Last week I had a short and soft lead-in for this week’s column, and because this subject has really been on my mind a lot lately, I want to introduce it again. It used to be that when I thought of book reviews, they were just something that magically appeared. They showed up in print, or online, hailing from the brain of all-knowing giants whose main purpose in life is telling the masses what books to read, or what books to stay away from. I imagined that the book review business as whole held authors to a social standard—a line that was dictated by the canon and always obeyed. However, as I got older and closer and closer to the literary world (I still have a long way to go), it occurred to me that I was totally wrong.
Book reviews don’t just appear (obviously)—well-read people who have opinions write them. The reviews are in some ways dictated, sure, by a style guide and standards provided by the company they write for, but on the whole, their reviews and the opinions contained therein (to my mind, there’s no such thing as an objective review) are their own, and generally, it seems, writers are hired because of their writing style and bookish worldliness. Who knows why, but these realizations blew my mind, and I needed to talk to some people about it, you know, just to get my head straight and wrap my mind about what exactly book reviews are, what they mean, and what’s going to happen to this ever-growing flood of non-academic book-flavored writing in the future.
So, to accomplish this selfishly heroic task, I took to the mean streets of Minneapolis to talk with some titans of the local book review network and see if they could help me make heads or tails of an industry I participate in but cannot seem to grasp the entirety of.
Generally, my questions focused on four main areas: the importance of book reviews, how negative reviews should be handled, the future of book reviews, and whether or not self-published book should be included in this hold of the literary realm.
I went into these interviews with some thoughts on these topics, most of which were blown to bits once I started my line of questioning, and that is so awesome. My initial thoughts on these topics were as follows:
- Book reviews are important, but rapidly loosing their footing outside of the giants like the New York Times, which doesn’t quite have the breadth of long-form reviews that I personally am looking for.
- Negative book reviews are the most important of book reviews because they exhibit honesty and a willingness to interact critically with the writer in a way that the democratization of publishing may not allow in the self-publishing post-apocalyptic wasteland that I sometimes think about and always fear.
- The future of book reviews is doomed to be arenas where the best of the worst self-published novels go to fight to the death for the title of “nominally relevant to our culture and generally proficiently written.”
- The only fair way to review books is to review both self-published books that…I don’t know…look good, I guess, and books that have been vetted by a publishing house before being sent on to reviewers. My biggest worry here was that the slush pile will disappear from the hands of green interns at publishing houses and will instead be sent en masse to book reviewers whose job it will be in the future to write substantive criticisms (what we know now as rejection letters) for every book received via physical mail or electronically.
Clearly I was out of my mind with worry about the future and some silly opinions. Again, because Minnesota is so freaking nice, and everyone is willing to help out my brain was set straight by my field research. What follows are my findings.
One common thread that followed through most answers about the importance of book reviews is that essentially book reviews are part of a larger, dignified conversation about literature, something that I had only considered previously in terms of the Internet and its allowance for immediate responses in the comments section (something that Patrick Nathan loathes). But in truth, it’s not as instantaneous as all that. It’s more like these publications—online and in print—are playing the longest song in the world, and the tune is always changing because as both Melissa Wray and Patrick Nathan point out in their reviews, the canon and what the new generation of readers seeks in literature is changing. As Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books and a wealth of well-said wisdom on literature in general put it, “Book reviewers have often been seen as gatekeepers and tastemakers, but I prefer to view them as conversant readers who instigate further conversation.”
This generational, international conversation that is occurring at (more accurately than the simile about the longest song) both high- and snail-speeds is indicative of a broad-based community populated by readers, writers, and critics all the same. The importance of book reviews in this sense, according to Wray, is to support the community. “[Book reviews] are incredibly important because not only are they a way to support that writer by reviewing something of theirs so that other people hear about, but then also you’re informing other people—other readers—about what is good and what they should be reading,” she said. According to Patrick Nathan, book reviews are important because they are simply the best way to hear about new books. He also believes in the idea of joining in with the communal conversation, though not through comments left on websites, but rather through thought-out, drafted letters to the editor or opinion pieces.
For Laurie Hertzel, however, the purpose of book reviews has, in addition to the points above, a more practical than that: “My job, or the reviewer’s job, is not to sit down with the writer and say, ‘Here’s how your book could have been better,’ but for the reader—‘Do you want to spend your time and money on this book or not?’” As a reader, this point is more salient to me than many of the other points made. As a writer, my view here is much more selfish, and truthfully, this very excellent point—about where consumers get the information needed about how and where to spend their time and money—had never crossed that part of my brain.
Next week: Perspective on the importance of the negative review, the future of the book review, and why it’s so hard to get your self-published book reviewed.