Category Archives: criticism

unsafe on any screen

Unsafe on Any Screen by Scott Phillips

I’m really trying here to come up with a Walter Benjamin quote about media studies and engagement with popular culture, and I’m totally failing, which is about right. Obviously, I spend waaaay too much time reading all of y’alls lovely, personal reviews of all kinds of books. Books I would never read; books I have been warned away from; books I’ve been ordered to read; books I have on the long and growing list that I will never complete because some day I’m going to die.
Even though I have less engagement with movies, as an art form, I compulsively read movie reviews as well. I have the reviewers I trust, and the reviewers I know that I can take anything they say and turn it inside out, so that a bad review becomes a recommendation. I have a passing interest in trash movies, but not a full-blown love affair. Mostly my affection for bad movies leads back to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the times I spent with my family watching MST3K. My immediate family, growing up, was all-female, and I still have the warmest of memories of watching bad movies on Thanksgiving, with my mother & sister, in lieu of the football that was de rigueur in most co-ed households.

Scott Phillips doesn’t just have nostalgia to warm him when he watches grindhouse trash, he has a full-blown and well articulated love. This is awesome, and makes for a fine collection of movie reviews. Leonard Maltin, you may fu*k yourself. Many of the movies reviewed in this slender volume cannot be found on Netflix or even in your local video store, should you have such antiquated things in your location. You have to seek these movies out. They are made by people on no budget, with a group of friends, and a maniacal laugh. Or they were made on a budget and then disappeared. Phillips has an encyclopedic knowledge of the pedigree and taxonomy of trash cinema, so that he can draw lines between this director and that, this actor, this imprint, etc. Awesome.

I get the impression that Unsafe on Any Screen started life as a blog, so some of the reviews are annoyingly short. Kind of like my – and many people’s – early reviews. But once he starts cooking, man, what a joy to behold. He has really weird grading scales: one about how many greased gorillas he’d fight to watch the film in question, and one about how many scotches, or whiskeys? it takes to get through the film. I endorse this. The scotch metric in particular, not because I especially love scotch, but because it can be either a bad or a good thing that a particular film is awarded the high scotch metric. I feel this way about a thousand things: that they are awesome, but they make me drink, or that they are terrible, and they make me drink. Or they are nothing at all and I remain sober. It gets at the whole deep ambivalence I feel towards so much stuff, even the stuff I love, in an intensely satisfying way. My only real complaint is that there is no index. At least the reviews are alphabetical.

What it comes down to is that I’m as fascinated by the critical process as I am with the art/trash in question, and this book is as much a love letter to the silly fun we have while watching bad movies as it is to the movies themselves. His exuberance is infectious, like an alien pathogen beamed down to a small Italian village that infects a scantily clad babe. It’s going to eat someone’s brains, but it might just take its top off before it does so.

Keep circulating the tapes.

Also, P.S., Scott is a friend of mine, which is how come I read this, in interests of full disclosure. I never know where to put these disclosures: at the front, like I’m defensive, or at the close, like I’m sneaking? I guess I’m going with sneaking this time. The thing is, there’s no such thing as objectivity, so I’m not even going to pretend that the fact I think Scott, personally, is awesome didn’t have an effect on my read. It did. But in this case, his balls-out love of his subject, his total commitment to  the barrel-bottom of sleaze and cheese movies resonated for me. I know love when I see it, and he loves this shit. Amen.

Personal, Political, Cultural: Parsing the Concept of Author Behavior in Goodreads Policy

Late last week, Goodreads announced a new “policy change”. The announcement opened with a reiteration of policy points regarding reviews which haven’t changed: reviews should be about the book, and members cannot threaten other members. This is what had changed:

[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

Previously, the policy had been that reviews that spoke negatively about author behavior – I will not read this book because something the author sad or did – were removed from the main book page, but were still visible to friends. For those that don’t use Goodreads, if you look up a book, all your friends’ reviews are listed first, then those by people you follow, then the “community reviews”. This last category was where your review would not show up. This policy of hiding reviews I thought was a fair one: one that maintained the social aspects of the site, as users could signal to one another that they weren’t going to read something, and why, while muffling the effects of these peer-to-peer interactions on the larger community.

But Goodreads didn’t go through and just delete all hidden reviews, nor did they remove all shelves entitled “due-to-author” or similar. In this “policy change”, Goodreads instead removed the shelves and some reviews of 21 specific people. As far as I can tell, everyone else’s hidden reviews are still standing, and Goodreads spokesperson Kara indicated on the feedback thread that it wasn’t just the shelf names, but, like, the general feel of the reviews under that shelf header? Which, frankly, looks seriously personal and isn’t so much a policy change as swatting specific users, especially given the tone of the email they received.

Please refrain from posting content like this going forward. If you continue to act in a way that is contrary to the spirit and intent of Goodreads, your account will come under review.

Admittedly, Goodreads has apologized for not giving users time to edit, because alerting people to major deletions and then acting like people should have magically known the policy would change and were violating it on purpose is bunk.

This is the problem: if the reviews in question were all “this person was a dick to me on Twitter/Goodreads/etc”, then I can see Goodreads justifying their removal under the already existing guideline that you can’t say the author owes you money or whatnot. That could be construed as a personal interaction, and therefore not germane. This is a little complicated by the fact that Goodreads and Twitter are public, and the interactions become a matter of record. (At least until they don’t, as these sorts of interaction tend to get deleted.) But, okay, let’s just call them personal interactions, and say that kind of interaction is off the table, and always has been. No need for a policy change, as it’s just a policy refinement. The personal behavior – in the sense of person to person interactions – of an author amounts to gossip, maybe, fine.

But I’m a little more worried about what I see as creep in the policy towards silencing  political responses or cultural responses based on the author’s actions or words. Self-avowedlyMike’s review of Mein Kampf is a troll, because of course it’s stupid to say that you can’t mention that  Adolf freaking Hitler was a genocidal maniac. That’s a matter of the historical record, and unassailable. And in fact, when you deny Hitler’s actions, you can go to jail for it in some countries. Manny took the troll a step further in his review of The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving, who was convicted of Holocaust denial in Austria. (The Austrians have, historically understandably, harsher rules about this sort of speech there than in the US.) To quote from Wikipedia, because, shut up, Internet:

In the first edition, Irving’s estimates for deaths in Dresden were between 100,000 and 250,000 — notably higher than most previously published figures. These figures became authoritative and widely accepted in many standard reference works. In later editions of the book over the next three decades, he gradually adjusted the figure downwards to 50,000-100,000. According to the evidence introduced by Richard J. Evans at the libel trial of Deborah Lipstadt in 2000, Irving based his estimates of the dead of Dresden on the word of one individual who provided no supporting documentation, used forged documents, and described one witness who was a urologist as Dresden’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer. The doctor has since complained about being misidentified by Irving, and further, was only reporting rumours about the death toll. Today, casualties at Dresden are estimated as 22,700-25,000 dead.

Irving’s behavior isn’t gossip or personal; it’s a matter of political record. Knowing that he is a Holocaust denier in a history book about the Holocaust is absolutely germane to that content.

Kemper’s review of Josey Wales: Two Westerns is also about the author’s political actions. Asa Earl Carter (who wrote under several pen-names) was a longtime member of the KKK and one of two men credited with the “segregation now, segregation forever” speech by George Wallace. The choice not to read the works of vociferous racists in your precious leisure time isn’t some kind of readerly tantrum, and if it were, what’s it to you? Trigger warning: Asa Earl Carter was insanely racist. That has serious import on his work.

Arguably, GR could take the tack (tact? I’m a little unclear on this idiom) that these are historical actions, and it’s not like the authors are going to be flagging these reviews from the grave (or prison). But let’s take Orson Scott Card. (Take Orson Scott Card! Please!) Paul’s review notes Card’s very active and visible status as an anti-gay crusader. Mr Card has called for the overthrow of the American government, and worked visibly to pass Prop 8 in California. There are boycott movements all over the place for the upcoming film. Noting this isn’t “Card owes me money” or “Card was mean to me on Twitter” but a contextualizing of his work within a political and cultural framework. Orson Scott Card impacts me politically. This isn’t gossip. This is cultural engagement. Of course you don’t have to agree. Of course you can compartmentalize Card’s political beliefs from his work. But the refusal to read Card as a political act is valid too, and it’s a political act that cannot occur without knowledge of the larger context, context provided by reviews such as Paul’s.

I have also taken several swipes at serial plagiarist Jonah Lehrer, in defiance of the new “policy”. The first review was of How We Decide, one of two of his books that were recalled by the publisher for fabrication and/or plagiarism. Drat, I thought, that the book was recalled for its content is actually about the content. So I posted on on his only unrecalled book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. But this is still about context. Lehrer has just an appalling track record of unprofessional behavior – behavior that has gotten him fired from multiple science writing gigs - and this behavior calls into question any science writing this man has done. He wasn’t mean to me on Twitter, he fudged data, which in a science writer in inexcusable. I guess I could append the namby-pamby “to me”, like science writing is about opinions, but I’m not going to. He violated the basic tenets of the subject he was writing about.

But let’s take this a step down, away from the political or professional. One of the reviews deleted under the new policy was Steph Sinclair’s for The Secret of Castle Cant: Being an Account of the Remarkable Adventures of Lucy Wickwright, Maidservant and Spy. The author, KP Bath, was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to six years in prison, which is also a matter of record. It is germane to a review of his children’s book that he is a convicted pedophile. To quote U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton:

“It is shocking that a children’s author would contribute to the trauma these kids endure — both physical and emotional trauma from the sexual abuse itself, and psychological trauma from knowing that images of that abuse are circulating on the Internet.”

This is not gossip. Multiple reviews still left on Goodreads note this fact and literally nothing else about the book. I reviewed Jerry Sandusky’s book and noted his conviction on 45 counts of child abuse, and I’m not the only one. They are all still standing, because it is patently ridiculous to say that Sandusky’s conviction doesn’t have a bearing on the content of his self-elegy about how great he was to kids, or that Bath’s pedophilia doesn’t factor into his children’s book. That there are many, many reviews still standing that note these facts makes me wonder what the sandwich is going on with this new policy.

It’s looking to me that Goodreads is swatting very specific users, and backing it up with confusing, badly considered “policy changes” that aren’t so much changes as after-the-fact justifications. Out of a site of millions of users, that Goodreads went after 21 people looks underhanded and sneaky. The reason they cannot with clarity articulate what exactly the policy is – it’s not shelf names, or maybe it is; of course you can talk about the author, unless you can’t – is an indicator that it’s not a policy change but the ass-covering actions of an institution acting on some kind of personal whim. Which is absolutely no way to write policy.

But then, it’s not really a whim, more of a signal to users that Goodreads is changing its focus from community development to marketing to authors. Amazon acquired Goodreads last year, and I think this is the signal that things are going to change to a more business friendly site. There have always been important differences in Amazon and Goodreads reviews: Goodreads allows profanity, for example, because it’s not a store, but social network. (The terms of service, like most social networking sites, specifically disallows users under the age of 13, so you don’t have to think of the children.) There has never been a downvoting system on Goodreads either, because it really doesn’t matter if the review is “helpful” to every user; it has not been about sales. While I’ve been reluctant to engage in paranoid tin-foil-hattery about how Amazon was going to ruin everything, it is not mouth-frothing to note that Amazon has to make their money somehow, and I can tell you it’s not necessarily going to be through book sales, but the marketing dollars of authors.

In this interview by Community Manager Patrick Brown about Goodreads uploaded in August, he focuses largely on the utility of Goodreads to authors. explaining their recommendation algorithm and discussing how the social networking aspects fuel the discovery process. (Discovery being  the buzzword these days about how writers go about getting a book into the hands of readers, as the traditional publishing model splinters and bursts into flames.) Reviews that focus on author behavior – and of course we are not children, so we know this means negative reviews that focus on author behavior – are disruptive to the discovery process from the point of view of the author: you are hearing about my book all wrong!

So, so many of the writings I see out there discussing this policy change note the recent allegations of a young woman who claimed to have been bullied on Goodreads. Salon asks: Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads? They repeat her initial claims that her book was tagged with shelves titled “author should be sodomized” and “should be raped in prison”. The link to her Tweets, which was the only evidence of this claim, goes to a deleted page, and there was never a link to any Goodreads shelves, because they never existed. (Here we get into the issue of why a self-referenced post on Twitter isn’t a credible source, for those paying attention,  journalists.)

If you actually bother to read to the end of the article, there’s a lame ETA noting that that she eventually issued an “LOL, my bad”, admitting she misunderstood pretty much everything about Goodreads reviewing culture, the shelving system, and that the rape and death threats had never occurred. If you want an extremely thorough accounting of the timeline of events, check this post on ThreeRs, which documents copiously what exactly happened.

The damage had been done at this point, unfortunately, because in this brave new journalistic world that drives blog-arms of media outlets to half-ass their sources in order to get pages up fast while the controversy is breaking – page views! (I’m assuming things here about Goodreads’s motivation, but I can’t really figure why they’d kick this hornet’s nest so hard if they weren’t attempting to appear “tough on bullying” or something. Especially factoring in the recent rape threat meltdown on Twitter.) In this sloppy, bloggy new journalism, you get articles like this one on CNN, which credulously reiterates the fiction that an author had been bullied on Goodreads ZOMG, citing the Salon article, ignoring the retraction, and anemically noting that:

It’s hard to corroborate Howard’s story when she’s deleted her Tumblr (it’s not available in Google’s cache) and many of the Goodreads reviews and shelves allegedly devoted to bullying her have also been deleted. In addition, Howard backtracked on some of her statements.

Spoiler alert: you can’t corroborate the story because it didn’t happen that way at all.

But let’s just backtrack. Let’s say Howard’s books had been shelved in ways that said she should be raped and murdered. This would be horrible and wrong, and it would be right of Goodreads to delete these shelves and ban the users who said such things. I have seen threats on Goodreads – usually users against users and not involving authors at all – and Goodreads has always been good about deleting them once the comments have been flagged. (And sometimes going so far as to ban users.) The policy in place was already equipped to deal with personal threats.

Extending the Goodreads Terms of Service to this vague, mushy, overly broad policy about “author behavior” doesn’t solve Goodreads’s PR problem out there due to bad journalism, irresponsible blog posts, and the fact that people on Internet can suck. Maybe what they mean is “Twitter isn’t a credible source” (actually, no it isn’t) or “no more personal interaction stories, even secondhand ones” (ok, that’s a shift, but a slighter one than this encompassing “behavior” nonsense.)

Goodreads has been reticent to discuss specific user’s deletions, which I guess makes sense in terms of not gossiping in public about users, but in terms of parsing what exactly they are looking for, make it very difficult indeed. Goodreads employee Kara notes:

Anyone else with reviews or shelves created prior to September 21, 2013 that will be deleted under the revised policy will be sent a notification first and given time to decide what to do.  [emphasis hers]

I take this to mean that reviews not adhering to this vague policy written after the announcement will be deleted without notification. Given that I can’t even tell what’s actionable anymore,  I find this incredibly chilling. Way to turn a PR problem into a firestorm, Goodreads.

The implementation of this policy change has been breathtakingly badly managed, and the thinking behind their shift muzzy and indistinct, when it doesn’t look calculated towards aims that have nothing to do with the reviews in question.  Goodreads has moved from muffling users to silencing them because they are shifting their focus from peer-to-peer interactions – a social network – to the marketing potentials in a website of 20 million readers. It’s been said before, but the user is the product on any social networking site. They can’t sell you if you won’t behave.

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The Goodreads Forbes 25 Interviews

The folk at Shelf Inflicted – who appear to be mostly Goodreads escapees – are running a series of interviews with the 25 people mentioned in the Forbes article about Goodreads however long ago. I was listed as #18 of the top 25 reviewers, and I think the category was in the last year, for the whole world. So, you can check out my interview here, or you can read it below. The whole series is pretty interesting though, and it’s a super weird group of people with super disparate interests.

—–

Today’s guest is Ceridwen.  Ceridwen also posts at Readerling.

How did you discover Goodreads?
An irl friend sent me a link in April of 2008, which means I’ve been active on Goodreads for five years now. I didn’t interact much at first – I had no experience with social media; facebook would come later for me – but very slowly accrued friends other than my mother, husband, and a smattering of real life friends. As an introduction to social media, it was a kind experience, as the early-ish days of Goodreads had a sort of backwater enthusiast vibe, and you could be reasonably sure that no one at all was paying attention, which suited me fine.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
That’s hard to say. There have been some memorable scandals, trollings, call-outs, and cat-fights that have occurred on Goodreads which were fun for me. I can think of a dozen instances where pointless and/or stupid trolling turned into runaway threads full of humor, lolcats, and, you know, profound commentary on books. My personal favorite was the time one of my reviews got trolled by a fine young man from Texas with a penchant for dismissing people as “ugly lesbians”. I still get comments on that clusterfuck of a thread wondering what the hell happened.

Though I haven’t been involved in much of this, except as an observer, I find the various author/reviewer meltdowns that occur pretty fascinating. Goodreads is a focal point for two different trends: self-publishing and citizen reviewing. So you have two different kinds of folk running up against each other – people who don’t know shit about marketing running up against sometimes harshly stated opinions – and the result can be explosive. And I really shouldn’t be singling out the self-pubs, because a fair number of these explosions have happened between Big Six authors (or their agents or friends) and their readers. As the industry changes from more mediated relationships – authors are largely left to their own devices these days (I am given to understand) – the potential for conflict approaches one.

I don’t have any easy answers for this, and I don’t think either reviewers or authors have gotten it right 100% of the time. I believe there is a tendency for reviewers to be rewarded for strong reactions – when I sort my reviews by the ones with the most votes, the first ten are either five-starred or one-starred reviews, hatchet jobs or soaring praise. I get it: we respond strongly to strong emotion, and I don’t think there is anything wrong or bad about that. I worry sometimes about this feedback loop though, at least as it pertains to the critical process. I mean, no one ever said that a citizen review had to be a measured intellectual endeavor, and god bless all the goofing, irreverent, parodic, cheerfully off-topic reviews out there, but I still worry about the middle-voice, the three-starrer that gets lost in the wash. Heated rhetoric is rewarded – and I’m not saying I’m immune to this, having penned some hatchet jobs and love-fests myself – but sometimes I wonder what reviews would look like if it weren’t. I certainly think about this when I reach for the hatchet.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Just one? This question sucks. How about 25? In no particular order:

Eric from Minneapolis
Matt from Nebraska
Miriam from California
Ben Babcock
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Mike Reynolds
Monica!
Caris O’Malley
Michael Springer, who has some terrible pseudonym these days
Dead Flamingo Jessica
Sparrow
Joel from Chicago
Jacob Ford
Terence from California 
Moira Russell
Lisa Vegan
Abigail A. 
Kelly from I don’t know where
Aerin from Seattle 
Flannery
RandomAnthony
Jason Morais
Lightreads
My Flesh Sings Out aka Josh
oriana from Brooklyn
Wealhtheow Wylfing

This might be more than 25, and I could add more. I <3 a lot of reviewers on Goodreads.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Zombie apocalypse? No, really, I think it was inevitable that Goodreads was going to sell out or go public, because the problem of monetizing any start-up for the founders. CEO Otis was looking to cash out on a very good idea executed (mostly) well, and I can’t say I blame him. Plus, Goodreads just hit some kind of tipping point with user numbers – 10+ million and counting – and I don’t think Goodreads has been able to cope in terms of capital or infrastructure. (Witness the complete failure of the notification system on a regular basis, and less important problems like their inability to update top lists for months.) After facebook went public to not disastrous, but not fantastic results, that left selling out. I am hugely disappointed that it turned out to be Amazon, but I’m also not hugely surprised.

Amazon has created a problem for themselves with the discoverability issue – as the bricks and mortar bookstores shutter, there’s no place for serendipitous browsing, and their “if you’ll like this, then” algorithms are probably the best out there, but that doesn’t mean they’re good. Plus, Amazon reviews are heavily gamed by all kinds of competing forces – authors and/or fans with grudges, a downvoting system that tends to punish outlying opinions or perspectives, payola scandals, even Michael Jackson fans gone insane. As product reviews not personal responses, the personal gets lost. The social network aspect of Goodreads solves their discoverability issue and the issue of confidence in the review. We goodreaders are now all the person inside the Mechanical Turk. Which sucks. Maybe there’s no difference in shaking my ass for CEOtis or Amazon, but it feels different.

How many books do you own?
A quick estimate using my thumb puts the number at about 750, but that’s not factoring the stuff in the basement or the kids books. So probably a thousand. I like books, as objects, but I tend to give them away when I love them, and I seldom re-read.

Who is your favorite author?
Ursula K Le Guin

What is your favorite book of all time?
Fail. Impossible to compute.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
I adore paper, and there are things that are impossible to do with a screen that you can do with a physical object, but ebooks have their place. I read a lot of pulp mass market stuff, because I can put down several throw-away fictions while I’m reading something more considered. It’s almost required, because I’m a pleasure reader primarily, and while I get pleasure from smart stuff, it requires a level of engagement that I can’t give it just before bed or on a Sunday afternoon or whatever. So an ebook that I can half-assedly download from the library and pick at can be really perfect.

I’m not hugely excited about all the proprietary readers out there – Nook, Kindle, Kobo, whatever – which lock readers into a specific distribution channel. I don’t think that’s good for publishing, but I don’t know what the solution is.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
Boy, what a thing. Obviously, publishing is in a huge upheaval at the moment, much like music was ten years ago, but I don’t think we can necessarily extrapolate what happened to music distribution to book publishing. So many of the arts have fractured into the long tail – a series of sub-sub-sub-genres catering to very, very specific readerships. Which can be great for those specific readerships, but if you’re not in them, maybe hard to figure out. I am absolutely game to read self-published works, and I have read and enjoyed a number, but I do admit I worry about the editorial process, and, given some of the meltdowns I’ve seen, the insulating effect of the publisher when authors and readers interact.

We could all use an editor – as I’m fiercely aware of when I post some damn review riddled with typos and badly connected thoughts. Platforms like Goodreads become all the more important when sorting through self-published works, which are rarely reviewed on traditional platforms – even the mid-list gets lost, and if you’re talking about genre fiction, forget it – which is why the Amazon takeover continues to worry me. The difference between product review and criticism is vital.

Any literary aspirations? 
Sure.

We are Wagging the Long Tail: The Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads

In an op-ed in Forbes, you can find the following infographic about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads:

[from These are the Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads]


I’m at #18. And phew, I’m glad I finally changed up my avatar photo to something other than a Tusken Raider hanging out on the beach; that would have been awkward.



I’ve been active on Goodreads since April of 2008, and since then I have written over 400 reviews. One of the more frustrating pastimes on that site is trying to parse why and how reviewers get the votes they do, scrying the top lists for cultural trends and currencies, arguing about populism versus merit, pitching hand-to-hand combats about what reviews have value and why and how. I’ve been around this block enough to know that this top list of reviewers looks verra verra different from what it looked like when I signed on, lo, those many years ago, when my friends list mostly consisted of my mother. It would be an interesting if ultimately brutal timesink of a project to chart the ebbs and flows of who this tiny corner of the booknerdosphere ranked as its most voted reviewers. (Which is what “top reviewer” means – it’s Goodreads reviewers whose reviews have the most votes.) 

I’m feeling a little lazy and tired in my response to this op-ed, so I’m just going to post the reaction I had on facebook:

 I thought the part about finding better business books through sites like Goodreads was a good point, but the stuff about crowdsourcing, traditional critical platforms, and the rest of it was pretty jumbled. I don’t think traditional criticism is dead, or that it is necessarily in conflict with stuff like goodreads or book bloggers – but obviously a lot of people see it that way. (Like the head judge of the Booker prize who stated recently that book bloggers were “harming literature,” which I think is a deeply stupid thing to say.) It is true that sites like Goodreads are wagging the long tail though, which any writer who isn’t a well established litfic or popular fiction writer – and that is pretty much all of them – should really pay attention to. Traditional critical platforms, like newspapers, are having a whole world of hurt right now, but not just because of social media. Some of it is just the calculus of how many reviews a newspaper can write – what is the average number in a Sunday insert? – versus the absolute barrage available online. Sure, lots of those are crap, but the same can be said for the dumbed down or heavily generalized reviews one can find in the paper.  


I’m “friends” with most of the people on that list, actual friends with a smaller number, follow a few of them, and I’ve at least heard of the rest. We’re a tight knit crowd, even if we’re not close friends (or even like each other, in some instances.) We’re definitely watching one another’s critical reactions though, even if those reactions are to books and genres we have zero interest in.So I know their reviews pretty well. Most of those reviewers have a pretty solid focus in one (or two or three) areas – young adult, or scfi, or crime fiction, or whatever – and they are journeyman reviewers – one or two a week for years. (The anomaly being the woman who has over 10,000 votes for her three 50 Shades reviews.) I have no idea how far our influence spreads – not far being my guess – but I think these reviewers are popular because of an expertise, however homespun, in a corner of literature. And those corners are often not represented in traditional media. You won’t find reviews of business books in the NYT, for better or for worse. You don’t really find them so much on Goodreads either, but then there was that one Liberty reviewed that sparked off a pretty big firestorm about writers, reviewers and social media. Wag the long tail, baby.

A friend of mine (who is an academic) challenged my use of the word homespun in regards to expertise, calling it “a spurious distinction much aided by the values of the market culture.” And she is entirely right about that; experts such as Mr. Booker Prize wouldn’t have his monocle in such a twist if his claim to cultural gatekeeping and the arbitration of quality weren’t threatened by the democratization of critical platforms. Amateur – which is by definition unpaid – does not mean inexpert. Especially when it comes to areas of publishing that traditional media have ignored or underrepresented.Though I usually prefer to think of myself as a crank, I honestly think this set of reviewers – even the ones I think are assholes – the new face of criticism, spinning their expertises in the home, because the home is the most logical place to spin them. Reading is a sullen art. I’ve always quipped that the most successful goodreaders have elements of both exhibitionism and introversion in their personalities, desiring to say out loud what we experience in the comfort of our own minds. Criticism is the calculated bleating of those who think too long and too hard about their personal reactions – why do I feel what I feel about this? Or maybe it isn’t, but for sure the whole enterprise is rooted in serious engagement with books and the whole sticky ball of wax that is reaction, process, and – dare I say it? – art.

We are the long tail, and we wag what we can in the ways we know best.It’s entirely possible I’m just all jazzed to have my picture in Forbes though. Thank heavens I’m not represented by that Tusken Raider, cute as he was.

Unsafe on Any Screen

I’m really trying here to come up with a Walter Benjamin quote about media studies and engagement with popular culture, and I’m totally failing, which is about right. Obviously, I spend waaaay too much time reading all of y’alls lovely, personal reviews of all kinds of books. Books I would never read; books I have been warned away from; books I’ve been ordered to read; books I have on the long and growing list that I will never complete because some day I’m going to die. 

Even though I have less engagement with movies, as an art form, I compulsively read movie reviews as well. I have the reviewers I trust, and the reviewers I know that I can take anything they say and turn it inside out, so that a bad review becomes a recommendation. I have a passing interest in trash movies, but not a full-blown love affair. Mostly my affection for bad movies leads back to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the times I spent with my family watching MST3K. My immediate family, growing up, was all-female, and I still have the warmest of memories of watching bad movies on Thanksgiving, with my mother & sister, in lieu of the football that was de rigueur in most co-ed households.

Scott S. Phillips doesn’t just have nostalgia to warm him when he watches grindhouse trash, he has a full-blown and well articulated love. This is awesome, and makes for a fine collection of movie reviews. Leonard Maltin, you may fu*k yourself. Many of the movies reviewed in this slender volume cannot be found on Netflix or even in your local video store, should you have such antiquated things in your location. You have to seek these movies out. They are made by people on no budget, with a group of friends, and a maniacal laugh. Or they were made on a budget and then disappeared. Phillips has an encyclopedic knowledge of the pedigree and taxonomy of trash cinema, so that he can draw lines between this director and that, this actor, this imprint, etc. Awesome. 

I get the impression that this book started life as a blog, so some of the reviews are annoying short. Kind of like my – and many people’s – early Goodreads reviews. But once he starts cooking, man, what a joy to behold. He has really weird grading scales: one about how many greased gorillas he’d fight to watch the film in question, and one about how many scotches, or whiskeys? it takes to get through the film. I endorse this. The scotch metric in particular, not because I especially love scotch, but because it can be either a bad or a good thing that a particular film is awarded the high scotch metric. I feel this way about a thousand things: that they are awesome, but they make me drink, or that they are terrible, and they make me drink. Or they are nothing at all and I remain sober. It gets at the whole deep ambivalence I feel towards so much stuff, even the stuff I love, in an intensely satisfying way. My only real complaint is that there is no index. At least the reviews are alphabetical. 

What it comes down to is that I’m as fascinated by the critical process as I am with the art/trash in question, and this book is as much a love letter to the silly fun we have while watching bad movies as it is to the movies themselves. His exuberance is infectious, like an alien pathogen beamed down to a small Italian village that infects a scantily clad babe. It’s going to eat someone’s brains, but it might just take its top off before it does so. 

Keep circulating the tapes.

Unsafe on Any Screen: Cinematic Sleaze and Cheese