CRITICS, REVIEWS, AND REALITY

I hate the idea of belaboring any point here, much less my general dislike, distrust, and dismissal of all things classed as “reviews” or “criticism,” but having seen a few things pop up on my “radar” over the last couple weeks I thought maybe one more quick stab at trying to get you to stop reading or writing reviews…

Or is that really what I’m trying to do?

As much as I hate the idea of belaboring a point, I hate more the idea of strident either/or proclamations: never do this, always do that, to my mind, leads, one way or another, to one form or another of fascism. Political, intellectual, religious… creative.

That got me thinking, maybe I need a wider view of the whole book review thing.

In his afterword to the 75th Anniversary Edition of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Christopher Ricks wrote:

We have become too aware of the fact that great works of art are often met with philistine outrage, and this half-truth is often twisted into a gullible supposition: that outrage must mean that what we have here is a great work of art. Either way, we have accrued a healthy distrust of reviewers. Yet meanwhile, insufficiently acknowledged, there is the other half-truth: that much of the greatest criticism appears when a work first appears, with a critical immediacy that gets hold of the right things even if by the wrong end.

This gave me pause because the paragraph starts with me 100% with him then ends with something that really made me cringe. I tend to think that the best view of anything comes with some distance, but in the end this is a version of comparing apples to oranges. What people thought of, say, The Catcher in the Rye, immediately after its publication may very well be quite different from what people decades later find in it, positive or negative. The history of literature is filled with books that were immensely popular in their day then utterly forgotten, or considered substandard on publication only to later be held up as classics.

Still, I know I’m not alone in my suspicion of critics, sharing the opinion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

I am more and more convinced that whenever one has to vent an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth gathering up. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality, and, from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is vanity.

This is why you’ll see book recommendations from me here, but no reviews. But maybe there’s some common ground, some set of criteria that can help us separate the useful review from the harmful one.

(Poet W.H.) Auden considers six key duties of the critic to the reader, one or more of which each good piece of criticism should fulfill:

  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

I can get behind that, but despair of spreading that out to a generation of social media natives who seem to exist only to review. In her frankly terrifying article for Wired, “How Amazon’s Algorithms Curated a Dystopian Bookstore,” Renee Diresta double down on my own recent concerns over algorithmic curation and shined a light on just how awful the results of crowd sourced reviews can be:

Over in Amazon’s Oncology category, a book with a Best Seller label suggests juice as an alternative to chemotherapy. For the term “cancer” overall, coordinated review brigading appears to have ensured that “The Truth About Cancer,” a hodgepodge of claims about, among other things, government conspiracies, enjoys 1,684 reviews and front-page placement. A whopping 96 percent of the reviews are 5 stars—a measure that many Amazon customers use as a proxy for quality. However, a glance at Reviewmeta, a site that aims to help customers assess whether reviews are legitimate, suggests that over 1,000 may be suspicious in terms of time frame, language, and reviewer behavior.

Once relegated to tabloids and web forums, health misinformation and conspiracies have found a new megaphone in the curation engines that power massive platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Search, trending, and recommendation algorithms can be gamed to make fringe ideas appear mainstream. This is compounded by an asymmetry of passion that leads truther communities to create prolific amounts of content, resulting in a greater amount available for algorithms to serve up… and, it seems, resulting in real-world consequences.

It’s time to say this out loud: crowd sourced reviews used to push any product, absolutely including books, has such monumental downsides that it’s now impossible to see the upside. Either the computer is pushing things at us that force us into an echo chamber of our own algorithmically determined interests and opinions, thereby sharply and artificially delineating our life experience, or some human agency is interposing themselves into that process to cram their fringe agenda down our throats.

Like any tool, a book review must be used responsibly and with care—and the same is true of restaurant reviews, or any review for anything… and we now see and have an opportunity to post public reviews of anything and everything online. And any one of those reviews could be the work of someone who, let’s face it, is just plain crazy, or not too smart, or otherwise lacking in specific expertise; or the work of a person or organization with a specific agenda to either glorify or torpedo the thing being reviewed. Knowing that, how can any of them be trusted?

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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