Friday, September 14, 2007

Let's play "peel the label."

I haven't touched the stuff in years, but this NYT booze blog piece querying the value of blind tastings has me thinking about book reviewing, prompted by its rhetorical question, "why are book critics permitted to know who wrote what they are reading?" The question of how a critic's judgment is affected by his or her knowledge of the author (or publisher, etc.) of a book was addressed by Doris Lessing, when she published two books under a pseudonym, Jane Somers. In 1984 she told the Times:

''I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that 'nothing succeeds like success.' If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, 'Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.' As it is, there were almost no reviews, and the books sold about 1,500 copies here and scarcely 3,000 copies each in the United States.''

But what did she prove, really? That people are more interested in hearing what Doris Lessing has to say than in what an unknown writer might? It is a rather dramatic example of how hard it is for a new writer to get noticed, I'll grant that. But book reviewing (and wine reviewing, I guess) is as much news as it is evaluation--readers want to know not just that there's a new spooky thriller just out, but that Stephen King has written a new book. (King of course himself invented a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, not to test the public but to enlarge his share of the market.) Would I be reviewing Ana's Story were it written by someone other than the President's daughter? It's more "not bad" than it is good (which, in an era of egregious books by celebrities, is itself news) but I can definitely see a teen audience for it; kids who would read it regardless of its author's name. But that's the other question, of course: would it have been published had a Name not come with it?

Blind reviewing could certainly shake things up, though. How would publishing would look if reviewing was done that way?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ah, one of my pet topics. I'd like to see blind reviewing, but even more than that I'd like to see blind acceptance of manuscripts. Let publishers choose what to publish on the merits of the writing, not the name of the writer. Then reviewers can do the same. And then everything can be published with the real name attached, because, as you point out, readers need the name recognition. Fie on big business and corporate profits! Let's go for quality.
This will probably ignite blog readers on a lazy Friday.

Jackie Parker said...

Isn't that often how musicians audition for symphonies? And I remember turning in papers and exams in college where my name was sealed. It’s very interesting. I can think of a few authors who might not get as much stuff published, but it’s not like there would be less low-brow material. Salacious sells. Ideally, readers would buy more unknowns because they can’t count on the ‘bestseller’ authors to consistently churn out 1 or 3 novels a year. But more likely, they just wouldn’t buy as much.

sdl said...

I would love blind reviewing, and I'm sad that it's become so much less blind in the past few years. One of my favorite reviewing memories is being assigned Carolyn Coman's What Jamie Saw by Booklist, and after I got over my initial reaction of being horrified that I had to read a whole book written in poetry (literally banging my head on the table when I realized it) I read it with its completely plain cover and loved it. Now it would come covered in blurbs and a plot summary and the cover art, and I'd be very lucky to read it without having read ABOUT it on a listserv first anyway.

Blind reviewing would be terrifying and very fun. Blind publishing makes less sense, because publishing is a business. I, as a librarian on the purchasing end, am going to buy the next book by Extremely Popular Author, and it's going to take a lot of work to get Everyday Author attention, but that's part of the game. Making the entire process blind would probably ensure that mainstream people, who respond so strongly to hype, would never read anything.

Roger Sutton said...

I once had a student (Fairrosa, are you there?) wax eloquent in a paper about what reading would be like if books were anonymous--no author, no cover, just printed words on pages. An impossible business model, as SDL points out, but an intriguing possibility. And yes, even the bare bound galleys of yesteryear have given way to fancy-pants ARCs.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Interesting topic - and one I've never considered before. I'm not a reviewer, but, as an author, of course, have been reviewed - and have read many, many reviews, as well as books. Blind reviewing would be fascinating and probably more "fair." But then, it would also remove a "layer" of a reader's reaction to a book. As readers, we come to have expectations from established authors. When we pick up, say, a Richard Peck or a Polly Horvath, we go into the reading expecting a certain voice or style, and sometimes even character or setting. And it's only natural to compare that book to others by the same author.

A good thing? A bad thing? Probably a little of both. Authors work hard to build a reputation and a body of work. So, as an author, I might be concerned about removing that advantage from a reviewer's approach to my work. But I would also enjoy getting a totally indedpendent and unbiased reaction to an individual book. Probably the more fair approach all around.

Anonymous said...

Since Hornbook hasn't reviewed my book, but is showing great interest in Jenna Bush's .... I'm all in favor of overturning the system.

fairrosa said...

Roger, Roger.
I lurk.
Sometimes, I post.
When all is said and done, it's the genuine talent of the authors and the integrity and keen literary taste of the editors we book hungry souls rely on.

Clive Robert said...
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