The new critics

Emily Gould posted a woefully short item on Galleycat yesterday about the labyrinth that is the Amazon customer review system, pointing out something that I just learned this week: there is a woman named Harriet Klausner who has posted 16,191 reviews on Amazon to date. Apparently, she’s a retired librarian and, most importantly, a speed reader who reads four to six books a day and reviews every single one of them on Amazon. Now, that’s a talent. Publishers treat her like a professional reviewer–they send her books for free in the hopes that she’ll read them (unlike most book bloggers, she probably does get through most of what she’s sent because she’s such a freaky fast reader!). One of the best things (for publishers and authors, at least) about Harriet? She hardly ever gives a bad review. Seriously, do a scroll down her Amazon reviews page. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You see? Four or five stars, no less, and everything is excellent, poignant, or insightful, amongst other laudative adjectives.

People in the book industry decry the decline of the print book review daily, but I can’t help but wonder whether we even need professional book critics anymore?* Lookit, I read the New York Times Sunday book reviews, but I don’t really care about them. I read them out of professional interest only, in a sort of “Oh, let’s see what books the Times and every other ‘literary’ book outlet will be wanking about for the next ten months” way. Also because I find Michiko Kakutani mildly entertaining at times. But the truth is, I don’t buy books that I read about in the Times, even if they get a rave–maybe even especially. Because I don’t trust professional reviewers. I don’t feel like they’re at all interested in telling me anything about a book, whether or not it’s worth reading or buying; they don’t have me, the buyer, the reader, in mind when they’re writing their reviews. They have themselves in mind. And not themselves as readers–themselves as critics. Because this is their profession, and so every piece they write contributes to an overall collection of work that represents them, as writers. Their thoughts about a given book are actually quite a small concern in comparison.

To tell the truth, I don’t hold much truck with Amazon reviews, either, at least not when it comes to entertainment. I love them when I’m looking to buy a DVD player–they tell me what to avoid because of XY&Z problems, what is specifically wrong with an item and whether it lives up to its promises–but let’s be honest, when it comes to books and movies and music the opinions of some anonymous Amazon reviewer who I don’t know are just as useless to me as Michiko Kakutani’s opinions. Items of entertainment are so highly subjective, and anyway I feel like most Amazon reviewers review books because they either hate them or love them, like our friend Harriet Klausner–there’s no perspective in such extremity.

This is why everybody needs a good book blogger they can trust. Even if they’re anonymous, if you read enough of the book blogger’s reviews (which are often much better written, thought out, and more even-tempered than Amazon reviews) you can get a sense for what they like and don’t like, what they tend to read and what they tend to avoid, and as you keep reading the blog and perhaps trying out some of their more highly recommended suggestions you can start to see whether or not they align with your tastes. These aren’t professionals; sometimes they’re getting the books comped from the publishers, but often they’re buying them themselves, like you do. That’s what’s so great about book bloggers–they’re not critics, they’re readers. This is important, because readers read for vastly different reasons than critics read, and they often come to different conclusions about a book. A novel full of pretentious bullshit might appeal to a critic because then they can say all kinds of pretentious bullshit about it, but a reader can see through all that BS right quick and come to their own readerly conclusion, which is a far more trustworthy opinion.

This is not to say that I agree with all book bloggers, but I just think they’re part of the new revolution of reviewers. Maybe people don’t read the books section because we’re beyond critics. Now we just want to know what books are loved by people like us.

*Wow, reading over this post I think I was coming across as someone who thinks print book reviews should die. No! Not me. I think whenever people talk about books, it’s a good thing, whatever they’re saying (unless they’re trying to censor people or talk about burning books). And there are a lot of newspapers with great review sections and great reviewers. I personally dislike the New York Times in reference to almost everything and I get really frustrated that the “paper of record” is in so many ways so irrelevant to the lives of so many people. But that’s another post. I don’t want book reviews in newspapers and magazines to go away. I just think that book bloggers are the wave of the future, that’s all, and that I personally prefer them over print reviews. Although I really like the reviews in Publishers Weekly…I’ve gotten a lot of great book recommendations from them.

3 Responses

  1. The communities of common interests are exactly the reason the internet is such a cool thing; you get readers, reviewers, writers, agents, and publishers all in the same place, talking about books. Even so, there’s so much out there that I think reading recommendations are brought around by little bits of everything, be they blogs or newspaper professionals.

  2. I prefer blogs too, since discovering them I have found so many great books and they’re not just reviewing new books either so you get a nice selection.

    Can that be true about Harriet Klausner? Does she have elves working for her? Speed reading 4-6 books a day seems really strange you don’t get to saviour a book and surely they all merge into one. A chore rather than a pleasure?

  3. While Harriet has a truly impossible level of output, her reviews suffer quite badly for that speed. Happily, she is not the norm amongst Amazon reviewers. There are many hundreds of other reviewers there who take their reviews seriously and often write very cogent analyses of what worked and what didn’t for them.

    Many of them (including myself) post on Amazon because of it’s much wider potential audience than what is achievable via the blog route (unless you have a fantastically successful blog visited by 30,000 people a day). But the key to getting value from these reviews, just as it is with those published on blogs, is to find a reviewer there with tastes either similar to your own or that you can get familiar enough with their biases to know when to discount or ignore their opinions. Yes, there are some reviewers who are always over-enthusiastic about whatever they read, and some who denigrate everything, but that’s just as true for the blogging reviewer.

    I agree that the importance of the professional reviewers has declined, though their input is still significant and useful. The range and diversity of opinion now available on the net is becoming more and more significant. The Amazon system is part of that, and can be very useful.

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