Everyone’s a critic…
Spend about thirty seconds on Twitter and you’ll discover that everyone has an opinion and few hesitate to express theirs. Topics the Twitterverse weighs in on include everything from politics to religion to celebrity romances and fashion choices to books. Opinions about books can also be found on Amazon and Goodreads and Instagram and Facebook and probably a gazillion other social media platforms I’ve yet to hear of. The digital age spawned new categories of opinion-givers known as book bloggers and vloggers, amateur only in the sense that they do it for love, not money. The “old-school” outlets—newspapers and magazines—that have been publishing opinions about books for centuries still exist. The opinions about books that appear in these outlets tend to be written by professional, meaning paid, opiners. Whether written by the paid pros, the unpaid enthusiasts, or the social media-connected average citizen, opinions about books are called reviews.
Book reviews matter to authors, especially now that some digital platforms, using algorithms whose methodologies are more obscure than the goings-on at Area 51, give a book more visibility based, at least partly, on the number of reviews the book gets. Authors, of course, prefer good reviews. Who wants someone going on record as disliking the thing you poured so much of yourself into creating? Who wants someone to give a public thumbs down to something so personal (to you) that a rejection of it feels like a rejection of you? We’ve all seen Twitter tirades where an author had a meltdown over a bad review. They and their supporters (their “team” or “tribe” or “camp”) gathered their forces and attacked the reviewer, then the reviewer’s forces (supporters, team, tribe, camp) counter-attacked, leading to a back-and-forth that resembled the final battle scene in an epic fantasy movie. Some (not just authors) have even argued that, unless you’re leaving a good review, you shouldn’t leave a review at all; the literary equivalent of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” (Personal note: this doesn’t seem fair to readers looking for a variety of honest opinions.)
The debate over what to say and how to say it when weighing in on the merits or demerits of a book is not a new one. In a 1948 article, “Anonymity vs Signature in Victorian Reviewing,” (Studies in English, v. XXVII, no. 1), Oscar Maurer, Jr., notes, “The shift from the anonymous to the signed article…during the latter half of the nineteenth century, was not accomplished without considerable controversy. Debate was particularly vigorous over the question reviews and critiques of current literature should be signed or anonymous. Would the personal responsibility implied by the reviewer’s signature guarantee an honest and competent review? Would signature affect…opinions which, if anonymous, must presumably be more concerned with the literary values of the book…than with the tastes (or prejudices) of the reviewer?” The controversy raised issues of “the virtues and defects of the ‘star system,’” the reliability of reviews published in partisan media, and “the complex relations between author, critic, and public.” Sound familiar? Everything old is new again, even literary criticism.
What’s your opinion? Should reviewers only post positive reviews? Even if they’re paid for their professional, “honest and competent review?” Are you surprised the star-rating system has been around for so long? Do stars matter more or less or the same as the reviewer’s words? Should reviews stick to “the literary values of the book under discussion” or is it okay for them to include the “tastes (or prejudices) of the reviewer?”
Share your opinions here or join the discussion on Facebook. I won’t take it personally, I promise.