09 July, 2010

The Bigger they Come...

A number of SF/F titles this year have had a certain amount of... momentum behind them before hitting market. Call it hype, publicity, expectation, buzz, whatever you will, they have a had a lot of it. For some of those titles the hype led to a feeding frenzy, hitting el numero uno on the NYTimes Bestseller list, ect. For others, the process of hype backfired leaving a trail of devastating reviews and disappointed readers.

The question I have been struggling with is whether to quietly sweep these books under the rug after their fall from grace or showcase then in all their mediocrity. A majority of book bloggers keep yearly TOP 10 lists - is there a reason no one keeps DO NOT READ lists? It seems these would have almost as much value as top ten lists and the process of building them is virtually identical. For the most part reviewers aren't afraid of posting negative reviews, so why are there no WORST lists?

Do you think these lists would have any value, and if so why are there none out there now?

10 comments:

Sam Strong said...

For myself, I'd quite like to see such lists. An Amazon review average below four stars is generally enough to put me off. There are too many books and I've not got nearly enough time and money to consider wasting any.

That said, I think you'd have to be supremely confident in your reviewing credentials, as bad reviews on blogs seem to be considered bad form.

I think it comes down to personal vs. group opinion. On Amazon you're part of the crowd and there's a whole lot of other reviews to balance your own. As a blogger you're in a position of power.

Anonymous said...

No such lists because you reviewers wouldn't get any free books, it's that simple. Payola! Worst reviews amount to I couldn't get into it, maybe someone else can.
Bob

Adam said...

I think it would be apropos to a "Buyer Beware" list in something like Consumer Reports. It's a good idea. Books don't come cheap.

Alec said...

@ Sam

I agree that it would be a great way to save money and time, hence the proposal. I do like the distinction you draw between an amazon review and a blogger's post, it makes sense.

If you are confident enough to say "read this book", which is essentially what bloggers do, why can't you be confident enough to say "don't read this book"? It is just the opposite side of the same coin.

@ Anon 1

I don't think publicists would stop sending out books after a bad review. But I can see why some people would think a bad review or worst 10 list would be like biting the hand that feeds you.

@ Adam

That is a good title for it Adam and exactly the spirit it should represent. You wouldn't be making the list to rub salt in the wound, simply to tell you readers that hey, there are better things to spend your finite resources on.

Val said...

What would be the point of such a list? Do people really look at a list of what not to buy? The worst thing that can happen to an author or book in terms of sales is to sink into obscurity. If a book is really bad write a negative review and forget about it.

@Bob: not all reviewers receive enough review copies to keep reading, some don't even accept them if offered. Personally I buy the majority of the books I review myself.

Alec said...

@Val

The point is to save people time and money. It is literally the same thing as recommending books. I should probably draw a ven diagram...

Val said...

Given the huge number of books being published in English every year I don't think marking one book, or ten for that matter, off the list is a very economical way to go about it. Not to mention one reviewer could not possibly read enough to make any kind of definitive list of a particular year. The best a reader can hope for of these personal top tens is spotting a book that, from the reviewer's description, may appeal to the reader.

Reading is such a personal thing that whether or not a reviewer likes a book is not all that important. It's the why bit that is really interesting and, to me at least, the only thing in a review that could make me decide to purchase a particular book. Did the reviewer not like the first person point of view in a book? Maybe I do. Does the review think the book is not focussed enough and employs too many characters? Maybe I like multiple point of view stories. Did the reviewer prefer gritty realism over a more romanticized fantasy? Maybe for me it is the other way around. Reviews are only useful in the light of your own preferences and dislikes. It's almost impossible for a reviewer to decide for someone else whether or not a book is worth reading. At most, you can give them enough opinions and information to make up their own mind. Which is probably a lot more time consuming that deciding what to buy based on other criteria.

I also think the life-is-to-short-to-read-bad-books argument is flawed. Reading the occasional bad or disappointing book puts things in perspective, helps you see why one book is good another mediocre and a third brilliant. Besides, would you really find the real gems everybody overlooks by never taking a chance?

Alec said...

@ Val

Thanks for the well thought out comment.

If you are already against a top ten list, then there is no way I can convince you that a worst ten list will have any merit. Of course it is all down to personal opinion. But Val, people respect that opinion or they wouldn't be looking at your top ten list in the first place. People follow your blog because your tastes are similar to theirs. Or at the very least, they understand how your tastes relate to theirs. If not there would be very little point in them even reading your reviews in the first place. It would be like giving a lecture in Chinese to a French audience.

I personally like lists. They are clear, concise, they rank things and are easy to interpret. If a blogger I follow and respect posts a book in their top ten, I can tell you straight off that my odds of reading that book have increased, without even reading their review of the book. Similarly, if they tell me not to even bother with a certain series, then chances are I won't.

Reviewing is obviously not a world of absolutes. Just look at the whole discussion/furor a while back on grading your reads in the first place. That said, I agree that the life-is-too-short argument doesn't hold water, especially because it isn't one I made. But am I going to spend 30$ on a book that is in someone's worst ten list because of the small statistical probability that I will like that book?

Now to step back for a second and be a little more general. You said:

"It's almost impossible for a reviewer to decide for someone else whether or not a book is worth reading."

As you can already tell I am sure, I heartily disagree with this and this is a topic I want to write about in more detail. And really, that one sentence is at the heart of your whole argument. I find the whole idea that the relative merits of a book are absolutely subjective to be utter nonsense. The argument is only able to sustain itself when disconnected from reality. It denigrates the academic and applied study of literature and ignores a solid two centuries of philosophical inquiry.

You can obviously make an argument for the fact that "The Collected Writing of 1st Graders" is a literary masterpiece, but only about 2% of people will agree with you, if even that. I myself am a nice boring statistical consistency. In SF/F, I generally like what most people like! I can tell you that about 80-90% of the time that my opinion on a book and, for example, Brice's are virtually identical. It doesn't mean we don't disagree, but it DOES mean that I can tell you with relative certainty that he will like or not like a certain book.

Anyway, I rambled enough. I respect your position but as I hope you can tell, I don't agree with it.

Val said...

I should probably have added this somewhere in the previous response. I'm not opposed to lists or top tens. I've written them myself on occasion and read lots of them. They can be good fun. What I was responding to what the argument that they might save someone time and money. In that respect I don't think they are particularly useful.

I'm looking forward to that article on subjectivity. Maybe I came across to strong there. Obviously there are books that are poor by any standard, I rarely come across one without any redeeming qualities without descending to the realm of self publishing though.

"The argument is only able to sustain itself when disconnected from reality. It denigrates the academic and applied study of literature and ignores a solid two centuries of philosophical inquiry."

Given the general reception of Fantasy and SF in literary and academic circles this is an interesting statement.

I don't mean to spark a genre vs literature debate here but Science fiction in particular is a niche market. Your taste may be shared widely in the SF community but zoom out a little and you are part of that.. well maybe not 2% but a small minority who does like them. Surely that doesn't mean we should rank them with "The Collected Writing of 1st Graders"?

I'm not saying you should pick a random book off the shelf and hope it is any good but looking outside your comfort zone once in a while is not such a bad thing.

Seak (Bryce L.) said...

I just happened to tune in when I was mentioned, but Alec's right. I could probably guarantee he'd be right 9 out of 10 times at least.

I, too, like lists and they do wonders for me. That's honestly how I've picked a lot of my reading over the last few years.

I think it's also the reason I like book review blogs so much. I find out what that person likes and I can pretty much bank on anything they say as applied to my own interests.

Back to the topic, I think a "worst of" list would be great. I noticed Niall of Speculative Scotsman does a worst disappointment and there are plenty of popular threads at forums I visit that are completely devoted to this.

It's really helpful to find out what the worst stuff there is out there in a year and I will avoid it. I kind of look at it as my duty as a blogger to make people aware of what was good and what people should really avoid.

But then again, people should know that that's based on my personal opinions and that's another reason why I look at lots of reviews of a book before purchasing.