Friday, July 22, 2011

Standards Matter

Standards matter. Standards are what separate aspiring amateurs from professionalism. Every profession has a set of objective standards that must be met by its practitioners before one can be qualified to earn the title granted by that profession. This usually involves education and training, culminating in the receipt of credentials, to establish the individual has learned the skills of his craft or trade.

Lately, there has been a populist sentiment that standards don’t matter, and anyone can adopt the label of any profession and bypass all of the above. Chris Matthews was shocked when a Tea Party politician said he knew all about economics and the effects of the U.S. defaulting on its debt because he had raised a family. Matthews berated the man for claiming his statements carried the same weight as economists who had studied economics and actually knew what they were talking about, noting “raising a family’ was irrelevant and neither a proper nor sufficient credential to issue pronouncements on the subject. Anyone may have an opinion, but a professional has an informed opinion.

I was aghast to learn the Huffington Post had issued a call for “citizen journalists” to write news articles for it.  I went to the forum discussing it, prepared to explain how the phrase was a misnomer; how journalism was a profession, with standards – such as objectivity, truthfulness, conciseness, writing style (the inverted pyramid), consistency (stylebook) – that had to be learned and followed before one could wear the label of “journalist”; but 38 other people had beaten me to it. The most recent poster said he did not want his appendix removed by a “citizen doctor”, nor did he wish to be represented by a “citizen lawyer” in his divorce suit, nor have a “citizen mechanic” fix his car brakes.

While I’m waiting in doctor offices, I read their diplomas on the wall because where they interned or earned their degrees matters. I want a professional who has credentials I can evaluate. Maybe he is a skilled doctor who graduated from a college I never heard of in Trinidad, but an MD from Johns Hopkins and an internship at the Mayo Clinic carry more weight with me because I know those institutions have high standards one must meet to have earned those credentials.

I was appalled to read on the Kindle boards an “aspiring author” ask “if grammer (sic) really mattered”.  The question was absurd. Of course, grammar matters. It is a foundation of the writer’s craft. This individual wanted to fast forward past having to learn the craft and merely spew his babble onto his screen and label himself an author. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Writing has standards. And by the way, spelling is one of them – the word is spelled with two ‘a’s, no ‘e’.

By far, the worst offenders are the amateur book reviews. Anyone can read a book and post their opinion. But there is a difference between an opinion or comment and a book review. The latter must meet certain standards. This notion offends some self-proclaimed “book bloggers” who eschew the notion of learning the craft of reviewing before actually doing it. Again, we see the populist sentiment  that anyone can pick up a pen and do it. No, they can’t.

To quote popular author and indie guru Joe Konrath: The world wide web has spawned an unpleasant epidemic of idiots who are quick to criticize, insult, dismiss, and reject without any accountability. These folks really believe their nearsighted and downright idiotic opinions are not only correct, but need to be voiced in public.” 

Amazon has made it more difficult by labeling reader comments and opinions posted on the authors book’s page on its site as “reviews”. When author Susannah Morgan had the audacity to post in the writers’ forum on Kindle Boards “With the ever increasing number of book bloggers calling themselves ‘Book Reviewers,’ I think it may be time for authors to point out the difference”,  she was pilloried by an angry mob of, what else, outraged book bloggers and “aspiring authors”. One questioned the need for any standards for book reviewers, such as a knowledge of literature, familiarity with classic works, or even a college education. In her world, simply being able to read the book qualifies one as a reviewer. After all, I drive a car, so that qualifies me to be a mechanic.

Still, one poster stated what should have been obvious:To get a job as a reviewer you had to have some credentials other than being opinionated and being able to type 35 words a minute.”

Author Bob Mayer summed it up in the same thread: But I do have to admit getting a bit weary of self-anointed reviewer gurus or publishing business gurus who have no credentials other than setting up their blog. They can say what they will. But the minute anyone questions them, they rush to defend themselves by saying authors have no right to ever question a ‘review’. Well, I think authors have the same rights they have. I don't advocate it and think it's a bad move, but really, what's the difference between an author reviewing a reviewer and them reviewing an author? Any author who publicly questions a ‘review’ is immediately lynched by a mob.”

Of course, like Morgan, he was lynched by the mob. One poster referred to Morgan’s call for standards as “snobbish”. A book blogger wrote: anyone who self-publishes, and therefore considers their book publishable strictly on the weight of their own opinion that it is publishable, has no business condemning a book reviewer who reviews strictly of the weight of having a blog.” While that does conjure the Kafkaesque vision of  amateur reviewers judging amateur writers, it is misplaced logic, evidenced when the amateur blogger attempts to review a professional writer. For example, a professional reviewer acts as a filter, explaining why a work is better than another, often introducing literary concepts to their audience; book bloggers lacking a literary education need them explained to them by the author, and if the author fails to do so, the blogger will smear the author with her own ignorance. Or, as Konrath said, “But casual dismissal coupled with the anonymity (and the cushion) of the Internet has turned a bunch of lazy morons into bitter critics who spout off their idiotic opinions without any sense to back them up.”

Bitter critics? Susannah Morgan’s statement above was met with this response from a book blogger: “You joined this forum like...yesterday. You don't get to tell older board members to go away just because they don't agree with you. You are the one who came into OUR community and, without making any attempt to understand the norms of the community, spouted off at the mouth about how the world should or should not define a legitimate reviewer.”

In other words, get out of our sandbox. You told the truth and hurt our feelings. We don’t want to play with you anymore. (I’m not sure who granted her the deed to the sandbox, but that’s another issue).

There are some amateur reviewers who aspire to professionalism and try to follow standards. They know who they are; they’re the ones nodding as they read this. The others have already picked up their poison pens to dash off their replies. As I said at the outset, standards matter. Standards are what separate aspiring amateurs from professionalism. Every profession has a set of objective standards that must be met by its practitioners before one can be qualified to earn the title granted by that profession. This usually involves education and training, culminating in the receipt of credentials, to establish the individual has learned the skills of his craft or trade. Now I’ll leave the sandbox, too, and go out to play with the grownups.


  1. I do not pretend to be a professional reviewer as I do not know enough about Literature as a professional woul. I believe and state that my "review" are nothing more than how the book made me feel. I therefore do not go into plot, prose or grammar as that would invalidate the idea behind my reviews. I agree with your post that without credentials you can not call yourself a professional but I disagree with aspects of the post. Just because the reviewer is not educated in the art does not mean they know nothing and everyone has the right to be heard. Otherwise, good show!!

    Albert Robbins III
    Free Book Reviews

  2. I agree with you, Albert. Everyone has opinions and we all share them (about everything from restaurants to politics). What I neglected to state in the post (but have stated on the same topic in other forums, so I have been consistent)is "An opinion is about a reader's experience. A review is meant to serve as a guide to prospective readers, and as such, should be written by one with expertise in the subject matter (literature, films, music, etc.)."

    My point is that there is a difference between having an opinion (which you, I, and just about everyone have) and a professional review (which must meet certain standards). I think you and I agree on more than you think.

    Mind you, I am not singing the praises of professional reviewers. I also wrote in the same forum: "My point was professional reviewers are schooled the the craft of review, not that I always agree with them. In fact, decades ago, there was one reviewer whose tastes ran so counter to mine that I would read his reviews and do the opposite of his recommendations."