What is the value of a book review today– can it be trusted? On the surface, it’s one person’s subjective (and sometimes biased) view on a text. Why read it unless that person’s tastes are similar to yours and unless the reviewer has no vested interest in the author’s financial fortune?
I realized that the reviews I was reading in newspapers and journals had gradually morphed into unsubtle sales messages for the books they were covering. I concluded therefore, that the serious impartial reviewer had gone the way of the dodo bird, replaced by the “mutual admiration society”—aka writers helping other writers, especially their friends, a situation created out of necessity, given that publishers rarely paid for reviews these days, and the only person who would sacrifice time to read and write something about a writer’s work would be a friend, potentially another writer; and the chances are that he would write something nice, and expect something nice to be written about him too when the time came to call in the favour.
There was also the “syndicated review”—the one that hogged prime space in all the national newspapers simultaneously to the exclusion of the hundreds of other good books vying for attention. Big money talking here, not big writing, I concluded.
And what about those paid reviews—I mean, author-paid—a service offered by reviewers who were once held in high esteem for their credibility. What sorry times we had sunken into!
Oh, and don’t forget that other phenomenon taking place, mostly on the web and in social media: “hate reviews,” by those wanting to discredit the author for reasons political, commercial or otherwise. We heard of Amazon and other online sites being bombarded by the infamous “1 rating” (aka “very poor”). Even the lofty J.K Rowling was humbled by this onslaught from unseen forces. And how credible were these reviews?
I have written a lot of book reviews over the years, myself. I started writing them when I began forgetting the plot lines and characters of the many books I had been reading. I felt I needed to keep cheat sheets on them. Soon, I had over 200 reviews and that number has grown. In a desire to share and engage, I placed these review on the web. A few websites liked what I was writing (Goodreads and e-Zine Articles among others—even mighty Amazon deigned to publish some of my reviews as long as they weren’t too controversial and did not adversely impact sales), and so I began posting my reviews for the wider world to read via these sites, for free. Although I was interested in the books themselves, I had no personal interest in the authors as I did not know any of them— many were dead or too famous to bother with little me. And none of them were going to reciprocate by writing reviews of my books (Imagine reviews written on my books by the likes of Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan et al? Dream on, Shane!), so I did not have to pull any punches. And now, over the years I seem to have gathered a small but loyal flock of readers of my reviews, ones who will be influenced to pick up a copy of the book after reading my review on it. Likewise, I have compiled a list of independent reviewers whose opinions I hold in regard over all the others I skim over in my weekend newspaper.
So in order to restore credibility to the book review, we must reduce it to a DIY industry, it appears. In future, serious readers will follow self-selected reviewers, in small flocks, not in hordes via mass media or on those websites that are used as weapons of mass author-destruction. The Book Review is not dead, the good ones are just a little hard to find amid the myriad wannabes cluttering up the Book-o-sphere today.
Who are your favourite book reviewers? Do share…