I just read an article published early this year (February) that had me thinking again about book reviews. I was led to the article by a more recent one written three months later by the same author, Lev Grossman, in which he weighs in on the debate in certain circles between literary fiction and genre fiction. In both this debate and Grossman’s musings on book reviews, I think the discussions have been prompted by what is now known as the indie revolution by those of us who have subverted the power of traditional publishing. The revolution, in turn, was spawned by the ease with which companies like amazon, smashwords, and lulu have made it easy to self-publish. And, of course, amazon and cohorts are thriving because of the mass addiction to the Internet.
The boon to those of us with words to sell has also been a liberalizer of anybody who wants to be heard, from reviewing products to ranting about anything—all for free. And nobody can claim that somebody else’s views are any less valid than his. In the earlier article, Lev Grossman—a best-selling author and Time Magazine book reviewer—confronted the fact that reviews of people without the credentials he has are being published, notably at amazon. And since we are all individuals with unique opinions, we will never agree on what we like or dislike. That is the only explanation he could give for why a great classic, The Great Gatsby, has received nearly 30,000 one-star reviews from Goodreads readers.
Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald could hardly care. Not because he is dead but because, if he were alive, I doubt he would balk at the 30,000 readers who gave his book 30,000 one-star reviews. They were in addition to all those who disagreed and loved the book. We should all be so lucky. And we would be not just lucky but glorified if the book we wrote would stand the test of time, just as F. Scott’s has.
Of course, most of us live only for this lifetime. Only current fame and fortune mean anything to us. And that is probably as it should be because chances are, our books will end up in a trash heap or disappear somewhere in the Ethernet.
To me, any reader, even those who hate what you wrote, is to be thanked for first reading and then being engaged enough to tell everyone who would listen that they thought it was crap. That hater actually spent time on my book.
But those of us who make a living doing reviews or selling packaged words, virtual or physical, might have some justification for expressing concern that anyone who gives an opinion—regardless of its merits, biases, soundness, intention, objectivity, etc., etc.—can potentially influence others. For a paid reviewer like Grossman, this fact hits at his ego or, at least, his professional self-concept. He is doing what he does, after all, with the intent of influencing your buying habits. He has to justify the money he earns as much as his hard-earned credentials. If someone else can do what he does—credentialed and compensated—for free, where does that place him in a continuum of valuation of opinions?
For the rest of us, it’s the sales of our books that matter the most although, of course, our egos are hurt, too. And our valuation of our own opinions or views gets questioned. I like how Grossman tries to explain the latter by citing Kant‘s Critique of Judgement. The guy is not above dropping names to show his learning and, therefore, his credential—only a rarefied group reads Kant anymore. Kant posits (a favored word in old philosophy classes) that our sense of our personal opinions being worth more than others is, of course, false. In the reasonnableness of this internet age, we all believe we must accept this proposition.
Be all that as it may, Grossman does have a point: equality in opinions is certainly democratic but should we and could we not have some criteria for arbitrating whether a review is good or not? Well, we could. Setting up all kinds of criteria or standards is done all the time, usually by people who get paid to do so. Still, should we? How can we stomach anyone or anything ever legislating personal tastes?
As a consumer, I read product reviews, both good and bad, to determine what are relevant for my use. It is a person’s experience with his use of a product that concerns me. But product utility is hardly a factor in book buying.
I may be one of that breed—perhaps, unusual—who hardly ever read book reviews, although as a seller of packaged words, I do seek them because of the demands of the marketplace. I know my tastes, my needs and my desires. They are the basis for how I select the category of books to sink my teeth into. Then, I read the first 20% of the book that sellers offer, to look at how well-written the book is and whether it would, in fact, fulfill what it promises to do. In that sense, the first 20% to me is the most valuable aspect of book promotion.
By my method, I have hardly ever read a book I did not like. Why waste your precious time? As for the likes of Lev Grossman who may not have a choice of what books to read, tant pis (as the French would say—and, no, you don’t sound the “s”)! It is an imperfect world.