One of the spin-offs of the online media revolution and the advent of social media is that nowadays everyone with an Internet connection can publish an opinion. If you buy a book, or indeed anything online, you can write a review of it for all to see. Amazon positively encourages you to do this, prompting you with emails to either rate the supplier or to say what you thought about the product. For book reviews there’s also Goodreads, and Goodreads isn’t limited to traditionally published works either. My own books have found their way onto Goodreads’ website too, and I didn’t put them there myself, honestly.
Fortunately most reviews of my work are positive. One critic did complain that the Lavender and the Rose was turgid and went on too long, but others have been more appreciative. It depends what you’re expecting of course, whether you felt misled by the blurb – thought you were getting a fast paced thriller and ended up with a two hundred thousand word meditation on the mystical path. I’d be disappointed too. To all my positive reviewers, and especially my six Goodreads fans, I say thank you very much. To my negative reviewers I reply that I humbly respect your opinions, and regret that I was unable to engage your interest. I’d also like to remind you, ever so politely, that you didn’t pay for that book.
But is this sort of thing any use?
“I taught dis buk was rubish” is not untypical of the type of review one might find on Amazon or Goodreads. But would such trite social media-speak discourage me from reading a book? Not necessarily; it would depend on the other reviews of course – but if it was the only review? Hmm. Tricky.
I have reviewed books myself on Goodreads. It can be a useful exercise in distilling the essence of something one has just read – or at least what one has taken away from the experience. It also keeps you writing. But I find myself reviewing only those books I enjoyed, while drawing a veil of silence over the ones I did not. Your stereotypical proper book critic – bow-tie, tweed jacket and donnish air – would not be so selective, and would waste no time in lambasting any author they felt had fallen short of the mark. This is no bad thing, for where would any of us be without that stern English teacher red-penning our misdemeanours?
But I am no stern teacher; I would never say I thought a book was rubbish, because that would be to set myself up as an authority on literary taste and discernment, which would be immodest, and probably also untrue. I have no more idea than the next person what is worthy of that most prized accolade: A Good Book. I have read revered works and they have left me nonplussed. I have read works that have garnered controversy, and wondered what the fuss was about. I have read works by writers no one has ever heard of, and been blown away. We all know what we like and can say what we enjoyed about a particular work, what we took from it, but to be critical? For myself, I would not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Does that make me a poor reviewer? I suppose it does.
But online reviews are not like the professional reviews that appear in the literary supplements. Professional reviews are more dictatorial. They are a select voice, one with the potential to influence a wide audience by virtue of its coverage in the national press. Of course a well educated, erudite reviewer can give us valuable insights into a book’s strengths and weaknesses. They can also give us insights into an author’s background and any underlying agendas that might be relevant in colouring the way the book has been written or presented. But without knowing the reviewer’s agenda too, the potential buyer is still vulnerable to bias, also to the ever effective devil of the publicist’s well honed blurb.
The online review is more of a democratic vote. We each add our voice, and it’s understood that no single voice should be taken as being definitive. The reader scans the babble of opinion, and makes an assessment: does it seem mostly positive or mostly negative? Of course, the critics of such democratic criticism would point out the obvious risk of fake reviews. It’s easy to set up an on-line I.D. complete with false avatar and post the most glowing review of one’s own work, also to post the most withering review of the work of someone you dislike. But truth is rarely to be found in the extremes – more often in the average – and I think a wise buyer will bear this in mind. There is much wisdom in crowds, but wisdom too, in circumspection, when dealing with them.
In searching out an enjoyable book, the opinions of one’s peers are always useful, but in the end you never really know until you read it yourself. Indeed you might just be missing out on the read of a lifetime because someone told you, unimaginatively, they thought that book was rubbish.