subject or for a paper, but is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to that research. It should be treated as a starting point where the information can be used to point in directions toward other more scholarly articles, authors, and journals. In other words, the only think they dislike about the website is when it shows up at the bottom of or end to a research paper. Don’t cite Wikipedia in your research article. To reiterate, it shows a lack of effort and disrespect for peers and teachers. In this way you can gain great leads for your works and stay in the graces of those who most likely go to Wikipedia first to see if that material was used.
Scholars and academia may frown or remain uncertain of Wikipedia because the knowledge it provides is at its best basic and simple in its meaning and intentions. Wikipedia seeks to bring knowledge to the public, not answer or resolve dilemmas that even scholars themselves dispute and complicate with alternative methods and significance. Often the information provided comes from submitters that should not be considered experts in their field, and sometimes have little knowledge of the field at all! Academia must come to terms with the website much like the public is now coming to terms with the internet and newer technologies. Markets and lifestyles must be rearranged and adjusted to provide for newer technologies. It is a matter of acclimation and coming to terms with a new source of readily available information.
The amount of information that can now be found on the web is incredible. Wikipedia is not the only source, but it is one of the largest and most renowned. If you plan on utilizing the information provided there, I only ask that you question the validity of it much like you should question any information you come upon on the web or even in person. Use common sense and if all else fails hit up the library and open up one of those big encyclopedias! They sure are fun to go through!
*This is an Opinion piece...take my words for what they are...just words

~ Kaptica

Monday, January 16, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Loneliness and Chatrooms Never Mix

Photo Attributed to authordenisebaer.com

Denise Baer makes the transition to novels and suspense in Net Switch. This psychological thriller follows Chicagoan Sydney Hayes, a seemingly nominal component of the working world. Her loneliness and a blizzard result in a chat room conversation and a tragic relationship that follows her across the country. Her trials and tribulations include a mental institution, murder, a stalker, and more. Plot twists and tragedies are abundant and readers are definitely left guessing throughout.
Ms. Baer writes in the first person perspective in the guise of journal entries by various characters; Sydney being the primary point of view. The novel focuses primarily on the plot with little attention given to much else. However, this most likely is a conscious decision of the author and can be consistent with the genre. It would not be much of a thriller if all the characters’ secrets were revealed from the start! Some word choices seem out of place and plain, but otherwise the style and writing are above par.

The development and depiction of Sydney by Ms. Baer is spot on. She wanted to create a flawed and insecure character and was successful. Readers will most likely find themselves emotionally angry and dumbfounded by the protagonist and her decisions. It is a struggle at first to relate to her, but is intended. Sydney is a character that creates feelings of both empathy and apathy; a walking oxymoron. This does well to display the dynamics and complexity of her character which deserves attention.
Despite all its strengths, there are some concerns. Ms. Baer’s depiction of policemen throughout the novel is unnerving and throws up a few red flags. The majority of officers manage to ignore, ridicule, or inspire fear for our heroine. This negative portrayal will not inspire confidence in readers about law enforcement, but it is important to note that in many professions there are those that under and overachieve. Perhaps the author intends to warn readers about the pitfalls of blind faith in institutions that the public relies on? To nitpick, the constant hammering of certain phrases in a different font hammers the point across; nearly to the verge of annoyance.

The writing style takes some getting used to, but begins to flow after only a few pages. This novel is a must read for thrill-seekers and fans of psychological journeys. Sexual content does make an appearance, but is far from distasteful. This genre and style is truly unique and stands apart. I cannot wait to see the reception for the novel and for more works from Ms. Baer. Exceptional writing with a strong finish!