I’ve been posting reviews over at Amazon for years…when I feel like it. I don’t write up a review for every book I read because, well, I would rather spend the time reading. Five years ago I joined GoodReads after an embarassing incident wherein I read a forgettable procedural, got to the end and realised that I had read it before. One of the characteristics of my health condition is a tendency to forget things, so I figured I’d best start keeping track of the books I’d read. The list over on GoodReads comes in extra handy now that I have ebooks. I’ve never been one to keep old copies of books as souvenirs–they’re meant to be read after all, so I gave them away. But now I have no shelves to look at with the titles marching merrily across…unless I go to GoodReads.
In the last year GoodReads has exploded. What was once a quiet haunt for likeminded bibliophiles has now become yet another Social Media experience. All of a sudden there are tons of reviews…on the most popular, big-name books. At least a third of those reviews direct you to the blog of the person who posted them. (I never go. I don’t read blogs with a gun held to my head, and I don’t care nearly enough about what a stranger thought of A Discovery Of Witches to traipse over to her blog. Besides, I always think less of someone who diverts traffic away from a free host site in a bid to up her own numbers. If she’s that callous, chances are I won’t value what she thought of a given book.)
Suddenly this quiet thing I’ve been doing for years has become the hottest ticket it town. Why?
My friend Mandi explained it to me a couple of nights ago. She and a group of author friends have created a new book review blog aimed at presenting reviews that are known to be unpaid and unsolicited and therefore trustworthy. It seems that there are a lot of people out there creating book reviews to get their name noticed, to get free copies of books from publishers and, in some cases, to get paid. I should have known. What’s happening in book reviewing right now is much like what happened with blogs around 2006–call it the Sutter’s Mill effect.
So why is this a problem? Aren’t more reviews a good thing, especially for readers who have less money now to spend on books?
I’m a writer, and I admit it freely. I read books as a writer reads them (unfortunately) and I notice tricks and signs of craft that might escape a regular leisure reader. When I review a book, however, I write the review exactly like I write a blog post or a chapter in my books. I write for the audience. I picture a character in my head, and I tell her what I think will interest her. Sometimes the “characters” are people I know or amalgams of friends of mind.* Other times they’re inventions. But in every case, what I write is directed toward someone else.
Much of the new crop of reviewers, on the other hand, seem to be reviewing books in order to showcase themselves alongside the book. They are mooning book reviews, angling for reflected celebrity. It’s less of a service and more of a self-service.
I still value book reviews as a tool for helping me make a choice. But if the review uses a lot of writer’s group terminology (show don’t tell; marysue; too many adverbs) I can tell right away that the reviewer isn’t evaluating the book as a reader but as a competing author. Those are the reviews I tend to disregard.
*It started as a typo but I like that phrase, especially since many of my friends are people I know exclusively via the web. Thus making them…friends of mind.