Why Do Book Reviewers Exist?

I was hanging out over at the poet Iman Mersal’s blog yesterday (hey, Iman!), and got to pondering the perennial question: Why do book reviewers exist? Aren’t they — er, we — just cruel jokesters who couldn’t write our way out of a paper lunch sack, and thus had to make it up to ourselves by pestering and/or fawning over someone who could?

Worse yet, why do these small, self-published reviewers exist, “whose opinions rain down like confetti on Amazon and other bookish Web sites” (Arthur Krystal)?

Reviewers are, traditionally conceived, yet another middle-man in our literary landscape, another body crowding into the narrow, sweaty space between reader and author. And in this era, when we’re getting rid of the middle-men (and middle-women), there seems to be less need of it. Newspapers are shutting down their book-review operations. As are magazines. If you want to know what bands you might enjoy, you can just flip through YouTube; you don’t need CMJ. (You might like CMJ. But that’s another story.)

So who needs literary agents, publishers, reviewers, and so on, when you can just go to Amazon and get a self-published book (with 5-star user reviews, or as recommended by a friend) for $.99?

And I do mean that. Or I at least I’m trying it on, like a strangely compelling hat.

I imagine that the space between reader and author is in some senses narrowing (to a direct author-reader transaction), but also getting wider, more chaotic, and more riotous. I further imagine that there might still be good reasons for reviewers to exist in the chaotic, confusing middle-ground(s) between readers and their authors.


Well, first,  if one’s reviews are an interesting conversation with books, an interesting commentary, an interesting way of building on the text — whatever it is — and are worth reading in their own right. Then the reviewer is no longer a middle-person, but the practitioner of a different creative genre. This doesn’t require that the reviewer be cruel, although I suppose that’s the easiest way to do it. It could also be a dance with the book, a song about it, a whirl around the block.

Arthur Krystal writes that reading reviews of one’s work is always disquieting — whether positive or negative — and perhaps that’s true of an “assessment” review. After all, who likes to be assessed? But a dialogue isn’t bad. A poem about your poem.

Second, I like reading adventure-review sites that tell me about “gems you might not discover on your own.” After all, the world is big and riotous, and how am I supposed to know what’s new in translation from the Maylayalam? Chad Post’s Three Percent blog, or The Quarterly Conversation or Words Without Borders. Even better if, as at WWB, I can test-drive some of the material on my own.

Third, maybe I’m interested in reviews that look at “how this book was built,” from a craft perspective. I could be, if I saw one.

Fourth, I’m interested in visual reviews: alternative jacket designs, comics, collages.

Fifth, the memoir-review is cool (what this book has meant to me) as is the historical sort (what this book has meant in its context).

Sixth, two alternate translations of a text are always cool. Or three.

Seventh, the process of writing a review — for reviewers “whose opinions rain down like confetti” — is another way of reading closely. Reviewing for reviewing’s sake. Like practicing yoga. Like NaNoWriMo. Staves off the Alzheimer’s.

In any case, I think it’s likely that, just as we re-imagine how book publishing will move forward into its next phase (and what a “book” is), we will need to re-imagine “book reviewing.” Or at the very least, we could. So why not, it might be fun.


  1. I like this post! Even if reviewing is losing it’s place of import in the business of publishing, reviews are themselves a piece of writing that we can all enjoy and be enriched by. That may change the way reviews are written, but that’s not necessarily all bad.

    1. Thanks, ya Nora.

      A poet friend complained a while back (not Iman, a different poet) that there is no point to reviewers. And I know that many authors *hate* reviewers. Whereas I think of myself as a pretty nice person. 🙂 So…can I still be a pretty nice person and talk about books? I hope so.

  2. As a consumer, I find book reviews to be very helpful in deciding what to read next, and I think that reviews play a very similar role to literary prizes. For example, if a novel gets a mostly positive review in the New York Times Book Review, I’ll check it out of the library, but a positive review in People Magazine won’t carry the same influence. Similarly, If I’m looking for a read that will be entertaining and enjoyable but not too challenging, I’ll skim over past short-lists for the Man Booker Prize. In the U.S., at least, even a negative review in a popular paper or magazine can boost sales. You’ve written a lot here on Arab publishing and prizes – what role do reviews play for the Arabic reader?

    1. Anecdotally, a good review in a pan-Arabic newspaper also boosts sales, at least for a bit. Perhaps, as you say, like a mini-lit-prize.

      I don’t know if chain bookstores (Diwan, Shorouk, Magrudy’s, Virgin, Alef, etc) analyze what influences sales of a particular title. I suppose they probably do. I suppose I should probably ask.

  3. There have been a slew of bands based on the TV show ‘Lost.’ Usually, they would write a song immediately after each episode, record it, and release it online. It was more like a summary than a critical review, but sometimes they snuck in their own commentary. Anyway, your post has gotten me thinking about how cool it would be to have a book review website that involves no text reviews, but rather songs, drawings, short films, etc.

    Also, I think as books become more democratized and anyone can publish and promote an ebook, book reviewers could potentially have a really important role as curators and trusted tastemakers in the chaotic marketplace, like NPR’s music department. No matter how much access people have, they still want someone to say to them ‘I’ve had the time, I’ve searched through the madness, I have more experience than anyone and I’ve pulled out these few things I think you’ll like.’ I think we’ll still be willing to pay some people for their time, and that’s what book reviewers will become.

    1. Yes. I like. I wish I had some other talent, other than with words. I would make alternative covers for each book I’d read, and it would be my commentary on the book. AHHHHHH, I’m bummed that I have no design skills.

  4. I guess my review-reading and book buying habits are a little behind the times! I’ll just have to start buying all my books at Costco : (

    I’d love knowing more about how Diwan et al. spot literary trends.

    1. I will try to set up some interviews if you promise not to start buying all your books at Costco. 🙂

  5. A great post, with much to think about here. I would like to think that a “disquieting” reaction to reading reviews of one’s work might actually be preferable to a tranquilizing one.

    1. Well, I haven’t been on that side of the fence, but I imagine that a little friction isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  6. Disclosure: I review books. Sometimes for money, but more often for free! Mainly for your reasons #1, #3 and #7 above.

    That said, I do also read reviews, so I’m responding here as a consumer as well as a producer. I love book reviews. But I generally read them online, on people’s blogs (like this one) or on Goodreads. Often I get into conversations in comment threads, which is great fun. To me, the world of informal reviews is livelier and more interesting than, say, the NY Review of Books. (And informal reader reviews do sell books–at least to me.)

    The traditional, magazine-bound book review may be dying. I don’t know. The reader review is alive and well, thank goodness. These reviews make us notice things we wouldn’t have otherwise; they contextualize books in ways we couldn’t do on our own; they make us think, and they make us mad, and that means they make us better readers. Let the confetti rain!

    1. Hey, I like confetti.

  7. Did you see this? It’s at: http://www.complete-review.com/saloon/archive/201205a.htm#br2

    Lev Grossman confesses

    Time-critic Lev Grossman offers Confessions of (Another) Book Reviewer, recounting how he got his gig — and explaining:

    I don’t write hatchet jobs. A thoroughly negative review needs to justify its existence thoroughly, and for that you need a lot of words, and Time’s book reviews don’t run long enough. So if I don’t like a book, I leave it alone. Books come into this world mortally wounded as it is. It’s pretty rare that a book is so malignant and so tough that it needs someone like me to come along and finish it off. It’s enough to deny them care.

    Which seems a valid excuse — though I’d suggest there are actually quite a few such books out there, foisted on an unsuspecting public with lots of marketing bucks — books that can’t be killed by your garden-variety reviewer, but which Time could readily put out of readers’ misery …..

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