Book Reviews on the Internet: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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?

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5 Responses to Book Reviews on the Internet: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Good questions. Personally, I write partly for potential readers, a little bit for the writer/publisher, but mostly for the community of readers and/or the associated critical community.

    For me, a book review is an entry-point into literary criticism about the specific work in question and literary/cultural criticism about the community that produces and/or reads the book in question. Sometimes I write a review in order to help promote something I’ve read that I think deserves more attention than it’s received. Mostly, though, I write reviews in order to start or participate in conversations. And those are also the kinds of reviews I most like reading as well.

    In that sense, I think that the Internet age is actually good for the purposes that prompt me to read and write reviews. It’s all about the conversation. I’m not saying that the other types of reviews are bad — I think they’re all good. They simply serve different purposes.

  2. Angela H. says:

    I’m conflicted about writing book reviews myself, especially if I’m reviewing a fellow Mormon whose work I’m not sure about. I am happy to write a positive review, but negative ones make me uncomfortable, especially within the realm of Mormon letters. But I don’t consider myself a critic, either. I consider myself a writer first, so my allegiance is to a community of writers and not necessarily a community of reviewers or critics. And yes, I understand that our community NEEDS real reviewers who are willing to publicly proclaim what is right and what is wrong with Mormon lit. I just don’t want to be that person.

    That said, I will review books on Goodreads by national authors, even when I don’t like them. I enjoy writing these short reviews, but mostly for my own sake. I imagine them disappearing into the Internet ether. Interestingly, a somewhat negative review I wrote for a novel called “I’d Know You Anywhere” by Laura Lippman ended up getting a bunch of “likes” somehow and is now the first review you see when you look up that book on the site. Although I’ve never met Laura Lippman and I’m sure I never will, a part of me feels a little sheepish about being the first review that pops up. I know what if feels like to be a writer, looking up your book on Goodreads and cringing or sighing or worrying over those two (or one) star reviews. Although, to be honest, Laura Lippman probably doesn’t give a flying flip what I think: she’s a famous, talented writer who makes a living off her art, and I’m just some lady from Minnesota who was a little disappointed in this particular novel. Still, part of me wishes I hadn’t gotten all those “likes” and my dashed off review can slink off into anonymity. Not that I don’t stand by it. I just don’t like playing a publicly negative role, I guess.

  3. Julie Nichols says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about reviews lately, mostly because they’re the bulk of my publications this past year and I want them to count as “scholarship” in my post-tenure file. So I want them to be of high quality. Jessie says, “The idea of a person who is specifically a book reviewer is dead,” but such very fine, first-tier publications as The New York Review of Books, England’s Literary Review, and many other specifically book-reviewing periodicals would suggest that she’s limiting her idea of reviews. I attended a session on reviewing at the Conference on College Composition and Communication two years ago where the differences between online reviewing and the more serious, essayistic, comparative kinds of reviews to be found in, say, the NYRB (you might liken them to differences between diction levels in a paragraph or essay–the difference is one of audience and purpose, such that choices of vocabulary and syntax vary significantly), were explored and acknowledged. Naturally there’s some virtue in online-type reviews of Mormon lit, for readers especially but also for writers; but we would be doing our Mormon/writing/reading selves/community a favor if we invited more of the first-tier kinds of reviews. I mean “invite” in many senses. We could invite more of these by taking the purpose of essayistic reviews more to heart, more seriously. We could require more and better thinking of our reviewers. And we could invite more of such thinking and review-writing by writing more and better work, more and more deserving of the kind of thought that goes into the complex, analytical reviews I read almost daily in the journals where reviews take up as much thought-provoking space as fiction, journalism, creative nonfiction, poetry, or argument.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Julie,

      What you’re describing is the kind of review that I most enjoy: one that not only educates me about the work itself but also invites me to think about broader critical/cultural questions and issues.

      There are places in the Mormon online world where you get reviews of that type. Most noteworthy in that respect is A Motley Vision, in my view. And of course we get reviews of that type in our journals: Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, and I believe also BYU Studies.

      Online AML reviews tend to run the gamut, with reviews of nonfiction Mormon history/doctrinal works tending to get more of that type of in-depth consideration, and reviews of fiction mostly tending to be the shorter kind of review more typical of the online format.

      An important thing to remember is that it takes a lot more time, energy, and training to write a review of this type. An in-depth reviewer will not be one who produces a lot of reviews, unless he/she is actually being paid to produce such — not the case in the Mormon world.

      • Julie Nichols says:

        Good answer, Jonathon. I still maintain it’s useful, maybe vital, that even our online reviewers will be aware of the possibilities reviewing opens to them. Martin Amis paraphrases Gore Vidal as saying, “Nowadays, nobody’s feelings are more authentic,and thus more important, than anybody else’s. This is the new credo, the new privilege…much exercised in the contemporary book-review, whether on the Web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature” (in the foreword to Amis’s “The War Against Cliche,” p. xiii).

        I do hear you, with appreciation, about A Motley Vision (maybe I’ll check it out more often), and I acknowledge your separation of the AML reviews into the more in-depth, analytical ones of nonfiction and doctrinal books as opposed to the more knee-jerk fiction reviews. Thanks (from and for all these reviewers, including me) for the delineation!

        One more thing to think about: George Steiner contends that the only true response to art of any kind is more art–another way of saying what my doctoral supervisor, Francois Camoin, used to say: the only reason to read literature is to be able to write your own better. Possibly this has implications for all our reviewers–not that they (we) should stop reviewing immediately, but that they (we) need to consider how our response to the texts we’re reading reflects on and makes our way into the kind of work we want to be producing. Maybe what I’m suggesting is that if Mormon reviewers could take more responsibility for their reviews, they might take more responsibility for their own work, which would give reviewers more to chew on, an endless spiral of higher-tier work giving rise to higher-tier work. In many ways (including Braden’s recent apologetic), we all know we want and seek that. It CAN start with knowledgeable and intelligent reviewing.

        Steiner also says, “No stupid literature, art, or music lasts. Aesthetic creation is intelligent in the highest degree…More than ordinary men or women, the significant [artist of word or other medium] relates the raw material to the latencies, often unperceived, untapped before him, of articulation. This translation out of the inarticulate and the private into the general matter of human recognition requires the utmost crystallization and investment of introspection and control…” Well! that’s sounding pretty high-and-mighty. But I repeat: I think most of us Mormons-who-do-art want and seek that; and excellent reviewing, a tradition of thoughtful and learned responding, CAN have a positive impact on how many steps, in Braden’s terms, we manage to make in that direction before we drown in the attempt.

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