What do you expect from a book review?

A recent article in The Guardian, YA novel readers clash with publishing establishment, focuses on a recent book review flame war that raged across GoodReads and Twitter about reader reviews and author and agent responses. In the court of public opinion—which can be both a slippery slope and a bumpy ride—authors, publishers and agents risk a great deal by responding directly to negative reviews that have been published by readers on blogs, Amazon, GoodReads and other sites.

Regardless of subject matter, the consensus across the Internet seems to be that all opinions are equal. In one sense, this is true. Under our guarantees of freedom of speech and press, each of us has the right to say what we think about anything. When it comes down to basics, we all matter.

The confusion—and book reviewing is not the only place where this happens—is that when we say all opinions are equal, we then lose the distinction between the viewpoints of professionals and nonprofessionals. When you go to a doctor and get his opinion about your health, you expect his or her viewpoint to have more credibility than the mechanic at the local auto dealership. Same goes for almost any field we can name: except reviewing (as the term is used on GoodReads and Amazon).

Suddenly, many people are maintaining that anyone can say what they want about a book and label it a review, and then equate his or her best-intentioned assessment of a a book with that of a professional book reviewer who knows the genre, the subject matter, and the writing profession.

When my friends tell me they think I’ll like a certain book, they do that because they know the kinds of books I read and the subjects I care about. This counts for a lot. When they make such suggestions, the last thing I worry about is whether they’re an English professor or an expert in the themes and subjects in the novel. But, when it comes to a real review, I expect credentials and facts as well as opinions.

Opinions vs. Reviews

One of the hardest things to get across in an introductory journalism class is the best-practices standard that newspaper and magazine editorials are not only supposed to have verifiable facts in them, but are expected (by readers) to have been written by somebody with the credentials for offering an opinion in a publication.

If I get along with my auto mechanic and if we have similar views, I’ll probably enjoy hearing his impressions about the latest political debates or a book about one of the candidates. While some people claim friends talking to friends are an example of “preaching to the choir,” most of us value sharing our views with those we interact with day to day.

When something is put into writing and called an “editorial,” we expect (or traditionally have expected) something more. Basically, we expect an informed opinion. Perhaps it comes from a veteran journalist whose opinion is based on having covered hundreds of stories; or perhaps it comes from a long-time political analyst, corporate president, or teacher who has studied the field for years. His or her credentials, when coupled with verifiable facts in the editorial or editorial column, give weight to their opinions or analyses.

Book Revews are Journalism

Traditionally, book, movie, theater and other reviews have been considered journalism. As such, they are expected to meet the same standards as any other newspaper, magazine or broadcast media opinion piece. Some of the uproar behind the article in The Telegraph comes from the fact that the Internet now gives all of us a means of publication whether it’s a book we uploaded via Lulu or CreateSpace, a blog such as mine, or a review posted on Amazon or GoodReads. Those expressing their opinions about books have a right, I believe, to say their opinions matter.

I question whether those opinions should really be called reviews. Perhaps we need another terminology here that somehow distinguishes between the honest-to-goodness “man of the street” opinion about a book and the opinion written by somebody with many years of reviewing, journalistic training, or experience and education in the field the book is about. Perhaps Amazon, GoodReads and other sites should stop calling reader opinions “reviews.” While they are valid within the scope of the sites’ invitations to “speak our piece” about a book, a fair number of these “reviews” aren’t real reviews.

Perhaps we should call them Reader Commentaries or Reader Responses or Reader Dialogues. This way, we honor the readers and their opinions without discounting the work of professional reviewers whose work is supported by credentials, long-time experience with the book’s genre or subject matter, and a broad-based knowledge of the art/science/business of writing and publishing.

Most of Us Appreciate Reader Reviews

As a reader and a writer, I appreciate the reader opinions I find on Amazon, GoodReads and blogs. Talking about books on line is a good thing: it shows me that people are reading and that what they read has an impact on them. I do wish some of those opinions could be stated with a bit more care. It’s one thing to tell your best friend in private that author XYZ doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground. It’s another thing to pick up a book you thought was a page turner, discover it’s literary fiction, and then go on a rant about it because it wasn’t (and wasn’t intended to be) your cup of tea. That’s not a review.

When the opinion is called “a review,” authors as well as readers should be getting something better than either a mean-spirited tantrum or a gushy splash of unwarranted praise.



13 thoughts on “What do you expect from a book review?

  1. Smoky Zeidel

    I agree wholeheartedly with all you say here, Malcolm. I dread the day one of my books gets caught up in a reader opinion slanderous rant on Amazon or Goodreads. Yet, it’s bound to happen to all of us at some point. Like writing books themselves, some people think that because they can construct a sentence, they can write a book–or a review. It just simply isn’t so. (Spoken as one trained journalist to another who has been reviewing books professionally–as in paid for doing so by magazines and newspapers–for many years.)

    1. Thank you, Smoky. That article caught my attention because it focused on an undercurrent of grumbles and gripes about reviews that either sound like they were all written by the author’s friends or were uploaded by his or her worst enemies who didn’t even read the book. It’s hard to get this whole thing under control without sounding parental or elitist on one hand or advocating the abolition of standards on the other.


      1. Smoky Zeidel

        I don’t think you sound parental or elitist. You’re telling a truth–a truth a lot of these book bashers and book “lovers” don’t want to hear. One of our near and dear at VHP has been a victim of one of these bashers, and I just hate it. And yet,I feel awkward even talking about this, with your “Stop Censorship” flag at the side of the reply box. 😎 It’s hard to be against censorship, yet also against these reviews, too. It’s like saying you can’t tolerate people who are intolerant, you know? 😎

        1. My little flag, of course, has to do with the threat of SOPA, so no worries about disliking those who are uploading nasty reviews. That flag will go away on or after the 24th. I’m glad this post didn’t come across as anti-review. Perhaps it’s anti-public-tantrum.


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  3. mary hazlett

    Malcolm, what a great essay! I am retired from a large public library (i have a bachelor’s in English, but was not a “librarian), and know that librarians order books based on Amazon.com reviews. When sources like Publisher’s Weekly review (and they ARE reviews!), librarians do go to Amazon to see what the average reader thinks. This assists the purchase process, especially since library budgets have been severely cut. I personally have never really thought whether the book “reviews” were reviews or opinions. I look at them, and decide whether i want to read them or purchase them. I then go to the library website to see if that library owns the book. If the book is a new author, i read it from the library. Otherwise, i check the cost — just like librarians, i guess! And if the book is an e-book, i’m more inclined now to purchase it. (an exception to purchasing e-book format is poetry. Somehow poetry seems best read in hard-copy, although i do have some poetry on my NOOK).

    1. Thanks, Mary. Libraries have to be careful since money is tight and they don’t want the books everyone’s asking for to be the ones they decided not to put on the shelves. Publishers Weekly, Booklist and newspapers such as the LA Times and NY Times are good sources for me.


  4. C. LaVielle

    Excellent distinction.
    I’ve read thousands of books in my lifetime, written two, and consider myself to be fairly intelligent. But since I’m not a journalist, English major, or educator, I would never consider anything I wrote about anyone’s work to be anything other than an informed opinion.
    When I read something called a “review”, I expect it to have some professional weight behind it.

    1. I also want to have some weight behind the reviews I read. If a person’s not a journalist, they can still take care with their reviews, basing them on their familiarity with, say, the genre.

      Thanks for your visit!


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