Seven Things I Think I Think About Book Reviews

Last Sunday I took part in a panel at the Writer’s Center titled “The Future of the Book Review,” joined by the Washington Post‘s Dennis Drabelle and the Washington Independent Review of BooksDavid O. Stewart. In advance of the panel, moderator Mia Cortez sent along some questions for discussion. With Cortez’ permission, I’m sharing her questions and my responses below. Some of this is likely old hat for people who spend a lot of time discussing books online, but one thing I learn from going to these events is that there are a lot of people who care about books but who don’t keep up with the universe of blogs and online book-review outlets.

How are book reviews evolving with books in the digital era, and how has technology changed the life of a book reviewer?

The digital age has been an enormous blessing for the consumer: The explosion of tweets, blogs, literary websites, and user-generated reviews means that somebody can gather up a diversity of opinions and use them to efficiently make a decision about a book they’re thinking about reading. And it’s a curse as well: Where do you start? Who do you trust?

For the “book reviewer” as we’ve understood it 10 or 15 years ago, a lot has changed: Their authority and standing doesn’t mean as much. Practically speaking, there are fewer full-time book reviewing jobs out there, and freelance outlets pay less, if they pay at all. Experienced book reviewers can and should trade on their experience and knowledge, but they’ve had to understand that those two things don’t hold a lot of value for many readers.

How have readers’ expectations of book reviews changed? What about authors’ expectations for book reviewers?

In some ways, I don’t think much has changed in terms of readers’ expectations. There have always been people who want thoughtful, essayistic writing about books, and those readers are as well served now by the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, the New Yorker, etc, as they ever were. For readers who don’t necessarily want that kind of deep-dive into a book—if you just want to have a sense of whether you’d like it or not—you have many more options. This may mean that more people feel that the job of a book review is just to give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I don’t know. I will say that as daily newspapers have cut down their books pages, and cut the lengths of book reviews, they’ve jeopardized their role as a kind of middle place—more nuanced than the quick-hit recommendation of a friend but not as weighty as the literary essay. That’s unfortunate, I think.

Authors have had to broaden their definition of what a “book review” is now, and they have to undertake much of the publicity work for themselves to acquire those reviews. Publishers have cut their budgets and reviews have cut space, so authors have to make themselves more available to blog interviews, call-ins to book clubs, etc. This may hurt the pride of older writers who still feel that a New York Times is the gold standard and can’t differentiate one blog from another, but there’s a net increase in the number of outlets available to review a book (if not an increase in the total audience reading).

What about citizen reviews? How do reviews posted on Amazon & other book sites affect the dynamic?

I should say that I don’t have a wholly negative attitude about Amazon user reviews—they’re useful to get a gloss how people are responding to a book. But—and exceptions abound, I know—I don’t go to Amazon reviewers to be surprised by an insight, impressed by the writing, or provoked into thinking about something in a way I haven’t before.

Have blogs become a significant factor in book reviewing? Do they bring a different element to the equation?

One great thing that blogs have done is removed the Olympian tone of the traditional book review—bloggers are freer to write personally and passionately, play with style, and agitate for better coverage of topics that mainstream outlets ignore. Any book blog that lasts for a while is a reflection of the enthusiasm somebody brings to it—because they’re more likely than not writing for free they’re doing it because they care about books. In the past decade more book review outlets have recognized this and brought bloggers into their ranks. It’s practically axiomatic that the next generation of book critics who’ll write for LRB, NYRB, Harper’s, etc, on a regular basis will be people who started writing about books on a blog.

How is critique in the press by an experienced journalist/book reviewer still important?

Experienced reviewers have a long view on things—they’re less likely to be suckered into thinking something is original, and in turn they can keep readers from being suckered themselves. Experienced reviewers can not only say that a book succeeds or fails, but can articulate the reasons why something succeeds or fails. Experienced reviewers know how to write for a general audience in a way a blogger may not. Experienced reviewers may have a better sense of what’s fair game in a review (style, tone, accuracy) and what’s not (size of advance, cover design). Experienced reviewers have a recognizable name against which you can bounce your own preferences and biases. That’s not to say that online reviewers and bloggers lack those things. But outlets that publish experienced reviewers are explicitly looking for those skills.

How have reviewers adjusted to the changes in the publishing industry? Do reviewers maintain a loyalty to books that come from reputable publishing houses? Are self-published books more heavily scrutinized?

By and large, reviewers still succumb to many of the same problems that made bloggers cranky a decade ago—book-review sections will reflexively cover the big new books by the Roths, Updikes, Chabons, etc, leaving scant room for the debut author (except a heavily hyped one), the small-press novel, the work in translation, poetry, the long-suffering midlist novelist. So not a lot has changed. Given that, the typical self-published book simply doesn’t have a prayer for mainstream press attention. Rightfully so: I’d sooner see press attention for marginalized categories of books that are published by serious houses, Big Six or indie, before covering books where there’s scant evidence that anybody besides the author cared about its existence in the marketplace. The disappointment (if not anger) many self-published authors express at being ignored by newspapers and magazines baffles me. If the traditional publication process wasn’t meaningful to you, why is the traditional reviewing process meaningful to you?

What do you foresee for the future of this industry? Will book reviews uphold their importance and continue to thrive?

As long as we have books, we’ll have book reviews. I think we’ll have an overabundance of them, in fact—if you have a favorite niche category of book, you’ll be increasingly likely to find some kind of online outlet that will give you a satisfying amount of in-depth coverage. What’s up in the air is the kind of book review that might prompt a person who’s never heard of a particular book to consider exploring it. Michael Dirda, for instance, routinely introduces me to books that I hadn’t heard of but which I wish I had the time to read, right now. I think we’re losing the kind of culture of readers who are open to being surprised by something, and we’re losing the kind of outlets and the kind of reviewers who are capable of serving them.

6 thoughts on “Seven Things I Think I Think About Book Reviews

  1. I like the fact I have easy access to professional and non-professional reviewers today. My only complaint about the professionals is that they seem to pull their punches on the big stage. I’ve ceased to give much credit to reviews in the Sunday NYT because I’ve read too many glowing reviews of books I found mediocre. (In defense NYT reviewers, I would be reluctant to blast a book in a highly visible place, too, and so I’d play up what I liked and play down what I didn’t.) The problem with the amateurs is — of course — that the proportion of crap and blabber to useful comment is quite high. Still, if I can find a half dozen people who write in full sentences and say similar things about the same book, and I find what they say about the book interesting, I’m more likely to read it. I’ve also found that my expectations of a book based on the collective assessment of amateur reviews is often pretty close to my actual experience reading it. Can’t ask for more than that.

  2. Thanks, this is interesting. As a long-time reader and writer but NOT a long-time book reviewer (I’ve recently started a new blog on the topic) I’m all nervous about doing it right. This interview calmed my news a little. :)

  3. That’s an astonishing dismissal of self-published work. If the “long-suffering mid-list writer” begins to self-publish as a way of escaping his status as long-sufferer, given all the multiplied means of doing so these days, is that really such a horrific development? And does the blogger really believe that there’s some kind of baffling contradiction involved in both publishing one’s own work and wishing to see it reviewed widely?

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