I recently read a couple of articles on book reviews, written by an erudite man with impeccable credentials. In an online magazine called The Arts Fuse, he continues the lament of the literati on the growing tyranny of the common man’s book reviews.
I have almost forgotten what academic writing is like, at least a decade away from it. Academics don’t write like normal people. For one, they love to split hairs. And they use big words. But they do often have something to say worth listening to.
Here is the situation. In the past, before the democratic assault of the internet, writers who reviewed for a living reigned supreme. They selected and dictated the “best” books, the “most valuable” art pieces, the “greatest” films, etc. For the most part, they did know what they’re talking about because many of them had the training and experience to do it.
Enter Amazon, on the wings of the internet. And, voila, everyone can be a reviewer, even if they base their judgement mostly on a gut feeling of love or hate, instead of the reasoned analysis of the appropriately learned. Worse for the credentialed critic, the Amazon (the common man) reviewer is winning the battle, probably out of sheer numbers. The common man’s book reviews are slowly edging out the gloriously credentialed for our hearts, if not our minds.
We read for so many reasons—titillation from heaving bodies, the thrill of a hunt, the challenge of a mystery, the novelty of created worlds. Enlightenment is only one of those reasons and, mostly it’s a factor only for nonfiction.
The sad offshoot, as our literati see it, is stated in the title of this article: Fuse Commentary: Book Reviews and Civilization’s End.
I can’t tell where the author of the article stands on the worth of book reviews. He does posit (ah, I still remember words from those days) that our learned critics—whose credibility may arise more from their “name’ publication employer rather than the depth of their knowledge—are afraid they’re at the end of an era. On the brink, maybe not so much of extinction, but of devaluation. And their numbers are shrinking. Their fear is as they shrink, so does the bright future of Western civilization. There’s fewer of them to guide us into enlightenment.
The author’s specific take on the issue:
The genuine divide is between those critics who see reviewing as an end in itself and those who see it as a means towards marketing.
He believes, I think, that it’s the common man’s book reviews which are done for marketing. Most writers would agree with this view. That’s what most reviews (the common man’s) become―selling points. At least on Amazon and most book seller sites. This is true whether a review is thoughtfully written or not. Numbers are what count.
Where I part with the author is in his assertion that for learned critics, reviewing is an end in itself. I have actually written about this issue before. I believe paid reviewers do intend to influence buying habits. They have to justify both their hard-earned credentials and the money they earn for reviewing. Some common man reviewers also mean to influence the masses one way or another, but most do honestly post only what they think or how they feel about books they review.
I have to admit I like reading literary criticism, more so than many of what we now encounter under the rubric of “book reviews.” Having said that, I will also admit that I have long thought of reviews as necessary if you want to sell books. Authors seek them for that reason. I also realize that, with the internet, there is no going back. We wouldn’t want that, anyway.
The informed criticism or review that a learned critic does remains essential. Paying attention to it and acting on it will keep us getting better at our game. In that sense, negative reviews from a leaned critic might be more valuable than positive ones.
I’d like to end on the cheery note that books are here to stay: