Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wednesday wonderland

Hitherto unappreciated opportunities and risks

In his online notebook, Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that book reviews can be far more revealing of the reviewers than of the subject of the review. (To read Taleb's original thoughts, follow the link in this para and scroll down to 'Wittgenstein's Ruler'. Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

Writers, says Taleb, can suffer from the contagion effect: subsequent reviews will be likely to echo the tone of previous ones. However, Taleb believes that the web and the long-tail mechanism will counteract that. And writers now have a far greater weapon with which to fight back than that wimpy letter to the editor.

'If someone goes unfairly ad hominem into someone else's background, you go into his,' Taleb suggests. So, end of the writer-as-sitting-duck syndrome.

Says Taleb: 'This is my style of deterrence: overreact to what you find intellectually unfair beyond the tit-for-tat, or ignore completely -- and randomly. I wrote 11 years ago a review of a review of a book by my friend Victor Niederhoffer, which I found unfair, misdirected, and uninformed. The review is dead but my second-order review still crops up! Writers of reviews do not remember their work; hurt authors do.'

Crumbs. Makes you think a bit, dunnit?

Dr Taleb is particularly displeased by the distortions, which have appeared in print, of his own ideas, ideas which were expressed in Fooled by Randomness, which was reviewed here, and discussed in a whole series of posts, in 2004.

From my own modest experience of applying Taleb's ideas to the book trade (see On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile), I can testify that people do tend to misread what you are saying. Or, to put it perhaps more tactfully, it is very difficult to ensure that the reader always knows what you mean. In fact, in the case of some readers, it's impossible.

By the way: Dr Taleb's new book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is due out from Random House in April.

Brief notes

Following yesterday's comment of mine that, when preparing a book for printing, things invariably go worng, my son Jon points me to a new book which tries to explain why it happens, at least when computers are involved. It's all in the software code.

Jon also points me to a report in the South Korean press about modern versions of old fairy tales. Like, Snow White taking an axe to those vertically challenged friends of hers, and Gretel getting a bit sniffy with Hansel. An expert is worried. 'Elementary school students can't always distinguish fantasy from reality,' he says. Some pensioners have the same problem.

Oops. Seems I was wrong yesterday. Mark Twain was hanging out in the Hotel Chelsea long before the Algonquin crowd started meeting.

Patricia or Patty Marx seems to be attracting a great deal of attention. There's quite a funny interview with her mother in the Huffington Post, though it's a bastard to read because of the way it's laid out. (Link from Buzz, Balls & Hype, by the way.) And there is a four-part TV interview with her on LX.TV. Patty, it seems, discusses the definition of chick lit, her new novel, the early days of Saturday Night Live, the book-writing process, and the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

In Saturdays' Times, Nicholas Clee noted that Conn Iggulden has pulled off an unprecedented feat. He has hardback books at the top of both the UK besteller lists for fiction (Wolf of the Plains) and non-fiction (The Dangerous Book for Boys). The Sunday Times carried an interview with him.

Leonora Klein has written a book about Mr Pierrepoint, mentioned here recently as an efficient hangman, by contrast with the clueless ones in Iraq.

Bookslut led the way to a really interesting piece by Pulitzer prizewinner Chris Hedges about the radical Christian right and despair in suburban America. This is the best analysis of the mood and temper of America that I've read for along time. But it does, of course, provide a whole new set of things to worry about, if you're the worrying type.

Cory Doctorow has some marvellous advice about blogging. If you're smart enough to understand it. I'm not. (Link from Locus.)

Finally, sales at W.H. Smith (which sells books, among other things) are down 6 per cent, year on year. Some clue as to why this may have happened was provided in Monday's Times. A woman tried to buy some cigarettes at W.H. Smith in Cambridge. The shop assistant, a Muslim, refused to sell them because it was against her religion. A company spokesman said the customer should have realised that the assistant was Muslim and would not sell tobacco.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the Cory Doctorow article. I'm not sure I'm smart enough to understand it either, but I've printed it out to study this evening.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your son for the "Dreaming in Code" reference. A study was once done to determine what factors led to successful and efficient programming. It appears (somewhat unsuprisingly) that someone who has their own room, with a door that can be kept closed, and an ability to refuse to accept phone calls, has an enormous advantage.
Of course, one can see the extension of this to publishing, or indeed most human endeavour. Coleridge would have agreed.

Anonymous said...

There wasn't a lot of cigarette smoking going on or about Muhammad’s turf when the Q'ran was written.

Tobacco is not haram in Islam, outside of theological interpretations wherein the prophet's musings on such things as well-being etc., are held as evidence.

Just as loonies blow themselves to pieces in the name of the Q'ran, now the Q'ran is a guide to modern health as well? It certainly was a guide to health at time of writing but no fags of the smoking variety were forbidden.

I gotta get me wunnarem magic Q'rans where it says what I want it to say. (What's the point of any bible if not to justify one's right to be delusional?)

And good for Taleb. But such advice is pissing in the wind when you can only publish your reviews of reviews in a tumbleweed blog while the reviewer gets to be windswept and interesting in a proper magazine or newspaper.

The 'already successful' can ignore these things anyway; consider the source.

Better than making a big bare bum of the reviewer is to use review surgery so that you get to drive the fuckers crazy.

I got one of the worst reviews I've ever seen just after my novel was published. I was ready to end it all when I noticed that the evidence for my 'ham-fisted style' was a misquote from the back cover and the misquote was certainly ham-fisted for sure. (He gets to have his opinion that the prose style is the worst thing he ever saw but he has to use the actual crappy prose; not the imaginary stuff wot he made up.)

In conclusion he said; "Not big. Not clever." which I changed to 'Big... Clever...' for, while I have no idea at all what he meant, he was trying to hurt the book. In fact, in retrospect, my surgery made him look a lot cleverer than he (evidently) is. (I'm surprised he hasn't written to thank me.)

But it was all so below the guy that he couldn't even be bothered looking at the book as he wrote the review.

But getting ink is all that matters, no?

If the reviewer 'gets it wrong' then it is certainly the duty of the author to put him straight. But one must find the right time and place, if possible.

I'm with Dr. Ian Hocking, who says that he doesn't review anything unless he 'enjoys' it.

Bad reviews don't hurt established writers in the least; they simply generate interest, but for a first timer it can be debilitating.

Mostly I'm amused by writers who claim they 'learnt' something about themselves from a review. (Mmm, let's talk.) I'm too stupid to learn anything from a review. I simply want my undiscovered genius to be discovered. I had no idea that there were reviewers (quite a high percentage in my sample) who didn't even read the book and editors who didn't care. (Probably too busy writing about The Novel.)

Another geezer at The Gruaniad reviewed my novel by talking about himself and making lame jokes about Venessa May. (I had to look her up.)

A right to reply would be fantastic. How many authors wouldn't fancy their chances against almost any reviewer? (And then editors might actually hire the better writers and thinkers and lose the self-conscious nitwits that tend to get these jobs.)

With a guaranteed right to reply any author worth her salt would positively invite the sneering classes to bring it on.

Anonymous said...

I remember a time when we didn't argue with a review nor did we react to it and fall on our swords. After all no assessment is true or false, just a point of view. As everyman becomes a blogger and his/her own reviewer, the professionals need to raise their standards and their wit if they are to survive. Opinions are cheap, but good taste, critical thinking and a sensibility for quality and style will win in the end.

Anonymous said...

"Opinions are cheap, but good taste, critical thinking and a sensibility for quality and style will win in the end."

Ah, if only 'twere true.

This is probably how most of the world views the literary or publishing world. I know I used to. The cream always rises and the universe returns to equilibrium. Perhaps, as you say, 'twas once so? But 'tis no more.

I believe reviewers have a responsibility to read the book. Who could believe that reviewers don't read books? But my (little) experience has shown me that only a minority of reviewers actually read the book.

When this happens authors should and must go to war. The only difficulty is getting the reviewer onto a suitable battlefield for it behoves us all to separate reviewers from the many confidence tricksters who pass themselves off as literary editors, publishers and reviewers. Decent, stand-up, editors publishers and reviewers know exactly what I'm banging on about.

I would never argue with a reviewer who wrote a review of the novel I wrote but I will always argue with people who try to hurt my novel in lieu of reading it. This is monstrous behaviour and it must be challenged.

Reviewers do and must have the right to say whatever they want but the frauds (and there are many) should be exposed.

Even reviewers who actually try to read the book don't always manage: I had one guy who complained that a cross-dressing character of mine was clichéd "because he was depressed".

If the guy had actually read the book he would have known that the cross-dresser's wife (whom he loved passionately) had died - in a scene in the book, no less; a scene he could have easily read if he'd a mind to. Then he could have exposed the scene as dreadful if he'd wished but at least he would have been talking about the novel that actually existed and not the novel inside his bonce.

Is that a review? A character is depressed and the reviewer missed the bit about the character's whole life crashing about him? The reviewer thought he knew what he was looking at without having to engage his brain. He's allowed to find it clichéd, of course, but he's only allowed to find the story and characters I wrote clichéd: He is not allowed to cast slurs upon my hard work while reporting on his own state of mind.

Long, long, long before we get to your lofty ideals it's worth trying to find a way to get reviewers to read the damn things.

I'm banging on about this, by the way, to help self-published authors or authors from small publishers who might have to get their hands dirty to get people to even see their books (let alone read them).

I will never listen to justifications of such behavior and certainly not veiled assertions that my novel deserved such treatment (Editor of the Big Issue) because it was a "short review".

I'm sure she was thinking that my novel was probably shite anyway but it would have been nice if someone had taken a few minutes to find out for themselves.

But perhaps they were too busy with their hair gel? Perhaps they had bigger fish to fry? Perhaps a Big Brother character was on the blower offering an interview about their new novel?

If reviewers knew they might have to face their 'victims' perhaps then they'd read the book (even if it had a dodgy ISBN number).

It is not a lot to ask; especially given how hard it is in the first place to even be 'granted' a review.

I hope you're right that the internet will force 'professionals' to raise their standards but I suspect it will only worsen.

Regular readers write reviews if they love or hate a book. Pros do it for money and mostly they'd rather be having their own novels reviewed than reviewing others. That's fine as long as they don't take it out on people who have the gumption to believe that Sophie and the marketing department down at fucking Huckster & Hump are dead wrong.

I don't see any of that changing. I've been to the London Book Fair and I've seen how interested publishers are in books. (I do not mean small publishers for I know not how they survive.)

The eye-of-the-needle is fuck-all compared to getting a review for a self-published book. When I'm sitting in my bedroom writing fiction at 11 in the morning instead of software manuals or corporate shitetalk then I too will rise above it all.

Until then, anyone who takes the piss will not be forgotten. If we all made it scary for them (you know, show them up for the tits that they are) they would think twice.

It is not the author's fault that someone who believes themselves to be a writer has to take reviewing jobs. They should have a little pride in their work.

The publishing world is disgusting. Sometimes it's hard not to feel like a stupid little naive child because the type of people who populate this world (or at least set the 'atmosphere') want it that way.

I will never shut my gob about this. Never. It is important whether people would suggest otherwise or not.

It is vital that the gatekeepers, the ninth or tenth rung down the publishing monkey tree, do not keep us out for the wrong reasons.

They should be ashamed.