In his 1946 essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” George Orwell outlined the changes he’d make to the standard, 600-word format of the book review. He wrote that the best practice “would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews—1,000 words is a bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter.” […]
If Orwell was displeased by the number of mediocre books reviewed in print in 1946, then the customer reviews and ratings on Amazon and other bookseller websites would have made him dyspeptic. The idea, of course, is that every book is reviewed, regardless of quality, and that “the people” get to have their say. In theory, customer reviews are quick, easy, egalitarian, and make the “consumer” (as opposed to the reader) feel in control of his or her reading choices. But there’s a difference between a recommendation and a review. Customer reviews are heavy on opinion and light on insight. They’re reactionary. Fiction customer reviews typically contain “I-loved-it” or “I-hated-it” declarations based on an affinity for or dislike of the characters and discuss them as if they were real people. Customer reviews rarely include plot summaries—even dull ones. They tend to consider books in terms of whether or not they were worth the money and need not pertain to the book at all. One Amazon reviewer gave F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a single star because the Kindle edition cost more than the hardcover. Another panned Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Man because the paperback she received had coffee stains on it.
But there are also signs of hope from pioneers like Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian behind “Book Lust.” Pearl tends to recommend rather than review but does so with the expertise that only a librarian or someone who works in an independent bookstore has. (She was also the inspiration for the first librarian action figure.) Like Pearl, Jessa Crispin of Bookslut.comrecommends rather than reviews but where Pearl is earnest Crispin is irreverent and sometimes vulgar. She’s a savvy, hipster reviewer whose site is a haphazard array of literary gossip, sound bites, and reviews. Goodreads is a social network for book reviews, but it’s modeled on a book-club model rather than a journalistic one. For now, Goodreads is basically Facebook with books, but if enough contributors set the bar high with creative, funny, and smart reviews it might become a force of its own. These recommenders offer a vision for Orwell’s hope that there be short reviews of less-worthy titles.
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