Writers have long argued that the book review was a silly exercise at best. Edgar Allan Poe called reviews a mere “tissue of flatteries,” as the Guardian recently reminded us. Virginia Woolf once said “the clash of completely contradictory opinions cancel each other out.” Perhaps most damning was Elizabeth Hardwick, who, in 1959, had this to say about book reviews: “sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns…. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.”
Today's literati remain equally at odds over the value of the book review. Jacob Silverman stirred up a tempest in the literary teapot earlier this month when he suggested in Slate that the online book culture has spawned an epidemic of "niceness" and turned book reviews too tame. Salon's Laura Miller responded with a defense of positive reviews, while Dwight Garner of The New York Times made a case for "critics who are actually critical."
But all of the above is, at least, honest controversy about professional reviews. What to make of business-for-hire review writing, the less-than-ethical practice that had one entrepreneur advertising on Craigslist for folks to churn out positive reviews of books for $15 a pop?
According to an excellent expository piece in the New York Times, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” Todd Jason Rutherford made a small fortune selling positive reviews of self-published Amazon titles. He started his website, GettingBookReviews.com, in the fall of 2010. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes the Times’s David Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”
Orders started pouring in for good reviews and Rutherford quickly realized he couldn’t produce all the reviews himself. “How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.”
“Before he knew it,” writes the Times, “he was taking in $28,000 a month.”
Rutherford’s business was eventually outed and forced to stop churning out paid reviews – but by then Rutherford has flooded Amazon with scores of phony reviews (4,531, to be exact) by folks looking to make a quick buck, the vast majority of whom had never even opened the book they were reviewing.
Amazon has said it took down some, though not all, of Rutherford’s paid reviews, according to the NYT piece. Still, Bing Lu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that fully one-third of all online reviews are fake – and it’s nearly impossible to tell the fake from the real.
And though many users never put full stock in online reviews, literary or otherwise, this latest news has us wondering what to trust.
(For the record, Rutherford is now selling R.V.s in Oklahoma City and says “he is now suspicious of all online reviews – of books or anything else. ‘When there are 20 positive reviews and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,’ he said. ‘I’m jaded.’”)
So what’s a reader to do?
Use smaller and more traditional outlets. For some quick feedback, turn to smaller, more specialized sites, like Goodreads or Librarything, where you’re more likely to find genuine reviews by trustworthy readers.
And don’t forget the traditional book review (we won't be shy about mentioning the reviews provided right here at CSMonitor.com/Books), those literary appraisals maligned by writers like Woolf and Poe, and which may now be making a comeback thanks to Rutherford and company.
“[I]t ... seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review,” writes the Guardian. “Reviews in, say, newspaper book sections ... are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books…Yes, there’s only one voice rather than the wisdom of the crowd, but these critics are convincing, independent, entertaining and trustworthy enough that, time and again, they are paid to offer their opinion.”
“And not in the way that Todd Rutherford was paid, by the authors of the books themselves.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
“Wolf Hall” centers on Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to King Henry VIII, and his attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of the English court, while “Bring Up the Bodies” tells the story of Henry’s second, ill-fated wife Anne Boleyn.
Disturbed by the runaway success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy?
You’re not the only one.
While some have credited the book with reviving stale relationships and setting off a “Fifty Shades”-inspired baby boom, one British charity is so outraged by the sado-masochistic bestseller it has called for a “Fifty Shades” book burning.
Wearside Women in Need, a charity that focuses on domestic violence, has asked readers to drop off their copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which it calls “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman,” for a Nov. 5 book-burning bonfire.
"I do not think I can put into words how vile I think this book is," Wearside Women director Clare Phillipson told the BBC. “And how dangerous I think the idea is that you get a sophisticated but naïve, young women and a much richer, abusive older man who beats her up and does some dreadful things to her sexually.”
Phillipson told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she had been waiting for “a feminist icon to savage this misogynistic crap, but nobody did,” so she decided to organize a protest herself.
EL James’s “Fifty Shades” trilogy charts the romance between Anastasia, a naïve college student who has an affair with Christian Grey, a handsome billionaire her introduces her to sado-masochistic sex. The books have become a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 20 million copies in a matter of months to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time .
Lost in the runaway success of the racy tale are “Fifty Shades” detractors.
And Erica Jong, author of the 1973 “Fear of Flying,” a novel known for “its frank treatment of female sexual desire,” writes the LA Times. “I couldn’t find anything that turned me on, other than the fact that he gives her a rare copy of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’” Jong said during a panel discussion of literary writers known for writing about sex earlier this summer in New York.
And physician and TV personality Dr. Drew Pinsky came out against the books on the “Today Show,” according to the Huffington Post. “It does disturb me. The ‘swept away’ fantasy is a common fantasy. But … it’s going beyond that into actual violence against women.”
Defenders, including publisher Random House and “Fifty Shades” fans, say the sex in the trilogy is not abusive but “entirely consensual.”
But Wearside Women’s Phillipson isn’t buying it. “It really is about a domestic violence perpetrator, taking someone who is less powerful, inexperienced, not entirely confident about the area of life she is being led into, and then spinning her a yarn,” Phillipson said. “Then he starts doing absolutely horrific sexual things to her.” Later she said, “That message is so dangerous…There will be a whole generation of young women hearing the women around them say, ‘What a great book’… and thinking ‘This is all right.’”
“My main objective is that at a time when local authorities are making cuts to outreach and refuge services for women experiencing domestic violence, we have libraries wasting and grossly misusing public to buy a book which says, ‘domestic violence is sexy,’” Philippson said. “The money would be better spent supporting victims.”
Phillipson is encouraging women to bring copies of the trilogy to Wearside Women in Need offices for a scheduled Nov. 5 bonfire in which both the books and an effigy of Christian Grey will be burned.
A dangerous step or a step in the right direction? Tell us what you think.
The writer behind the Navy SEAL memoir about killing Osama bin Laden is anonymous no longer. The author of "No Easy Day" is now said to be Matt Bissonette, a 36-year-old former Navy commando who is retired but who earned five Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart during his time in the military.
Fox News reported the author’s identity less than a day after the book was announced. The book had been scheduled for released on Sept. 11 under the pseudonym Mark Owen. Penguin, the publisher behind “No Easy Day,” says that the production schedule for the book will not be changed by the revelation of Bissonette’s identity.
There was criticism of Penguin, whose imprint, Dutton, will publish the book, when the book was first announced. The Defense Department says the book needs to be approved by them before publication because of the information about the department within the book. A Pentagon spokesperson, Lt. Col. James Gregory, said they have not received a copy of the book for approval, and Colonel Tim Nye, a spokesperson for the US Special Operations Command, told Reuters Bissonette could be subject to “potential investigation” because of this.
Dutton spokesperson Christine Ball said there wasn’t any information that could be construed as classified in “No Easy Day,” and a “special operations attorney” has looked through the book for information pertaining to military tactics or procedure, according to Reuters.
“The two reasons [Bissonette] wrote this book were to raise awareness about the sacrifices the SEALs make and to raise money for charities that support fallen SEALs,” Ball said.
Nye told Reuters that approval by Penguin's "special operations attorney" was “irrelevant.”
Bissonette lives in Wrangell, Alaska, according to the Fox News report.
Why rely on one book review when you can read five?
The website The Bookscore aims to fill that need with its collection of aggregated reviews for new titles. On The Bookscore, the articles for a certain book are gathered so that, like on movie websites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, a website visitor can look at a title and get an overall score for a book, averaged from multiple reviews. For example, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed currently holds a score of 8.8; “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel” is the proud possessor of a 9.1.
“The Bookscore sets itself apart by including reviews from the only the most trusted sources, by giving users a complete online forum for news and discussion to go along with the reviews, and by allowing the users to contribute to the content directly by requesting books to be scored,” said co-founder Sam Griswold, who founded the site with Chris Laursen.
A button on the front page of the website lets visitors ask for a title to be included. The site’s blog includes articles on book world controversies like “Imagine” author Jonah Lehrer allegedly committing plagiarism and the frontrunners for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
When looking for reviews, visitors can search through the category “Most Recent” for new releases, “Critic’s Picks” for books with the highest scores (“Bring” by Mantel has the all-time highest score, with other titles like "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin also occupying slots), or Editor’s Choice, which currently features titles like “Cheerful Money” by Tad Friend.
It’s the Kentucky Derby of literature, the Super Bowl of bibliophiles, the most bet-on literary competition of the year. The announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature may be months away, but bet-placing is in full swing. In the top spot with 10/1 odds is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, according to British gambling site Ladbrokes.
If past precedent is any indication, it might just be a good bet. Last year the prize was awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, who was Ladbroke’s second favorite with initial odds of 9/2 (just behind Syrian poet Adonis, at 4/1). Interestingly, Murakami was a favorite last year, too, with odds at one point hitting 8/1.
The author of “Norwegian Wood” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” Murakami is perhaps best known for his recent “IQ84,” an epic trilogy that sold millions in Japan and the US. As we wrote in an earlier Chapter & Verse post, his novels “often feature defiant protagonists who run against the orderly, group mentality predominant in Japanese culture…. Like his protagonists, Murakami is a vocal critic of Japanese policy, particularly its reliance on nuclear power.” The Nobel Prize is often a political statement as much as a literary one, and in this increasingly anti-nuclear climate, Murakami’s views won’t go unnoticed.
Of course, Murakami’s not the only contender. Some 210 writers were nominated for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, some 46 of whom were nominated for the first time, according to the Swedish Academy.
Behind Murakami is Chinese author Mo Yan (12/1) and Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom (12/1). Tied for fourth are Albanian author Ismail Kadare (14/1), Syrian poet Adonis (14/1), and South Korean poet Ko Un (14/1). Cormac McCarthy is currently running at 16/1, Alice Munro at 20/1, Bob Dylan’s rocking 33/1, and Jonathan Franzen’s way down at 100/1.
The betting kinds would be wise to check out Michael Orthofer’s deliberations on Literary Saloon before plunking down cash on a choice like Bob Dylan (“....anyone who bets on Dylan is basically just handing the money over to them,” writes Orthofer).
As for us, we’re keeping our eye on Murakami and new names like Chinese writer Mo Yan, Italian writer and daughter of a Sicilian princess Dacia Maraini, and Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza Garriga.
Let the betting begin!
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Adam Brent Houghtaling, a New York-based author, should be in quite a sour mood by now. After all, he spent months listening to the saddest music ever made, from sorrowful symphonies to tearjerker Billie Holliday tunes to just about every Leonard Cohen song ever.
But Houghtaling, author of the new book "This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music," is actually pretty chipper, all things – and all songs – considered. His fascinating examination of centuries of downer music is getting plenty of attention, and his ranking of the Top 100 Saddest Songs has spawned debate.
I asked Houghtaling to explain what he's learned and ponder why we like to turn to blue notes, especially when we're notably blue.
Q: What makes sad songs unique?
A: Sad songs are a really intimate thing. They're not something you listen to with all your friends at a dinner party or when you're hanging out at a lake house with your buddies. You're doing it by yourself.
If you're listening to a lot of sad music, it's because you're not in a great state of mind. You've just gotten your heart broken or suffered some kind of loss. It becomes intimate, but it's also comforting in a way.
Q: Can sad songs actually be good for us when we're feeling down?
A: There's this idea that listening to sad songs may drag us deeper into our despair. But it may also help us go deeper into a despair and focus on whatever the problem is that brought us to that point.
Q: Do you mean a kind of catharsis?
A: I found catharsis to be a very tricky topic, but yeah, it's the idea that when you connect with an artist or a song, you feel like someone else is out there, someone has gone through this before, you're not alone.
There's a lot of ways that sad songs help us get through the despair and put us back on track.
Q: How did researching your book affect you personally?
A: It took me a couple of years, if not a little more, to write the book, and I was deeply immersed in the saddest stuff I could find, listening to it over and over again.
My mood depended on what was going on in my life. If everything was going OK, it didn't affect me much. But if a couple things went wrong, it didn't help.
It wasn't always the best thing for me. But I had a deadline.
Q: Do you feel like you're celebrating sad songs?
A: I want to celebrate being melancholy in the ruminative sense, not depression itself.
That's nothing I want to make light of and really affects people's lives in a terrible way. When you're depressed, you can't do a heck of a lot and you don't feel a lot of joy.
But when I'm kind of melancholic, I can still do all that stuff. I feel peaceful and comforted when I'm in that head space.
I wanted to make a case for enjoying that and not trying to end it. These moments of sadness are an important part of life, and you shouldn't necessarily try to chase them away at all costs.
A: I wanted to include artists who really owned sadness, not just people who did a couple of sad songs.
Q: Do the artists behind these songs tend to have difficult lives?
A: It just makes sense that artists who deal with emotional turmoil would have a truer, stronger sense of the material than someone who doesn't necessarily know sadness beyond a bad day or weekend. Instead, it's someone who knows a bad year or a decade.
Q: What makes a good sad song?
A: There isn't any one thing on its own that does it.
I looked at slow tempo, which can do a good job of slowing your heart rate down. But ambient music has slow tempo too, and it's not necessarily sad. I looked at minor chords, but there are plenty of upbeat songs that have minor chords. Then there are lyrics, but there are plenty of raging songs that are about loss, grief and heartbreak.
Then I got into the little things, like how someone's voice can help convey a certain kind of sadness. There are these kinds of really beat-up and broken voices, like Billie Holliday's in her last years, that convey "I've been through it all, and this is a story I have to tell."
There's also something about low-fi music, this idea that this is the honest truth: We didn't shine this up or produce it for you. It's coming from a kid in his bedroom with a broken heart.
Q: Would you prescribe sad songs to a sad person?
A: I don't think I'd have to. They probably would have found them on their own.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
From controversial Communist leader to introspective bestselling author?
If recent rumors are true, then former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is the master of career transitions. Not only is the ailing octogenarian alive, asserted a Cuban pro-government blogger, he’s working on a new book – with Hugo Chavez.
Blogger Yohandry Fontana first broke the news, reported by Reuters, in a somewhat cryptic post. “Fidel Castro works together with Hugo Chavez on a book that will appear soon,” Fontana wrote, responding to rumors of Castro’s death. No additional details were provided about the supposedly forthcoming book.
Castro, who turned 86 on August 13, has been seriously ill and out of the public eye for months, raising speculation that the former Cuban leader was close to death. Due to his age and ill health, Castro resigned the presidency in February 2008 and was succeeded by his brother, Raul Castro. He hasn’t been seen in public since March 28, when he visited the Vatican embassy in Havana to meet with Pope Benedict during his visit to Cuba, and was last heard from on June 19 when he wrote the last of a series of columns published in Cuban state papers, Reuters reported.
“He has occasionally fallen out of view for extended periods since then, always provoking speculation about his health, but reappeared each time saying he was working on a book or conducting research,” Reuters wrote. And indeed, Castro has worked on several books since his retirement.
This time, it seems, is no different. Except, of course, that he’s found a co-author in fellow strongman Hugo Chavez, who seems equally intent on proving to the world Castro’s health and vigor. On Castro’s 86th birthday, the Venezuelan leader tweeted (yes even Chavez tweets), “It is impressive his energy and lucidity. He is an example of will and of revolutionary perseverance for all. Long live Fidel!” (Suspiciously, however, he made no mention of the supposed book the leaders are co-writing.)
(This, of course, has prompted mischievous headlines like New York Daily’s News’s “Besties Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro to write book together.” Writes NY Daily News writer Sarah Langs, “The two communist leaders are friends who share an enmity of Western capitalism, especially as practiced by the United States. So if you’re itching to read a love letter to Goldman Sachs, this probably won’t be it.”)
What might the book entail? Blogger Fontana gave one hint: “The source that confirmed this information also said the Leader of the Revolution keeps up to date on the position of Ecuador regarding the case of (Wikileaks founder) Julian Assange, among other national and international issues that interest him.”
We’re eager to see what the Castro-Chavez dream team produces. Now that’s one author signing we’d attend.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Two classic works of literature are headed to TV with slight twists.
One of CBS’s new shows for the fall is “Elementary,” a present-day update of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, while ABC is currently developing a show titled “Finn & Sawyer” in which the heroes create an investigative business in a steampunk New Orleans as adults. It is described as a take on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“Elementary” stars Miller as famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes and Liu as a female Watson. In the CBS show, Sherlock has come to New York from London after spending time in rehab. He works as a consultant to New York’s police.
Executive producer Rob Doherty said Holmes’ drug habit and his legendary nemesis, Professor Moriarty, will both be part of the show. While concerns have arisen over whether the CBS show and the BBC series “Sherlock,” which also features a modernized Holmes and Watson, can coexist, Doherty pointed out that a contemporary update of Sherlock Holmes is not a new idea and that he has seen the first season of “Sherlock” and enjoyed it.
“I've seen many, many different takes and interpretations on the character and the franchise,” Doherty said of Sherlock Holmes adaptations in general. “They're all great. I don't think any of them hurt any of the others.”
CBS’s Sherlock show begins this September, while “Finn & Sawyer” was given a script order by ABC, so its air date (if it gets one) will be determined in the future.
Parini, who was a friend of Vidal’s, will release the book through Doubleday.
Doubleday executive editor and vice president Gerald Howard told the New York Times that Parini’s 30-odd-year friendship with Vidal would deeply inform the book and that Parini and Vidal had talked at least weekly, if not more often, for the past decades.
“He knows a lot about Gore that he’s heard directly from the source, and that’s certainly one of the major things that’s going to inform the biography, this intimate acquaintance that they had,” Howard said.
Parini was the editor for the book “Gore Vidal: Against the Grain,” an essay collection about the writer published in 1992, and has taken on other literary titans including William Faulkner and John Steinbeck in his biographies. He is also a professor at Middlebury College and the author of the 1990 novel "The Last Station" about the tumultuous late years of the life of Leo Tolstoy.