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.

Malcolm