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.