May 16, 2015

50 Shades of Hypocrisy

Our debt to Wallace
I've only ever written one book review for print publication. That experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth because in the course of that book review, I had to mention a sad fact that most people would rather not discuss. This is nothing new: speaking the truth often illuminates human weaknesses, shortcomings and failures that we might be happier forgetting about.

The Bad
In 1981, Isaac Asimov wrote, only partly joking, that writers "...fall into two groups: 
1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 
2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review."

Netscape Gold
Here, I want to explore online book reviews and what I call "nonreviews" of books. What are the ethics of posting commentaries about books on the internet?

I still fondly remembering when I discovered Netscape Navigator. That was when navigating the world wide web suddenly became a pleasure rather than an irksome task.  Netscape Navigator was soon followed by Netscape Gold, which allowed WYSIWYG webpage creation. From that point on, I could not escape the fact that it was simply easier to place my commentary about books online rather than trying to publish a review of a book in print. So, in the mid-1990s I became caught up in the joy of sharing opinions and ideas via the internet.

Robots of Dawn
I've never been all that interested in writing book reviews. In fact, I prefer to write what I call "nonreviews" (recent example). I view the conventional format of printed book reviews as a relic of the pre-internet era. Of course, there are still many people who try to write conventional book reviews and most of these end up on the internet. Most of these "conventional" reviews are of very little use to me. If I'm reading commentary on a book, I want the commentator to drill down to some specific feature in the book, explain that feature clearly and then give the commentator's opinion of that feature. Spoilers? I love spoilers, particularly if they save me from having to read some long-winded and tedious book that is not ever going to take me to a place I want to go.

Let's be explicit: what is a "bad review"? For a science fiction author like Asimov, a bad review of a book that he wrote might involve a reviewer who does not seem to have understood the book (and possibly never even read the whole book) and who says discouraging things about the book, things that will scare away potential readers who might actually enjoy the book.

I don't think Asimov would have taken offense at thoughtful book reviews that would help potential readers decide if they should invest time and money in a book. In this spirit, we could define a "perfect book review" as a short account of a book that allows the people who will enjoy the book to recognize that they should purchase and read the book while simultaneously allowing everyone who would not appreciate and enjoy that book to avoid it.

Yes, I have high standards for what constitutes a "perfect book review". Creating such a review might require a god-like ability to know my thoughts and my literary tastes and the ability to perfectly communicate in just a few words a summary of the book's contents that will allow me to know if I should read that book or not. Most book reviews fall far short of meeting this high standard.

The Good
 In the absence of perfect book reviews, I have come to value detailed accounts of books that save me from having to read them. Let's face it: there are far too many books in this world. We can't read even 1% of the available books. Lucky for us, the internet gives access to millions of descriptions of books that spare us from having to read them.

The Gray
Book authors bleed from the cut of bad reviews and readers dearly love a good review that saves one from trying to read a book that will not be enjoyed (or finished).  Here are some possible sources of a "bad review" that will irritate the author and not be helpful to readers: 1) someone who never read the book that they review, 2) someone who did not understand the book, 3) someone who thinks it is amusing to mislead people about the nature of a book.

In 1981, Asimov provided a six point, two page-long guide for how to avoid writing bad book reviews. His suggestions cover conventional items like #1 and #2 in the previous paragraph, but item #3, above, only came into focus with the development of the internet and with the rise of internet trolls.

One of the best selling Sci Fi books
About 20,000,000 copies sold.
A book review should be a thoughtful effort to provide a service to book readers. With the growth of the world wide web and "informal commentary" about books, there has been a decline in the likelihood that any given discussion of a book will be in the format of a conventional review. There are many reasons for this, but I'm particularly interested in one: with the rapid growth in information available to readers via the internet, there has been an escalation in marketing hype from book publishers. In reaction, there is now a need for commentary from book lovers that can deflate the hype.

Numbers tell the story. A "publishing success" can be defined as a book that only a small fraction of the book reading public will ever read. For any given book, no matter how good it is, most people will not enjoy reading it. Publishers must resist the temptation to trick people into buying books. Publishers must concentrate on the task of competing to attract the attention of readers who could enjoy a particular book but who are too busy doing other things and who never get around to buying the book. Cue the hype.

Me, Myself and I
Embodied mind. Nails it.
Most of my written commentaries about books exist on this blog and most of them were written for an audience of 1, me, since this blog serves to help me sort out my own thinking. If someone else benefits from one of my "nonreviews" then that is icing on the cake.

My "nonreview" commentaries about books explicitly violate Asimov's rules for writing a good book review. In particular, Asimov's rule #6 is that a book review should not be about the book reviewer. Most of my "nonreviews" are all about me and my personal literary interests and concerns.

Study guide to the mind.
However, I did for a while experiment with sharing some of my commentaries on books by posting them in more widely-read internet forums than this blog. That was many years ago, but those old online commentaries still haunt me. Occasionally some desperate author reads one of those old commentaries that I wrote and they contact me, seeking a review of some new book that they wrote. This has allowed me to enter into a gray area that Asimov wrote about in 1981.

Asimov described an uncomfortable situation in which he was asked to read a book that had been written by an author who was an "important writer". Asimov was pressured to provide a "marketing blurb": a quote about the book. Sadly, Asimov found the book to be seriously flawed, so much so that he could not even finish reading it. When I find myself in this position then I prefer to live by the motto: if you don't have anything good to say, then don't say anything.

Evolution and memes
However, as Asimov pointed out, there can be good educational reasons to provide commentary on a flawed book. Asimov felt tempted to explain what was wrong with the book that he had been asked to comment on.  At the same time, Asimov had to admit that he would feel like a hypocrite were he to write critically about a book. He asked, "How can I say unkind things about someone else when I detest having someone else say unkind things about me?" Call this "Asimov's dilemma".

When confronted by "Asimov's dilemma", our natural desire to speak the truth raises its ugly head. Sometimes we are compelled to speak the truth even when we might be more comfortable not saying anything. In my case, I find that I can always imagine someone who would enjoy a particular book. The population of people who could enjoy some terrible books might be very small (maybe only the author's mother), but I can find something positive to say about any book. I suspect that this approach (just say one positive thing) is a common solution to "Asimov's dilemma" and a source of many blurbs that appear on book covers.

Sadly, I feel hypocritical when I myself produce such quotable blurbs because I know that they can be taken out of context and used to trick book readers. For example, if I write, "Publication of this book will provide much joy to the author's mother," then I expect to see myself quoted as saying "...publication of this book will provide much joy...".

"It is not a lie to keep
the truth to oneself. "
I love coming across "nonreviews" on the internet, particularly ones that say, "I never read this book, but..." followed by some spirited push-back against the marketing hype that was put out in an attempt to sell the book (example). Sadly, #nonreview is not used very much on Twitter. I think we all need to speak up more when we have constructive criticism to offer. We help build a path towards better reading experiences when we criticize books, writers and publishers, even if we are softhearted and would rather only say "nice" things about writers and their books.

Keeping the truth to yourself might not be a lie, but it also does not generate a conversation that will lead to change and a better future for book lovers.

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