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Monday, August 30, 2010

Monday Discussion: What is the Purpose of a Book Review?

As I posted here last week, there is a "movement" led by Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult to question who and what gets reviewed in the major newspaper book section. The discussion has also been made into a comic book. It is worth your time clicking here to see it.

The argument has manifested itself in response to the crazy Franzen over-coverage, but as Jennifer Weiner clarified on her blog this weekend
This isn’t about Franzen, or FREEDOM. I haven’t read the book, so I've got nothing to say about it (yet), and as for the author, he’s managed to keep his mouth shut – so far – about whether he’s conflicted, as he was in ’01, about ending up with a vast, middlebrow and female readership, so at present, I got no quarrel with him or with his book. My quarrel is with the coverage. As I said on Twitter, if was Jonathan Safran Foer on the cover of Time, I’d have gone with #schadensafranfoer. I work with what they give me
Jennifer goes on to say the main reason she started this discussion is to discuss what reviews are available to readers in the newspaper these days:
Instead of asking which books and which authors deserve the Times' coverage, maybe we should think about what kind of book review section readers deserve.

There are critics who seem to feel that reviews are there to cover literature and literature only, no matter how few people read the books they cover. There are writers who think that because commercial books find their audience without the benefit of being reviewed, it's okay for big papers to ignore those books.

So what should a book review do? Should it be a mirror, reflecting back popular tastes? Is it a stern uncle waving a scolding finger, dragging us away from Harry Potter by the ear and insisting that we read Philip Roth instead, or a nanny telling us we have to eat our spinach before we're allowed dessert? Is it possible to be some combination?

I think book reviews are there to start a lively conversation, to get readers excited about books, to get the right book into the right reader’s hands (or to steer readers away from something they wouldn’t like).

A great book review section should have something for every reader, whether it’s the fourteen-year-old who stood in line for MOCKINGJAY, the Oprah-watching housewife who can’t wait to get her hands on FREEDOM, the guy (yes, they’re out there) who loved Jodi Picoult’s THE TENTH CIRCLE, and the guy who picked up Steig Larsson after not reading a novel since college and needs to know where to go next.

A great book review section should have something for the new mom who loves Elizabeth Berg and Susan Isaacs and Sophie Kinsella, and my mom, who reads J.M. Coetzee and Amos Oz and David Ebershoff. It should speak to my friend who loves Margot Livesy and my friend who reads Chelsea Handler.

Disdaining romance while reviewing mysteries and thrillers; speaking about quote-unquote chick lit from a position of monumental ignorance while heaping praise on men who write about relationships and romance; maintaining the sexist double standard that puts Mary Gaitskill and Caitlin Macy in the Style section and puts Charles Bock or Jonathan Safran Foer in the magazine…all of these are symptoms of a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.

Better book review policies would mean more recognition and, ultimately, more readers for all kinds of writers – highbrow, commercial, young adult, thrillers, mysteries, romance.
So for discussion today, what do you use reviews for? How could they be better?

I can tell you this is a big issue for my patrons. When the Chicago Tribune switched their book section from a pull out section in the Sunday paper, to part of the arts coverage on Saturdays my patrons were upset. Then they went further and made the section smaller with full content only available online. My poor book club ladies do not have computers and are very upset that they have lost access to what used to be a respectable book review section.

With The New York Times Book Review being the only real book section left in newspapers, I think the editors should take Weiner's advice and add some more genre round-ups and just a general overall mix of titles.

Her comments got me thinking about how I use reviews. As one of the fiction buyers for the BPL, I use book reviews to not only decide if I should buy a book for our collection, but also to get an idea of which readers will like it. I frequently go back and look at reviews when helping patrons to find their next good read. I also use reviews collectively to help me identify trends in both what is being written and what is being read. Taken collectively, reviews provide me with a snap shot of what people are reading right now. If these reviews are only of literary fiction (of which I am a huge fan personally), I will not have a full picture of the fiction landscape.

As a reader, I look at reviews across all genres, but to get a broad representation, I need to use websites that specialize in a particular genre. I also am forced to sometimes resort to reader reviews from Amazon or Shelfari to find out about a book that is popular, but received no official print reviews.

I use reviews to find books by authors that are new to me, to identify a book in a genre I read less frequently that may be promising, and to find a hidden treasure. While I have to read Booklist and Library Journal for work, I usually put many a book on hold for myself because the review was so inviting.

So, let me know how you use reviews. Are they still important to you as a librarian and/or a reader? How do you feel about the level of coverage in American newspapers, both in the amount of reviews and in the range of books reviewed? Do you find yourself using reader generated reviews more than the print ones now that there are fewer print review sources? Tell me all about it.

And please feel free to follow past Monday Discussions here.

1 comment:

John BPL RA said...

There are so many issues raised by this that I don't think I could cover them all on a blog. We live in a culture that views literature as a business. Publishers produce books for profit rather than out of a belief in any sort of "art". As long as this is the case, there won't be much difference between the function of a book review and the function of, say, an automobile review or a review of a washer or dryer. Books have been cheapened by corporate interest in a way that other art forms have not. A possible exception is film, but books are far more prolific. Rather than getting angry over a specific book or review or newspaper, perhaps a better course of action is to make an honest assessment of 21st century consumer culture and the place of literature within it. As far as the question "What do you use book reviews for?" I think reviews are a great way to help readers find the right book for them. I also feel that reviews are a great way to help people find the right washer/dryer.