April 7, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Reviews! What Are They Good For? (Absolutely Nothing?) (Or Absolutely Everything?) (Or Something In Between?) Huh!



This stock photo choice gets two out of five stars, at best. (Image via Shutterstock, which gets five out of five stars.)

Topics discussed: Gene Simmons (again), this column’s terrible name (again), Salman Rushdie, Jonah Berger, Rick Moody, Goodreads, Amazon, Netflix, Barnes & Noble, the New York Review of Books, n+1, The Point, Dissent, Public Books, London Review of Books, The Nation, Slate Book Review, Sunnyside Post, bookshelfies, Arrested Development, General Motors, Ford, Lucky Jim (bad, according to Salman Rushdie), Cosmopolis (good, according to The Point) (and also just good, generally), MouseHunt, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, problematic things, rage, misunderstanding, Joni Mitchell

Alex: Hi Mark! Hi Two for Tuesdayers! Are you ready to rock, my man?

Mark: Wait, are you talking to me, or to the Two for Tuesdayers? Because if the latter, why are you referring to a(n inevitably shrinking) group of people as “my man”?

Alex: I was referring to you! I thought that would be clear, in that you are “my man” and also in that I am currently writing this with you on a Google Doc. But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from writing these columns with you it’s this: I really have to spell everything out for you to understand it, M-A-R-K, y-o-u b-i-g d-u-m-m-y.

Mark: Thanks for the clarification, Alex! It’s true that I’m pretty literal-minded by nature. When we first started this feature, for example, I thought that “Two for Tuesday” meant that we had to write two columns every Tuesday. I can’t tell you how upset I was that we would only be testing Michael Schaub’s patience with like 3,000 words every week, rather than 6,000. Endurance, after all, is a crucial virtue.

Anyway, “my man” (what a cool expression! Thanks for teaching it to me!), let me ask you something: are you a famous novelist who recently revealed your Goodreads reviews to the world, or did that happen to someone else?

Alex: First of all, the meaning of “Two for Tuesday” is very clear. You, Mark Krotov, and me, Alex Shephard, are the “two” and we are “for Tuesday.” There is also a twofer Tuesday at the end, which features some pretty slick classic rock. It’s really quite simple.

Second, that happened to someone else! Salman Rushdie, to be precise. Apparently he was recently rating books on Goodreads and did not know that those ratings would be public. Some of the ratings were quite negative! He gave Lucky Jim only one star, for instance, which seems fair to me because I don’t care how many stars people give anything—the thumbs up is the only metric I accept.

But those ratings are public! So people found out and they “went viral,” according to The Independent, and Rushdie apologized, claiming he was “Just fooling around” and that he only wanted the Goodreads recommendation engine to work better for him. That’s a good defense! Blame it on the algorithm, that’s what I always say.

Mark: Definitely. After all, an algorithm came up with the name of this column. It was supposed to be called “Alex and Mark Talk Shop, By Which We Mean the Publishing Industry, Rather Than, Like, Shops, or Shopping,” but you suggested that we run it through the old publishing-themed column name algorithm (note: I do not know how algorithms work), which gave us “Two for Tuesday.” I should say that I’m sorry that we’ve spent so much of this column talking about the name of said column, but that’s because people continue to mock us for it.

This Rushdie story is a joy. Our colleague Kirsten has all the terrific, ludicrous details, along with a roundup of which books the man panned and which he praised, but I find Rushdie’s explanation both charming and plausible. Charming, because even one of the world’s most acclaimed novelists (apparently) sometimes gets tired of asking friends for book advice, and plausible, because the urge for an algorithm to surprise you with a recommendation–something outside your tastes or experience, but which will nonetheless be to your liking–is a powerful one. I’ve often, for example, looked to Netflix for help in finding an obscure masterpiece, or a little-known gem. However, based on my viewing history–which consists exclusively of episodes of Arrested DevelopmentNetflix only ever recommends Arrested Development. (Always season four, which, let’s be clear, is not as bad as people say it is, but is also far from the greatness of the first three seasons.) Still, a man can dream.

I wonder, too, if all this tells us something about the appeal of online reviews. Websites like Goodreads have been criticized–validly, I think–for promoting a consumer-guide approach to criticism: substantive engagement is, perhaps, less likely when the format tends toward shorter reviews and emphasizes star ratings. And this format undermines the space for and prominence of longer, deeper, more serious reviews. But is this a false dichotomy? Is it even true? Or is it, in fact, a straw man that I’ve constructed? Tell me about straw men, Alex! Let’s talk straw men!

Alex: My thoughts about this are complicated! Like, I don’t think it’s a straw man or a false dichotomy, but I also think that consumer-guided reviews are perhaps less threatening than they sometimes appear.

Stars are bullshit though. Or, I should say, algorithms are bullshit. And Rushdie wasn’t reviewing this stuff—he wasn’t calling Lucky Jim shit or whatever—he was rating it, and that’s a bit different. Reviews are windows into other people’s lives. Those lives are often tragic and involve, I don’t know, rating children’s modeling services and complaining about looks that the waitress gave you, but, even when they’re written in horrible faux-review speak, they still give you some sense of who the writer is—not just what they experienced, but what they’re looking for from a product or a book (which is, I suppose, a product).

“People who read x also read y” is the opposite of that. If it worked, which, from my experience, it doesn’t, it would just segment you into experiencing things that were pretty uniform. Or, to put it another way, the problem with “People who read x also read y” is that somebody had to read “y” for the algorithm to work—those kinds of algorithms are geared towards things that lots of people experience, so you tend to get the most popular product, not the most similar one—or even the best one. That’s especially problematic (sorry) for books, which are not only often pretty dissimilar, but are not particularly widely-read. There are a lot of books! Discovering those books is hard! But “discoverability” privileges what has already been discovered, not what is worthy of discovery.

But I digress—those last two paragraphs should basically be read as me looking for the proper follow-up to MouseHunt. I loved MouseHunt! I want to watch movies that make me feel the way MouseHunt made me feel. (In case you need things spelled out, like Mark, MOUSEHUNT MADE ME FEEL FUCKING GREAT BECAUSE IT’S SO FUNNY AND NICE.) BRING ME THESE MOVIES, NETFLIX.

Your last paragraph is fascinating though, in part because I feel like space for criticism is something we’re talking about—the “we” in this is, I guess, literary culture?—less and less. In the earlier part of this century (until maybe three years ago) (lol), people spent a lot of time mourning the death of the Arts section and the decline of the book review. I may be wrong, but I feel like we don’t spend that much time doing that anymore, that we’ve just sort of accepted that there is less space for criticism, even though there is technically more space, though that space is mostly garbage. (The internet is infinite, but it is also terrible—both in a biblical sense and in the sense that it is a gigantic toilet.)

Look, I like serious reviews. I read the New York Review of Books a lot. Sure, I grumble that most of the reviews are published eight months after the books were published, but I do that to let people know that I read the NYRB, not because I care, which I don’t. But I also think that there’s plenty of space for consumer-oriented reviews and serious criticism to coexist. I may be being contrarian here—I honestly can’t tell anymore when I am and when I’m not—but I think that, from a bookselling perspective at least, consumer-oriented reviews on places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble are as effective as most, let’s say, less serious criticism.

A number of reviews that get published in newspapers—even good ones—aren’t quite serious criticism, so much as they are plot summary, plus praise and/or criticism of said plot. Of course, there’s a sense—an important sense that should be protected—that these are spaces for thought and reflection, so advocating buying or not buying a book can’t be addressed directly, but I don’t find a lot of these reviews to be particularly intellectually stimulating. Instead, I find that they resemble something like a movie trailer—you get the highlights and the best (or maybe worst) bits, but not much else. Of course, now I’m the one talking in straw men, so maybe I haven’t done anything to further this discussion. If it makes you, dear reader, feel any better, please know that most of the “criticism” that I have written is in no way serious.

Mark: If this column ever gets a tombstone (assuming that online columns can have tombstones), “maybe I haven’t done anything to further this discussion” will be on that tombstone. Along with pictures of the two of us in a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ position. (Alternatively, the words “I may be being contrarian here—I honestly can’t tell anymore when I am and when I’m not,” which is probably the most Alex thing you’ve ever said.)

Are many newspaper reviews nothing more than plot summary? Yes, I think that’s a straw man. Or rather, I think that the odds of coming upon a plot summary-heavy review in a newspaper are roughly the same as finding a plot summary-heavy review anywhere else. We’ve decided, collectively, that these reviews serve some kind of purpose, though you and I may find them useless (and I do find them useless), or else readers would be clamoring for something different. Then again, maybe readers don’t clamor for anything anymore, because all they do is tweet angrily and write derogatory things about their neighbors in the comments sections. (For a beautiful example of the latter, check out my local blog/newspaper the Sunnyside Post, which, now that I think of it, should totally publish movie reviews.)

I’ll see your NYRB and raise you n+1, Dissent, The Point, Public Books, the London Review of Books, The Nation, the Slate Book Review, and many others. This is, in spite of all rational expectations from a few years ago, a great time for criticism. Though I certainly wish that more people read these fine, fine publications!

But you make an important point: though Amazon is a terrible, exploitative company from which no one should purchase anything, ever, it is undoubtedly the case that book reviews on its website are crucial. And same goes for the reviews on B&N’s website, and for Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon. (It’s so boring to say that everything is owned by Amazon. I wish that Goodreads were owned by some other enormous conglomerate, like General Motors. Can you imagine? You could review any book you wanted, but only if your review cited the positive representations of Chevrolets, Buicks, Cadillacs, GMCs, Oldsmobiles, Saturns, etc. featured in said books. Which would be tricky, because I have a feeling that Saturns have never once appeared in a work of fiction. Prove me wrong, literary gearheads!)

(By the way, Alex, before you complain about any automotive confusion, I know that the “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black” line, to which I was alluding above, was a Henry Ford coinage. And that Henry Ford created Ford, and not GM. I was citing GM for effect. Okay? I’m definitely an American who knows all about America.)

I’ve already deployed a straw man in this column, so I shouldn’t try anything risky, but I’m actually willing to go even further and deploy a . . . wait for it . . . counterintuitive opinion. Feel free to shut me up, but here it goes: I think that people should review books on Amazon and Goodreads even when they don’t buy books through Amazon (which they never should). I think it’s good for sales, good for visibility, and good for culture generally (no matter how vague that sounds) to post these kinds of reviews, if only to mitigate the nasty, misguided, often right-wing ones that clog up Amazon. Of course, if you’re choosing between writing a brilliant piece on Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis in The Point or writing a review on Amazon, you should opt for the former. (Everyone should read that piece, by the way.) But if you’re a casual reader who was really taken with a book and have no obvious venue where you can share your impressions, post a review! (This doesn’t include you, Alex: you’ve basically transformed Two for Tuesday into your hub for opinions on Gene Simmons’s Me, Inc., so if anything you’ve got too much of a venue.)

Also, I saw MouseHunt in theaters, but I can’t say that I’ve spent the last eighteen years hoping against hope for a follow-up.

Alex: I’m glad that you brought up Gene Simmons’s Me, Inc., a terrible book that is nonetheless very dear to me (as is every book by Gene Simmons, all of which are blatant cash grabs, except maybe his history of prostitution, which is a creepy cash grab, but not quite a blatant one). I say this because it is a good transition to everyone’s favorite thing: data. Actually, wait, no it’s not, but who cares.

I read a lot of books about marketing because apparently I have too much time on my hands. Most of these books are not only quite bad, but they’re also pretty useless—most books about marketing are just books about pretty obvious correlations that don’t quite work for most people. Did you know that if you produce a super high-quality product that people may gravitate towards it? Did you know that if you produce a product by a well-known and well-regarded commodity that people will gravitate towards it?

Jonah Berger’s Contagious is a good book about marketing, however, even though the best way to describe it is probably “Malcolm Gladwell + data analysis,” which sounds like a quippy, counterintuitive root canal. But it’s good and is in no way related to dentistry, which is also good. Anyway, Berger talks about this very phenomenon in his book. Here’s a summary of his findings, which he published in the Harvard Business Review in 2012:

Good reviews, as expected, increased sales across the board, with gains from 32% to 52%. For books by established authors, negative reviews caused a drop of about 15%, on average—also not surprising. But for books by relatively unknown authors, bad reviews caused sales to rise, by an average of 45%. This held even when the criticism was extreme: After one particularly scathing review, for instance (“the characters do not have personalities so much as particular niches in the stratosphere”), sales more than quadrupled.

The reason? Our analysis showed that by making consumers aware of a book they would otherwise not know about, even the harshest review can be a boon.

Basically, the data says that you’re right, especially for books that need attention—worthy books by writers who aren’t household names. Of course, the reviews Berger was taking into account were in the New York Times, which means they were written by established writers who often had the visibility their subjects may have lacked, but I think his findings can be applied to Amazon as well (though I wonder if the stuff about negative reviews would hold true there as well—I think Yelp reviews are bullshit, for instance, but I can’t deny that they affect my decisions about which Burger Kings I will and will not patronize).

This helps explain why paid reviews are a big deal, especially in the self-publishing world—even if they’re coming from nobodies, reviews help legitimize a book. You want to read a good book and you want to read a good book other people are reading. Reviews on places like Amazon, even if they are unreadable (which they often are!), legitimize books and often boost sales. I’d like to see more, better written reviews on Amazon while it is (by far!) the nation’s largest bookseller, even though I’d also like it if people who were able to buy their books elsewhere did so.

Mark: This reminds me of a very important fact, which is that Rick Moody’s next novel, Hotels of North America, seems, according to the description, to be composed entirely of reviews published on a fake Yelp-like site called RateYourLodging.com. This makes it, by default, the best novel of 2015. You heard it here first.

Berger’s results make a lot of sense to me, though every time I see his last name I think of John Berger, whose name would never appear anywhere near the Harvard Business Review. But anyway, this does seem like an argument for more reviews, more visibility, more discussion.

To be clear, I don’t at all like the idea of discussing books on unfriendly–really, hostile–terrain, and I do think that that terrain can even have an impact on the nature of the criticism itself. (Goodreads, for all of its faults, strikes me as a considerably more congenial place for reviews and book-related conversation than Amazon.) And also, reading is a private act, and I would never want to be the kind of person who urges readers to take bookshelfies, or whatever. But you and I and, I imagine, the people reading this column understand instinctively what Berger discovered analytically: a spirited, public conversation about books can only help.

Speaking of spirited, public conversations, Twitter isn’t only good for rage, misunderstandings, and rageful misunderstandings. It can also be a source of music recommendations! Recently, someone on Twitter was singing the praises of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira, which I proceeded to listen to. It’s great! So here are “Coyote” and “Song for Sharon.”