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Editorial June 2007: What's in a Review?
By Hilary Williamson

'I was so long writing my review that I never got around to reading the book.'
(Groucho Marx)
A BookLoons reviewer recently brought to my attention a Los Angeles Times article by Richard Schickel, entitled Not everybody's a critic. In it, he took issue with a New York Times report on the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing and the prevalence of Internet reviews, a trend that some consider 'an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.' While I enjoyed Schickel's thought provoking article, his comparison of 'a blogger's alacrity' with 'a thoughtful critic's sense of responsibility' and his sneers at 'easy reads for lazy, word-addicted minds' irritated me.

IMHO, Schickel misses several key points. First and foremost, surely it's a wonderful thing to have this powerful grass-roots resource (the Internet, bloggers and review sites) spreading the word about good books and authors? Who could possibly complain about that? Second, there are reviewers and reviewers, from the university prof with credentials in English literature to the enthusiastic reader blogging on the web. And - as long as the reviewer is open about his or her background - what is wrong with that? The Internet does a good job of survival of the fittest filtering. In the same way that a newspaper book reviewer won't last long if his reviews don't help sell papers, an Internet review site or blog will quickly fade into obscurity if people don't find their comments insightful.

Personally, having come from a computer science background in usability (starting long before user friendly was in vogue) I tend to look at books from that perspective. I have no pretensions to put myself forward as a judge of great literature through the ages, though I have read widely and enthusiastically for many decades. I set up a review site simply as 'a place for people to connect to books that interest them'. Our reviewers' purpose is to give readers - and listeners - an idea of what they're getting when they turn that first page or press the Play button. We're not judging a book for eternity but simply presenting its credentials (and our own views of its readability) to give site visitors a sense of whether or not a book is for them.

I hope the professional literary reviewers don't disappear from the (newspaper or net) scene. Just as with movie reviews, I occasionally enjoy reading what they have to say and the articulate ways in which they express themselves, even though I tend to disagree at least half of the time. But I think there's plenty of room for amateur reader reviewers as well, to help the broad spectrum of bookworms out there, whose tastes range from challenging reads that linger to easily digestible books that can be enjoyed on the beach and quickly forgotten. There's room for all of them, from novels by authors like Margaret Atwood - at whose story edifices, architectural constructs, and fine detail I marvel - to simpler tales that touch the heart or tickle the funny bone.

I asked BookLoons reviewers for their opinions. Rheta Van Winkle comments: 'My first impression of Schickel's editorial was that it was snobbish and elitist. He's right, though, to call blogging a conversation rather than writing. When you write, you go back and read what you've written, correct your errors, revise, rewrite, and sometimes revise and rewrite again ... Maybe that dedication to clarity is what Schickel means when he says only certain people should write reviews. My goal, though, is to inform the reader, not to write perfect prose myself ... Isn't it easy to point out the feeble plot or the shallow character? How much harder it is, sometimes, to express why one book sings to you and another hits all the wrong notes!'

Tim Davis has this to say on the subject: 'Here are some random thoughts from a grizzled (but not yet too cynical) veteran of the literacy wars: As prominent literary critic and scholar Harold Bloom points out, reading is a solitary praxis; moreover, I would add, a reader's finite lifetime and a seemingly infinite number of books in the world means that the solitary reader is confronted by a significant challenge: what books are worth reading and what books ought to be avoided? This is where critics and reviewers have always been important to readers; in fact, ever since the great Dr. Samuel Johnson (and even before), there have been good, mediocre, and inferior critics and reviewers in the necessarily limited (and sometimes biased) print media who have offered their assessments as to the merits of good and bad books, and readers have often been influenced in their reading choices by those assessments.

Now, in relatively recent media history, the seemingly infinite capacity of the Internet offers readers more widely accessible assessments through online reviews. More access to more reviews may or may not be a good thing because the truly discerning readers find themselves confronted by another challenge: are the reviewers offering useful and valid assessments? Let's face it, just as there continue to be (fewer) good and (more) bad books, because of access to the Internet, there continue to be good, mediocre, and inferior reviewers. Well, with all of that having been said, a reader must then wonder, "What is the solution? After all, life is too short to read bad books, so who can I trust on the Internet, and which books are worth my time?" Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. However, as a university instructor of literature (who continues to hope for a resergence in the number of the world's passionate and discerning readers), I would offer this partial answer: Perhaps you should "shop around" and then settle on a reliable, quality Website with a corps of reviewers whose varied interests, backgrounds, and motivations are most compatible with your own. In any event, read on, constant reader!

Barbara Lingens considers that 'If I like a book, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good book, and vice versa. So then, what are the standards against which to judge the book? These are what I grapple with when writing reviews. I feel I have to find objective reasons for applauding or criticizing the author, rather than subjective ones. The objective ones are not always easy to come by, but I think they are important because other readers may relate to them better than to a personal opinion of mine.'

Alex Telander tells us 'The feedback I receive from people who read my reviews is that they feel compelled to read the book, which is what I'm going for in a good review: I enjoyed the book, so I want to make other people read it also ... Every book has a reason for being written, and I like to get that across to the reader reading my review. I try to relate it - especially nonfiction - to today's world.'

Joan Burton believes that 'reading is a personal thing and no two people read the same book and come away with the same understanding or feelings the author is revealing ... So many times I found that you cannot judge a book by its cover. The same goes with a book review, it is only the writer's opinion. I like to read and find out for myself.'

Martina Bexte says that, 'I have an equally low opinion of highbrow book and movie reviewers. There's certainly room for literary and more informed critiquing, and yes, there are a lot of crappy reviews out there, especially on the net - but it's unfair to generalise and accuse all reviewers of being hacks when all we're trying to do is share our views with other readers.'

And Josephine Locke feels that: 'Many times the author's words are so powerful and profound, it is hard to resist quoting the whole book ... My hope is that something in any review, even minutely, plays a note, reaching out and touching potential readers. Writing reviews for all ages brings smiles to my face, for the possibility of instilling curiosity in a young reader, conveying a principal to a young adult reader, a moment of inspiration to an adult reader, or encouraging an avaricious reader to expand their selections into new genres. Frosting on the cake is when that reader then passes on the pleasure of reading to another. My wish is to direct readers to open their hearts and minds to new thoughts and attitudes, rethinking prejudices and refreshing ideas, increasing existent knowledge, and spreading the love of reading.'

While I hope that literary reviewers will continue to remind us of what makes great writing, I - along with fellow readers and reader reviewers - feel perfectly free, ready and willing to comment on what makes great reading for all and sundry. And bloggers, keep on spreading the word, let's encourage more people to read, and more books to be published. As we say on our YA pages, Readers Rule!
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.