Sunday, 16 May 2010

What Qualifies a Book Blogger?

EDIT: This post has now been changed to include the full emails sent to me by said friend (I don't want to put his name or email address to credit him with it, because of data protection issues - if he wishes to, he can come forward and attest to his emails). He asked me to post the full emails rather than the snipped versions I originall enclosed.

I have been having a discussion with a friend of mine. He disputes the review of Altered Carbon that I did which can be read here. His points are as follows:

First email:

The following is a rant. Well, two sub-rants. Feel free to delete without reading :)

The issue I have with blogs is as follows:

Squeeky wheel gets the kick. When commenting on people's blogs - sometimes in disagreement, sometimes not - hackles tend to be raised all too easily. The same is true of web fora.

Merely because someone has opinions doesn't mean that those opinions are of any special value. Merely because someone is capable of putting those opinions online does not in any way add value to them.

Given that you're an uneducated heathen who's never listened to Radio 4, you'll not have heard "From Our Own Correspondent". This is, for me at least, a good example of what a blog should be. An expert talking about their own feelings and impressions of a newsworthy event.

To me, opinions have value when they are backed with expertise and knowledge. Then I take them seriously.

This is rather like my view of film / book recomendations from friends. If I like someone, it's usually because I have similar tastes / views / outlook to them. I am therefore inclined to believe them more than I am some random person. I do not think that one can be an expert in films or literature in the same way that one can be in terms of news or technology. Further, I think that you in particular cannot be, given your perference for fantasy over scifi.

Still, your opinions carry weight because of the friend-thing rather than because of the expertise-knowledge thing.

As you have put your head up above the parapet to express an opinion in a public medium, I will take the opportunity to respond to it.

In the specific case of Altered Carbon, I maintain that you missed the point of the book, and of the Envoy Corps. At its heart, though, are questions of what is the nature of a human. You touch on this when you describe Morgan's ability to characterise his characters through reference to their mannerism and attitude rather than appearance (To say that you think authors are lazy because they chose to describe someone's appearance is ... horrible grandiose - it is neuropsychological fact that humans make their first impressions built on appearance. You are therefore asking an author not to think like a human).

To read this book and to describe it as a linear actioner would be like reading Dickens and think that they were charming scenes of Victorian life - to ignore the biting social commentary, or to read Starship Troopers by Heinlein and think that it was simply a book about power armour. In short, I think that you didn't lift the veil on the author's intention. I suspect that I simply engaged with the novel more deeply than you because I have read it so many times. Or maybe it's because I'm a lawyer and therefore prone to always asking why something is written, rather than merely what has been written.

Turning to the relatively trivial matter of the Envoys, in describing them as SAS troopers, you miss the key fact about how resleeving works. Modern solidery is concerned with extreme physical conditioning. When an Envoy can arrive in literally any body, they cannot rely on the physical. Instead, and this is what made the Envoys so terrifying in my view, they are all about mental conditioning. Part psychoanalyst, part demagogue, part ace-private investigator, and yes, part spy.

I suspect the conclusion I'm reaching here is that I found your review of it to be superficial. Having talked to you a number of times, and read your emails, I think I expected more... engagement. Or maybe I just hoped that we had the same taste. In any case, here endeth the rant.

Second email:

You say that a book can have different levels to it.
You say that, Lord of the Rings, for instance, can be seen as 4-5 different levels. I'd say more, but that's not the point.

You see in AC one theme / level. I saw at least three. It is therefore the case that I saw more in the book than you did.

In terms of what right I have to say that you didn't get the book? I have read more sci-fi than you, I am more familiar with the work of the author. I can therefore comment on themes apparent in other books in the series that you weren't aware of. Further, I think the half degree I have in Engish literature makes me more keenly aware of certain tropes, styles and devices found through English and French literature that you perhaps might not have been aware of.

As to what right I have to say that you didn't get thebook, you are saying that I don't have a right to an opinion if it disagrees with yours. You have every right to have an opinion. If it is one I disagree with I'll argue with it.

I'm not going to apologise on this one because you're being petty and your argumentation is week.

So... my gentle wondering for today (and it has to be gentle, thanks to the hangover I am *still* suffering) is: what qualifies us as book bloggers to give our opinions? What about us lends weight to our words?

Take me, for example. I have not had any formal training in book critiquing or reviewing. I have not done an English degree. My day job does not involve using English to any great degree.

My only qualification for posting my reviews for the whole world to see is an enormous number of books read and a great enthusiasm for sharing my likes and dislikes with those who care. That is all.

Is that all I need? Or would people consider my reviews at a higher level if I did have said English qualifications? Are my reviews of science fiction and horror automatically to be dismissed because I don't read a great deal in these genres, or am I bringing fresh eyes to a genre that those who read in it might be more jaded and cynical about?

I would be curious to hear other opinions. I would also be interested to hear other bloggers state why they think they are qualified to speak of books!

The floor is yours!


  1. You are qualified if you have readers who find you sufficiently qualified to keep coming back. And that's really all the qualification that I think is necessary. IMHO.

  2. Ooh good discussion point. I think the point of blogs is sharing your passion with other like minded people.

    Let's take fashion as an example, for years if you wanted fashion advice you would look to the glossy magazines for their opinion. Which, if they were honest is often biased my what advertising revenue they are getting from each company. The rise of bloggers has suddenly given real people with real opinions the chance to give unbiased views. These are people that love fashion and are not only worried if Chanel will take a double page spread with them next month.

    Moving this back to books, I read book blog sites because I'm interested in honest opinions and discussion around the genres I read. I would be much more ready to believe a review on a book blog I read regularly than in a newspaper for example.

    I also recently started writing regular reviews for Book Chick City. Interestingly I actually do have a degree in English but personally think this is by the by. This isn't the reason I write reviews. It's about sharing my hobby and something I love with people who do to.

  3. The lack of authoritative voices is actually one of the things that I love the most about the book blogging world. I actually avoid drawing attention to my degree and to my academic job exactly because I don't want to sound like I'm falling back on that to lend my words credit. Online, we're all that legendary and illusive creature - the common reader.

    I do think it's possible to misread a book, in the sense that you can get something factually wrong or approach a literary work with faulty assumptions that bias your reading. And reviews DO have varying degrees of depth and perceptiveness. But the thing is, I believe that there's more than one valid way of having conversations about books, and that there's room online for all types.

    We're used to thinking of academic criticism as the end-all and be-all of literary discussions, and while I won't argue against its value, I *will* argue for the inclusion of voices that are normally silenced. In my little corner of the globe, I've seen far too many people shut up about books because they're not "experts" and don't feel that they're "qualified" to have an opinion. While I don't want to hear anyone, qualified or not, make any sort of objective decision about a book's worth, I *do* want to read how people experience reading individually, regardless of what qualifications they may have.

    Whenever I hear someone go on a diatribe about bloggers who think they have the right to put their opinions out there (oh noems!), these people's lack of "qualifications" are always one of the first things to be mentioned. As long as nobody presents themselves as the ultimate authority on what Good Literature is (and I can't think of a single blogger who does), I just fail to see what the problem is. It makes me wonder if people who are used to being the exclusive gatekeepers of culture aren't a little nervous about the possibility of losing their status.

    Eep - sorry; this is long.

  4. Thought provoking post! I think that as bloggers we are saying that we think our opinions matter. And what we offer is just that, opinions. At least what I can provide is no where near a true critique or review of a book but rather my thoughts and opinions after reading, as well as some of what stuck out to me.

    To say that a blogger 'missed' something is beside the point - we all get our own things out of each book. That is why I love reading a variety of reviews on each book, I love seeing how different bloggers pulled out different meanings, enjoyed different things, etc.

    But any review in any place is the same - just because you thought xyz about a book doesn't mean I will see or think that, I might only see abc. Does that make sense? That is how I've always seen it anyway!

  5. *agrees with Tia*

    You know, if they asked authors for that kind of qualifications a lot of them would not get published :P

    Besides, author intentions and reading something in a book that an author may or may not have consciously put there are highly debatable matters. To be disappointed with a review because the reviewer did not read the same things in a book as you did is just silly. Nobody ever reads a text as complex as a novel the same way. That's what keeps reviewers in business. To call a review superficial because of this or even to claim that you've seen more in the book than the reviewer (more = better?) ... well, it's a poor argument if you ask me.

  6. The only qualification one needs to give an opinion about something is to simply have an opinion about it. Plain and simple.

  7. I would say the only absolute essentials for a book blogger are the ability to have an opinion, and to express it and support it in an engaging way. Everyone brings different experiences to a book, and reads it differently -- and that's a good thing.

  8. i ve no actual ,qualifactions for reviewing just my own passion for books ,i just try and use my own voice for my reviews i think thats all you can do ,if you try and be some one your not it shows after a time ,i love your reviews amanda your passion always shows through and i think that is the main thing for a great blogger ,all the best stu

  9. Great question, Amanda. I actually prefer reading book blogs by the every day reader. I didn't study English Lit either but I know how to read a book and I know what I enjoy and what I don't enjoy. Personally, when reading a book I don't look for hidden meanings or what the autor may have mean by this, that and the other. I just want to be entertained! And if I like or dislike a book I feel perfectly qualified to say why I did - after all authors write for the likes of me and you, not for someone sat in a classroom.


  10. What's the old saying? Oh yes, "Opinions are like arseholes - everyone's got one, and everyone thinks other people's stink." I agree with the comments above that everyone has the right to put their opinion out there; to the extent that others find your opinions worthwhile and well-reasoned, they will value them. Those people become return readers to a blog and provide a different level of legitimacy. Individuals learn which reviewers share their taste in books, and we often then take reviews as recommendations, but that's on us, not you.

    Some book bloggers have longevity and readership as hallmarks of their legitimacy - many people, over a period of years, have found their reviews worth reading and engaging with. That has nothing to do with academic credentials per se, although I do know some book bloggers whose academic training contributes to their ability to write reviews well. But they were new bloggers once, who built their online readership by writing thoughts that made others want to come back, and by posting thoughts that engender interesting response and discussion. So I'd say this post itself shows that you are "qualified."

    I say, the more voices the better! Talking about reading, about books we like, don't like, and LOVE, is a good thing. Everyone who reads is part of the "I like [some] books" community, and I think that is more important than the differences of our opinions on particular books, authors or genres.

  11. After reading that letter I'm surprised that this guy even stoops as low as reading Science Fiction. Sounds like he should be sticking to the approved list of Literature at university.

    I'm sorry,but this is the kind of condescending bullshit that I hate. I've seen it a lot. And there is absolutely no reason for it. A degree in literature doesn't make you a better reader than someone else. The only thing it makes you better at is dissecting a book in a way that earns you a degree in literature.

    By the logic of this guy someone with a degree in Waste Management would be better qualified to take a shit, and commenting on if it was a good one.

    I read this blog, and several others', because I respect the opinions of those that write reviews there. And I will continue to do so in the future.

    In my opinion book lovers are the best reviewers.

  12. I have two English degrees and my day job is with a publisher. I'm probably exactly the sort of person your friend feels is qualified to comment on books. Unfortunately I'm going to disagree with him completely on this.

    I think English degrees are incredibly valuable, and they do give you useful frameworks within which to read. I don't regret what I chose to study. But I've also sometimes found that the way I read is limited by how I've been taught to think about literature, and at times like that it's been really useful to to have a fresh perspective. My best friend works with fossil fuels for a living; my partner makes conveyor belts; both of them are intelligent readers who frequently put me to shame with how insightful their readings of books can be.

    I don't understand what being "qualified" to review even means. Anyone is free to talk about books on the internet, and anyone else is free to disagree with them. The reason your blog has readers is that some people (with or without English degrees) who read books find what you have to say about those books useful and worthwhile. Surely that's enough of a reason to consider what you have to say is valid?

  13. After reading those comments from your "friend", several things spring to mind, all of which relate to him and all of which are not suitable for posting in these blog post comments. There may be children listening!

    My only advice to you, in light of such comments, is to ignore them completely. You don't need anyone's permission to blog or review, least of all his.

  14. There is a place for in-depth analysis by those who have studied literature at degree level, and who are widely-read in a specific genre, and able to tackle themes and sub-plots and analyse how effectively various styles are tackled, and who are able to recognise and comment on the use of popular tropes and themes.

    Most readers, however, do not care for books to be analysed at this level - we had enough of that at school. For many people, a deep and weighty criticism of a book can spoil the reading of that book.

    What most readers are looking for when reading a review is an understanding of whether their pennies are likely to be well-spent if they were to buy it. Is it a good read? Does it engage?

    And readers are more likely to come back to engage with a blogger who talks to them, not down to them. I, for one, am glad you write the way you do, and not like some pompous arse.

  15. Is a formal qualification really necessary to voice an opinion? Not in my world! As long as you can explain WHY you liked or disliked a book, based on your own experience as a reader, well, that shoud be sufficient, in my view.

    For me, the point of blogging is to allow the reader a voice and to share your personal opinion with others who are interested in what you have to say.

    Professional reviewers have their place, but in the world of SFF, there are few enough published reviews in any media, hence the rise and popularity of book bloggers. That is where I turn to when looking for information on new books to read.

    I am selective with which blogs I follow, the main criteria being they have similar reading tastes to myself. I prefer a passion for books and reading underlying a review rather than knowing that the reviewer has a degree in literary criticism.

  16. I think we as bloggers are entitled to review books and give our opinions is because of just that reason.

    It's. Our. Opinion.

    We don't need qualfications in english or literature to write a review stating what we thought of the book or whether we enjoyed the book or not.

    Unless you are trying to be part of a paper or something, then I don't think you need any qualifications to write your own review on a book that you have read.

  17. Firstly, what a rude and obnoxious idiot. This pomposity is why book bloggers are an amazing bridge between readers and books. We don’t think in terms of levels or in themes that may or may not be present. I wonder if Richard Morgan actively tried for five levels and your friend has missed two? I wonder if Mr Morgan be upset at that news? And really who cares?

    Also what your friend is describing is an academic criticism and a study of the author, this themes, influences, and how he’s put his put his book together. We’d then have to think about the style, the level of language, his views on religion, science, women, and whatever else you want o delve into.

    That isn’t the point of a review - a review is to represent a book from your own view point and then give an opinion if the author has achieved, what in your view, is their objective successfully. Usually that’s the same as saying it’s a good novel or not, and if not why not.

    Though sometimes it also shows up that a reader didn’t get what a book was about but then is that the fault of the author or the reader? In the end it’s a genuine reaction with no other agenda. Your ‘friend’ has an agenda it seems to think that what he says is more important because he’s studying for or failed a literature degree. Wow! I have one. I think it makes you a worse reader not a better one.

    And what ‘normal’ (as in unpretentious and non-arrogant) reader cares what a trope is anyway?

    But as a few people are pointing out in terms of what qualifies you as a blogger? I would say comments but they aren’t everything and neither are hits. What qualifies any blogger is if they are being honest about how they are reacting and if they have no other agenda than their own exploration of books and sharing those with the readers and followers of their blogs.

    There is little point doing this for an ego boost are there are always people that are ‘better’ than you at what ever you are trying to achieve and so there is no point in thinking in those terms. You just need to show some thought and passion with the above openness.

  18. WOW! I think that we all feel passionately about our right to express opinions - and it is wonderful to hear that passion, generosity and willingness to listen to what we all have to say. I genuine believe that an opinion is so very personal that it cannot be denied. Sure, people can ask you to justify your opinion, but you cannot simply be told that you are wrong or "did not get it".

    I like the humble responses by some very clever and respected bloggers above.

    I feel warmed by the overall reaction to what I did think was a rather unfair reaction to my genuine review of Altered Carbon (which I actually did like very much!)

  19. Please don't discriminate against me for having a degree in French and Italian ;-) during the course of which I wrote copious amounts of literary analysis in the form of essays and dissertations, some in English, some in French and some in Italian. Much as I loved doing my degree, I ended up sick and tired of reading for the "deep, underlying meaning" and actually...shock, horror...stopped reading anything other than magazines for quite a while!

    Each to their own, I guess...but I think the most important quality for a blogger to have is a passion for reading and a desire to share that passion with others.

  20. any written word is susceptible to interpetation . This will vary as many ways as there are people who read the same book.

  21. Great post, and some great comments too. I tend to agree with DesLily.

    I've always been of the opinion that no two people will ever read the same book in the same way. Even the same person will often reread a book in a totally different way to their first reading. Is one "right" and the other "wrong", I tend to think no. Reading a book is such a subjective thing. And even the aspects you may consider objective, for example, is the grammar and spelling correct doesn't actually have a huge bearing on some books and how people read them.

    All that matters is that people give their honest opinion on what they liked/disliked and what they saw in the book.

  22. I feel that anyone who's read a book has total liberty to comment upon it. When I find a blogger who's voice I like, who's reading interests appeal to me than I stick with them because I know they'll take me on an interesting journey. How do you qualify for that?

    When someone feels you've/I've/we've got it wrong they're equally free to gently point that out, but I can't say I approve of the fairly personal abuse that this sometimes seems to become. Okay you don't agree, write your own blog/review/opinion if you feel you want it out there, but surely our own honest responses to a book can't be 'wrong'.

    Well that's what I think anyway!

  23. I'd rather not call this guy names, because I don't feel that tactlessness is something that deserves utter scorn, but I would like to contemplate the issue he brings up.

    A book is a pretty fantastic thing. It's possibly the ultimate window into the soul, if you'll excuse the cliche, because from just one story, a person can get almost anything from it: an opinion, a justification, a theme. And for them to get in the first place is evidence that, in some way, it's there. It may be weak evidence that relies more on the reader's own views than solid evidence that's apparent to everyone, but it's still there, otherwise the reader wouldn't have found it.

    That said, it's perfectly possible for him to get a dozen or more meanings out of ALTERED CARBON, while Amanda got one or two. That's fine. This is what books do. They invest, but in different ways. She might have found something that this fellow didn't. She might see something I don't and vice versa.

    But I can't see why this is a matter for ire. I'm always interested to hear what other people took away from a book and how that compares to my own view. It's amazing to see how one little chunk of paper can cause such a divide.

  24. I think that, as a fantasy author with no qualifications past O-level in anything whatsover other than hard science and who hardly reads in the genre AT ALL these days, I nevertheless have the right to demand AT LEAST a masters degree in literature from anyone who considers themselves worthy of passing comment on my words. Mere joy in the subject and a love and passion for the creative art is no substitute for finding the many layers of meaning so carefully woven into my work - frankly, if you don't find at least a couple that I even I myself wasn't conciously aware of, you're simply not up to the task...

    Arse-bollocks. What qualifies you to talk about a book is that you read it.

  25. Thanks, Steve, for that - I just choked on my tea :-D

  26. Good lord. What an incredibly slappable response to a review (especially considering that I checked it out expecting it to be negative, and it was actually an extremely positive one).

    And really, there are no qualifications at all. Speaking as someone who basically stumbled by accident into professional reviewing, and who spent at least the first couple of years of his writing career desperately trying to learn as he goes along, there's no specific structure, no way you should be doing it. There's no "How to Review Books Properly" book that you should be checking out of the library.

    Write something that entertains as well as informs. If you can try to improve what you're writing and your understanding of how it works as you go, that's fine. But especially as a book blogger, you're simply trying to express your opinion in a fun and engaging way, and examine the book with intelligence (without necessarily going into academic levels of detail). The only real qualification is writing a review that makes anyone who reads it want to read more of your stuff.

  27. There are places for the sorts of reviews this guy obviously expects. He should check out Strange Horizons, they go into ridiculous amounts of depth in their reviews. Not my cup of tea, I'd rather see reviews that gives the opinion of the reviewer and what they enjoy/didn't enjoy, not a critical analysis of the novel contents.

  28. I really dislike being told that I "missed the point" when I'm reading. The reason I love reading multiple reviews of the same book is because each reader brings something specific, a specific background, education and comfort level to each read. Sometimes, I react really negatively to things because of my history and I think that makes my experience of the novel stronger. I don't think that a book blogger has to analyze a book from every perspective or compare it to notable writers with similar styles. We aren't professional book reviewers.

    We bring ourselves to this blogging thing. And that's what makes it special.

  29. Two guidelines (if not rules) come to mind when reviewing:

    1. Have enough faith in yourself that you will do your best to engage with the work at hand and to display that engagement in an essay.

    2. Don't have so much faith in yourself as to believe that you "are there" in any sense and that there may always be elements "missed" or downplayed that will appeal more to others than they did to you, since reader engagements vary from reader to reader.

    And if you want to read a hilarious "critique" of my own writing, read this. Not my post, but the 12 comments, culminating in the ultimate WTF? I've read in quite some time. Sometimes, one has to judge the quality of one's detractors as well as our own ability to discern and to critique another.

  30. What an absolute twit. "You see in AC one theme / level. I saw at least three. It is therefore the case that I saw more in the book than you did." I mean, come on. This friend, is he perhaps the sort of friend whose friendship consist entirely of bigging himself up on bringing you down? I've had those sorts of friends before.

    The operative word there being "had".

    What an absolute ass. Honestly.

  31. That guy is pretty much the reason I studied Philosophy instead of English Lit, who wants to sit in a lecture theatre all day and be told what everything in a book means? I'd rather work it out myself.

    As usual, I agree with everything Aishwarya said, and I don't really have anything to add other than it is hard to take people seriously when they bring up Heinlein.

  32. Writing a review is all about your own instinctual and honest reactions to the piece you're reading / viewing. Everyone reacts differently and takes different things away from those pieces.

    For someone to turn around and say that your review & opinions aren't as valid as theirs is total and utter bollocks!

    I'm sure this must have been said many times in the above comments already, but what qualifies you to have those opinions is that you've read the thing. Plain and simple.

    My advice is to ignore the pompous goon and keep doing what you do best!

  33. Thank you once more to all the people who have bothered to read and comment on this particular issue. I've enjoyed hearing particularly from those people who either have English degrees or (Paul) chose to study something other because of the way it would have meant looking at books and literature!

    Also, thanks to the authors who have put across their point of view. Nice to know that you're just looking for people to be entertained by what you do, rather than striving to find the multiple layers that you've inserted in a story!

  34. Personally I found the poster's comments rather immature. He sounded about 14. It reminded me of those alternative medicine sorts who say 'you can't argue with me, I'm a doctor!' relying on their supposed qualification to have a view rather than their arguments.
    I did do an English Literature degree (a whole one) and you could write what it told me about judging a good book from a bad one on the back of a postage stamp. It also told me that aesthetics is a very slippery and difficult field. Perhaps he believes Altered Carbon conforms to the Platonic ideal form of an SF novel. I'd be interested if he could clear up the whole aesthetics thing for us right here. Wittgenstein basically gave up on it, so good luck.
    An English degree is no more a preparation for reviewing books than an engineering degree is for driving over a bridge.
    Furthermore - even if he has read more Sci Fi than you - that doesn't give him any more or less right to judge it than you do. I have read very little SF but I know enough to see that the prose style of Starship Troopers, for instance, was wooden and not to my taste. I'm a fantasy author and I've read very little fantasy recently. The criteria I use to judge any book work very well when I do read it. Is it well-written? Is the plot engaging? Do I believe the characters and their decisions? I covered none of that in my degree.
    Whether you like detailed descriptions of clothing and appearance is up to you. Certainly many creative writing teachers and people such as Stephen King advise against it. The point is to give a telling detail in an inventive way. You're not going for the Peacock's catalogue description. Detailed descriptions of clothing can have their place - American Psycho, for instance - but many books omit it completely, relying on dialogue and atmosphere to create a picture of the character in our heads. Anyone who's read Chandler has a picture of Philip Marlowe in their mind but, as I recall, Chandler never bothers to tell us what his hero looks like beyond a couple of bare facts.
    As for 'the author's intention', speaking as an author I'd say that doesn't matter a jot. It wasn't Salman Rushdie's intention to get the entire Arab world baying for his blood. Hard luck mate, they read it as an insult and what you think it was about mattered not at all. We don't ask what someone intended but what they did. I should have thought that, as the proud holder of half an Eng Lit degree, he might have read Roland Barthes's Death of the Author. I would recommed him to do so if he hasn't.
    Reading a book isn't a competition to see who can get the most levels of meaning out of it.
    My mother gets plenty of meaning out of Barry Manilow. It doesn't mean she has a clearer view of his talents than I do.
    Your friend's review seemed to suggest he has a rather fragile and uppity personality and that he doesn't like people arguing with him. (It is a him, isn't it? A woman couldn't have written this.)
    I won't start on his sentence construction and spelling. Best do the rest of that Eng Lit degree is my advice.
    That said, I like Richard Morgan and I'm interested to read Altered Carbon to see if I agree with you. If I get that elusive fourth layer of meaning out of it, do I win a prize?

  35. @ Mark - it is a him, yes. And I will personally provide you with a cookie if you read Altered Carbon and find that fourth layer of meaning!

  36. What qualifies a book bloggers to give their opinions is the opinion itself and the way they express that opinion. Not all opinions have equal weight, some are more valid than others. However, that validity has nothing to do with a piece of paper - that line about "the half degree I have in Engish literature" is simply comical - and everything to do with the blogger themselves. (At the same time, I would never knock formal study of English Literature.)

    He should check out Strange Horizons, they go into ridiculous amounts of depth in their reviews. Not my cup of tea, I'd rather see reviews that gives the opinion of the reviewer

    Yes, if only the reviewers at SH had opinions!

  37. Oh, dear. For someone, clearly superior to you, Amanda, he is in need to revise his spelling. I think that 'week' should be 'weak'.

  38. I have an English Degree but I would never arrogantly consider that my book review would be more relevant or knowledegable than a review written by somebody without an English Degree. What made me chuckle is that if they teach you anything on an English Degree it is that ANY piece of writing is open to interpretation, that is what makes it such a wonderful medium! Perhaps during the second part of his degree they can point out the correct spelling of 'weak'.
    Your reviews are always honest and open and I think that is exactly how a book blogger should be, who cares how many Sci-fi books you have read, each one is different so your review and opinion of each is perfectly valid!

  39. I don't think adding the rest of those emails particularly helps his cause and I'm inclined to say that he simply wants people to write reviews he wants to read and doesn't care if others don't want that type of literary critical review.

    "Yes, if only the reviewers at SH had opinions!"

    Hehe, didn't quite mean that - they do have opinions, I was merely saying that SH is a place to go for a review that goes into detail - too much for me, but there we go! I like more straight forward reviews that offer the opinion of the reviewer that offers details but doesn't get bogged down in them.

  40. The very weirdest thing is that all this was in response to a POSITIVE book review. I'd hate to think what his comments would have been like if your review was negative.

    Some people need to get a grip and realise that the world does not revolve around them.

  41. Hrmm...after reading the full emails, I'm going to take a stab and say this guy is in his early 20s and has lived a bourgeois whitebread lifestyle?

  42. Anyone with an opinion is qualified to give said opinion of anything they have read - that is the essence of a book blogger. Conversely, anyone is just as entitled to disagree with said opinion. What is wrong, and what this person seems to have missed, is that just because an opinion differs doesn't make it less valid, it simply makes a talking point.

  43. Your ex-friend is clearly a pompous buffoon.

    The best thing about book review blogs is the amazing variety of views you can find on any single book. It's incredible. Each blogger has a life of their own which inevitably gives a distinct flavour to the manner in which they review. This has little to do with education beyond the ability to construct a coherent sentence.

    A BA/Bsc, MA/Msc or Phd has bugger all to do with a reader's ability to enjoy (or not) a book and then convey that feeling on their blog.

    I'm sure this person is reading these comments with a smug look upon his face, believing us all to be self-congratulatory heathens of the lowest common denominator. Let him wallow in his own inflated sense of self. There is truly no getting through to people like this.

    Now, please excuse me. I must get back to my glass of sherry and Radio 4 listening. Totally spiffing programme on at present. Toodle-pip.

  44. I like to draw an analogy which shows the relevance of the mail.
    Nobody is allowed to analyze a football match without a football trainer certification.

    Nothing more needs to be said.

  45. The value of a book review, to my mind, depends mostly on how much the reviewer thinks like I do, however shallow or deep their review might be. A detailed critique is a valid review. "This book sucks/kicks ass" is a valid review. prefering one over the other is a valid opinion. Expressing that preference is surely valid too. To disagree and yet remain respectful of the right of others to think differently is, I think, a necessary foundation of any debate.

    The trouble with context is that there's never enough of it. Does the smiley in the first paragraph mean that the phrase "uneducated heathen" was tongue-in-cheek or was it meant with deadly disdain. What prompted that second response? Was disrepect intended? No one who has commented here knows (except perhaps Amanda). Yet assumptions are made.

    Er... and when I said "arse-bollocks," I meant that with the greatest respect. Obviously.

    I'll get me coat.

  46. What I enjoy about your reviews is that you seem to read the story for the stories sake. You dont delve too deeply into the hidden and subtle motivations or meanings from the author. You simply put across pertinant information and whether you enjoyed the book or not. Essentially, you review the surface of the book and not the deeper layers.

    For me, and I suspect for the majority of readers, thats enough. We too read for enjoyment, for the story and tend not to look beyond the surface.

    I have bought/read a few of the books you have given good reviews too and you have not steered me wrong yet and you have never tried to put yourself across as anything other than what you are. Someone who enjoys books!! :)

  47. Very simply, thank you RuntMcRory - those are the sorts of comments that make all this worthwhile :-D

  48. Eh, not much more to be said that hasn't already been said. Reading those full emails, he and his attitude remind me of my 'English' classes in highschool. Little room for real debate or discussion that falls outside of the teacher's (or the text book/teacher's companion that they read from) own opinion or ideas.

    No offence, Larry.

  49. Ha! When I did teach Lit, I usually had the students try to work out their own interpretations before I would add much to it. I know full well the pain involved with HS teacher interpretations stifling interest; I hated Moby Dick as a teenager as a result of such "teaching." Took a history professor to get me to want to re-read it and I ended up loving it.

  50. I'm coming rather late into this, but so be it.

    I don't think there are any hard-set "qualifications" one needs to be a legitimate reviewer of anything. I'm inclined to agree with Tia Nevitt. If people listen to you and respect your opinion, that's all that really counts.

    That said, some people have better opinions than others, a lot of people get things wrong, and we're all entitled to have our opinions on whatever, no matter how wrong we might be. It's up for the public to decide whether to listen to us. I think discussions of any sort about whether people have the right to speak are stupid at best. We all have the right to have an opinion about whatever. We just don't have the right to have people listen to us. If someone doesn't like the way you think, then they can go somewhere else. It's the same logic I use for television. I hate most of what's on TV, so I don't watch it. Plain and simple.

    That's the gauge of the value of an opinion. If people listen, even just a few, then there's some worth to what you say.

    But, hey, I might be wrong about that one. Yay for freedom of speech and being wrong!

  51. Having read every comment. And also the full e-mails, there's just one tiny thing I have to comment on...

    "Turning to the relatively trivial matter of the Envoys, in describing them as SAS troopers, you miss the key fact about how resleeving works. Modern solidery is concerned with extreme physical conditioning."

    Being a lawyer and having half a degree in English literature obviously doesn't make you an expert on special forces.
    I've not been in any special forces, but I've read what I could get my hands on about them for the past 25 years, so I'll consider myself qualified to comment.

    Yes, the SAS are in perfect physical condition. But you have to be a soldier before applying for SAS Selection, so you should be in peak condition before you apply to the SAS. What the SAS, and other special forces, do is push people beyond their physical limits to see who has got the mental strength to carry on.

    So without reading the book, I'd say that the envoys, if as described in the e-mail, are soldiers who rely on their mental strength. They can best be likened to the special forces of our day.

    Sorry, but for some reason I felt his just had to be said...

  52. Whew, I'm worn out just from reading all of that. Not that this will be earthshaking, but here goes.

    OKay, I have a Masters in English Lit, and One in Fine Art, that is an MLA and an MFA. Big deal. I'm not a "literature" critic, I'm not an art critic. I HAVE written reviews for periodicals [Mystery News, Deadly Pleasures, The Criminal Record, etc.] and has published my on mystery fanzine for many years. So what? All we who comment on books - which is what I call what I do on my blog and elsewhere - is speak our minds. Personal opinions are the only original thing we have, really.

    I don't give a hoot how many "layers" someone finds in a book, or how thrilled they were to open it to page one. Beside the basic facts of author, publisher, format, I want to know what the book is about (plot summary w/no spoilers) and how well the commenter thinks it succeeds. I'll take it from there, based on my own experience and opinions, but I appreciate a well-written review.

    You're doing fine, keep at it, and don't be overly worried by comments like the one that brought you to create this post.

  53. Hmm, have to say that having the full emails there doesn't really help your friend's case. A review is a personal thing. Whether you like a book or not should always, imo, be the most important thing about a review. And then the why. You can see as many layers as you want in a book, but if you didn't like it I don't really care.

    Besides, for all you know the author meant to have only one layer and you are imagining all those other interpretations. Of course that doesn't make you interpretations any less valid, once you can provide proof from the text.

  54. Personally, I think that having an opinion does qualify a person to review books. What is a review except a way of talking about what a person did and did not like about a thing, discussing strengths and weaknesses, recommending or not.

    That friend of yours saying that they clearly got more of the novel than you because they're read more sci-fi than you is a logical fallacy, plain and simple. It falls under the same category as a person saying that because they have kids, they must by default know more about parenting than anyone without kids. True in some cases, not true in all, and that is as much a "week" argument (slight poking fun of a typo, I admit it) as what this person is claiming you have. You don't have to have some fancypants degree or have years of experience to know what you like and don't like, and why you do or don't like it.

    In terms of seeing things "as a human", well, people often see things that aren't there. Just because one reader saw additional layers of meaning to events in a novel doesn't mean those layers were intended to be there, for one thing. Not having read the novel in question, I can't be sure, and it certainly is something to consider, but...

    ...I don't know. I have a hard time taking people seriously when they say, "I enjoyed this thing on more levels than you, therefore your opinion in wrong." It comes across as though they're trying to puff up their own ego by putting others down and exaggerating their own skills, which may be no greater than yours. It's childish arrogance. An opinion is one thing, and debate is often welcomed in reviews, but this is an arrogant put-down and seems to be based on little more than, "Your opinions don't match mine, waaah!"

  55. I think the main qualification for being a book reviewer is that you have read and thought about the book. Your review is your opinion whether people agree with it or not (it's 50/50) and there's no point in aiming to be a 'universal' reviewer/critic who speaks for everyone because literature is subjective. Just take a look at academics, they argue all the time!

    I will read your review for your opinion and then decide whether I want to read a book or not. If I've read a book, I would be interested in why liked/disliked a book just to see what I might have missed or have a discussion. It wouldn't change the way I feel about a book because I can think for myself.

    So I would say carry on as you are because I enjoy reading your thoughts!

  56. I am going to have to disagree, in part, and agree, in part, and say that I agree with the person who wrote the emails, for the most part, sort of.

    First, I think you and certain other commentators obfuscate the point your friend was trying to make by asking what makes bloggers qualified to review books. I don't think that was his main point. His main point, to me, is that your review of Altered Carbon was shallow and that someone who has little or no experience with sf might not evaluate it as relevantly as someone who does.

    If I were to start a blog on say... archeology (something I have no experience with) would it be reasonable for an archeologist to criticize my posts as shallow - for him to say they miss the point - or that my knowledge of archeology is just insufficient to talk about the subject? I don't think so. You might like the way I write my posts or present my (un)educated opinion, but objectively speaking there is no way you can say that I am capable of appreciating the full range of issues, questions, facts and knowledge that is the archeological profession. In short, my review of the recently discovered king tut tomb is going to focus on the shinny gold statue, and not the previously unknown embalming technique used on the mummy. Capish?

    The above is obviously taking the issue to a certain extreme, but I think it illustrates my point well enough. Apples and oranges and subjectivism and all that.

    Which brings me to my second and final point. Having an opinion is great. Its what the internet generally and blogging specifically is all about. Just go ahead and read some American political blogs. That stuff is just crazy. The whole point is that you don't need to be an expert or a scholar, you just need to be you.

  57. Ah, but in the science of Archaeology there are objective rights and wrongs. So in that regard you are correct, however, if your blog was about interpreting those scientific facts and writing about how you think people lived then, once you can back it up, no one can criticize you for being shallow. What they can do is say, hmmm, but have you considered the effect of X (which you may have ignored).

    And a book review is not about facts, it is about opinion.
    "His main point, to me, is that your review of Altered Carbon was shallow and that someone who has little or no experience with sf might not evaluate it as relevantly as someone who does."

    Perhaps a reviewer unfamiliar with sci-fi would be perfectly relevant to review books when talking to an audience likewise unfamiliar :)

  58. @ Fence

    No of(fence), but I think we are talking past each other.

    Again, my point was not that people wouldn't like the review - nor that they wouldn't find it relevant to their own experiences/opinions, but that objectively it would not be as relevant to the subject of sf. Sf, like literature (or archeology as in my previous comment) in general, is a body of knowledge. That knowledge is not entirely subjective or 'opinion' based.

    Did you know that cyberpunk is a subgenre of sf? Can you tell me why Altered Carbon is an incredibly creative or original work within that subgenre? Because I am a total nerd, I can even tell you what the author intended with that book - objectively - because he has talked about it on his blog. This GENRE SPECIFIC OBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE (sorry for the caps but I needed some emphasis) adds a richness and depth (opposite of shallow) to a review. That was my point.

    Again, that relevance does not mean the review is somehow better or objectively more pleasing - simply that it is more informed and objectively accurate.

    Am I making any sense here?

  59. Yes, I did know that cyberpunk is a subgenre of sg. But I know nothing about Altered Carbon or about the author.

    But a review of a book should not presuppose knowledge of what the book contains. That is analysis and criticism, which is a very different thing.

  60. I recently read somewhere about a women who wanted her husband, who is a history teacher, to take an exam and teach science too. In my own little brain, I can see how that relates to this discussion. I would NEVER want a history professor who has no background in science teaching science. Does the disqualify the person from talking about sciences? No, but I don't want them teaching it because they aren't qualified. I don't have an English Lit degree so I rarely say anything about an authors writing skills when reviewing a book because I'm not qualified. I can say that the writing felt childish, lacked coehesion, or something like that if it effect my enjoyment of the book. I read a great many books every month and I know what I like or dislike. That is why I "qualify" as a book blogger.

    For me, I write reviews so that someone who is new to a genre could read my review and be tempted to pick it up. I am not going to discuss themes within a book unless I see a reason to and because I think it is important for the average person to know about prior to reading the novel. I read for enjoyment and have no interest in making reading work or blogging work. I don't think most blog readers want huge complex reviews. Or at least, I like short to medium length reviews that aren't doing to delve too deep into the novel that I can't discover things on my own. Reviews like that make me think two things:
    1. The book must not be very good if you can sum it up in a blog post.
    2. This book might be more complex that I would enjoy.
    There is only one outcome to reviews like that for me and that is that I skip the book. And I don't think that is the response anyone is really looking for.

    If someone thinks that I don't qualify as a ligit book blogger because I don't have a Lit or English degree, fine. I don't want you reading my reviews anyway. Also, a great many books are going to get missed because only English Lit readers can review them. Who then is qualified to review science, travel or other nonfiction books? Besides, just because something may be seen a great literature doesn't mean it is very good.

    Also, since I discovered Floor to Ceiling, I loved reading the reviews here. I feel reviews are insightful and honest. I've even picked up a few books from authors reviewed here that I haven't tried before. Which I think is the greatest compliment you can give a book blogger. I pick up a book based on one of your reviews.

  61. @WonderBunny - Thank you. That is indeed the highest possible compliment you can pay me, and I greatly appreciate it.

  62. Regardless of how many layers a book may or may not have, was it enjoyed. You could spend hours dissecting every line, on every page & still not express what it was that made you read it to the finish, what it was you loved.Because that is what a Blog does, it communicates some individuals passion on a particular subject. If you take a scalpel to a book, be careful you don't end up with a pile of shredded paper.
    liked the discussion.