Cheeseburger Gothic

On reviewing for money, love and hatred.

Posted May 20, 2013 into Books by John Birmingham

Nobody believes you when you say, "I don't read the reviews," and they probably shouldn't if you're just some baby author, gamely pretending to give less than a shit about the cruel and unusual judgment of others. But eventually, as a writer, or any kind of public performer I guess, you do stop reading them because ... you just stop caring. Really. Either the punters liked the book and bought it, or they didn't. It doesn't mean you would not be wounded by a harsh word. But eventually, you don't bother to seek them out as you once may have.

Mainstream reviewers in the print media judge often titles by criteria that shouldn't apply to them. It can make for an entertaining read, for instance when somebody who's been forced to grapple with Dan Brown takes out their resentment and superiority complex on the poor dumb rich bastard. But it's not going to affect Brown's sales, or more importantly, his writing. He'll just keep doing what he does and banking the royalties.

Dr Johnson contemplates a poor review of his latest work. Considers challenging
the slubbering wantwit to a duel. Decides on pie instead.

The other reason I don't read reviews is that having done my fair share of reviewing for money I know how fucking dodgy and unprofessional are many of the published reviews in the mainstream press. I avoid writing them now because there just isn't the money in it to justify my time. A hundred and fifty bucks for a week's work? No thanks. And it is a week's full time work to do it properly. I've always believed that a proper review demands at least two read thru's – the second one as you take notes – before you even put pen to paper. There are pro reviewers who work that way, but not many, and they are almost all fulltimers at a broadsheet.

But just because you read a regular 'name' reviewer in a broadsheet newspaper doesn't mean you're getting a better review than you would from a committed amateur at their blog. I've known a few fuckwits who simply reviewed the cover art and the blurb. Met one or two who boasted of trashing a book for purely personal reasons, or because they were simply paid to by a media outlet with a grudge. It's never happened to me, but it has happened to a few unfortunate authors I know of, most famously Matt Reilly. (And again, seriously, to what end? It's not going to affect his sales or his writing technique).

Anyway, long story short, I don't pay much heed to what's happening in reviewerland. But this piece, by Michael Robbins in the Chicago Tribune, was an engaging peek into their world. Partly because it was so honest:

No one dreams of being a book reviewer when he grows up. You might dream of writing poems or novels or essays or even, if you are perennially picked last for teams in gym class, literary criticism (“We don't want Robbins, you can have an extra player”; “We don't want him, either!”) These forms have their glamour, even if only the novelist is much prized by the united malls of America. But as Samuel Johnson almost said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote book reviews, except for money.” ...

Most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it. Some publications append letter grades to their book reviews, a development I view somewhat as William F. Buckley regarded the Second Vatican Council. Deadlines are deadly to the polish of prose. Daily or weekly reviewing requires that something be said about works of which often there is not much to be said beyond "Read something else."

I'm kind of curious, given what a sophistumucated, worldly readership we gots here at the Burgerstand, just how many of you do read book reviews?

40 Responses to ‘On reviewing for money, love and hatred.’

Brother PorkChop puts forth...

Posted May 20, 2013

Never. Same with movies. And wine. For these things, there are so many variables and personal preferences that it is rare that a reviewer has the same set of requirements as I do at that particular time.

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w from brisbane ducks in to say...

Posted May 20, 2013

I don't much look at the reader review web sites. How can you get anything from them? As you are reading a 5 star review for a particular book, you know a one star review will soon follow.

I do read reviews in the papers. It is just pleasurable reading about books. You can usually tell if a reviewer is being unfair, or has not actually read the book. I don't read the books that newspapers are currently reviewing. All the books I read are not current. I tend to read literature classics or remaindered genre fiction.

When I am grazing thru the remaindered table, those quoted reviews on the back covers of books do affect my purchase. I dismiss quoted reviews that are by other authors. I assume that are mates, or in the same publishing house, or it is a return back scratch. Anything with a review quote by James Patterson, I put down. I don't think JP has actually read the book, so I think it is a bit of a fraud. If I see a good review quote from the New York Times or The Times, I will almost certainly buy it.

Back around the eighties, it was a bit of a game to try to find a nice trashy read that didn't have a complimentary review quoted from either The Scotsman or The Yorkshire Post. Those papers seemed to have a competition to see how many back covers they could get on. It was a good laugh.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

' I dismiss quoted reviews that are by other authors. I assume that are mates, or in the same publishing house, or it is a return back scratch.'

Wise you are to dismiss such things, young Jedi.

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Murphy has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

Hmm, well, I read the reviews of your novels. Then again, as your research consultant, I feel like it probably doesn't hurt to give them a once over. Besides, I sorta got the job by blogging about Weapons of Choice.

And I did/do read the reviews of Tearing Down Tuesday and The Limb Knitter, sad as that may sound, even all these years later. I think what frustrates me, honestly, is that I didn't pick up a negative review which often prompts me to wonder why I haven't been able to sell anything again.

Different topic.

To be honest, when it comes to the work of others, I don't bother with the reviews. There are writers I will invest time in because I know them. There are writers I will invest time in because other writers recommended them. There are books I will try simply because I think they might be decent. But has a review ever influenced my decision to buy or not?

Nope.

Fair disclosure. I have written book reviews and yes, I did write them for money. However, I wrote them as a student writer at the campus paper where the pay was the review copy plus twenty bucks. At Strange Horizons, where I published my one and only serious review of a science fiction novel, Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City, I netted thirty bucks which I promptly donated back to them because I didn't have a paypal account.

At the end of the day, I gave up on reviews. Not worth the time, not worth the money, and if you get a book you hate, not worth the honesty. For instance, no one forgives you when you take Kim Stanley Robinson out to the woodshed. They'll claim you did it for personal reasons (perhaps because others would do so for those reasons). No one likes it when you pick on Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, which everyone but yours truly likes. And God forbid you say something nasty about the twit who wrote Ork and Crackhead up north with the Canadian types.

Better things to be doing, like, uh, writing novels 'n shit.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

P.S. I read my Rate My Professor ratings too. :)

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted May 20, 2013

'and if you get a book you hate, not worth the honesty.'

Fuck yeah. Truer words were rarely spoke. When I was still reviewing I rare did negs because it just wasn't worth the grief and ill feeling. But also, even bad books were somebody's labor of love, and it sits ill upon me to go kicking somebody's baby just because I don't like the look of it.

I should add, of course, that Mruph and I met because I read and appreciated his intelligently critical review of Weapons of Choice. McKinney too, as I recall, came to my notice for a nuanced conservative response to the same book on Amazon.

Barnesm reckons...

Posted May 20, 2013

'nuanced conservative response" and "on Amazon" now there's teo phrases you don't often see together.

Murphy is gonna tell you...

Posted May 20, 2013

I believe Cheeseburger Gothic exists because of that review as well.

Ironic given that I've more or less placed my blog on the Inactive List. I just honestly don't know what the fuck to blog about anymore.

As for Weapons of Choice, it is a good first novel. As I work through mine I am finding that I am making many of the same design choices which I'm sure I'll regret in later years. Still, WoC holds up well.

Back to honesty, as someone who is pathologically honest I've found that it has not served my writing career particularly well over the years. One is better off if they avoid giving their opinion on any given piece of shit.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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Naut has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

I barely have time to read books, I am not going to waste that time reading reviews.

Seriously though, we live in the digital social age. Reviews by friends and celebrities are far more important than even a well performed review by a quality source. If I was an author I would be less worried about reviews and more worried about building a conversation on Social Media.

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Darth Greybeard ducks in to say...

Posted May 20, 2013

Much more likely to go by word of mouth, or in this case, word of blog. I've started on a few great authors by lurking on the Book Club comments. Not necessarily the ones being discussed either. Probably read more of the dodgy pro or anti reviews on Amazon when the sockpuppet scandal was fresh than at any other time, and that was morbid curiosity. Although the lovely Anne Treasure did describe one of my reviews as "sublime" - a comment I shall 'treasure'.

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Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 20, 2013

"And it is a week's full time work to do it properly" What isn't everyone doing that for Cheeseburger bookclub?

I read reviews, there are a few website I have on my reader (curse you google for taking tit away) , Tor, SF Signal, Skeptics, I09 and when they offer reviews I read those.

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Surtac reckons...

Posted May 20, 2013

I rarely read reviews simply because they are so subjective. I'm only likely to consider reading a review if the subject (book/film/whatever) is something I'm already interested in and if I know or recognise the reviewer.

Word of mouth recommendations from friends or trusted sources will always get my attention, though not always appropriate follow-up - too many books, too little time and the depredations of Planets Asperger and Parenthood at Chateau Dysfunction conspire to foil my grand intentions on most occasions.

I do like to write book reviews when in the appropriate mood, but they are not for payment and are generally for a closed audience (the bookloving members of a message board I help moderate). Even then they exist primarily as just me passing on what I thought about what I have read, whether it be good or bad. It's essentially just a running commentary on the flow of books that accompanies me through the perils of RL (and keeps my brain engaged, just quietly.)

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w from brisbane asserts...

Posted May 20, 2013

A mate of mine reviews books for a newspaper.

I know my mate's taste in books and I knew that receiving a 500+ page tome of something of no interest to him was a lot less than a joy. I could tell that he had started to not read those books because his reviews started including a lot of biographical info about the author.

He remarked, the editor has chipped him to return to actually reviewing the book.
I said, "Mate. It was starting to get a little obvious, but I didn't like to say anything."
He nodded ruefully.

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John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

I used to enjoy reading the long review essays that ran in the ALR supplemt the Oz usd to print. Wrote a few of them myself, and was happy to do so at a buck a word for 3000 word pieces.

But the emphasis in those essays was on the essay. The books – there were always three or four of them, thematically linked – were more of a reference/resource/jumping off point.

In the days before the long form web explosion it was a free read of high quality every month. But I rarely if ever bought the books reviewed. And I read the essays for their general subject matter rather than to check the individual titles.

w from brisbane has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

The ALR. That was a terrific read. As you say, the books being the jumping off for a meditation on stuff.

Less of an example of that, Mark Mordue's ALR review of the film 'The Road' still lives in my mind for its awesomeness..
http://www.markmordue.com/2010/02/towards-love-another-vision-of-road.html
But, I still have not seen the film.

I stel

damian reckons...

Posted May 21, 2013

Always liked that style of essay, indeed.

I've never been much of a reader of reviews as such. However literary reviews where the reviewer is good (and maybe famous) writer too are readbale for their own sake, and I always quite liked this. TLR stuff, like Eagleton on Dawkins (one I keep hapring on about) for instance.

Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted May 21, 2013

Thanks W,

That is a great link!

Reviews that are great reads.

I don't read reviews cause I don't often see them.

Out of spite I won't visit that 'Stephanie' (http://www.readinasinglesitting.com/ )site that won some useless award that so should have been given to CBG.

I won't I tell ya I won't!

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TC is gonna tell you...

Posted May 20, 2013

I enjoy reading reviews for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's often very difficult to get an idea of what an unknown book is actually about at its release (apart from vapid cliches and unrealistic marketing), so a well selected review can help me determine whether the subject matter of the book is something I'm interested in. Secondly, I love reading reviews about books that am certain to read at some point in the future (favourite authors, etc), simply because I'm a hopeless addict when it comes to reading.

But to answer what is more likely to be your underlying question of whether book reviews help me choose a book; the answer is no. I often find the reviewers' opinions amusing and sometimes quite enlightening, but rarely does a review determine which book - or other art form - I will go on to shell out the slippery squids for.

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alexmac reckons...

Posted May 20, 2013

Without sounding like a complete fucking tool, I reckon the only reviews worth reading are the kind you find in The New Yorker/The NY Review of Books/The Monthly, in which a person who is deeply involved in the subject matter does the reviewing. Often they're comparisons between non-fiction pieces and they're usually an awesome primer on a field of study. But it's the same old story, you have to look out for the bias of the reviewer.

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Murphy has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

Does anyone else get tired of having something spoiled by the fucking review? I went back and forth with the Strange Horizons features editor for weeks with a busted collar bone, typing one handed while hammered on Heinekens to dull the pain over spoiling the fucking novel.

I finally managed to get something submitted to him and published which gave you a taste of what Alastair Reynolds had accomplished in his second novel (which also holds up well today) without ruining the plot.

First and last one I ever wrote. Not too long after I found out about their List of Thou Shalt Nots for Fiction and decided I was done with SH for good. Never regretted it. Trying to follow their guidelines was akin to trying to have intercourse while wearing an ill fitting, undersized condom. Nothing like being cock choked while fornicating to ruin the mood and kill the stiffy.

Same can be said for such Thou Shalt Not Lists and Fiction.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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YB mumbles...

Posted May 20, 2013

I have almost never read a book review. I read books based on the cumulative positive suggestions of friends.

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Tim Richards is gonna tell you...

Posted May 20, 2013

Since I've started buying ebooks (rather than just borrowing books from libraries), I've been reading the book reviews in the Saturday edition of The Age fairly regularly, and have bought a few of those reviewed.

I appreciate having my attention drawn to various books I probably wouldn't have stumbled aross otherwise, especially since I generally stick to one or two genres unless prodded to change course.

In a sense I don't care about the credibility of the reviewer so much, as I can download a free sample section of the book and get a feel for the writer's style and approach. But it's good to be alerted to the book's existence in the first place.

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Crushed Ants and Cigar Boxes is gonna tell you...

Posted May 20, 2013

I always read reviews, but after I've read the book (or watched the film, or listened to the album)- it's really good fun to to hit "enter" on the googles and see what others think..

I know I'm preaching to the converted, but twitter is amazing for finding books to read- when someone I follow mention a book they've liked, well, off to ibooks, book depository or New Farm Editions I go. Which is why Im halfway through "Night Games", and when I'm done in a day or so, I'll be back to the Burgerstand to see what ol' JB thought of Anna Krien's work. Found it because Benjamin Law tweeted about it.

I read "The Comfort of Strangers" last week because someone tweeted a link to Ian Martin's (who wrote "The Thick of It") "60 thoughts about turning 60". He said that novel, by Ian McEwan, was the only book he truely regrets reading. Well, after reading that comment, I had to read it, to see if I'd regret it too. (I didn't, but you wouldn't read it twice..)

Finally, as someone said, it's way too difficult to find a reviewer who you think gets it right most the time. Far better to look for one you find to be an idiot, and read/watch/listen to whatever they think is rubbish

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted May 20, 2013

Rofling at that last line.

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Lulu would have you know...

Posted May 20, 2013

I watch D & M regularly for move reviews but that's not so much about watching everything they judge worthy of 4 (or more) stars. I've been watching them long enough that I know how their tastes relate to mine, and whether I'll like a film or not based on what they've said about it.

tqft asserts...

Posted May 20, 2013

I am like that too. Sometimes David pans it & Margaret likes it or the other way or any of the other combo's possible and I know whether I will like it or not.

For books there is no one individual I trust enough. So I keep a list and add books to buy to it and try and pick them up when I have money or they are free (hello Amazon specials). But typically either when the author has enough cred with me to be simply trusted (David Brin) or has enough recommendations from a wide range of people to get added to the list.

Lifeline bookfest in a few weeks :)

damian puts forth...

Posted May 21, 2013

Yeah actual discussion of the content beats "ratings".

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JG swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 20, 2013

I don't bother reading book reviews, but I'll sometimes read movie reviews. I like watching Margaret and David's At The Movies now and then.

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Johnny B Gone would have you know...

Posted May 20, 2013

Generally only when I'm travelling and need something decent will I use the kindle reviews as guide. Otherwise it's usually on recommends from friends.

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MarkM has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

As an ex-music journo/reviewer, I tend to completely ignore reviews, unless it is after I've read/listened/watched whatever is being reviewed and then it is to see whether the reviewer in question thought the same as I did. I was burnt badly by reading a glowing review of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and then making a foolish mistake of believing the reviewer. I'll never get that 48 minutes back, nor the lunch I lost, nor the memory-space taken up by that shit.

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JBtoo has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

I'm with those who use reviews as a guide to new books (and films) I may not otherwise discover. They can sometimes also be useful in deciding what not to read and watch. For example I have always been a sucker for reading the latest big thing, just to find out what the buzz is about and make my own decision. This is why I wasted my time on the first Dan Brown and Twilight. From these bitter experiences I read a few reviews and decided I really didn't need to read 50 Shades of Grey.

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ShaneAlpha has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013

One Oprah Book Club trumps 10 New York Times book reviews.

Commence sobbing.

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Jayanthi's Atomic Cat swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 20, 2013

If something has a glowing quote from Publishers Weekly on the front, I might pay a bit more attention, but I am lairy of promotions/reviews by other writers for the reasons outlined above. I prefer watching the Jennifer Byrne's book club on the ABC (which has starred the noble JB, I recall) to reviews, mainly because opinions are often so divided and with the presence of writers on each show, the analysis of the book is both entertaining, critical and informative. I have occasionally actively pursued or avoided a book as a result of that book club.

Yesterday I sought out book reviews for a Novel I Shall Not Name, which I have not finished reading yet, because it was kind of driving me nuts for various reasons, e.g. the writer changing close third person points of view with dazzling rapidity within scenes, and my less than zero investment in any of the main characters. Did anyone else have the same issues, I wondered? All I could find was reader reviews which were either one or five stars (the one-stars were all unhappy for the same reasons I was). So I really only seek out reviews when I'm feeling grumpy with the book and I want to virtually commiserate.

In a bookstore, I read the back, randomly open a few pages to check out the writing style, and then make a decision. Or if possible, download a free sample for e-books.

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she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted May 20, 2013

I find these days the rabbit hole / six degrees of separation in the meta data on sites like Amazon to be useful in finding new books to read; looking at the books of an author I already like and trust, and checking the meta data on "people who bought this book also bought..." has unearthed a few gems.

At the risk of sounding like a lickspittle, JB has proven to be a fount of good book recommendations too. I bought my dad Anthony Bevoir's book on the second world war after JB raved about it and he was THRILLED. It's kept him quietly occupied for the last month.

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted May 21, 2013

I live to serve, Madam Jedi.

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted May 21, 2013

I don't bother with them. Prefer opinions of people I respect.

tqft reckons...

Posted May 21, 2013

One website I used to spend a lot of time, one guy used to go to just about every movie & read a few books nd gives his thoughts in the personal space there. Fortunately for him he seems to have gotten a life and that source is gone.

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Quokka is gonna tell you...

Posted May 21, 2013

I just read a glowing blogger review of a novel which ended with the sentiment that she'd like to shag the author. Rest easy JB, it wasn't your book. :)

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted May 21, 2013

Really? Was she hot?

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Gavin has opinions thus...

Posted May 29, 2013

The secret is to find a reviewer that shares you trust.I love Crime Fiction. I always look forward to Graeme Blundell's book review column that comes out once a month or so in the Weekend Oz. I've bought and read a lot of great books after reading his write up.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted May 29, 2013

Yeah, Blundell is good value.

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