Recently, a discussion cropped up in the comments section on a book review posted on another blog. The commenter noted that both the person reviewing the book, along with the other commenters, were generally heaping praise on the book while doing little to review its faults. This commenter disagreed with the reviewer’s take on the book, but felt pressure to not say anything because the tenor of the discussion had been mostly positive. This commenter also noted feeling like there was pressure within the Mormon literature community for authors to be soft on each other and to avoid giving fully critical reviews. Although this question of the validity and purpose of critique within the relatively small and somewhat insular world of Mormon letters is as a good one, the discussion cycled back to the question of book reviews: why do we write them and who do we write them for?
I think the question of how and why writing book reviews in the age of the internet is different is a good one. I’ll confess that I’m young enough to have had most of my experience with book reviewing take place in the online arena. I know that in the not-so-distant past, book reviews were generally written and published in periodicals, which had the effect of making them much less ephemeral and much less conversational. The internet has changed the nature of book reviews substantially. It is much easier to write a book review, whether brief or lengthy, and there is no editorial process standing in between reviewers and readers. In fact, any barrier between reviewers and readers has been broken down completely. I think the idea of a person who is specifically a ‘book reviewer’ is dead. Readers are reviewers now. Another key thing that has changed about the presence of online reviewing is the conversational aspect of it. Online writing is meant to elicit comments. It is rare to see any sort of website that publishes content that cannot be commented on. Readers on the internet have come to expect the ability to comment, and the assumption is made that the writer of a review does not get the final word on a book. Whatever a reviewer writes can be discussed, debated, and even denigrated right there in the comments section.
The ease of writing on the web has created a wonderful explosion of book reviews and critiques. If I want to find out more about a book, I can read reviews on Amazon, Good Reads, blogs, and websites for newspapers and magazines. I think this has changed the nature of why we write reviews, and I think most people don’t even stop to think about why they write a book review, or why the person who wrote a review wrote it. When I started a personal blog several years ago, I did not intend for it to be a ‘book review blog’. But I read a lot of books and so I began to publish a monthly post summing up that month’s reading. I usually provide only a few sentences about my impression of each book; my purpose is partly to persuade my audience to read them, and partly just to keep track of my reading for myself. When I worked for a public library, the staff maintained a review blog with the intent of highlighting books that patrons might want to read. When I was writing short reviews for that site, I sometimes did not write about books that I had particularly disliked, simply because I felt that the purpose was to entice people to read books, not to shun them. I also was writing for a greater public audience and knew that sometimes my dislike for a book was simply due to my personal preference. I have never written book reviews with the author in mind, though I know that some people feel that providing feedback to an author is a proper purpose for a book review.
And so, to sum up my somewhat disjointed thoughts, I think that a conversation about book reviews is a good idea. Why do you read book reviews? Why do you write them? Do you write for yourself, for the author, for the reader, or for all of the above? Do you feel like some types of reviews are more ‘legitimate’ than others? What does that mean?