Can the modern book reviewer be unputdownable?
In the age of customer reviews, the professional critic seems to be in a battle for survival but the two could work well together
The story is a newly familiar one. The book was only hours old and already there were 42 five-star online ratings of it on Amazon. com. Within days, sales soared, as did the number of positive, if brief, reviews. Then came the revelation: the author (along with friends/family/associates, paid and unpaid) was outed as the source of the flattering assessments (and attendant rival-slagging). Scandal? Good marketing? The rule today, rather than the exception?
The next question inevitably raised by the cynical is why anyone would even bother reading these anonymous customer reviews (even if not faked), rather than relying on those of the “experts.” But, if ever there was one, this is a false dichotomy, yet one that could be seriously detrimental to the health of our shared public culture.
To see why, we need to step back and recall that the book review was born at a democratising moment of the capitalist 18th century. Publishers realised that there was now a larger literate group of readers to whom they could sell books – and who therefore could use help in choosing their reading material.
Bombarded by information
The end of the patronage system had meant that writers were writing for a wider (and unknown) readership. But it also meant that the review first came into the world as a form of consumer reporting. And it has continued to have this function for us in the globalised, electronic world of the 21st century bombarded, as we all are, by more information and greater choice than ever before. We too are in need of assistance in making selections.
The new online “customer reviewing” – a form as commercial as it is democratic – that has developed in response has its parallel in the “citizen journalism” that is changing the face of news reporting today.
Armed with our mobile phones and cameras, we can all become reporters. Or can we? We can certainly be witnesses and take photos of what we witness, but is that the same as in-depth or even verified reporting?
Similarly, anyone with internet access can become a reviewer: to be honest, you wouldn’t necessarily even have to read the book to have your say about it on many of those reviewing websites. (Then again, not all professional or expert reviewers have been innocent of this charge of omission either.)
What has obviously changed today is that the ideology of participatory democracy rules the internet. The digital interactive universe is not one whose currency is expertise, so much as it is opinion and experience. The one-way pronouncements of the hired professionalised/expert book reviewer are almost incompatible with the current online peer-to-peer mode of the unpaid (but engaged, if self-appointed) consumer reviewers, tweeters, or bloggers – often tellingly described as “people like us.”
This assumed taste matching may not offer extended, analytic, reasoned judgements, but instead may provide assessments that are quick and timely (perhaps even tweeted in real time, while reading) and often easily digested: three stars, or thumbs up.