The subject of reviews has become a hot topic lately, so I thought as a reviewer myself, it behooves me to comment on my own experiences and perspective.
As of late, I’ve found myself at odds with the term “literary critic.” To critique one’s work is often confused with the expectation of harsh condemnation rather than of constructive examination of literary value. I’m not saying reviews should follow the too soft “everyone gets a trophy” trend. Now THAT would truly be a crime. But I do believe harshness should be left at the editing/proofreading/publisher rejection stage rather than a public forum after the fact. If something bad gets past these stages, well… I simply make a stand by refusing to write a review. It would serve no purpose.
Reviewers should not be responsible to tell you what you should or should not read, nor is it up to a reviewer to point out every good or bad element of a particular work. A reviewer is more like a highlighter, flagging elements their readers appreciate and expect along with the surprises they don’t. There is an ugly thin line between opinion and observation, and the value of the review is solely determined by the reviewer’s audience. I target those readers looking for insight on value and appreciate the actual art of literature rather than just the adventure itself. A good story can be hard to find and I’ll acknowledge one if I see it. But finding a good writer can be even harder. Reviewers might help build audiences. But I believe good authors are what build and maintain the fan base.
The availability of opinions has never been as abundant as it is today with the growth of review dependent sites like Amazon.com. The opinionated reviews by fellow consumers make it much easier for shoppers to search and compare potential purchases. But frantic authors often depend on these evaluations to boost rankings and sales. And though everyone has an opinion and a right to express it, these results can be skewed by those rankings. When mixing literary valued reviews with emotional prejudiced views of idealistic fans, commerce focused forums like Amazon can drastically impact reader perception of reviewers in general.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the occasional blast from fandom against an author or movie. The volatile compassion and honesty fans bring can often escalate emotion exponentially and disgorge some pretty clever commentaries. But no matter how entertaining, sometimes these remarks go too far to the point of abusive and in the end serve absolutely no purpose. Any and all criticism should be constructive instead of combative.
With the global reach through the interwebs, the resources available for informative critiques are endless, and most reviewers have their own style and agenda. Some have an obligation to particular authors or publishers while others are genre loyal. Right or wrong, these deals are evident in every kind of commerce. Within these established forums, reviews are and always will be skewed by the relationships between reviewers and reviewees. That’s how they stay in business.
There is no denying that I often lean toward specific genre or target certain authors and publishers when looking for perspective review subjects. This has a lot more to do with past experience of receiving quality work from these resources rather than any allegiance with them. This does not mean I won’t review something new (though I have turned down review work due to poor quality, subject matter or just personal workload). After all, some of the best finds come from new sources.
Yes, I am another one of those wannabe writers who hopefully someday will turn to reviewers in desperate search of their approval. But my goal in writing reviews today is two-fold. First, I enjoy reading. And the more I read, the more I polish my craft through example. This does not mean everything I read is a literary masterpiece worthy of praise. Learning by example also means learning by mistakes, be it my own or by others. Seeing what works and what doesn’t work is best proven by example. Second, I write reviews because I want to share my passion for words. Reviews give me a passionate forum to write about words I read.
In essence, today’s book reviews are far different from what they were over a quarter century ago because of availability. You can find a plethora of opinions on almost anything via the internet. Unfortunately, the odds of finding a view to match your own are just as vast. Reviewers can’t make everybody happy, and readers shouldn’t expect a reviewer to hold their hand in their search for good literature. The only thing opinions and reviews have in common is their innate quality to be interpreted. By sticking to literary value, a reviewer can remain separated from the work and leave the opinions to the reader. After all, the work being reviewed should be the subject of interest, not the reviewer. It is at this juncture where we find that ugly thin line once again.
Face it. Readers are apt to gain the most from reviews. Writers are the ones who can gain from opinions. Both serve a purpose, and it is up to the individual to decide what they are looking for. My suggestion for readers is to find a reviewer who shares your passion and point of view towards literature and stick with them. Odds are pretty good you’ll be happy with your shared library. Just like in a marriage, you may not always agree, but the trust you build over the years is rare and hard to replace. The search may take a while, but the benefits in the end will be priceless.