I review books, and have a few hundred posted in the public domain. Of late, I have resorted to writing reviews only of the books I like and politely turn away many that I don’t, author notwithstanding. Why? Because reviews sell books, I’m told. But what I have experienced is that while good reviews do not necessarily sell books, a bad review by a respected reviewer can stop a book in its tracks. And I do not want to hurt anyone’s career, unless they are established writers now resorting to writing junk and riding on their fame, and who are in dire need of a wake-up call.
It is important to understand the reviewer’s background and agenda before submitting a book for review. We all have limited experiences, and our backgrounds colour our views on the world and how we respond to literature. Different reviewers from different backgrounds and with different levels and types of education may review the same book differently.
Why do we write reviews? Like me, to remember what we have read so we can refer back to our review in conversation? To enter the literary debate and provoke discussion? To make a name for ourselves, particularly in this social media universe where we have to publish frequently in order to stay relevant? To take a power trip and destroy writers that have made it through sheer luck and influence while our own literary ambitions have languished due to a different combination of luck and influence? To have followers and admirers who pick their books based on our comments? For money, even though there isn’t much there anymore? To extend the maxim of, “those who cannot do, teach” – thus, “those who cannot create, criticize”? Perhaps it’s due to a combination of all the above.
Once a book is in the public domain, a raft of vested interests descend upon it: publicists who gather supporters to write nothing but glowing reviews; sycophantic fans of a popular writer who cannot say anything bad and can quickly flood a Goodreads or Amazon posting with plaudits, making a critical review look out of place; the vengeful reviewer, who says nasty things with no means of backing it up but who serves to create doubt in the minds of neutral readers looking for a good read. Some authors even create alter-ego reviewers to review their books and post the most spellbinding reviews of their own work –- it has a neutralizing effect on all those bad reviewers and may place an invisible “cease and desist” order on them.
A book is an argument between a writer and a reader that the latter can never hope to win. And a review is the opposite; the writer cannot win, especially when faced with a negative review. I have often believed that it is better to have one’s book read widely than to have it reviewed widely, for the wider you cast the review net, the easier it is to catch one of those reviewer types I have described above. And yet, the current trend is to gather as many reviews as possible because the number of reviews seems to correlate with the number of books sold. And while that wisdom may hold true in some cases, quantity does not always reflect quality.
Despite the cautions listed above, the book review remains a clear example of a reader’s total engagement with a book, and if done right, can be a source of encouragement, feedback, and sanction to the author and to other readers.