Monday, December 07, 2009

Problems With Book Reviews

Salon is getting ready to resurrect a feature I don't remember, What to Read. "Every Monday, I'll present a book selected from an assortment of related new titles, tell you why I found this book exceptional and, when warranted, explain why others didn't make the cut. What to Read will regularly recommend a book we think you'll really love."

The columnist, Laura Miller, is being totally upfront that this feature will not be a traditional book review. It sounds as if it's going to be more like a blog recommendation. I, of course, am most interested in reading about the books that "didn't make the cut."

In the Salon article announcing the coming of What to Read, Miller discusses some problems with traditional book reviews that go beyond the fact that they don't generate advertising revenue and are thus being dropped from newspapers. Two of them:

1. The assignment process (editors doling out books to reviewers) can't guarantee that the reviewer will find a book "noteworthy," and thus many reviews don't make for great reading. A reviewer who is a fan of an author's earlier work may be biased regarding a lesser work under review. Reviewers who are also authors may pull their punches.

2. Readers usually know nothing about reviewers' tastes and how they shape their judgments. (My own example--reviewers who don't read widely in children's literature raving about an adult writer's first foray into the field because they aren't aware that the book under review isn't ground breaking because they have so little knowledge of the "ground.")

Presumably What to Read will avoid the first problem by publishing recommendations ("what to read") instead of regular reviews, which could go either way. A recommendation suggests the person doing the recommending does, indeed, find the book noteworthy for some reason or another. It will avoid the second problem because, after a while, readers will learn Miller's tastes and biases and judge her recommendations accordingly. (Though I suspect regular readers of her book writing for Salon have picked up on that already. I only read her reviews if the book interests me, so I have limited knowledge of her work.)



Post a Comment

<< Home