Am I a Reader or a Reviewer?

If you spend any time in the genre fiction blogosphere (and hey, here you are!), you’re probably aware of some of the author melt-downs over bad reviews that have started the year. If not:

  • Meljean Brook’s series of “Diary of an Author” posts, starting here, offers a hilarious and spot-on parody version
  • Dear Author‘s Jane reflects on the opposing viewpoints that might contribute to such kerfuffles in a much commented-on post on “The Reader Author Paradigm” 
  • CuddleBuggery has a post rounding up relevant links if you must rubberneck firsthand
  • While Janet/Robin’s post on “The Entitled Reader” wasn’t inspired by the Great New Year Author Flameouts, the huge comment thread touches on a lot of relevant issues

I wasn’t going to say anything about all this. But then people brought their English teachers and Robert Browning into the comments on Jane’s post, and it was personal! So I am taking to my powerful platform here to lecture all five of my minions readers on how you should read and what makes you worthy to review.

Not really! But I was interested (and sometimes annoyed) by the attempts some commenters made to distinguish “reviewers” from “readers with opinions” and the way this distinction seemed to be linked in some people’s minds not just to how someone approaches writing reviews but to how she approaches reading a book.

The categories of reader and reviewer are overlapping, not distinct. Reviewers are readers. I don’t care how “big” and “powerful” your blog is, if you’re still reading books, you’re a reader. (And yes, authors are readers, and they can comment wherever they want as readers of other people’s books, though they won’t make themselves popular if they appear to be merely shills or enforcers for their author-friends. When it comes to their own books, things are trickier.).

But are you a competent reader? I spend a lot of time beating out of students’ heads the things commenters were saying they learned about critical reading in high school English classes.

In my class, the student’s opinion of the text (i.e. whether she liked it) doesn’t matter. Literary criticism isn’t really evaluation, it’s analysis: what does the text mean, and how does it mean it? how does it work? These claims are opinions of a kind, of course, but they can be argued about and defended with evidence from the text. That means that in the classroom, there are more and less competent readers, because this kind of reading is a skill developed by practice. There are no absolute right answers, but there are wrong ones: interpretations that can’t be defended by reference to the text.

But when someone is reading for pleasure, how can she be incompetent? (I guess, arguably, if she’s not fully literate). She can read the text however she likes, and her opinions about it can be a matter of taste, about which there is no disputing. “I love alpha heroes” is as valid a response as an analysis of the author’s imagery. While I’m impressed by the knowledge and thoughtfulness so many romance readers have about the genre, I don’t think anyone has to be that kind of reader to express her opinion on the internet.

And what are we going to call that opinion besides a review? In its most basic sense, a review just means taking another look at something. A reader who records her response to a book on her blog, at Goodreads, at Amazon, etc. is doing just that. “Ordinary,” incompetent readers have always had opinions. What’s new is that they (we) have public places to express them. Once upon a time (in 1975), John Updike could lay down rules for reviewing. They are fine rules if you want to be taken seriously in places that publish critical reviews (not negative, but indepth analysis and evaluation). But when the internet with its proliferating and various sites for “amateur” review came along, such rules no longer made sense.

Reviewers are writers as well as readers, and they have their own audiences and purposes in mind. I’m not the audience for “Squee! 5 stars for Lora Leigh’s latest Breeds book! I love barbed peen!” But probably someone is (I’m not the audience for Leigh’s books, either, but they definitely have one). Reviewers can write according to their own rules, and they’ll find an audience–or not–who enjoys that review and finds it useful. Who has the authority to make rules about all this?

But here’s the tricky part. In the classroom, the Author is dead (even if the person who wrote the book is still alive, that person has no authority over the text). We don’t know his/her intention, and we don’t care either. The words on the page are what we’ve got, and we can interpret them in many ways, as long as we can defend those interpretations.

But on the internet, the author may not be dead. I learned this the hard, very embarrassing way years ago, when I made a flip comment on a listserv about a Philip Pullman speech someone linked to. Guess what? Pullman was on the listserv too, and he responded. (I apologized for my tone.) To me, Philip Pullman was Dead.  He wasn’t a real person, just an author-function. It never occurred to me he’d read what I wrote.

I wish I could say I learned that lesson once and for all, but I’m still getting used to the way people you don’t expect may be looking over your shoulder on the net. I suspect I’m not the only one. A lot of reviewers who post snarky reviews are probably thinking about entertaining their audience, not about the author who might see their words.

Once, a reader’s relationship was only with the book. She might not even have had other readers to discuss books with. Now, she may have a relationship with the author, too. In the same way, authors have much closer relationships with their readers, interacting on Twitter and blogs; authors can also respond to reviews much more easily.  This is all pretty new, and we’re still figuring out how to do it and what it means.

I feel weird, for instance, when I comment on a book here and suddenly the author is following me on Twitter (but doesn’t actually tweet me). What’s that about? Are those people checking up on me? Hoping my tweetstream is endless promo for them? I don’t really think that, but why do they care what else I have to say? These relationships can be enriching, but awkward too. The enriching far outweighs the awkward, though, just as the authors who don’t have public meltdowns about bad reviews far outnumber those who do. I expect we’ll all figure it out, more or less, one day.

I haven’t really answered the question in my title. I’m a reader, of course, and by the definition I’ve just offered, I’m a reviewer. I don’t think of myself that way, though. My blog posts and Goodreads reviews don’t rise (sink?) to the level of academic or Updikean criticism. They don’t often review in the traditional sense: I don’t bother with a summary if there are plenty out there already, and I don’t aim to influence people to buy or not buy. I just want to record how I felt about a book and talk to other readers about it. If an author wants to talk about books, too, I don’t mind. As long as she remembers she’s Dead!


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18 Responses to Am I a Reader or a Reviewer?

  1. willaful says:

    Well said. Er, written.

  2. Limecello says:

    Hm – (okay I obviously know this one line isn’t the point but it caught my attention. I disagree with “We don’t know his/her intention, and we don’t care either.” I think with some authors it’s clear what his/her intention is, and it *does* matter. Or, with all the symbolism and motifs etc in the classics, that said author often *did* intend something or another. I will say/agree that interpretations of it could and might differ wildly.
    I just remember a HS English teacher finding meaning in every other word in “A Tale of Two Cities.” I also say it’s possible to over analyze.
    I hope I’m not offending – and it’s not even that I’m “taking great offense” to your post or anything – I’m don’t. At all. Perhaps it’s just the build up of all the … everything out there that you mentioned. And yes, I will agree reviews are [generally] opinion. But… can’t there ever be something of fact in there?
    Like… grammatical errors. Not in dialogue. Throughout the book. That’s a flaw. That’s… not an opinion so much as a grasp of the (I’m going with English here) language. Or… the blatant disregard of physics. Or even… the character constantly doing the exact opposite of what s/he says, when it’s been made clear s/he is not a pathological liar – or whatever.

    Right?! I mean, sure, it could be my opinion that “nobody out there talks like that.” And I could be wrong. (E.g. Boomhauer in King of the Hill – upon moving to TX for grad school, my sister informed me that was “a real thing.” As a born and raised Yankee, I’ve never encountered that. Still haven’t.) But at some point… could we all agree – or at least mostly agree – that it’s not *always* merely opinion?

    …I’m not making sense am I. It’s also 1:07 AM and I’m this stranger word vomiting all over your blog. As someone who dislikes culpability, I happily pass the blame on to Sunita for tweeting a link to your blog. 🙂 You’re welcome. :X

    • lizmc2 says:

      Well, since I’m an English teacher, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as over-analysis. But I know others disagree, and that’s fine (outside the classroom).

      I didn’t mean to suggest there weren’t issues of fact. There are, both in terms of content and things like typos. Reviewers sometimes get those wrong, and I think it’s OK for an author to correct that–if it really matters.

      I think a lot of times, we can have a pretty good idea of the author’s intent from the text (most people seem to agree, for instance, that P.C. Cast meant to use her latest book to make fun of readers who complained about her use of the word “retard.” But we’re relying on textual evidence, and all we can say for sure is that a lot of people read the book as doing that. What I really meant is that the author’s intention has no more authority, in my view, than any other reading. All kinds of things can be read in a book that the author didn’t intend to put there. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to hear from an author about her intentions, but when she comes uninvited into a review thread to state them, it can seem like (and may be) an attempt to correct a reader’s interpretation. I don’t think that’s cool, and if the reader has made a good case for her view, in my opinion the author’s intention doesn’t trump that (this doesn’t even mean to me, as it does to a lot of people, that the author didn’t do a good enough job conveying her intentions; a text open to many interpretations may be a great one).

      • Danielle says:

        “What I really meant is that the author’s intention has no more authority, in my view, than any other reading.”

        This resonates with me because I have long felt a book is a conversation between the author and the reader about the story. Every encounter with a story is unique because it brings together the individual world views of an author and a reader over the meaning of a set of words. I find authors’ viewpoints on their stories relevant as part of the aforementioned conversation and so I would not necessarily discourage author participation on my blog. However, I consider such viewpoints interesting mainly in terms of the story’s genesis and intention versus execution and believe the author’s take is “only” one interpretation of the text among many (I agree that differing opinions do not automatically mean that “the author didn’t do a good enough job conveying her intentions”). As SonomaLass comments (I think), an author owns the text of a story; s/he does not own the interpretation.

        • lizmc2 says:

          I really like the conversation model, too. And I’d agree with a number of commenters here that biographical information or the author’s point of view isn’t at all irrelevant. It’s just one way among others of finding meaning in a text.

          I once invited an author to come talk to my children’s literature class. I sent her my discussion questions ahead of time so she would see the ways in which we had been talking about her novel, but that felt really weird. What if she came in and said, “That’s not what I meant at all”? Luckily, the whole experience was wonderful. But it think it might have felt odd to her, too, to see her novel as an object of study. (It was Kit Pearson’s Awake and Dreaming which I and many of the students loved. They asked great questions and the discussion with her enriched our reading of the novel.)

  3. Kaetrin says:

    I didn’t really understand the comments on DA about the difference between a reader and a reviewer either. I review books, therefore I am a reviewer. It is up to those who are inclined to maybe read them to judge whether I’m any good at it, but I’m definitely a reviewer!

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think some people wish they could control the crazy internet, and I get why, but it’s a fruitless task. We have to leave it up to review readers to grant authority to reviews that work for them (and people read reviews for all kinds of reasons, not just to decide whether to buy something).

  4. SonomaLass says:

    “The tricky part, in the classroom.” You’ve got that right. It IS tricky, because many people (too many, IMO) still care about authorial intent, even with authors who are really dead. I think as long as there are biographers, and we continue to investigate author biography vis-a-vis text, there will be some analysts who carry their work that step further into questions of intent.

    I much prefer to think of reading as an interaction between reader and text, which follows the separate (but not unrelated) act of authoring the text, in which the writer has engaged. But as Meljean’s lovely series of blog posts reminds us, I think in Day 4, being the “author” of a text does not give one “authority” over readers’ interpretations.

  5. Merrian says:

    Haven’t read Meljean’s Day 4 yet – am looking forward to that reward. I’m with Sonoma Lass that the story is made through an interaction between the author’s text and the reader, not the author and the reader. I also wonder about knowing an author intentions when so many authors are not plotters-in-advance. I’m a reader who doesn’t review but does like to analyse my reading so I think I am a reviewer as well.

  6. Merrian says:

    Also am proud to be a minion ::grin::

  7. Robin says:

    I really like your distinction between evaluation as a category of subjective assertion and analysis as a subjective assertion grounded in objectively discernible evidence. In a purely evaluative context, you don’t need that basis of objectively discernible evidence for your opinion to be “valid.” However, I personally feel the most interesting reviews have a measure of both evaluation and analysis. Which is not the same thing as saying that analysis is necessary for someone to be a “legitimate” or “competent” reviewer.

    I often find most of those hierarchical distinctions re reviewing to be disingenuously asserted, because in my observation it’s often the negative reviews that contain analytical support that cause the most author outrage. Personally, I think it’s easier to dismiss the “worst book ever” reviews if they have no analytical support, but once the reader/reviewer begins to articulate the ‘whys’ of her response, things can get dicey. Sometimes there are authentic factual disputes (e.g. a misrepresentation of something that occurs in the text), but more often the differences are interpretive, and then you just have competing responses to the same text, and readers will vary in terms of which one they find “valid” for them.

    Now in regard to using biographical criticism, I find that to be a second or even third stage level of analysis. That is, it can be useful, but I think it’s a few steps past surface level textual analysis. Just as many types of literary analysis require additional knowledge and a certain context or framework to execute well. These different analytical frameworks are tools, and like all work that requires tools, I think a certain level of skill developed through training is helpful in using them effectively.

    • lizmc2 says:

      “I really like your distinction between evaluation as a category of subjective assertion and analysis as a subjective assertion grounded in objectively discernible evidence.”

      Thanks! I stole that from my first-year literature classroom spiel, where I am trying to impress on my students that subjective assertions are not really valued in the classroom or in their essays.

      And you’re absolutely right that authors never seem to turn out to complain about unsupported rave reviews.

  8. willaful says:

    “(It was Kit Pearson’s Awake and Dreaming which I and many of the students loved. They asked great questions and the discussion with her enriched our reading of the novel.)”

    I am literally crying right now about having missed that… that was one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, as someone who found children’s books necessary to the development of my character and moral compass. What subject were you teaching?

  9. willaful says:

    Oh, I see now that it was a children’s literature class. What a wonderful choice.

    • lizmc2 says:

      It is great to find another fan of that book. Students mostly love it too (although I am confronted by how old I am, because a lot of them read it as kids). I did Awake and Dreaming a couple of times with slightly different reading lists, but always as the middle of a five-novel range from realistic to “pure” fantasy. We talked a lot about fantasy as a space for growth and development–both fantasy spaces kids made for themselves in the books (even in essentially realistic books like Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables) and fantasy as childrens’ reading material, which can explore really big themes. I love Pearson’s book in that context, because it is so “gritty” but also has all these fantasy elements. I haven’t gotten to teach the class for several years now, and I miss it! There’s so much great children’s literature, and like you, I am conscious of how some books helped form my character and still do today.

  10. willaful says:

    Ack, I can’t believe there are people old enough to have that be a favorite childhood book. Must go trim my long white beard now.

    Yes, the juxtaposition of the serene family type of story with the gritty realistic type is brilliant.

    Have you ever read A Door Near Here? I don’t think it has fantasy elements, but has some similar themes IIRC.

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