The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Book Reviews

I review books, and have a few hundred posted in the public domain. Writers constantly request me to write reviews of their books. Of late, I have resorted to writing reviews only of the books I like and politely turn away many that I don’t, author notwithstanding. Why? Because reviews sell books, I’m told. But what I have experienced is that while good reviews do not necessarily sell books, a bad review by a respected reviewer can stop a book in its tracks.  And I do not want to hurt anyone’s career, unless they are established writers now resorting to writing junk and riding on their fame, and who are direly in need of a wake-up call. Therefore, I decided to explore the practice of review writing that I began as a way of reminding myself of the books I had read; a practice in which there was once only a few trusted adherents, but which today has become a flood with no barriers to entry or quality of content, it seems.

It is important to understand the reviewer’s background and agenda before submitting a book for review. We all have limited experiences, and our backgrounds colour our views on the world and how we respond to literature. Different reviewers from different backgrounds and with different levels and types of education may review the same book differently.

Why do we write reviews? Like me, to remember what we have read so we can refer back to our review in conversation? To enter the literary debate and provoke discussion? To make a name for ourselves, particularly in this social media universe where we have to publish frequently in order to stay relevant? To take a power trip and destroy writers that have made it through sheer luck and influence while our own literary ambitions have languished due to a different combination of luck and influence?  To have followers and admirers who pick their books based on our comments? For money, even though there isn’t much there anymore? To extend the maxim of “those who cannot do, teach” – thus, “those who cannot create, criticize”? Perhaps it’s due to a combination of all of the above.

Once a book is in the public domain it is impossible to control who says what about it, and many camps could be at play: clever publicists who gather a raft of supporters to write nothing but glowing reviews (the sameness shows after awhile and can be a turn-off); the popular writer who has a stable of sycophantic fans who cannot say anything bad and can quickly flood a Goodreads or Amazon posting with nothing but plaudits, making a critical review look out of place – another turn-off; the revengeful reviewer, planted by an enemy, who says nasty things with no means of backing it up but who serves to create confusion in the minds of neutral readers looking for a good read; that erudite power tripper I described earlier out to make a name for himself at the author’s expense. Some authors even create alter-ego reviewers to review their books and post the most spellbinding reviews of their own work – it has a neutralizing effect on all those bad reviewers, and may place a “cease and desist” order on those considering posting a “not bad, but not terribly good” review. This all leads one to the question: “Can I trust book reviews?”

I read somewhere that a book is an argument between a writer and a reader that the latter can never hope to win. And a review is the opposite; the writer cannot win, especially when faced with a negative review. I have often believed that it is better to have one’s book read widely than to have it reviewed widely, for the wider you cast the net, the easier it is to catch one of those reviewer types I have described above and face the issue of reader trust (or the lack of it) and suffer the opposite consequences to what was being sought in the first place. And yet, the current trend is to try and gather as many reviews as possible because the number of reviews seems to correlate with the number of reads. And while that wisdom may hold true in some cases, I wanted to provide these counter-points that authors may want to consider as they go on a tear trying to gather as many reviews as they can to promote their work.

Is the (good) book review dead?

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…