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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Critic and the Poster

Podcasts v Reviews

When I arrived at the SLJ Summit I had to rush off — leading to the widespread rumor that my plane was trapped on the ground in Newark. In fact, I was in my hotel room, because I was doing a podcast interview with Heidi Estrin for the Book of Life, a Jewish-oriented podcast she hosts. Heidi has since told me about a contest jewishlibraries.org/podcast/ that may be of interest to anyone who reads this blog. Heidi conducts interviews for the Book of Life, but if you click "contest" at that site, you’ll see that the Jewish Library pocast is open to talks, lectures, readings — events that an author is already doing. So both the Book of Life and the new podcast are ways to speak to a larger audience than is physically present at a given event.

Full disclosure, that same association of Jewish Libraries, so I have heard, is publishing a review that slams my book Unsettled, and calls me "self-hating." I cannot tell you how puzzling I find it to have a Jew who asks questions termed "self-hating" — as if to press, ponder, weigh, and wrestle with moral issues were not the most Jewish activities. There is a kind of party line fury in the phrase, as if one should either defend Israel or be its enemy, as if Israel were not like any nation — like America — a place that sometimes does, and other times does not, live up to its own highest ideals. 

While of course I am an interested party in the fate of my own book, in a way the response to Unsettled is a portrait of how books are discussed and promoted today. The minute the book was listed on Amazon, two critics leapt in to condemn it — flourishing their one star ratings, and the "self-hating" tag. Fortunately Kirkus gave the book a very good review, which my publisher posted, and a couple of other Amazon posters disagreed with the first two. So if this were chess, fan attacks were countered with a journal’s reviews. Then the Jewish Library Association features a condemning review, countered by the podcast I did with Heidi. 

In this world of instant access and instant comment, where there are blogs, and reader responses, as well as regular reviews, how will readers decide which voices matter? How do they choose between opposing camps?

What do you think, how should, for example, a school librarian evaluate the many kinds of voices now weighing in on books?

Comments

  1. VickieNJ says:

    I personally think professional reviews should be weighted somewhere between 95 and 100%, and consumer or non-professional reviews 0 to 5%. There are too many people with an ax to grind or a poorly-though-out opinion to give them much consideration.

    My only exception is if a children’s or YA books leaves me cold, I then sometimes look for reviews by children or teens. I may have missed something they liked in a book due to my advanced age (I am 52).

  2. Heidi Estrin says:

    While I think professional reviews are often better structured in terms of critique (rather than a gut response), I would not discount consumer reviews. I find it very helpful to hear about readers’ direct, unfiltered responses to books. Also, it’s important to remember that professional reviewers are also humans with unique, personal responses to what they read. Much as they may try to be impartial, their own experiences and attitudes will affect their reviews. So I don’t think we have to choose between professional and user reviews – they can all help us form an overall impression of a book we’ve not yet read. That’s why I’m glad sites like Amazon include the professional and user reviews all in one place, making it easy to look for overriding themes among the various opinions.

  3. Heidi Estrin says:

    Besides responding to Marc’s question about reviews, I’d also like to say thanks for mentioning my podcast, The Book of Life (bookoflifepodcast.com), where Marc’s interview about Unsettled will appear in future. In addition, I’d like to clarify that there are 2 different podcasts we discussed when I met with Marc: my own, The Book of Life, and a new podcast from the Association of Jewish Libraries (called simply AJL Podcast). The AJL Podcast has a book giveaway contest running through 12/12/08, so check that out at jewishlibraries.org/podcast (click on Contest).