Reviewing Reviews PART TWO

Why do we have/need reviews?

Okay, if you are still here from yesterday (or more likely and more accurately have come back for more) here is more.  If you haven’t read Part One then believe me, you need to before you can make sense of Part Two. That’s why it was split into Three Parts. They work together. In an ordered way. No short cuts.  No spiritual enlightenment in 10 minutes a day here.

To summarise though: yesterday I suggested that

Writing is a communicative act.

Reading is a communicative act.

Writing might be termed a communicative act of intention. (CAi)

Reading might be termed a communicative act of interpretation.  (CAii)

But greater than both of these parts is the sum – together, writing and reading become (at best) a communicative interaction.  (CIA) Which brings responsibilities on both parts. (writer and reader)

And  I further suggested that

A review is another communicative act (which when read becomes an interaction). It’s more complex because it is a second order communicative interaction  – an interaction about an interaction if you like. Or we might term it a ‘mediation’  which I’m defining as the act of bringing about agreement or resolving differences (of understanding).  So we could say it’s a  CIM

Before you completely give up and go home let me get to today’s central point and questions.

Why do we have or need reviews?

I’d suggest there are three main reasons which are:

Product placement

Communication

Critical appraisal

It should come as no surprise that I’m more interested in the second and third of these two reasons.  But we must deal with the first.  I suggest it is particularly important for ‘indie’ publishing . And its importance is one of the reasons why it is such a ‘hot topic’ of debate.

If we ‘have’ reviews for the purpose of product placement what do we mean?

Okay.  Writing is a Communicative act (of intention). Reading is Communicative Act (of interpretation). The goal of both is a communicative Interaction. Got it

W=CAi, R=CAii and x + y = (we hope) CIA  (not, of course the organisation!)

And a review is a means of mediating this CIA, which is an example of CIM

(Okay, I know it’s not E=mc2 but seeing literature/narrative in terms of equations is at least as cool as recognising that science is a form of narrative right?) 

Which brings me to the thorny question of who mediates communicative acts/interactions?  (And why?) Well in terms of fiction/literature and writing in general, it is publishers in the first instance (by bringing the communicative act into the arena of interaction) and distributors or others with a financial incentive in the second instance.

Are you beginning to see where I’m driving at?  The mediators are the ones who want to say whether something is ‘good’ or ‘worthwhile’.

In general mediators don’t like unmediated communicative interaction because it might cost them money and/or diminish their power.  In the virtual world of the likes of Amazon or Goodreads (to give two examples) mediation itself isn’t the issue. Because in the first instance we are selling product, any product and in the second instance we are selling the idea of ‘being a mediator’. Well, not selling anything of course, the site is a self styled ‘community.’ However it is struggling to be a community of equals because the old hierarchical and power dominance rules are heading to the surface.  I haven’t the time or scope to go into the whole notion of ‘community’ here but I’d simply point out that it comes from the same Latin root – mun which is to do with ‘sharing’  – words/ideas in the sense of communication and sharing (anything) in common in the sense of community.  Snd ‘comm’ (together). We might then say that Goodreads aspires to be a community of communicative interaction. I leave it at that. It’s not for me to suggest here how far it lives up to its ideal. I have my own ideals to grapple with.

In the world of publishers, unmediated communicative interaction is definitely very threatening to both their power and their bank balance.  It could even put them out of business.  Because for publishers the mediation is more about shifting ‘their’ product as opposed to other peoples. Therefore their mediation tends to focus on the ‘quality’ of their product or of their ‘reputation’ or ‘popularity.’

I suspect that the traditional/mainstream publishers argument is that allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum is what’s going on when unmediated communicative interactions are ‘allowed’ (be they ‘indie’ publishing or the complete democratisation of reviews) by distributors or others.

The virtual sellers/distributors have a different angle.  From their point of view they just want the maximum number of people talking about a product in order to get the maximum chance of selling it.  They have lots of products to sell and it’s the visibility of all the products that matters to them, not the individual product in and of itself. This can only really be the case in the ‘virtual’ world where product does not take up space.

For the ‘indie’ publisher or writer as publisher it’s a bit different. To each of them by dint of their individual and independent nature, the individual ‘product’ (we might term it a creative work of course) is vitally important. You’d think perhaps that they could have the best of both worlds but inevitably, at the moment, it seems they have the worst of both. That’s because they are subject to mediation from all sides and they threaten all of the financial and power oriented goals and aspirations of the mediators.  Which offers something of an explanation as to why the ‘indie’ is getting it in the neck from all sides. And even from within!

What’s potentially so good about ‘indie’ publishing in the virtual environment is that it’s cheap (for everyone) and largely unmediated.  A writer can perform their communicative act (CAi) and for little or no money but considerably more effort, offer this straight to the reader to perform their CAii.  Beautiful. Simple.  CIA without any intervention.  You’d think.

So what’s the problem. Well, it’s twofold.

Step in the reviewer as mediator.  And the question of why indie (not only indie) writers get so upset by unmediated reviewers?  Because there is no basic agreement of the terms.  No control for the reviewer to live up to their (difficult) part of the communicative interaction of mediation.  No. What’s happened is that by removing most of the mediation we have allowed the playground bullies to rule the roost and he who shouts loudest to be heard, not he who speaks quietly with a voice of reason.  It takes another act of communicative interpretation for a reader of reviews to work out whether the reviewer actually has any authority in what they say and if the review reader simply takes an unknown reviewer’s word as authoritative (because let’s say they don’t have the skill or will to work out good from bad communicative acts or intents) then the writer suffers. The reviewer doesn’t. (Except in so far as they may make themselves look a poor writer/communicator – but they don’t lose out financially. Nor do they lose the chance to make an unmediated communicative interaction between writer and reader) The reviewer, in other words, has power.

Remember I said the problem was twofold.  The reviewer has the power of mediation. And with this power in the ‘indie’ field comes the power to reduce visibility. And visibility is one of the most important tools the indie has to rely on in an unmediated relationship. If no one knows you exist you don’t (to all intents and purposes) exist in the virtual world. And if a reviewer with the power of mediation destroys your credibility your visibility will suffer.

Traditionally in publishing visibility is bought. It still is to an extent even in the virtual world. Distributors such as Amazon offer all kinds of ways of you ‘buying’ visibility. As do many ‘review’ sites. Even those touting the word ‘indie’. If you don’t buy visibility all you have to rely on is reputation. And if the mediating reviewer exerts power to deny you this reputation you are as we say in theoretical circles, well and truly screwed.

So. We have reviews (and reviewers) primarily because there is money to be made and power to be wielded in mediation of communicative interactions.  You should always look at the motives of a review/reviewer as well as their ‘credentials’ and ‘authority’.   There are reviews/and reviewers which/who seek not to dominate or express power but to engage in communicative interaction sensitively, intelligently and with the purest of motives. They are few and far between and their price is above gold!  But always, always remember that every review is written with a motive. And if the motive is not transparent there may be a reason for that!  Your part in the communicative interaction as reader is to interpret, remember, so always look at whether the motive is product placement, communication or critical analysis. Or which combination of them and why.

Reviews are not there to give you all the answers they are there to help you ask questions. And make choices. They are a communicative interaction that you have to actively engage with to get the most out of them. And this means switching on your own critical faculties.

We need reviews because it’s a way for the reader to explore what communicative interaction he wants to engage in.  It’s about visibility and mediation.  And it’s a heavy responsibility to be a mediator.  It should be used wisely.

Which is where Part Three comes in. Which of course is what all this has been leading up to.

I’ve told you what reviews are and how and why we need them. All that’s left is for me to suggest how to do the mediated communicative interaction justice – that is – how to write a ‘good’ review.  (Remember we use ‘good’ not as a moral definition but as a functional/practical one – achieving the desired goal). And that will happen tomorrow!