How to Keep Book Reviews Relevant

It doesn't take a genius to look at the current state of affairs and see that book reviews are transforming. Newspaper book sections are not-so-slowly disappearing, but a wealth of book bloggers are popping up on a daily basis, offering their own niche community thoughts on any given title. But in the face of this transformation, how can we - all of us, I mean - keep book reviews relevant?

A Huffington Post article yesterday asked this question of 18 major American critics and reviewers: "How can book reviewing be relevant to the new generation of readers?"

The answers vary greatly, from lamenting the decline of reviews written by authors themselves to praising new technology and efforts to move book reviews to new devices. Some thoughts that stood out to me, and why:

" should be at least as gracefully written as what they describe." - Steven G. Kellman
Does anyone else find that when writing a review, your voice changes depending on what you are reviewing? This was never a conscious effort for me before, but I think Kellman makes an excellent point - our reviews must mirror what we are reviewing. No highfalutin praise for Patterson; no sparse, phrase-like sentences for Marquez; no flowery, descriptive language for Hemingway. Right?

The real question is whether Internet reviewing will be insightful and well written, though one might also ask whether Internet reviews can command an audience large enough to prove significant for authors and publishers. The Internet is commodious but for that very reason tends to collapse into fiefdoms." - Kelly Cherry
As one who writes for the Internet, perhaps I am biased on this point, but I don't doubt for a second that Internet reviewing can - and will - be insightful and well-written. But as for the second part of the question, regarding audience, I'm not so sure. I have over 100 followers on this blog, but do you all read each word I write and take it to heart? If I recommend a book, do you rush out and buy it? Do you value my opinion the way you would a NYTimes reviewer's?

Don't worry, I won't be offended when you answer "no" to all of those questions. But am I an accurate representation of the potential of the internet? Probably not. Blogs like The Book Lady's Blog have more followers than this little bookworm can dream of, and podcasts like Books on the Nightstand have audience participation at an all-time high. But even with my meager following, I like to think that because we form a kind of community around each blog we follow, these "fiefdoms" have more influence than one might guess at first glance.

First is voice. No matter what the platform--print, online, podcast, video--an engaging, witty, passionate, knowledgeable and distinctive voice is crucial. This may be why there is such a rage for the hybrid personal essay/criticism form." -Jane Ciabattari
I couldn't have said it better myself. And I think that is why these "fiefdoms" of book blogs do have such potential - we are, in effect, embodying that hybrid personal essay/criticism form. You'd be hard-pressed to find a book blogger who reviews a book without using the word "I," after all.

"How easy it is for a reviewer to just say some observant things about a work and leave it at that, and how hard to take the next step, which is to discuss it with reference to the culture." -Sven Birkerts
As much as I love the personal essay/criticism form discussed by Jane Ciabattari, I think that this important reference to culture, tradition and continuity is where it is most prone to fall short. I struggle to find the right words to relate a book to both current times and future needs when writing a review; far from mastering this approach, I believe I am just beginning to even understand the need for it. But I'm glad to see it included in thoughts on how to keep review relevant, because the reviews that most turn me off when reading them are those that say "I really liked this book because it was funny," and leave it at that.

What about you? What tenets do you hold dear when writing (or reading) reviews? Did any of the other HuffPost entries stand out?


  1. Great post. I stopped the longest on the Cherry quote and I agree with your points. I think internet reviews can and are well-written. Just because the medium is online isn't what hurts the writing. A writer will sound the same on paper or online.

    However I see her point with fiefdoms. My hundred followers and your hundred followers do not come close to the NYTimes readership. That being said I wonder if she took into consideration a fiefdom working together to influence what is being read. Maybe my one blog won't do it, but if I recommend a book that several of my followers pick up and write about, and they're followers read, etc that can make a big difference.

  2. Great post - I do think that reviews are important whether written by an author, a journalist or indeed us bloggers!

  3. This is a great post. I particularly like the first quote. I think the "tone" of my posts depend on the book I'm talking about. I'm off to read the Huffington Post article now. :)

  4. great post. i used to make my buying decisions mostly on what the nytimes was reviewing, so it's interesting to see how my own reading/buying habits have changed since moving abroad and what that says about, i don't know, book reviews and the internet and cutting newspaper reviews and what this will all mean. i'm pretty picky on who i'll take reading advice from, but i'm finding that the longer i'm out of touch from american newspapers, the more i look to blogs for review recommendations. and those "fiefdoms," while small, often do a better job of guiding me to books i'm interested in than a major newspaper can. it took a while, but i've found the bloggers who are reading the sorts of books i'm interested in reading, and whose opinion i value. it's in many ways a more personal relationship than you can get out of a newspaper review...after reading someone's blog for a few months i may not know him or her beyond a few scattered comments, but i have a sense of how our reading tastes line up.

    so i wonder, for bookish people who are maybe five+ years younger than me and grew up even more with the internet than i did, or who didn't grow up with the newspaper on the kitchen table every morning, how this will look in the future. people who haven't grown up reading newspapers aren't going to turn to them for book reviews (especially given the reduced space such reviews are getting); it seems natural they'll seek out their own kind, reading-wise, on blogs and sites like goodreads. maybe no one blogger will have a huge amount of influence, but as red wrote, things can spread across blogs pretty quickly.

    this comment has been (oh gosh) way longer than i intended it to be - but these are some pretty interesting questions & good commentary on your part, and i'm curious to see what others think on this.

    -- ellen

  5. I've kind of written about this already, on my own blog, what I think reviews should be like, or contain.

    But as to whether or not the Internet can command a significant enough presence: would publishers mail out so many books to book bloggers if we weren't all that effective? I think we drive sales quite a bit, as does Twitter, for instance.

    I don't think it's about Internet presence as much as how and what we write. The Internet is becoming or is people's choice these days. The quality, then, is what makes us effective. And that quality needs to be consistently excellent. So I don't necessarily think we have to mirror style or content of books we're reviewing: I think rather that we need a consistent voice, consistently respecting the works we're reading.

  6. When I look for a book review I am almost always drawn to those that are brief and concise. I want to know how it made the reviewer feel: was it relevant, interesting, entertaining, what? That is so much more important to me (in deciding whether or not to buy and read a certain book) than hashing out plot points, say, or discussing characters and their development. Really in-depth reviews are better left for the academic community. The book-buying public like myself, though, appreciate the one or two paragraph Did-you-like-it-and-why kind of review. This is where blogs come in handy.

  7. Red - Yeah, I struggled with the concept that writing is inherently not as good simply because it is done on the internet. For the fiefdoms, I guess I was thinking that because the groups are smaller, they are more self-selecting and/or hand-picked, and therefore the influence might be greater despite the smaller numbers. I like your concept that it is repetition from one fiefdom to another that creates this influence, too.

    YA Books - I agree, but then, that's probably obvious by the mere existence of this blog! :-)

    Darlyn - Hope you enjoy the article! I think it is true that the voice changes depending on book being reviewed, and I think it is fitting.

  8. Ellen - Great points, all around. I'm not sure of the ages, exactly, but I know that by the time I based my reading selections on anything but the covers and what was available in the YA section and/or my dad's shelves, I was not reading the newspaper. I don't know exactly where I got my next reading picks, but I ultimately discovered this little blogosphere and that was that. It took me a while, too, to find bloggers whose tastes aligned with mine, but now that I have, I find that I get more picks from these blogs than any newspaper.

    I think you've said more eloquently than I what I was trying to explain in my last comment: because the fiefdoms cater to a smaller audience, and that audience is more selective in which fiefdoms they follow, the numbers might be smaller but the influence has more potential to grow.

    Steph - I see your point, but did you see the article the other day about the role that ARCs play in the publicity process?

    Though ARCs are, and have been, an important part of marketing new titles, some publishers (rightly so, it seems) are questioning their efficacy. That's not to say, of course, that the initial idea behind sending them to bloggers isn't a valid one; bloggers must have some klout to even have attracted publicity attention in the first place.

    And I love your point about respecting the books we're reading. Even those we don't love, or even like, deserve respect - book reviews are not for shameless bashing for the sake of controversy or clicks.

  9. Trish - It's funny, I am too, and yet I can't seem to write a review that isn't at least 4 paragraphs long myself. I do try to do a recap in my "Bottom Line," though. One of my goals, in considering all of these suggestions about relevant reviews, is to try to pare down the length without losing the content. Think I can do it?

  10. I'm like Trish in the way I read reviews (also why I now prefer blogs to most in-print reviews). Short and well-written. I love when bloggers use a rating system. However, I don't employ one myself, and it feels a little like sometimes I should. When I'm running low on time, I often scan just for those ratings in my Google Reader instead of reading the whole post, and save reviews that I want to read later.

    It makes me wonder if people are skipping my reviews entirely because I don't employ a rating system.

  11. Rachel - I like concise reviews (though as I've said, I have a hard time writing them myself), but not rating systems. It's too difficult for me to know what 3/5 stars means. Is it compared to other books like it? By the same author? In the same genre? It seems too subjective to me.

    Also, I don't skip your reviews, though sometimes I do skim reviews (usually first and last ppgh) and do the save-to-read-later.

  12. I love Kellman's quote - that, to me, though often impossible, is the goal to strive for when reviewing. What I look for in a review is that it's well-written, concise and thought-provoking - not just "I liked the book because it was good." Thanks for collecting those quotes - loved reading them!

  13. Greg - It's the hard part, but I think he's right that it is also the most relevant. Glad you enjoyed the quotes!

  14. K: I didn't see that article, no! Thanks for the link. I'll check it out when I'm done here. It's true that publishers are cutting down on a lot of stuff, even their sales rep visits, and it wouldn't surprise me if arcs were drastically cut too. But sending them out to booksellers and bloggers makes the book more convincing, I think, than if you send them only to other published authors or papers or whatever to endorse.

    In any case, they may cost money but they can't be doing any harm otherwise!

  15. Trish: I'm the opposite! As a bookbuyer, I prefer to see more in-depth reviews because I'm particular about where my money and time go. But also I find the more critical reviews helpful as a bookseller. Reading is subjective and I'd prefer to read more than just opinion; I'd like to have some facts and criticism in there as well. I don't think you have to be academic to appreciate those kinds of reviews.

  16. This is a great post. I didn't see the original article, so thanks for drawing it to our attention. I'm honestly more likely to buy a book based on the recommendation of a blogger than from a major publication. I feel like I get to "know" bloggers more personally and can determine more easily whether or not they typically have the same taste I do, as opposed to the big name reviewers.

  17. Kerry, this is why I'm a loyal reader of your blog. I find that I read a few blogs very regularly, and there are reviewers whose taste I trust so much that I'm off to the bookstore (or Nook) with a few well-chosen words. In bloggers/reviewers I look for a distinctive voice, and taste that is close to my own. I will also try a new genre or writer on the word of a trusted book blogger.

  18. Steph - Hope you enjoyed the article! As cliche as it sounds, I thought it was a really thought-provoking piece.

    Julie - Thanks, and glad you enjoyed the article. Your description gets to the heart of these "fiefdoms," I'd say, in touching on the personal aspect of book bloggers' reviews.

    Lisa - I'd say the same back to you. When I find a blogger (like you!) whose tastes align with my own, I'm willing to try something I never would have thought of otherwise on his/her recommendation.

  19. I have to admit that I don't think about it. I am not professionally reviewing books, or even pretending to, so I just write whatever I want to, however I want.


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