Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reviewing the Reviews

Book reviews have received a lot of attention lately, largely been because newspapers are dropping them faster than a banker can endorse a bonus check. Various web sites are picking up the slack. Most online booksellers post reader reviews, which may be of dubious merit. Some are written by the writer’s friends; others may be written by competitors with an ax to grind before placing it directly between the author’s shoulder blades.

Other sites dedicated to the review and discussion of books and writing. Some are strictly amateur affairs, and show it. Some are the work of dedicated volunteers whose quality of product is hardly amateurish. Still others are professional operations deserving the respect previously accorded only to the traditional print media.

As the primordial ooze of Twenty-First Century book criticism sorts itself out, another, often ignored question comes to mind: what is a book review? Based on what I’ve read, some are little more than plot synopses, with a brief coda to say, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t bother.” Others are more like book reports, summarizing the story, discussing a theme or two, and maybe concluding with a recommendation.

Another category discusses the writing, and its various strengths and weaknesses. These can also be a mixed bag. Some are little more than opinion pieces without example or justification, telling more about the reviewer than about the book. Others cite examples to back up their opinions, though even those who strive to be objective are prone to cherry-pick only citations that support their opinions.

Authors, readers, and reviewers all read this blog. What do you look for in a review? What are the primary reasons for having book reviews at all? If we can stipulate all reviews should pass the Twenty-Five Dollar test (Is this book worth $25?), should the reader expect more than a synopsis and recommendation?

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