Pandemic books, pandemic reviews

Barbara Smaller,

I’m posting a new Kicking Dogs chapter every Tuesday, and an independent item every Thursday.

Let’s kick off this week’s SIDECAR post with a seven-year-old item from Jack Shackaway, my collaborator and, incidentally, the hero of my novel Kicking Dogs.

Selling novels: What it takes
I’m probably over-reacting, but it’s already getting harder these days to take pride in thinking of yourself as a writer, since so can anybody with the price of a computer and an Internet connection. You aren’t even permitted to die penniless and hungry in proper romantic style, since everyone will merely ask why you did that. Why didn’t you just take steps to flog your stuff?

Even if you decide you are going to flog your stuff, you aren’t permitted the dignity of having others do it for you. You’ve got to cruise the digital highways and byways hawking your literary produce at the top of your lungs, just as though you were flogging fresh fruit in the road outside. F*** me. And nobody’s going to hear you anyway, what with all the hordes of other “writers” going up and down, some of them with PA systems on their digital pickup trucks, hawking fish and fruit and f*** knows what, all of it having just scored Amazon’s Breakout Bananas of the Month Award, or some such.

I could go on.

Hey, can you imagine? Collin’s censoring my f***** deathless prose, sprinkling asterisks every which way as though he were a pillar of the community, something we all know is not the case.

Because he’s just another writer. Worse, he’s a writer who refuses to get out there in the street and do the necessary.

Jack Shackaway

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bourgeoisie-bastard.jpg
Image by Hugh MacLeod, used with permission.

And a 4 Aug. 2020 Steve Rosse Facebook post spells out some of what’s necessary:

Yeah. Apparently, there is nothing more important than Amazon reviews now. Depressing, but there we are. If you like a book, and you bought it at Amazon, be sure to leave a review. Even if you didn’t like it, leave a review.

Steve Rosse (Steve is a noted author and curator of the Thailand Expat Writers FB page)

Illustration borrowed from Christopher J Holcroft

(January 23, 2019 · Looking For Some Reviews)

Related developments are winding our friend Jack up even more. Not only do writers feel the need to solicit reviews of their own books from all and sundry, they find themselves under pressure to spend too much of their lives writing reviews of other people’s books. On top of which they can’t say unfavorable things about this stuff.

pandemic pussyfootedness

There used to be the notion that Keats was killed by a bad review … Poor Keats were he living today might suffer a literary death, but it would not be from attack; instead he might choke on what Emerson called a “mush of concession.”

Elizabeth Hardwick, Harper’s

Hardwick may be referring in part to something akin to the impulse that moves the organizers of marathon runs and school track meets to award medals to every single participant. This pandemic urge suggests that everyone enjoys a natural right to their fair ration of self-esteem, and this often includes reluctance to criticize others, who universally should enjoy the same right to their sense of self-worth. In fact it can go beyond one’s fair share to an insatiable, hungry ghost-type craving for more Amazon reviews, no matter their provenance or actual content — self-esteem, ever more demanding, by the numbers.

Another consideration, in an age where nearly everyone is writing a book and publishing it, and in a time when Amazon curates the popular literary sphere, many are reluctant to say anything bad about other people’s books for fear of retaliation in kind. 

Mountain Books Stock Illustrations – 660 Mountain Books Stock  Illustrations, Vectors & Clipart - Dreamstime

Worse, actual writers trying to find the time and energy to write real books are under pressure to review their peers’ books for fear that, if they don’t, no one will ever contribute to their own needed minimum number of Amazon reviews – the 15-review (or is that 50 reviews?) threshold the other side of which finds Amazon itself taking steps to promote your work. 

Even then, of course, they hope to somehow stand out among the millions of writers competing for the attention of an ever-diminishing number of prospective readers of anything longer than a tweet.

And so the writers cope with Amazon and social media. Or don’t, as the case may be. 

Then we have the professional critics. Or, again, we don’t have, as the case may be.

[Social media] robs prominent journalists and critics of their authority, their ability to influence mainstream taste. Even with thousands of Twitter followers, we writers [lose] out to Instagram influencers and video-game live-streamers as cultural arbiters. … [T]he Algorithm and the Feed have replaced critics and encouraged publications like The New York Times Book Review to embrace best-of lists and Q&As—content that follows traffic instead of critical discourse. …

Since the Internet took over, criticism has become a mere user’s guide and social chronicle.

The real problem with algorithms is that they’re terrible critics. Not even their engineers necessarily know why algorithms recommend what they do, given that most are “black boxes.” There is no driving critical intelligence questioning each new book, film, or song; only acceleration as the feed piles on more of what it calculates you want. Without human criticism, all we’re left with is undifferentiated mass of expensive banality.

Kyle Chayka, The Nation

You should read the MAGIC CIRCLES novels, starting with MOM, to learn where this algorithmic engineering is leading us over the years to come, shaping citizens according to who-knows-what measures in light of ends that may be less human than we’d like to imagine.

Jack Shackaway claims our world is being flooded with reviews and, for one reason or another, this can amount to a disservice for writers and readers alike.

Whatever. While I have your attention, may I ask you to say nice things about Kicking Dogs, but only if you really like the story.

“Can you explain once more what ‘hypocritical’ means?” Sara says.

Meanwhile my Magic Circles novels are withering away online for lack of critical notice. (“Yo,” says Jack. “You know what to do about that.”)

Hungry ghosts in search of reviews

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