Sunday, August 03, 2008

What About Blog Reviews?

I've seen a number of posts along these lines over the last few weeks, so I thought I'd pose a question about the topic - particularly since I just sent my column to Game Trade Magazine about Ken Hite's and Andy Hopp's new book Where the Deep Ones Are.

Many folks as of late have been wondering if blogs are challenging traditional review sources. With the abundance of blogs on the Internet, reviews in newspapers and magazines could become less significant. Or have they already? This includes reviews of films, books, music, and most anything that can be reviewed.

Think of how easy it is to find a review of anything on a blog. Are these reviews competing with the traditional sources? Reviews are abundant on the Internet from many "official" review sites. But it could be argued that the difference between a blog review and a review from traditional source is that the traditional source has a reviewer with credentials of some sort, while the blog is a fan/reader/blogger. Well, that's how the discussion goes: fans reviewing VS established reviewers.

A word that usually creeps into this conversation is "democracy." My only concern with the use of this word in this topic is that "democracy" is a charged word. If I were to call blog reviews the "democracy of reviews," fewer people are going to say "Hey, democracy is bad in reviews." :) I'm not entirely sure that label fits here, so I'm going to avoid it now that I brought it up.

I think the crux of the issue comes down to fans reviewing as opposed to traditional reviewers. Is there more trust in one or the other? Certainly the traditional outlets are feeling the pressure as newspapers and magazines drop review staff.

Hmm, I think I just wrote a review of reviews.


Charles Gramlich said...

When it comes to movies and such, I long ago completely lost faith and interest in traditional reviewers. They just didn't seem to get it, to me. Instead, I want to know what folks who have the same kinds of interests as I do thought about a movie. It's a much, much better guide, though by no means infallable.

For books, I still do pay attention to the "credentialed" reviewers, although I also have a sense that the process has been corrupted to some extent. I know I've read glowing reviews of horrible trash, and I have to believe those reviewers were "influenced" in some way that doesn't help the readers. But just plain reader reviews can suffer the same problems. I know plenty of writers who get reviews on Amazon from their friends and family members, and while the friends/family members may be being honest in their reviews, they aren't exactly unbiased.

Carter said...

As far as reviews of non-fiction books go, the question has nothing to do with the relative "significance" of newspaper and magazine reviews as opposed to reviews on the Net. What's happening is that reviews of such works in print media are disappearing. The most recent casualty is the review section of the LA Times, but other such important review sources have been going south for several years.

Most N-F books get little notice from bloggers, but you can read about them on the Internet Review of Books We've been publishing every month for nearly a year; we're small yet, but growing. We've recently added fiction reviews, but still concentrate on N-F. We seek out books that are simply falling into the well when they should get at least a fair chance to be read, as well as blockbusters, and our reviewers are competent writers and scholars. Take a look.

Jeff Edwards said...

Charles brings up a good point about reviewer bias. Reviewers may be showing bias simply on the basis of what they choose to review. In other words, a reviewer doesn't need to write a scathing critique of a book in order to show that he/she detests the book - the reviewer may choose instead to ignore the book completely and not discuss it.

There is also the factor of how many people each reviewer is reaching. A well-written in-depth review of a horror movie published on a website is bound to reach fewer people than a superficial 25-word review included as part of a morning news show on television.

This is a topic that can be debated almost endlessly...but I'll stop here.


Stewart Sternberg said...

Before blogs, there were fans being interviewed as they came out of theaters, using phrases they had heard the week before on "Siskel and Ebert". It even got to the point where media sources were quoting the fans in marketing campaigns. "Outstanding!!!"

This issue about reviewers raises a point that I've been going over in my mind. Why should anyone pay attention to a critic of literature or film? Why are their words important? Is it possible for critics to take themselves too seriously, especially when haunting the vortex of academia.

Of course, there is a possibility that a critic, a true critic of film or literature, does something different. Perhaps they take a work of art, frame it against some context, and through the process, synergize something new. Their criticism becomes another work of art; a riff sparked by the original.

Steve Buchheit said...

I'm not one for watching/reading reviews. If someone is doing a good job of encapsulating the plot points, I'll read it out to see if I want to read or see what is being reviewed. Those blurbs on movie ads are only good to look at whom is being quoted (someone you know or having a NYT or big paper reviewer is good, if the lead quote is from someplace like the Detwhiller Star Journal, it's probably a good idea to skip that movie).

Those critics who are professional and good will be able to survive (in the long run), those that used it to play insider games will see their base dry up. Reviews are disappearing in newspapers not because there's so much on the internet, but because of the politics of newspapers (ad revenues are down, you have to cut somewhere, why don't we cut the section that may hurt ad revenue first).

Most people would rather read/see more of what they liked before. They'll go to other fans and read what they have to say (if they look at reviews at all). Most people don't want to try anything new now that energy prices are soaking up much of their spending money. It will take some time, but the general populace will get to the stage where they won't trust anything they read on the net (a couple of sponsored critics making the news, a few recommendations that didn't pan out).

But then there's the work being done by the likes of Robert Osbourne on TCM, who acts more as a movie historian than critic. Roger Maltin is another one who will see his job remain.

The claim of "there's so much out there in the blogosphere that it's killing professional reviews" is a bunch of hooey. Some people involved with blogs/media don't understand that the majority of the human race just doesn't care what goes on here.

William Jones said...

Carter - You're quite right about the vanishing reviews in newspapers and magazines. It was in part a series of such events that caused me to make this post. Many newspapers across the U.S. have dropped their reviews sections, or dropped their reviews editors.

It's good to see that there is a place for non-fiction reviews - those are often overlooked by all. Thanks for bring the URL to the conversation.

William Jones said...

Charles and Jeff - You're both on the mark, in my opinion. There are some reviews that are biased. Actually, there are some reviewers who write "good" reviews for a fee. And Amazon does have a few of them.

Booklist has started a new "pay for review" policy. It basically states that Booklist will review any book (that they are paid for), and even if the review is bad, it will include a plug-line - a phrase that can still go on the cover. For instance (and I'm making this up):

This is an awful, hideous, one of a kind book!

That becomes:

"One of a kind book" - Booklist

As for the skilled reviewer, I think there are quite a few out there. I wonder if there is more Internet business than print business as of late. And I wonder if the pay rates have stayed the same or decreased.

William Jones said...

Stewart - I'm not sure anyone pays attention to a "critic of literature or film." :) I see your point, however.

I suppose that I'd suggest that most academics don't do "reviews." Rather, they tend to write critical essays with hope of some sort of insight (already assuming everyone reading the article has read the book in question). Determinations of "good" or "bad" are seldom made.

I can give a personal example from a music video by Fiest ("1234"). This was the popular iPod ad for a while. When I watched the "director's cut" of the video, I was impressed that it was filmed in 1 long shot. It used cranes, moving cameras, started with 1 person, produced 30+ dancers, put on a complex dance production, and then ended with 1 person. At no point did the camera cut, stop, or used special effects.

I found that (academically, and stylistically) to be fantastic. Is it a great video? I don't know. :) The skill and technique make it impressive, but that is more academic (and only mildly). Other aspects would go into the academic view.

As for traditional critics, I believe they are supposed to have a pulse on the community and area in which they review. At least at one time that was the thought. Critics often offer "their" view or an "grand" view that is not influenced by personal bias.

I wonder if that is present in most blog reviews.

William Jones said...

Steve - You make an argument that I've seen many times: fans are often better judges of a book or film. Of course, fans tend to favor the things they are fans of. But I'm not sure that discredits the uninterested reviewer who must watch another "giant monster" film so he or she can write a review - all the while not enjoying it.

When there were reviews in the local newspaper, I sometimes heeded them. Often, I read them to compare what I thought the review should be. On occasion, we agreed. I do listen to the reviews of people who share a similar interest in topics. And I will look for reviews on something that I've no knowledge of. But, as I can find any type of review (good and bad) on the same item, it becomes difficult to weigh if I'm not familiar with the source.

Carter said...

All reviews are biased--it's inevitable. But the paid puff reviews are ridiculous--I'd hope nobody pays any attention to them at all.

A good reviewer may or may not like the book, but she'll tell you enough about it to let you decide whether to read it. Such a review would include a clear indication of what the book is about, how well the reviewer thinks it's written, and why the reviewer likes or doesn't like it. Most books have good points and bad; I've written very few--of hundreds--that were pure condemnation, and not very many that were pure praise. I've written them for free and for pay, but never been paid to give a particular opinion. That's not reviewing, that's a branch of advertising.

In my experience of film and music reviews, I've found some reviewers whose reactions I generally find similar to mine when I've seen or heard the piece, and I come to trust those. Others I can depend on, too--if they say the movie is terrible, I'll love it, and vice versa.