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If you read books, you almost certainly read book reviews. It’s more likely than not that you read them online, and not just The Guardian and the New York Times books pages, but individual, private reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads. You probably read at least a few bloggers, who are now such a significant corner of the reviewing market that publicists schedule blog tours for new hardback releases as a matter of course. You may even, God help you, read me.
I’m all for Internet book reviews, whether it’s on a semi-professional level or an actually professional level or just some dude or dudette in a T-shirt in their kitchen, scribbling down a couple of paragraphs per tome. I think that’s one of the glorious ways in which the republic of letters and the democracy of the Internet collide: as long as you’re literate, you can both read anything and write online about anything. No one is going to stop you, tell you you’re not good enough or not allowed. Or, rather, if anyone does, you can simply tell them to do one and then hop on over to Blogspot or WordPress or your own domain name. It’s brilliant. Readers are such an unexpected community; there are so many of us and we do so many different things and there is absolutely no prerequisite to being part of that community, except for your own interest in books.
But. (There is always a but.)
There are some things that, if you’ve clicked your way around the bookish corners of the Web for long enough, you will have encountered more than once; some reviewing tactics which need to be retired, not because they’re insufficiently highfalutin but because they’re vague, irritating and unhelpful.
Let us start with a repeat offender, encroaching on even the most perceptive reviews from time to time: any variation on “I loved this book, it had lots of interesting characters.” That’s good, for a third-grade book report. If you’re more advanced in years than that, you ought to be better able to describe your reasons for liking something. This isn’t literary snobbery; you don’t need a degree in English to be able to do this. All you need is recourse to some adjectives. You can decide which ones to use by consulting a thesaurus, or you can pull them out of your own brain. But “I liked it” or “it was interesting” (or “fascinating”, the marginally more creative cheat’s adjective) isn’t sufficient on its own. We want to know why.
Then there are the dangerously unbalanced (reviews, not reviewers). Three opening paragraphs of introduction and context are fine – they can even be conducive to better understanding – but not if they are followed by one and a half paragraphs of plot summary and a casual value judgment. No, no. Promise me meat, give me meat. Otherwise it’s false advertising; people read book reviews to get a sense not only of what the book is about, but of what the experience of reading it is like. If the review suggests to you that you would enjoy that experience, then you go out and reserve it at the library or borrow it from a friend or buy a copy. That’s how the book world goes round. It is the ultimate accolade to say that a review made you actually, physically, go find a book. I can think of a few circumstances under which a bare plot summary might do that for me (A.S. Byatt’s Possession, for instance), but not many. Books are more than the sums of their parts; a review should acknowledge that.
All of this pales, however, in comparison to the worst tactic of all, which is when anyone states that they “received a proof copy of this book from [insert publisher here] in exchange for an honest review”. First of all, that’s not how that exchange worked. The publicists gave you a copy of the book because they’re publicists, and their actual job is to get the book as much press as possible. Although most publicists are, in my experience, sincerely into the books that they’re marketing, let us not pretend that you had to go up in front of an ethics committee to get a proof copy. Secondly, I kind of assume that you’re going to write an honest review. Reviewers love books; that’s why we write about them. There’s no joy in puffing a book you hated, or (even worse) smearing a book you adored. And before anyone suggests that maybe these disclaimers are ways of asserting that you haven’t been paid for your opinion (unlike, say, Essena O’Neill on Instagram), think again: these are books we’re talking about, not designer swimsuits. Regardless of what you hear about £6 million bidding wars, most books don’t have that kind of money behind them – and those that do are certainly not spending that money on bribing Internet reviewers. What books have behind them is the passionate conviction of their readers. Telling me that you’ve written “an honest review” is sort of like Marco Pierre White telling me that he’s made me “an edible meal”: the correct response to both is I should fucking well hope so.
It should perhaps be noted here that I’m not quite as draconian as these prescriptions might make me seem: if you happen to write reviews and you’ve done one or more of the above, rest assured that I have too. It’s an occupational hazard when you spend hours a day reading and assessing texts. A reviewer is bound to repeat herself, or get tired and prefer explaining the plot to analysing its subtext. And some reviewers set themselves up explicitly as summary-and-recommendation machines, which is brilliant for readers who just want reasonable (spoiler-free) summaries and trustworthy recommendations.
What’s easy to forget, I think, is that reviews have intrinsic value. They’re not just tiny, easily digestible packets of information, crib sheets that you can skim instead of reading the book. They’re ways of understanding a text you’ve already read (I’ve often been enlightened by checking out a review of a book I found difficult); they’re guides to texts you have yet to discover. They’re worth so much more than they’re given credit for. Why bother just rewriting the jacket blurb if you could change someone’s life, instead?