“…It may be that some great masterpiece that deserves immortality has fallen still-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.” –W. Somerset Maugham
When Amazon introduced its “peer review” (customer comment) section in 1995, they may not have anticipated how it (and they) would change the way books are consumed. They may not have realized that some writers, like Adam Mansbach (Author, Go the F^$% to Sleep) have taken off because of positive reviews, while countless others (the “still-borns”) have failed because their work (which may or may not have been good) did not meet the requisite “star rating”.
I’m not trying to say reviews are revolutionary; the reality is quite the opposite, actually. Reviews are nothing new. However, their influence has recently become something much more impactful then a single well-read critic could ever hope to garner. The “viral” nature of all things available on the internet has effected books much in the same way it has movies, music, video clips, networking, and the lot…that is: it’s completely altered the playing field.
When Lev Grossman, author and literary critic for TIME Magazine, wrote last week about the changes in his own critical theory, he brought to light the unspoken and uncomfortable reality facing us as readers:
“…Before the Internet opinions about books were a relatively scarce commodity in our culture, and they came from a relatively small group of sources. We didn’t have access to hot and cold running book reviews twenty-four seven, and therefore we weren’t exposed to millions and millions of passionately held, diametrically opposed opinions about books. The wild diversity of readerly responses was not all up in your grill all the time. You went to school, and somebody told you that The Great Gatsby was a masterpiece, and if you didn’t like it, well, something was wrong with you, not it.”
Grossman’s perspective, which is much closer to correct than any one opinion on any singular piece of literature, gives rise to an entire field of questions without providing any sort of sound starting point (which is for the best). Grossman’s whole premise is, in summary, that the individual experience of reading will lend itself to an invariably singular judgment (whether good or bad), and that the opinion you arrive at is entirely valid, despite the [varying] opinions of “other readers”. In the end, Grossman simply calls for an articulate and well-conceived discussion about why we don’t like books, so that we may begin to establish a standard off literary merit.
In and of itself, Grossman’s argument is compelling. What’s more compelling, however, is the response Grossman received (and gladly shared) from Regina Small, who is an assistant literary editor at America, as well as a writer for AWL.
That response, which is articulate in addition to being well thought out, echoes Grossman’s point and further expands it to include a discussion about when certain books are read (and by whom), as well as the impracticality of changing the way we (as reviewers) present our opinions of books. On her blog, she states “It is impossible for criticism of a particular work to exist in a vacuum, to exist apart from your opinions and my opinions.” And of course, the ironic beauty of this argument is that in responding to Grossman’s article, Small is engaging in exactly the sort of open-ended and “illuminating” response she is talking about. And as she continues, Small reminds us that reviews are
“…more accurately an articulation of an overwhelming need for confirmation that our thoughts are reflective of a world that actually exists. The intersection of literature and philosophy…So maybe rather than fear the grey void of aesthetic relativism, we should…keep talking… — and if there is any way to transcend the crippling fear that you are but a tiny, isolated transient bit of consciousness, the first step might be the weird decision to accept that…you are a tiny, isolated transient bit of consciousness, who needs to hear the plaintive one-star cries of all those people who might be/definitely are/definitely aren’t wrong.”
At first glance, it seems like a lot to sink your teeth into. In summation, Grossman thinks we should re-think the way we review. Small thinks we should instead embrace the chaos and the current critical climate. But what do the rest of us think? And are we really even being heard?
In all honesty, that is just as important a question as any we might ask when it comes to book reviews. According to Helen Coster of Forbes, who wrote a 2006 article on Amazon book reviewer for hire Donald Mitchell, some Amazon reviewers, like Mitchell, are paid to write reviews. Mitchell, who had (at the time) earned over $20,000 for his book review time has been extremely influential, and in her article, Coster acknowledged the significance of a positive review on Amazon, stating “Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times can elevate an obscure debut novelist to a best seller, but Amazon provides the shortest path between a good review and an actual sale: The two are just a click away.” And in all honesty, Mitchell is a fair reviewer. According to her article, his prose resonate with readers, and lead to favorable results, yet he is unbiased even when paid.
But should we be so naïve to assume that all paid-for-hire reviewers are so altruistic? Just last week, David Streitfeld, of the New York Times revealed that some companies were exchanging discounts and free merchandise for favorable reviews. Does this sound shocking? And is it a far stretch to consider that such practices have found their way to Amazon’s book section, which is possibly the most make-or-break department at the online retail giant?
Whether or not you believe in the merits of Amazon’s review system, or agree with the opinions of 29,000 people on Goodreads who disliked The Great Gatsby, the simple fact is that literary criticism is changing. With new tools like online publishing, and trends leading to increased literacy, it serves to reason that in the coming years, the lines will only continue to blur; the field will become more muddled.
When that happens – when we can no longer discern what is worthwhile from the reviews and opinions of strangers – what will we do? Will we return to the esteemed literary critics, who pretend to know a version of “quality” literature (although they themselves seem unclear on a definition of it)? Or are we past those questions, and have we arrived at greater ones?
This entire debate hinges on the assumption that there is value in talking about literature – that our emotions and expectations as they pertain to books are something real, and thus permanent. However, should we consider the alternative: that because the ultimate love or hate for a book comes from its resonance (or lack thereof) with a particular reader, that reviews are worthless to all but the reviewer, and that each of us must ultimately stumble upon books based on chance?
The daunting task of blind navigation in the galaxy of literature (past, present, and future) might turn you off. But not knowing what to think, or foregoing subjectivity in favor of intuition is nothing new.
Intuition, after all, is the only standard of measurement with which we can discern beauty. Speaking to this idea, W. Somerset Maugham, who was a “middlebrow” novelist circa 1930, wrote in his semi-autobiographical Cakes & Ale:
Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all. That is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome.
And his point is still well taken. Criticism cannot account for all of us because our identity is continually being re-shaped by the literature we consume (and for the first time, the ways in which we consume it). And to that point, the task of navigating literature – of discerning quality – falls squarely on our shoulders. Whether or not reviews serve as honest representations of the books they discuss, and irrespective to the dialogue any comment can create, we must read.
No one can be certain when they will browse over that one line that might change the entire way they consider a particular subject, and it is in search of that magic that we continue to defend, or condemn books. We long for the magic of stories, which hold us together, and are the collective life-blood that flow throughout history, connecting us in primal ways that even facebook and twitter could not understand. And so, we take chances on the books that might one day re-shape us on a molecular level, even if we are the only ones who would rate them five stars.
Follow Mike Vidafar on Twitter @mikevidafar