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