Reviewisaurus Rex

Are book reviews going the way of the dinosaur? I’m not talking about the blurb plus excerpts found in the Anchorage Daily News or the friend-enemy-relative customer reviews on Amazon. I’m talking about (dare I say it?) the old-fashioned kind, where an accomplished writer presents a thoughtful analysis that helps you decide whether the book is one you’d like to read.

Some writers hate reviews and refuse to read them. Others embrace them, even though critical reviews are rarely all about praise. I’m among the latter. But the conflicting views of writers have been around for ages, and (if you ask them) no one listens to them anyhow, so that doesn’t explain the demise of the review.

The proliferation of ways for Jane Reader to get her opinions before the public surely has something to do with it. Blogs, book shopping web sites, online reading sites like Shelfari and GoodReads – there and elsewhere on the web, everyone gets a shot at being a reviewer. It’s a natural result not just of web 2.0 technology but also the reader response theory I embraced as a teacher: readers bring their own experiences to books, and what resonates for one may not resonate for others. Taken to the extreme, it could perhaps be argued there’s no such this as a good book – or a bad one.

Another issue for reviewers is the proliferation of self-pubbed books. With so many books to choose from, you’d think we’d need reviews more than ever. But the effect has been the opposite. I’ve been told the ADN’s decision to do excerpts instead of reviews was made in part because they didn’t want to have to pick and choose among Alaskan authors, many of whom had laid out not just sweat and tears but also cold hard cash to see their books in print. Big reviewers like Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist don’t have a problem with picking and choosing what they’ll review. But maybe it’s tougher up here, where often the author is, if not a friend, then the friend of a friend.

So, does anyone miss reviews? Specifically, would you like to read book reviews here at 49 writers? Authors send us their books, and we like books, but we’re not sure what to do with them. I’ve been fortunate to review for the Washington Post Book World and also Bookforum. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of distilling a book to its essence and crafting an analysis in 600 words or less. But writing reviews takes time. Lots of it.

Talk to us. If you’d like reviews here, reviews that offer a uniquely Northern perspective on Northern books, we’ll see if we can assemble a cadre of reviewers to tackle the books authors send us. But if it’s time for reviews to go the way of the dinosaur, who are we to stand in the way?

11 thoughts on “Reviewisaurus Rex”

  1. Are you kidding? Do we need reviews? In these times of mass-fads and uncritical consumerism, influenced by big-bucks ad campaigns? (Edmund Wilson would roll over in his grave.)

    Good, critical reviews are part of the writing tradition. They can be a joy to read — funny, acerbic, expanding the topic or filling in background — at times even more so than the title reviewed. I’m not talking about the literary deconstructivism practiced in academic milieus, but rather stuff like the “New York Times Review of Each Other’s Books” at its best. Of course, there is nepotism and a reviewer’s personal taste — but all art is subjective, almost by definition.

    You forgot to mention what is perhaps the single most important reason for the decline of smart reviews in print media: economic pressures. Book reviews don’t make money for the newspaper (and not much for the reviewer) and so are incresingly slashed in favor of more ad space. Arts and Culture sections are the first to be cut, a tendency mirrored in government budgets.

    As far as authors and reviews go, many feel that a bad review is still better than absolute silence. (There is no such thing as bad publicity, as long as people talk about you or your stuff.)

    What is upsetting to authors are reviews that miss the point or are poorly written:

    “I’ve yet to read a review I couldn’t have written better myself.”
    Edward Abbey

    True enough, because who is more at home in the writing than the writer him / herself?

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for distilling the issue well for us, Deb. As an author, I want all the reviews I can get, but I have to say that after being nationally reviewed for my last book, I was surprised how many were of the summary/thumbs up or down style, not the more thoughtful essays Michael describes, which I also enjoy reading.

    Another surprise for me, and a caution to those of us who dismiss blogs or reader-generated reviews too readily: some of the most insightful, thorough reviews I stumbled across for my own book were published in obscure or unexpected places (blogs written by librarians, for example). So in this age of declining print and a democratizing internet, I don’t dismiss new kinds of review systems.

    This doesn’t answer the question of what 49 writers should do about reviews, but I leave that to more of OUR readers to discuss.

  3. Maybe it’s not so much a question of whether we need reviews as whether we here at 49 writers can or should do our little part to salvage them. There’s no doubt that print media, at least the newspaper, is on a shortening road to something that looks a lot like death. Free from that fate, do we have the chops to do the kind of reviews Michael speaks of? Or an obligation to add to the mix Andromeda mentions?

  4. I think that in order to get good reviews, you need to offer good incentives. (And I’m not specifically talking about 49 Writers.) It’s similar to expecting good writers of novels and other stuff to work “for peanuts.” And what good writer given the choice between writing a review and writing original work of their own, will choose the former? Unless, that is, they are suffering writer’s block.

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    You’ve inspired me, Deb. I’m adding the recently revamped website of the National Book Critics Circle to our blogroll. The blog has articles about the process of being a book reviewer – a possible source of online “training” for those who might consider picking up the review banner and really fighting to do something about this. (An example of the blog’s posts — a recent reading list by Salon co-founder Laura Miller about the 5 books about criticism that she believes every reviewer should read. Would it be possible to develop a small community-within-a-community of people dedicated to occasional book reviewing of Alaska books for the national audience? By doing this in a coordinated manner, we could share review copies, online print connections, semi-private discussions about what books are being overlooked each year. It might offer a way to prioritize and mentor. What we would need most is a person with leadership abilities and interests, willing to form a group of likeminded types who are actually willing to do serious reviewing (perhaps a commitment to publish at least one review a year) and support each other doing so. A sort of book critics circle within the larger book critics circle, with the goal of supporting Alaska books. But Michael asked a good question — what is the payment/reward/incentive besides karma points?

    I may have to make this into a new blogpost…

  6. Two good blogposts to come of this thread. First, on compensation, a broader issue obviously than reviews. I have a minimum hourly rate for freelance jobs. If I can’t get that for a task, I leave it for someone else because, indeed, I’d rather be working on my novel. That may not be logical because I don’t have a contract for my novel, but that’s what I do.

    Exceptions to my rule: writing reviews of books I’d like to read anyhow, and working the 49 writers blog. Though I get paid little (in the case of book reviews, where you have to factor in the time it takes to read the books) to nothing (for blogging), the intangibles of growth and connection are incentive enough. For me.

    Do I think writers should work for free? No. But some things we do because they’re good for us and good, in some small and hopeful way, for the slice of the world through which we journey.

    So I love the idea of a small Alaska or Northern book critics circle. In addition to soliciting volunteers, we could perhaps partner with a university class in literary criticism or communications, where incentives are not such an issue. Or partner with a nonprofit with funds to compensate reviewers with the same peanuts they get elsewhere.

  7. I didn’t mean to sound like a total cynic or mercenary; I HAVE reviewed and otherwise promoted books I enjoyed and which I thought were important contributions. (The last one was Barry Lopez’ amazing compendium “Home Ground,” an essential reference tool for any writer enthralled with place.)

    I think the idea of tying in with others, who already are “reviewers by trade,” is great. And if I get to read a book that falls within my interests, and is professionally published (and I get a free copy to keep, he, he, he!), I might be game for one Alaska review per year.

    These blogs being linked up with other blogs make me all dizzy. . .

  8. Yahoo. A taker. Likewise, I will do one, maybe even two (see you one and raise you one, Michael?) per year. If we do launch a Critics Circle attempt, it should go without saying that reviewers get to review books they want to read, so the free copy is at least a little incentive. Now we need at least half a dozen more takers (or more appropriately, givers), and we could possibly pull off reviewing a book a month, which seems a reasonable goal and a nice contribution to the literary world.

  9. I’m not a player! (And careful with my committments.)

    Have you thought about asking Jeremy Pataky? He’s already doing it for this blog, and doing a nice job.

  10. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Don’t worry, Michael. I — like you, it seems — are not at the commitment stage yet. I just want to hear what future system might sound sensible. THEN we can get someone to implement it. Maybe.

  11. Okay. Distinction between game and player duly noted. And we all need to be careful with our commitments. Especially since we’ve yet to hear that people really, really want local reviews. There’s also the valid issue of whether we’re too small a writing community to be reviewing one another’s books. So we’ll keep listening and talking and see what happens.

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