As book talk burgeons online, readers and librarians have more pointers to follow, or not, than ever before
Since Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in 2008, it has received 1,561 consumer reviews on Amazon, averaging four of five stars. LibraryThing has registered 682 reviews, putting Tattoo among its most-reviewed books, with observations ranging from a top-ranked "gut-wrenching" to "what's the hubbub?" Over on the blogs, Bookbitch and LJ reviewer Stacy Alessi (www.bookbitch.com) offered a rave, writing that "every twist and turn is completely unexpected." But the Elegant Variation's Mark Sarvas did no more than signal that the book looked promising--even as an irate reader of his blog posted a comment huffing that Tattoo was "poorly written, poorly constructed, and, I hate to say, poorly imagined." Oh, and New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani moderately derided it, allowing that the main characters were "interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics."
Over the last 15 years, the book review landscape has changed seismically. Reviewing is no longer centralized, with a few big voices leading the way, but fractured among numerous multifarious voices found mostly on the web. In turn, readers aren't playing the captive audience any more. Undone by economics, many traditional print sources have been shuttered or, like the formerly stand-alone Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Book World review sections, either collapsed into the rest of the paper or moved entirely online. The New York Times Book Review is still standing but is half the size it was a few decades back.
Meanwhile, book talk thrives on the web, with eager readers thronging LibraryThing and Goodreads, trading recommendations on Facebook and Twitter, and pushing their own reviews on Amazon and barnesandnoble.com. From the most casual forums to rich and rigorous sites like the Millions (www.themillions.com), reviews are energetically spun out, then tweeted, rated, challenged, and otherwise subject to endless feedback.
Beginning the conversation
Pointedly, a chunk of this conversation comes not from critics picked expressly for their expertise but enthusiasts who may or may not be the best adviser you could find on a particular book. The more careful among us will point to their cheers, tears, and bashes and wonder, "Are those really reviews?"
Others could care less, countering that reviewing was always supposed to be an intellectual conversation and the real exchange has finally begun. As they'd argue, the current range of voices in the reviewing arena can only be good, promoting books, conversations about books, and connections among readers, bringing a much wider spread of material into play than can be covered in traditional review sources, print or online. The sheer numbers voting for or against a particular title can be illuminating. "On balance, I trust Michiko Kakutani a lot more than any single LibraryThing reviewer," acknowledges LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding. "But given a choice between her review and 100 LibraryThing reviews, I'd usually take the latter." In the end, says New York Public Library's Miriam Tuliao, today's richness not only satisfies readers' hunger but "ensures that there will be a diversity in what is being published."
Whether print or online, traditional or consumer, a review is now as likely to treat an obscure sf gem or specialized political treatise as the latest literary masterpiece, reflecting a broadened book market following readers' interests.
The big sources still review a focused bunch of high-power books, and they have reach. As Free Press senior editor Amber Qureshi notes, "A fantastic review on a personal blog will not have the same impact on a book as a tepid one in the Christian Science Monitor, online or print."
But while the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Time Book Review, and the Washington Post Book World once pushed sales, now it's as likely to be Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, and People. "That's the New Reviewing Trifecta," says EarlyWord's Nora Rawlinson, who also cites the book power of NPR. "They deal more with books that will appeal to general readers and seem to have an interest in making books happen."
With the book market more fragmented than ever, with so many voices echoing through our heads as we consider what to read next or purchase for patrons, with our almost fetishistic resistance to being told what to think, no one critic today can speak for us, and certainly many can't even speak to us. But even as we ditch the concept of authority, even as we say that every voice should be heard, even as it seems that every voice is getting heard, at least in cyberspace, it's apparent that, in fact, not everyone's a critic.
Anyone can blog, or post a consumer rating or review, or register an online comment, but, famously, not every blog is bearable reading, not every consumer review insightful, not every comment exactly what's needed to nail the book. Some judgments are worth more than others; the question is how we judge.
A question of authority
In print or online, traditional reviews still offer something unimpeachable while consumer commentaries have the verve and single-mindedness to do something that traditional reviews cannot. The two coexist comfortably because they fill different needs. Will the latter come to replace, or at least supersede, the former? That's anyone's guess, but one thing is certain: today's raging stream of voices has radically altered the idea of reviewing, with huge consequences for book culture itself.
The traditional review has always been defined by the idea of authority; presumably, the book has been assigned to a reviewer who has some knowledge of the subject, is sufficiently versed in the literature to make valid comparisons, and embraces the obligation to write an unbiased and closely reasoned assessment for a broad audience. What the reviewer knows--and knows how to communicate--matters. As arts and travel journalist Terry Trucco sums it up, "While I'm happy to read a review by Paul Krugman of an economics or political book, I don't particularly want him weighing in on the ballet or cooking or, God forbid, fashion."
The golden ideal of the authority-driven review has been challenged by the conversation the Internet facilitates, where special interests are pursued energetically. A blog offers an impassioned reader's personal slant, and a consumer review is perhaps an informed read and perhaps a stab in the back by a jealous competitor. Anyone can post, and an opinion is just an opinion until you start winkling out the depth of understanding behind it. But most book talk on the web isn't trying to emulate work by seasoned critics. It's a different beast entirely, generally striving for conviction rather than objectivity, advice but not hierarchy; the goal is ultimately participation.
The problem with love letters
For librarians, spending public money and conscious of the need to defend purchase decisions, the I'll-do-it-my-way stance on the web can be problematic. "Most, but not all, consumer criticisms read more like love letters or, at the other end of the spectrum, screeds," says Shawna Thorup, Fayetteville Public Library, AR, which obviously makes them troublesome for collection development.
Of one high-profile consumer reviewer, always suspiciously over the top, Alessi bitingly observes, "Would anyone seriously into books even look at her reviews? The woman reads several books a day and loves, loves, loves them all. Ridiculous."
Blogs and consumer reviews haven't entered official collection development policy--yet. But they're useful stopovers in the book hunt, especially in niches not covered by the biggies. Bookbitch Alessi can't see her library system relying on Amazon reviews for nonfiction, though "perhaps there is a little more leeway with fiction, especially if there is no authoritative or conflicting review."
Kim Garza, Tempe Public Library, AZ, agrees. "I have often used reader reviews online when I am not sure about something," she says, "but I approach them carefully."
Karl Helicher, of Upper Merian Township Public Library, King of Prussia, PA, puts the whole thing in perspective: "For years, we have bought books recommended by customers, and choosing books on the strength of a public review is really no different." In the end, that sense of connection may preempt authority.
"I would expect a traditional magazine or newspaper review to be more objective than a blog or patron review, but that doesn't necessarily make it better in my eyes," says LJ fiction reviewer Sally Bissell, South County Regional Library, Estero, FL, herself a thoughtful blogger. "I have also read some wonderful, from-the-heart blog posts that speak to me as a reader and as a buyer."
Angelina Benedetti, King County Library System, WA, is even more emphatic. Reflecting on patrons miffed that she's not up on crop circles or urban chicken farming, Benedetti says, "To your question, 'Where has the authority gone?' I ask, 'How authoritative was anyone anyway?'"
Digging for gold
Respected authorities can have holes in their knowledge, turn out sloppy work, fail to read the book, engage in logrolling, grind their axes vigorously, or "play out old grudges in the review pages," as Oxford University Press publicity director Purdy grouses. And amateurs can write persuasively, from a fund of knowledge, about their favorite books. The problem has always been and still is figuring out who to trust.
Whether for reading pleasure or collection development, concrete advice on how to sort through all this free-fall book talk is hard to come by. Beyond their favorite sources, readers turn themselves into critics, taking a prove-it-to-me stance while continually looking for reviewers or blogs that steer them "toward good reads and away from bad reads time and time again," as Purdy puts it. However, the pervasive anonymity of the web can make following standout writers a challenge, so dedicated readers focus on what grabs them, cultivate an ability to spot fakes and grandstanders, and recognize that some subjects (e.g., genre fiction) are better treated by committed amateurs than others (e.g., history).
Falling back on glam sites like the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) or The New Yorker's Book Bench (www.newyorker.com/arts) is definitely a cop-out. "I've learned as much from a 'small' review as I have from a 'big' one," says Free Press's Qureshi, "and, having written myself, I know better than to be snobby about my sources."
Fortunately, this is not entirely a do-it-yourself project; the Internet provides built-in help for the free-for-all it has fostered. As the like-minded gather to discuss favored topics, connections are built and sensibilities acknowledged; friends can help filter out which books, reviewers, and sources are tops. Says LibraryThing's Spalding, "The New York Times gets Stephen King or Christopher Hitchens to review books in part because we know them well enough to care about their opinion. Well, I care about my friend Ben more than I care about either of those fellows. The same applies when you don't know the person, but you see that they share very similar tastes." Trusting your buddies isn't a new idea, but it's amplified infinitely on the web.
In making judgments, one can also look at the writing itself, which can be wipeout brilliant but is just as often messy and unreasoned or simply uninformative and routine. "Overall, I have mixed feelings about decentering (and usurping?) traditional voices because I value good writing and thoughtful analysis," says Stephen Morrow, an LJ fiction reviewer and composition professor at Ohio University. What consumer reviews and most blogs lack is an editor, not only to correct those pesky typos but to question dubious assertions and assure coherent thought. As Morrow smartly sums it up, "There's no editor to ask, 'You have some wonderful thoughts on deep-sea diving and the War of 1812, but what do you think of Cormac McCarthy's book?'"
Yet, Morrow, who like many of us finds himself of two minds on this subject, also values the raw energy and engagement of a writer unleashed. "Bloggers go for broke," he explains. "They can be original and tremendously funny or satirical because they have no one to stop them from saying stuff like, 'Nicholas Sparks is just phoning them in.'"
Beyond the traditional review, you've got intimacy (or something that feels like it), you've got sharp personality (read LJ reviewer Terry Hong's Smithsonian BookDragon blog, and you know she's whip-smart, charming, and not to be crossed), and you've got a populist voice ("I don't feel like I have to have an advanced degree in literature to understand the reviewer, as is often the case with The New Yorker," says Morrow). Since it's embarrassing to mislead an online friend or follower, you've also got brutal honesty, though, of course, scrupulous attention to standards of truthfulness mark more traditional writing as well. And, finally, you've got some good ideas; says Spalding drily, "It's a myth that online reviews are written by idiots."
An expanding forum
Book coverage may be seeping from newspapers, but authority-driven reviews aren't lost. From Kakutani's work to the professional, prepublication commentary in LJ and elsewhere, they're integral to today's robust book talk wherever they appear.
"I now write for both print and online formats, and with that combination, my readership is in the multiple millions," notes book reviewer Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle. "Before, I'd venture my reviews reached the population of the cities whose newspapers I was reviewing for, plus the magazine/literary quarterly audience." That's exciting.
The mix of review types endures because different readers use them differently. Some read reviews to determine what book to pick up next, others to decide what to purchase for patrons or customers. Some want to be part of a conversation for the sake of conversation, others to contribute to that conversation so they can see their names on the screen (why else would anyone want to be the 1,562nd commenter on Larsson?). Some want to learn about the subject, others simply to be entertained or to confirm impressions of a book they've finished. Some, like Qureshi, are editors seeking "to identify our audiences better and publish to them"; others are librarians like Fayetteville's Thorup, who would never use consumer reviews when leading book club discussion because, after all, "All the members have consumed the book and have their own opinions."
That's for now. What about the future? Those in the younger demographic don't have the habit of looking up to anyone when deciding what to read or see or absorb through their earbuds, depending instead on their cohorts. As Morrow notes, "Most of my students aren't reading book reviews at all, print or online."
Will they learn to depend on reviews like Ciabattari's? A few years back, credentialed reviewers might have despaired, but they're emerging from a prevailing sense of gloom to embrace the future. "We're at an exciting juncture," says Ciabattari. "The conversation about books has been growing exponentially because of the viral nature of social media and the many ways in which formerly print book publications are exploring the use of literary blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth." In the heady, freewheeling environment of the web, readers have many options. They will join the conversation in their own way, whether online or mobile, drawn by something new or hot or intriguing that's just a click away.
By Barbara Hoffert
Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ