Bias In Blogging – Some Thoughts

Digression time again, I’m afraid. This one was sparked by a comment that I saw on Twitter the other day – which, unfortunately, I can’t locate – concerning not being able to trust reviews on blogs. The reason for this was that the reviewer could be frequently seen having conversations with the author that they had reviewed on Twitter and, if I recall correctly, mentioned going out for a drink or dinner with said author. As such, it was effectively as if a friend was reviewing another friend’s work and as such the review could not be trusted. The tweeter (twitterer?) said that such instances were, in their opinion, on the rise, and hence such blogs couldn’t be trusted. Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

But that got me thinking. I’ve met a few authors in my blogging time – indeed, I’m going to see two of them this evening at the British Library (although there will be a few hundred other people there too) – and I communicate with them at times over email. So is this blog biased, even on a subconscious level?

First off, I should say that no author has ever bought me dinner. I got a couple of free glasses of white wine and a Scandinavian-style cake at the launch of Sarah Ward’s A Deadly Thaw but so did everyone else who was there. Not that I’d say no, mind you, if someone wanted to invited me to one of the Detection Club dinners, but it hasn’t happened so far. Oh, I did get some free bookmarks from Dean Street Press, but only because they asked if anyone wanted some. And I haven’t reviewed anything from them in a while anyway…

Dark SerpentI do get books sent to me to review, some of which come directly from the author. Some are from new authors, but others are from authors who I’ve reviewed favourably in the past. Occasionally, they put a message in the front. Paul Doherty has, as I may have mentioned a few times, actually dedicated Dark Serpent to me, but by then, I’d reviewed (mostly very favourably) over seventy of his books. But does that bias my opinion?

It depends on what you think of as bias. With regards authors who I chat to on Twitter, I do tend to review their work promptly and positively. But while there is a correlation between the two statements, that does not imply causation. Both statements “I chat to an author on Twitter” and “I tend to give positive and prompt reviews” come from a single root which is “I like that author’s work.” That doesn’t make me biased in my Fields Of Gloryreviews, although it may make me biased towards “books that I think I’m going to enjoy” in my choice of book. But isn’t everybody? That’s like accusing my blog of being biased towards mystery fiction. Of course it is –  there’s probably one book that I’ve reviewed going into it that I knew wasn’t a mystery novel and that’s Fields Of Glory by Michael Jecks, someone who I do have occasional chats to on Twitter (the last one was on factorising polynomials, fact fans). But the reason wasn’t because he asked me, but because based on the twenty-or-so of his books that I’d previously read, I thought I’d see what his non-mystery work was like. So I don’t think that’s an issue.

Surfeit Of LampreysI suppose that some people might be concerned that my reviews tend to be positive ones – well, people who aren’t Ngaio Marsh fans. Well, the policy for the blog for a long time is not to post a negative review of something that has been requested of me if I don’t like it. I know the deal when a review is requested is for a “fair and honest” review, but I don’t like being negative, especially when it’s a new author. I will give the author a bit of feedback, but I really don’t like to give a kicking to someone starting out in this writing business. After all, one day it might just be me – possibly.

Are there biased blogs out there? I don’t think so. I’ve seen some biased reviews on Amazon – there’s an historical mystery that’s written by someone with EXACTLY the same name as an another author of 100+ historical mysteries. When this book appeared, a couple of five star reviews appeared instantly, one of which, after a bit of internet digging appeared to be from a relative of said author. But blogs? I’m not aware of any.

So, what’s my point? Well, as I said, that tweet got me thinking, and I think best out loud. So while the blog is biased towards the sorts of books that I want to read (well, duh), I have every confidence (and so should you) that every review presented here is entirely bias free. Unless of course someone wants to buy me a new car? Then I’ll write anything you want…

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11 comments

  1. I think it was Kim Forrester (@kimbofo on Twitter) who mentioned that, although I think she was more incensed by those sites connecting authors and reviewers that amount to something like paid reviews almost. I don’t use those sites, nor do I have dinners or drinks with authors, other than at a literary conference alongside hundreds of others. But it did make me pause and think about whether I get too wrapped in my personal liking of an author (and feel flattered by being sent a book and a personal note with it occasionally) to judge a book entirely on its own merits.
    Like you, if it’s a debut novelist and I don’t like the book, I tend to be kinder and give personal feedback rather than trumpet it out publicly. But I have given plenty of 3 star reviews to authors I know (which are still GOOD, I keep telling people, although everyone behaves as though it were 1 star) with a detailed list of pros and cons on Crime Fiction Lover, and I haven’t had the wrath of authors or publishers descending on me. They just know that I am very, very stingy with my 5 stars, so they appreciate it all the more. (At least I hope so!)

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    • Oh, I know there weren’t any fingers being pointed in my direction, but it was what made me think about it. Thanks for the reminder about where I saw it.

      I’ve only had one disappointed response – very early on, and it’s what prompted me not to finish or review books that I don’t like. I do always dwell on the strengths of a book, and mention the weaknesses in less detail, which seems to work.

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  2. A thoughtful post on a provocative topic! I’ve only been blogging for a year, and my audience is small (but fabulous!) I have my preferences, which I suppose can be translated as bias. I don’t consider myself a reviewer, per se, as much as someone who seeks to analyze, from a very personal viewpoint, certain books (and films and plays and such) that I experience. When I have been negative I have tried to be respectful rather than disdainful, but I have paid for my negativity with equally negative responses in the comment section. (I think I lost a couple of readers when I spoke about Donald Trump, not because these people were necessarily pro-Trump, but because my vehement tone struck them as unfair or unpleasant or because they didn’t like me switching up topics. Politics – phooey!)

    Regarding the specific instance of reviewing an author with whom you have struck up an acquaintance, I totally get the points you are making. I have made the most passing acquaintance through the blog and mostly through Facebook with some published authors who all seem to be delightful and generous people, yet I am hesitant to sit down and review their work – even though what I have read I have really liked – because the conversations we have are friendly ones and I don’t want to complicate that relationship. Say I read books one, two and three and rate them positively, and then don’t like book four in an author’s series. What do I do? Do I skip that one? I think that if I didn’t skip it, the solution would be in the tone of my writing, where one stops trying to be a clever writer and looks at a single work in light of the author’s entire oeuvre. The same goes for the delightful fellow bloggers with whom I get to chat. I disagree with other people’s opinions fairly often, but I’m damned if I’m going to get snarky about it. (Well, I’m always a LITTLE snarky!) The great joy I get from blogging is the trading of opinions with others who share my interests, even differing opinions, and as long as there is a measure of civility in all our discourse, (and humor . . . oh, I love a good sense of humor), I think we are allowed to display our biases.

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    • You put your finger on one problem that thankfully I’ve never had to tackle – the duff novel from a favourite author. Not sure how I’d tackle that one, especially if I’ve committed to a full set of reviews via my bibliography pages. But the last Jecks review was a bit on the negative side, but it was more of a didn’t-work-for-me rather than it’s-a-bad-book opinion. Michael was kind enough to post a comment about it, which was nice… But there is one review I can think of for a frequently reviewed author where I tried to encourage readers to read between the lines… Not saying which though. Maybe I should have been more explicit, but that’s just not me.

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  3. Thanks for this! I agree completely. I have many author friends that I review, but I don’t feel biased either. They don’t expect anything but the truth from me. I don’t post reviews of 2 or 1 star books just because I prefer an up beat blog. Not into bashing. I state why I loved or liked it and I state what didn’t work for me. These are all personal opinions.

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  4. Have a good time at the BL chum – what’s the event this time? There are some imprints who are very good at sending me review copies, I like to think because they like what I have to say and because I am fair or at least try to be. But of course, some books play to my own tastes more than others so some publishers think that I am more likely to be favourably disposed, but I think that happens with any sort of review really. And I have turned down review copies where I suspect that it might not be for me. What is probably truer though is when you get quotes from famous authors on the book itself and you know that they are mates and so are likely to say something nice (I think Stephen King has done that a lot) and can devalue the currency a bit, but doesn’t mean that the opinion is dishonest. But because like you I usually only ever review stuff I like, this can make the writing a bit bland? Well, I am planning to give Ed McBain a right royal kicking in about a month 🙂

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    • It’s Ann Cleeves and that Edwards chap talking about the return of the Golden Age. Should be fun.

      I do get a lot of requests that I turn down, usually from people who’ve seen one review and not looked at the rest of the blog and noticed that it was an exception. The Haitian zombie romance was the highpoint – I guess they saw the Cadaver In Chief review?

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  5. This is tricky because of course blogger’s have been reading books for years, we tend to pick books we know we’ll enjoy – that said there are a few blogs that turn out masses of ‘five star’ reviews that I now take with a pinch of salt. I’m quite comfortable giving a lower amount of stars, often not because I don’t like a book but it wasn’t a huge favourite. I don’t think I display bias but not do I go about reviewing determined to be ultra critical, and definitely not ultra mean!

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    • I’ve dodged the “too many five star review” problem by not giving scores, although I suppose “too many Highly Recommended books” could be pointed at me if someone was counting… I think I’ve only been ultra-critical on a few times, all of which were books that a) I bought, b) really p*ssed me off for some reason and c) everyone else seems to love. Death At The Dolphin was the most recent, I think, where I was as vitriolic as I get (and got quite a lot of feedback from Marsh fans). Monk’s Hood as well – I wonder if the fact that I know the authors won’t be reading the review (due to a case of being dead) had anything to do with it. I struggle to think about a book that I gave a kicking to with an author who’s still with us… Maybe the M C Beaton reviews? Actually, they’re quite reasoned, looking back at them.

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  6. I get that someone might be worried about bias in the book blogosphere but I hope the same person is going to stop reading reviews in the mainstream press too. The vast majority of reviews in the major papers/online sites are written by authors…so it’s authors reviewing other authors (often from the same publishing stable), or wannabe authors reviewing authors they hope will one day return the favour. Surely that’s as bad as bloggers who tweet at each other occasionally.

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    • Oh, don’t get me started on newspaper book “reviews”. Private Eye in the UK is great at pointing out links between reviewers and authors/publishing houses. But as for wannabe authors reviewing authors… you never know, one day… (But that never was or will be the point of the blog)

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