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

Thu, Mar 21, 2013, 06:00

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.

It offers book reviews as testimonials; an air of authenticity clings to the expressed opinions – even if they are written by the author in disguise. Their very real appeal lies in the fact that they help us filter and sort through the vast array of available books by means of precisely this kind of taste matching. And the multiple, usually anonymous or pseudonymous, reviews available online may do this particular job better than a Cyril Connolly ever could.

Yet consumer reporting is not the only function of book reviewing throughout the age, or today. We have a long history of valuing expert reviewers, of trusting them to do a whole range of things for us: to inform and describe, of course, but also to explain, elucidate, interpret, teach, archive, and evaluate what is out there.

To these ends, professional book reviewers writing in the mainstream media have taken on various roles: as gate-keeping guardians (or even conscious creators of educated taste), as critical arbiters, guiding instructors, witty entertainers, inspiring enthusiasts, spokespersons for the values of a community, recorders and witnesses of culture, and so on.

Currently, expert and customer reviewers appear to compete, not only for our attention, but also for space, time, and money. Only a small percentage of readers claim to find out about new books from reviews in the print media. Instead, most rely on reviews posted on Amazon or found in blogs or through social networking.


Celebrity tweets
A single tweet from even a non-literary celebrity has a greater impact on sales, it appears, than a host of newspaper reviews. Add to this the fact that, around the world, the elimination of the positions of professional reviewers in all the arts has become a regular occurrence, as the print media seek to counter the decline in advertising revenue by cutting permanent staff reviewers and turning to less expensive freelancers, by using wire copy, or simply by reducing or eliminating their book review pages. Has the situation reached the crisis stage?

Here is a utopian suggestion: instead of seeing these different modes of reviewing as competing, why not see them as complementary, as doing different things, perhaps for different people, or maybe even for the same people? What both types of reviews offer are opinions, but each has a different and separate function, and with that come different expectations. Both have power: the power to make or break a book, the power over reputations and spirits. But professional, paid reviewers have a different ethical and often legal responsibility that accompanies that power.

Amazon.com’s anonymous customer reviewers are not held personally accountable, despite the fact that their opinions – however briefly or quickly articulated, however insightful or banal, however favourable or damning – might conceivably have serious cumulative consequences, economic or otherwise, for the book or author reviewed. Expert reviewers, on the other hand, are held responsible, by their employers as well as their readers. They are expected to provide reasons for their opinions, based on experience and expertise. They are often also expected to be interesting, entertaining, provocative.

Consider too the fact that while the mainstream media can select only a small fraction of newly published books for review, their “broadcasting” range assures a large readership and often contributes to, or even creates, wide public debate about literary issues. In contrast, the mass dissemination of electronic media assures coverage of a much larger range of published and self-published books, though usually reviewed by genre on separate websites. The inevitable “narrow-casting” of each site, however, means a smaller general or shared readership.

Literary force field
Yet, are these not complementary rather than competing realities?

The many and manifest differences in the form and function of the review as a genre on the internet, on the one hand, and in the mainstream print media, on the other, do signal a major realignment within the literary force field. But they do not seem to me to point to a crisis in the institution of reviewing or its “great decline”.

They are, instead, indications of a welcome, fruitful multiplying of reviewing possibilities. They suggest an opening up, rather than a closing down of the culture of reviewing and its public, shared exploration of literature.

The inevitable gaming of the online reviewing system, with those much publicised recent abuses, has arguably initiated a more open and frank conversation about reviewing practices, and their ethics as well as economics. In the end, though, it is the responsibility of us all, as readers, to figure out exactly what we are seeking from reviews, so that we can judge, from that personal perspective, the assessment and the argument (or lack thereof) of the reviews – whether written by the professional or the customer reviewer. Both kinds have something (different) to offer.

Today, reviewing by paid, designated, professional reviewers does not necessarily have the monopoly on good writing, insightful analysis, fine taste, or scintillating intelligence. What is at stake in moving away from current oppositional either/or thinking to a more inclusive both/and model for reviewing practices is nothing less than the quality or perhaps even the existence of a common literary culture.

Oscar Wilde agreed with Matthew Arnold that in the 19th century, criticism created the “intellectual atmosphere of the age”. In our 21st century, even though the reach of single review websites cannot match that of the mass media, working together (rather than against one other), the two can enrich, not deplete, our shared cultural discourse and thus the intellectual atmosphere of our age.


Linda Hutcheon is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto and tonight gives a public lecture at the Royal Irish Academy on the role of the literary reviewer. The booked-up event is a tribute to Caroline Walsh, former literary editor of the Irish Times . ria.ie