Everyone Can Be a Book Reviewer. Should They Be?

From The Literary Hub:

“Anyone can be a critic.” It’s a common lament these days now that the book review landscape is changing. English professors and book reviewers in newspapers aren’t the only tastemakers in literary criticism anymore: Goodreads community members, anonymous or top reviewers on Amazon, and dedicated bloggers can, and do, produce discourse about books. But are they really critics? And should we take their work seriously?

Plenty of my interviewees in Inside the Critics’ Circle—critics at newspapers and magazines—grapple with these question themselves. They often define their role in the book review world by contrasting their work against that of academics and amateur reviewers.

Critics were understandably ambivalent towards amateur reviewers despite their appreciation for general readers’ enthusiasm about books. In the words of one anonymous critic, “I think it’s wonderful if people read and come up with their own opinions. I think it’s a marvelous thing. There’s nothing that says any particular group of people have a monopoly.” Yet, this same critic is skeptical about amateur reviewers’ qualifications to write a well-balanced book review: “I do sometimes think that bloggers are kind of dumb, as a general rule.”

One critic bemoaned the ways people on Amazon evaluate books:

The Amazon.com reviewers, it’s like they’re reviewing a product. It’s like they bought a pair of Nikes and they are going on and saying, “Oh, my Nikes feel just great, they fit perfectly and I love them.” Then they go on and review a book and say, “Oh, this book was too long, I got really sleepy halfway through,” and just stuff like that.

For many professional critics, books are art forms that should be discussed and evaluated as such, which is a privilege journalistic criticism affords. But amateur reviewers weren’t seen as the only threat to reviewing culture.

If the critics I interviewed were concerned that amateurs did not bring enough analysis to their reading or lacked credentials to speak to a book’s artistic merit, they had equal concern about the over-intellectualization of book reviewing.

. . . .

More than a matter of differences in approach, however, reviews rooted in pedantry were seen as doing a disservice to general readers. The fault lies not in academic critics’ literary competency but an approach to the evaluation of books that threatens to cast serious reading as too rarified, making it irrelevant for the average person.

So where does this leave book reviewers in newspapers and magazines?

Traditionally, newspapers have been the organizational base of arts reviewing. The retrenchment of book reviewing has been coupled with the economic fortunes of newspaper media. However, I think its position and history with the newspaper qua journalism represents one of the greatest strengths of journalistic reviewing.

Book reviewing is a form of journalism. More than a report on publishing industry news, book reviews situate literature in the here and now, and make it accessible to the public. People often focus on the commercial nature of book publishing: do people use reviews to buy books?  How can reviews compete with algorithms that make recommendations based on your browsing history?  They don’t have to do that.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests the OP is trying to provide some sort of professional luster for an activity that requires no particular professional background.

Do most of the rapidly-diminishing number people who read newspapers want someone to “situate literature in the here and now and make it accessible to the public” or are they simply seeking an idea of what book they might enjoy reading, whether it be a torrid romance, a cowboy yarn or a book set in a distant galaxy occupied by a collection of heretofore unknown divergent species?

PG further suggests that the idea that the managers/editors of a journalistic enterprise like a newspaper are qualified to select (and are willing to pay for) someone with the ability to “situate literature” and “make it accessible” is really quite silly. And always has been.

4 thoughts on “Everyone Can Be a Book Reviewer. Should They Be?”

  1. I have friends who are critics, and I find the old adage that “critics are those writers who realised they couldn’t write novels of there own,” seems apt.

    Which is not to say that I am a better writer because I’ve finished three plus books, but that I realise that critics are looking for affirmation they are worth something through the power of their unique insights into writing, whereas I write because I enjoy writing.

  2. When I subscribed to TLS I really enjoyed the non fiction reviews: they were essays by experts inspired by the book’s contents, very interesting in their own right, but mostly no help when it came to deciding whether to buy the book.

    These days I’m pretty much only interested in “book reports” which provide help with purchase decisions. Newspapers are pretty much useless, too few reviews and rarely covering a book I’m interested in. Specialised magazines – both professional and amateur – can help for non fiction works as they can normally find an expert on the subject (at least the magazines I still read do) and the right bloggers can also persuade me buy. Fiction is more of a problem. Amazon reviewers are little help and it’s hard to find people whose taste consistently matches your own.

    Years ago when I subscribed to Analog I found that my taste pretty much matched that of their book reviewer and a lot of SF purchases followed. I’ve not found anyone like that on the internet and my book buying is a bit hit or miss (lots of free and £0.99 books to try – and often discard) until I find an author I like and work my way through their backlist. If anyone can recommend a better method I’d like to hear about it.

    • I’ve done this more often with movie reviews, not so much book reviews, but see if this works: I watch (or read) something first. If something about it grabbed me by the throat, or impressed me or intrigued me, I’ll look for reviews, blogs, articles, etc. Mainly my goal is to see if anyone is exploring the aspect of the story I liked or hated. Sometimes I’m trying to confirm if I’m correct about references or source materials, whatever. The person who touches upon the key aspect of the story, and has something insightful to say about it, is the person whose reviews or articles or website I will return to.

      One movie reviewer caught my favorable attention because he was the only person who referenced the significance of two casting choices in the second season of “Stranger Things.” He understood the positive impact those actors’ past roles had in raising the stakes and suspense for the viewers. I’ve started watching another show because I enjoyed the logical analysis a vlogging pair brought to a book series I’d already read, where they pay attention to everything including folkloric source materials. Things your cookie-cutter, write-off-the-press-release reviewer wouldn’t mention or know about.

  3. The author faces the danger felt by so many today. Form is being challenged as a surrogate for substance. People who consider themselves “really critics” are being challenged by people who just write about what they read. Few care if they are real critics.

    The same happened with real authors when Amazon opened up its doors to independent authors. Real authors howled. Real critics howled. They kept telling us they were real while those folks over there were some other species.

    Then a subset of independent authors became established, considering themselves serious authors, and howled about the hobbyists clicking the Amazon KDP upload button. Even worse, the hobbyists put their books in Kindle Unlimited, stealing sales from the serious authors.

    It’s tough being real, serious, and authentic in a world where nobody cares. God Bless benign neglect.

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