The problem with book reviewing

23:53, May 22 2013

I read book reviews on a regular basis, and I mostly read reviews by authors. Ursula Le Guin over at The Guardian is a particular favourite of mine. In a review of Embassytown by China Mieville, she writes: "only the trash forms of science fiction are undemanding and predictable; the good stuff, like all good fiction, is not for lazy minds".

In the March 2003 edition of Believer magazine, book reviewer Heidi Julavits laments that the way we use book reviews has changed as "the book's cultural status has diminished".

People read reviews for numerous reasons, not least of all because books are a rather expensive past-time. Even using deep discount book websites like Fishpond and Book Depository, the cost of the average book still hovers around the $20 mark, and the average avid reader will look at shelling out at least a few hundred dollars a year just on purchasing books. 

So readers, therefore, are more likely to buy books that come with a good endorsement from a trusted reviewer. Julavits in her article recounts a PR person telling her that "glossies don't sell books - dailies do".

She talks this up as a positive point, taking it as an indication that, because newspapers have more column inches to spare (this article was written in 2003, at the golden era of the newspaper, before ads started eating into editorial in alarming swathes), that it means there's a certain type of reader who are eager to use reviews as a way to engage books on a critical level.That's not to mention all the usual accoutrements that accompany reading, like attending writers festivals or free reading events at the library, which still has the hidden cost of petrol and commuting time. 

A more recent piece at The Atlantic surmises that there are two main problems to book reviewing: that they come from a source, a human being, who come with their own set of biases and unique cultural perceptions, and also, that fiction and poetry reviews are usually written by journalists and not necessarily literature professors or scholars.


Now, having read lengthy and heavy academic critique by people like Harold Bloom in my misspent youth, I don't agree that reviewers should come into the job with PhDs in English Lit and a head crammed full of literary theory. 

Frankly, using definitive frameworks dreamed up by some fusty professor who's spent his entire life in the ivory tower picking apart the collected works of Chaucer isn't proof of some sort of high intellectualism. Reading should not be relegated to an elitist past-time. It's for everyone, and it must be for everyone if books are to survive and retain any sort of cultural relevancy and value. 

So where does book reviewing fit into all this? Well, good reviewers, one of the same ilk as Le Guin, offer a balanced viewpoint. They should be able to put aside their personal preferences and prejudices for the limited space of a review and most importantly, must not be afraid to state the flaws of a book.

In saying that, completely butchering a book with scathing commentary without any sort of constructive criticism for the author or reader is something I also don't agree with. It's easy to be a critic, and to loftily sneer at works by people like Lee Child and Dan Brown as pandering to the masses, yet these are the writers that sell. Sure, they're not writing high literature - and I love literature - but the only reviewers who should review mass fiction should be ones who have a) read a lot of that particular genre and b) have the ability to analyse its merits and flaws based purely on the text.

What do you think are some of the problems with book reviewing?

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