Friday, August 12, 2011

The Role of Critics and Reader-Reviewers

What is the role of the professional critic in the new world of reader-reviewers, wonders Tom Payne in this article, which appeared in The Telegraph last week. I wish he'd answered this question, but sadly this article seems like just another screed by a professional reviewer against bloggers and members of social networking sites devoted to reading (he quotes a GoodReads user at one point). If I may be so bold as to offer my own opinion, I would say that the role of professional reviewers is to offer sophisticated book criticism that takes into account more in the way of context and background and attention to craft than I would expect myself to. I try to write chatty, fun book reviews that tell my readers a little about the book and a little about what I thought of it. I'm no scholar and I don't try to be, but I expect more from the pros.

But what I really want to talk about is what he talks about- the role of bloggers and "reader-reviewers." "Don't write crap" seems to be the minimum expectation- perfectly reasonable.  But so what if we do, once in a while? Payne criticizes a GoodReads user who reviews a book by making a funny statement about how many bus stops the reader missed while reading the book; no, this is not "considered appraisal" but who says every utterance has to be? What is actually wrong with expressing ones' self in an amusing way? Why should the average person commenting on a website be held to the same standards as a professional writing for publication and pay? Certainly this individual is not holding himself up as a professional critic; why should Payne do so?

Another criticism he levels at bloggers is having the audacity to think that they have a right to not like a book. "It’s as if bloggers take authors to task because the books weren’t written just for them," he opines. Well, who are books written for if not for readers? Are we obliged to like everything? Professional reviewers aren't expected to give glowing reviews all the time; does our amateur status mean we must lavish praise on whatever comes our way? Is the fault mine if a book doesn't speak to me? I don't think it is, and I don't think it's the book's fault, either. I've always thought saying "this book is not for me" is a diplomatic way of letting the author off the hook for a book one didn't enjoy. Not every book is right for every reader. I don't think there's any book that's right for every reader, and anyone who tells you differently is, to paraphrase the farm boy Westley, selling something.

I don't go to social media sites, or blogs, for authoritative, scholarly critiques. That's why God gave us The New York Review of Books. I go to social media and blogs to see what my friends are reading and get a bead on their thoughts. A lot of what gets written (and I include myself here, and maybe even this post) is casual, a little silly and a little light. So what? I sincerely doubt that the advent of book-related social media is responsible for creating a plague of inarticulate expressions of opinion or a lack of appreciation of popular books. It's just that we all have these outlets now. The woman who didn't think Bridget Jones' Diary was a good Pride and Prejudice re-write would have thought so whether or not she had a GoodReads account. It's just now she has a podium.

And maybe that's Payne's real problem- that average people have access to widely-distributed media, and that he has to read their tiresome and ill-informed opinions. He says he wants to know what people are thinking about books, but it kind of seems like he doesn't. I think it's a good thing that people who love to read have the opportunity to share their opinions with others. I love the online book community, warts and all, and I think we all have a lot to offer each other. And if you think I'm stupid and don't want to read my LibraryThing reviews or my silly blog, who's making you?

18 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Love this - especially your last sentence. It boggles the mind that some [blog] critics write as if blogs were forced upon readers!

mel u said...

When I read the complaints of professional book reviewers against book bloggers it often seems to come down to that the professional are offended that the amateurs will do for free, often better, what they have always been paid for in the past-everyday there seem to be more and more book blogs

bermudaonion said...

Well, he started out by saying he liked book bloggers until he wrote a book, so I think we have to consider where he's coming from. I like blogs because I get to know the writer and then I know if their taste is similar to mine. A lot of the books professional reviewers heap praise on are over my head.

pagesofjulia said...

Well done. It's kind of like Wikipedia vs. scholarly, peer-reviewed journals: both have their value. The important thing to know is WHICH IS WHICH and WHAT THEY ARE EACH FOR. If I am aware that I'm referencing Wikipedia and I'm aware of how much authority that carries, why may I not reference Wikipedia? (Just not for a scholarly research submission.) And well said at the end: if you don't like my blog, you don't have to read it. Bravo all around.

I haven't gone to read the guy's article yet (though I will - this is my before-I-read-it impression), I wonder if part of his problem isn't the question of job security for "real" reviewers. This could be a valid concern. But just as I think e-book self-publishing doesn't mean the demise of "real" books (nor do e-readers), there might be room for all of us here. It's probably best for all of us, too, if we don't go fighting amongst ourselves.

pagesofjulia said...

After I read it: Agree completely with your take. I think it's okay for reader-reviewers to be casual (and if I decide I don't share their tastes or their tone does not appeal to me, I stop reading their blog(s)). And I think Payne has come down awfully hard on folks who never claimed to be serious, professional journalists for not being serious, professional journalists.

R. J. said...

Good topic and I like your conclusions. Everyone has an opinion and it is worth what we pay for it and sometimes, not even what we pay for it. I like to look at Amazon's publisher comments, then I head to the reader comments. I don't want to read an art form review, I want to know what a reader like me thinks about something. Great for the pros who get paid by the word, but I wouldn't necessarily agree with them. I like to know the thoughts of readers of the genres that I like to read--like in a book club. I don't read too many professional reviews. I like to form my own opinion and maybe compare it to what they think. I probably don't read books that will be reviewed by the professional reviewers, so their jobs are safe. I like popular, entertaining fiction. I read enough dry tomes in college to last a lifetime.

Blodeuedd said...

I would be more likely to buy a book if someone said they missed a stop cos of it than a boring critique even if a really positive one of it buy a NYT reviewer

Sandy Nawrot said...

Very well said Marie! I don't think any of us fancy ourselves a professional reviewer. And frankly, I don't always trust those reviews. They often seem very high-brow and I always wonder if they are so smart, they might appreciate a book that would be completely lost on me. I trust bloggers that I know, because we have similar tastes. At the same time they are fun to read as well. There is a place in the world for everyone. Why must some people get all critical to satisfy their self-esteem issues?

Zibilee said...

I think a lot of Payne's criticisms of bloggers and reviewers stem from some deep seated forms of insecurity about the validity of what he does versus what we do. A lot of professional reviewers are now being pushed aside from bloggers, who frankly, are more the type of people who are buying and reading the books they are reviewing. My blog is not a place for me to be artsy and complex. It's a place for me to tell my readers what did and didn't work for me in a particular book. And it seems that somehow this type of writing is threatening to him somehow. There really is a niche for all of us, and just like I wouldn't belittle a professional reviewer, I don't expect to be belittled about my writing either. This is not the first time I have heard these sentiments expressed, and like you, I agree that if someone doesn't like my style, just stop reading my efforts. It's really not all that hard!

Lisa said...

This is a bit disturbing, I think I can say what I want on my blog that is why I started it and if I liked or disliked a book it is my opinion. I've read good and bad reviews of all the books I've reviewed and that is the way it is...some things aren't my things and my things aren't your things all the time. He can just stuff it if he thinks we are not the people the books are written for. I love to see what others think and what they are reading. What we take the time to read is important and so is our opinion of it...silly is OK. Book blogs have an important place and maybe someday professional reviewers wont be needed. Why pay someone when we all do it for free?

caite said...

if Mr. Payne does not mind me giving my opinion, I thing he sounds like a bit of a stuck-up ass. But it is just my opinion...

As you said, no one is forced to read a blog review or any on Library Thing or Goodreads. But people do, because they find some value there.

Jeanne said...

There is nothing wrong with preferring books that some people might consider "artsy and complex." As Marie points out, what's wrong is when people feel forced to read a particular kind of book--or review--on their own time.

It's about as bad to scoff at high culture and call the reviewers pretentious as it is for them to laugh at middlebrow culture and accuse the reviewers of not being serious and professional enough.

Book blogging really is about choice. There's something for every taste, and increasingly less need to justify our likes and dislikes.

Anna said...

I think he only wants to know what people are thinking about books if they share his thoughts. I'd rather read book blogs because they are recommendations from friends who often have similar tastes. I don't get that from professional reviews. And I think all readers have a right not to like a particular book, blogger or not. Authors can't please everyone and they shouldn't have to or expect to.

Care said...

Poor guy. YOU TELL 'M. I have never nor do I want to be considered 'professional' but I have a right to my opinion. so there. Personally, I love to read reviews that are way more highbrow and educational than I could ever hope to be, but that doesn't mean my take on a book isn't valuable to a convo with a friend.

kinnareads said...

I agree with you completely. It used to anger me the way in which some professional reviewers rip into book bloggers. Now, I'm just amused by their rants. For years, years, they kept to a narrow definition of fiction. Certain types of books, certain types of authors were not covered in their exalted newspaper/magazine space. The net and the rise of book bloggers have broadened the space. We cover all types of books. And that is a very very good thing. It is also very refreshing to read our books reviews. As a bunch, book reviewers are so opinionated and my goodness, that is a very good thing. So, let's rock on folks. We are doing something right.

stacybuckeye said...

LOL! You tell 'em. Just like professional movie reviews, pro book reviews are intersting to me, but not always very indicative of whether I'm going to like something. I go to the the friend next door for that (or at least on the next keyboard).

Aths said...

A book would better appeal to me if someone told me how many bus stops he missed than if I read its dry academic review. I read to learn but I also read to enjoy. I read Payne's article early this week and felt sorry for the dude. None of his arguments stick.

harshadpassion said...

Well said! For me, actually, I'll buy a blogger's review before I'll ever trust one in a newspaper; aside from the fact that bloggers cover a wider variety of literature. They just feel... more honest and real somehow. Like, getting a recommendation from a friend. I think what some critics forget is that reviewing anything is *all* opinion, and we *all* have one. No, we aren't all going to enjoy the same things, or have the same voice. So what? I have yet to see one newspaper review of a book I care about. I go to the bloggers for that, and am happy to see they exist.