Tuesday, February 2, 2016

An offer you can't refuse

Well, yes.

And no.

I know I show my age when I say I started book reviewing back in 1983. Probably did 350 of them over the next 30 years or so (gulp), ending it only when my last steady source of reviews, the Edmonton Journal, told me they had cut their formerly-lavish books section to half a page and wouldn't be needing my services any more.

It was a lot of hard work. I sweated and laboured over those things. I tried my best, every time, to read every word, to analyze the writer's skills with care (this is starting to sound like a Boy Scout pledge, so forgive me), and to figure out just what made this book "work" or "not work" in my estimation. To do so, I had to develop a set of analytical skills as well as an appreciation for the aesthetics of effective writing. Ahem.

In other words, dang! I think I was pretty good at it.

But, big surprise, I did not always give each of these 300-odd books "good" reviews, though I tried to assess them fairly. As a rule, they fell roughly into three categories: a sort of top 10 - 15 per cent that I believed were truly outstanding, a large middle that covered a very wide spectrum (and I was willing to forgive many weaknesses if the book had some redeeming strengths), and a dregs, a sludgy bottom which included a vapid thing by Anna Murdoch, then-wife of Rupert, obviously given the license to slap any old sewage she wanted onto the page and still have it published. (Another all-time worst was by Daniel Richler, son of the legendary Mordecai. Something about nepotism.)

Nowadays, when you write a book review, you do it "for" a writer. Usually, one you know.

Usually, too, it is one who has already written a book review "for" you.

This reminds me of the old Mafia saying, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". But whatever way you look at it, it's - lousy.

Lousy because these aren't "reviews" at all. They're about as meaningful and manipulative as Facebook "likes". In fact, they are ALL "likes", a five-star bartering system. If you hand out one of these, the recipient is then, suddenly, beholden to you and "owes" you five stars.

What the flying fuck does this have to do with the quality of the book???

I must be old school, or "no school", or something, because I won't take part in this ridiculous charade, even though I've been "reviewed" in the most sappy, generic way, a way that indicates the person slipping me the stars hasn't even gone near my novel, let alone read it. But why should that make a difference? These are stars we're talking about. Why else does a writer get up in the morning?

A real review, usually called a "bad" one, may help sink the author's career without a trace, particularly if what he/she is turning out is literary pond scum. I've been happy to contribute to such sinkings, but only when warranted. Meanwhile, I NEVER play the five-star shuffle. I was approached once by a Facebook "friend" (who was unfriended pretty quickly after that) who messaged me thusly: "Hello, Margaret! Happy to be on-board! I notice you got hardly any reviews for your novel on Amazon. Well, sometimes I have that problem too! If you'd be willing to take a look at my last eleven books and post your five-star reviews of them, I'd be more than happy to fill up some of those awkward spaces for you!"  I thought about it a lot, for maybe seventeen seconds, wondering how long it might take me to write a review without reading a single word of ANY of her eleven novels.

The whole thing quickly went south, but not before she mentioned the name of a "Hollywood producer" - he had an Irish name I can't remember - whom she talked to about "developing" one of her eleventy-seven interchangeable novels. She said he might be interested in The Glass Character as a "property" - a term I hate only slightly less than "brand" - and gave me his email address. And I was all set to follow up on it, when my hand involuntarily jerked back from the mouse with a fierce crackle, like the Wicked Witch trying to grab the ruby slippers.

I googled the guy, and found out that he was a convicted felon currently serving time for embezzlement, forgery and fraud. Passed himself off as a Hollywood producer. There was some sort of message board-type thing in which people expressed their ire at all the various ways in which this man had ripped them off and taken them for a ride.

Imagine. Fraud! How can anyone think of being that dishonest? Whatever happened to the great literary virtues, like sincerity? Don't people even bother to fake it any more?

The most I ever made from writing all those ACTUAL book reviews was about $300 a throw (and yes, I WAS paid - don't fall over backwards from the news). Nowadays, I'd get exactly nothing, but maybe-just-maybe I'd get a fawning, drooly thing back from the author that I could paste up or post on my Amazon page.

But why stop there? I'm thinking of going into business in a slightly more ambitious way: a service to create individualized, post-it-ready reviews, one-click, no-mess-or-fuss. A computer will scan the novel and sum up the plot, pull out relevant quotes, etc. etc., and effuse about it appropriately. It will even sound like you've read it, but you won't have to do a thing (except pay me)! I'll set up subscriptions and everything. Maybe I'll call it Fakebook! But if it's like all my other good ideas, somebody thought of it last week or last year and is already rolling in the profits.