Critic/Critique v. Reader/Review

~first posted 20 Jan 13

We are readers, and we all have opinions. There are books that we love so much that we must tell everyone about them. I remember loving a book so much I actually watched my wife reading it–I wanted to see her expression as she read. She made me stop after the first thirty seconds. (N.B.: I am not referring to that rather bleak time in our marriage when I had my wife read my first novel.) There are other books that disappoint us or genuinely irritate us as readers. There are those books that earn my ultimate and most cutting criticism: I couldn’t finish it. It is impossible to be a serious reader without having serious opinions about what we read.Minolta DSC

In the world of books, we are taught that not everyone’s opinion is equal. There are professional critics, individuals whose opinions are better than ours. For instance, I enjoy reading the NY Times book section every week. I enjoy it, despite the fact that frequently I don’t really understand what the critic is talking about, often to the point where I can’t even tell if he liked the book he’s reviewing. Always, however, the reviewer has some special knowledge or insight that he brings to bear in evaluating the book, some personal relationship with the material or deeply meaningful literary reference. It’s always something way beyond us ordinary mortals, and I always feel that I’m learning something important. What I don’t learn from these reviews, however, is what I want to read next.

When I buy a book based upon its prominence on the first page of the NYT book section or a particularly glowing review, I’d say I end up being happy with the book about one time in twenty. And that’s when I understood the review and thought the reviewer was a making a good (understandable) case for reading the book. They loved it, I hated it. We just don’t think alike.

Something different happens when a reader reviews a book. When my wife, or one of my children, or a coworker, tells me about a book, they are telling me their opinion of the book as something worth reading for the same reason that I read books: Is it entertaining? This is almost never the criterion that critics use to evaluate the worth of the book, but is the one judgement that is all important. Sometimes another reader will tell me about a book that he thinks is important, or meaningful in some way–but it is always well written and entertaining, or else he wouldn’t have read it and he wouldn’t be recommending that I read it. It is that level of opinion that leads me to my next great book.

Not all reader reviews are equal, of course. Great books get reviews such as the one in my last satirical blog post, which makes good authors crazy. Readers are more inclined to read the one star review than any of the five star reviews, no matter how many more of the five star reviews there may be. Maybe the guy has a really big family or something. (Plural marriages are a known method for writers to get lots of positive reviews. Amazon is currently cracking down severely on this practice.) These reviews are no less meaningful, however. A well written reader review tells us as much about the reviewer as it does the book; if the reviewer sounds like a whack-job, or admits to never having read the book, or admits to being a fan of Fifty Shades, I know that the reviewer and I differ in what we consider good. On the other hand, if I read a review on Goodreads by a fellow reader that has a bookshelf full of books that I like as well, I value that opinion, and I just might buy that book.

It is that level of opinion, the reader review, that will hopefully one day become the new gatekeeper to a book’s success. We are not there yet. Currently, the best and most important new fiction can simply disappear without a sound, because the gatekeeper authorities–the publishing houses, the major professional critics, the big book awards, all the major media outlets that tell us about the next great read–still are told what is worthy by a literary industrial complex which has existed for half a century. Perhaps not for too much longer, however. Keep reading, and tell people what you think.  Write reviews.  It’s the next great thing in publishing.

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