Could the Internet Save Book Reviews?

Even as print publications are getting rid of reviewers, websites and podcasts offer new ways of approaching literature.

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In his 1946 essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," George Orwell outlined the changes he'd make to the standard, 600-word format of the book review. He wrote that the best practice "would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews—1,000 words is a bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter." He then suggested notices "of a line or two" for the majority of titles less worthy of mention. Although Orwell considered book reviewing "an exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job" and once likened it to "pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time," he's often evoked as the patron saint of book reviewers. Orwell reviewed over 100 books in 1940 alone and "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" is a testament to the problems he saw in journalistic literary criticism, including the fact that reviewing involved "praising trash" and "constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.". His idea to review only the best books didn't spark a revolution in 1946 and probably won't start one any time soon, but the essay points to the fact that book reviews haven't changed very much in the past 65 years—until now.

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The digital age has transformed the physical act of reading and will alter journalistic literary criticism as well. According to a Pew Research study published in 2010, over half of all Americans obtain news and information—including book reviews—on digital platforms: online editions of newspapers like the New York Times, email, Twitter, RSS feeds, etc. (The number is even higher among people with post-graduate degrees and those who are in their 20s and 30s.) The full effect of these changes will have on book reviews isn't clear, but they're already shifting in ways that would both please and alarm Orwell.

First, the bad news: If Orwell was displeased by the number of mediocre books reviewed in print in 1946, then the customer reviews and ratings on Amazon and other bookseller websites would have made him dyspeptic. The idea, of course, is that every book is reviewed, regardless of quality, and that "the people" get to have their say. In theory, customer reviews are quick, easy, egalitarian, and make the "consumer" (as opposed to the reader) feel in control of his or her reading choices. But there's a difference between a recommendation and a review. Customer reviews are heavy on opinion and light on insight. They're reactionary. Fiction customer reviews typically contain "I-loved-it" or "I-hated-it" declarations based on an affinity for or dislike of the characters and discuss them as if they were real people. Customer reviews rarely include plot summaries--even dull ones. They tend to consider books in terms of whether or not they were worth the money and need not pertain to the book at all. One Amazon reviewer gave F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby a single star because the Kindle edition cost more than the hardcover. Another panned Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man because the paperback she received had coffee stains on it.

But there are also signs of hope from pioneers like Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian behind "Book Lust." Pearl tends to recommend rather than review but does so with the expertise that only a librarian or someone who works in an independent bookstore has. (She was also the inspiration for the first librarian action figure.) Like Pearl, Jessa Crispin of Bookslut.com recommends rather than reviews but where Pearl is earnest Crispin is irreverent and sometimes vulgar. She's a savvy, hipster reviewer whose site is a haphazard array of literary gossip, sound bites, and reviews. Goodreads is a social network for book reviews, but it's modeled on a book-club model rather than a journalistic one. For now, Goodreads is basically Facebook with books, but if enough contributors set the bar high with creative, funny, and smart reviews it might become a force of its own. These recommenders offer a vision for Orwell's hope that there be short reviews of less-worthy titles.

The future of book reviewing isn't confined to the written word: Podcasts could reinvent or ruin journalistic literary criticism. There currently exist only three podcasts that truly review books: Nancy Pearl's Book Lust podcast, which also airs on NPR's Morning Edition, Maureen Corrigan's reviews on Fresh Air, and Tom Lutz's Los Angeles Review of Books podcasts on KCRW—all of which are smart, valuable resources. Out magazine's "Outsider" podcast airs once every couple of months and reviews film and visual art as well. The panel of guests for the show often includes Dale Peck, a writer who reached book-reviewer superstardom (if there is such a thing) with Hatchet Jobs, a collection of his reviews for The New Republic, in 2004. He's best known for his review of Rick Moody's memoir The Black Veil, which opened with the lede, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." But as a reviewer, Peck was more than just a show-boater who stirred up controversy; he was a whipsmart critic with a fabulous sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Peck embarrassed himself in 2011 when he included an anti-Semitic tagline that was meant to be funny in an article published in The Daily Beast. (The editors removed the tagline within an hour of the article being online.) To say that Peck screwed up is an understatement, yet his signature wit and irreverence can still be heard on the "Outsider" podcast. Other "book-review" podcasts, such as the Washington Post Book World Podcast and the New York Review of Books Podcast, include author interviews or literary gossip. Even the Book Review by the New York Times Podcast, hosted by Sam Tanenhaus, uses interviews with authors to attract listeners—which is not the same as a book review. A book review combines personal judgments with analysis, historical contextualization, and an understanding of the inner workings of the book—from an outsider's perspective. It centers on the experience of reading a novel or a collection of poetry. Interviewing the author rather than the reviewer lessens the importance of book reviews and can give an impression of toadyism.

Presented by

Sarah Fay is an editorial associate at The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New Republic’s “The Book.”

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