Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is Amazon Killing the Critic?

Edgar Allan Poe
The Guardian (London) website includes an interesting take on the mini-scandal that was formally exposed in the New York Times this week.  Perhaps the best thing resulting from the Times piece is that the unethical jackass responsible for pasting thousands of fake reviews (for which he was paid a small fortune) on Amazon - along with his equally unethical little helpers - appears to be out of business.  For the moment.  I hope he hasn't just come up with a plan to take his shady business underground for the duration of the chatter about him.

From The Guardian:
For as long as book reviews have been published, writers have argued that book reviewing itself is in a state of crisis – a pointless exercise, a waste of time. In 1846 Edgar Allan Poe called reviews nothing but a"tissue of flatteries".
Today, the crisis takes a different form: the challenge of the web; the decline of the critic – you know the deal. More narrowly, there's Amazon, and its anonymous, unmarshalled reviews. There have been numerous flare-ups about these – the self-reviewing, the hate-reviewing, the downright-unreadable-reviewing, and so on. The latest unholy behaviour to come to light is of authors paying for positive reviews. 
The unsavoury Amazon stuff notwithstanding, no one is about to write off the whole business of reader-reviews. They are, in any case, unstoppable, and the sheer weight of numbers suggests that only a tiny fraction of them can be corrupted. Undeniably, they represent the latest stimulating chapter in the rather agonised history of book reviewing (read Orwell on the subject, and Edmund Wilson, and Cyril Connolly, and James Wood …) The ones most to be trusted, however, are perhaps more likely to be found on smaller, more specialised sites than Amazon – Goodreads and Librarything, for example...
But it also seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review. Reviews in, say, newspaper books sections (I'm biased) are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books: a necessary accompaniment to (also important) articles in the same sections that simply showcase books, or report interviews with authors: these can all too easily become elegant exercises in PR. 
(I encourage you to click over to the original article for much more.  While there, follow the links embedded in the article for a reminder of how authors have felt about book reviews over the centuries.)

I agree with the newspaper that both types of book review play an important (and, hopefully, influential) role in modern day bookselling.  The link between the increasing number of online reviews and the dwindling number of print reviews cannot be denied.  More and more, readers seem to rely on peer opinion more than they do on the opinions of professional reviewers.  This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is understandable.  Let's face it.  The average reader is more interested in reading what his peer group is reading than in what a professional reviewer tells him he should be reading.  I read a lot - a whole lot - and I still sometimes get the feeling that professional critics are reviewing for each other, not for the rest of us.

More books are being reviewed today then ever before and those reviews cover a wider variety of books than in the past.  Major newspapers and magazines tend to review much the same list of books, the "important" ones written by respected, or highly commercial, authors.  Everyone else is on their own.  Online review sites, while not immune to the same kind of overlapping, certainly cover a wider range of books, authors, and genres than is being covered by their print cousins.  Small publisher books are being discovered every hour by readers who would have never heard of them if it were not for the online reviews.  Books and authors that would have never found an audience are managing to find readers - and amateur reviewers are happy to play a role in spreading the word about them.

There is plenty of room for all of us.

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