One of the things that happens these days with ‘book reviews’ of the Amazon variety is the intrusion of personal opinion as a way of judging the book.
You know ‘I liked it, so I’ll give it five stars’. Or ‘it didn’t appeal to me, so I’ll give it one star’.
The point being that there’s a difference between personally liking something, and the abstract quality of the work. Somebody else might like something you dislike and vice-versa.
That also intrudes into the professional ‘essay-style’ reviews of the traditional world – on my own experience, typically at the hands of academics who view the work they’re reviewing as an intrusion into territory – either by subject, or by an interpretation of a subject – that they use to validate their personal self-worth. It’s a bit scary. The professional analysis of an abstract topic by a stranger becomes a personal invalidation attack on them that has to be ruthlessly avenged in kind.
I’m certainly familiar with it in my little corner of the writing world. There are academics and intellectuals who I know in New Zealand solely on the basis of the profound malice they have shown me as a result of books I have written in their particular fields or ideologies. From my perspective this conduct is unprovoked and at the hands of total strangers. None of those doing it have ever had the personal integrity and moral courage to approach me for a civil discussion. Not one. Although they quite happily take the full-time university salaries and grants that I am paying them through my taxes, while their conduct is to the detriment of the commercial income I am trying to earn on merit (so I can pay them through those taxes).
There are words for this kind of behaviour, however those doing it might try to intellectualise their conduct. And it seems to be endemic to the academy – certainly in New Zealand.
But quite often books are properly assessed by reviewers, in abstract fashion, for their merits and their likely appeal to interested readers. As just one example, I got to write a review essay for a national magazine a little while ago, for a book which tackled its subject very differently from the way I’d have done it, were I writing the same thing. But of itself the approach the author took had great merit, and there was no doubting the huge labour that had gone into producing it. To me that was something to be admired, not run down because it differed from my approach. What the author had done in all respects, and by any measure, was really, really impressive.
That is the point. The real question reviewers have to ask is whether the author made a good job in terms of what they were doing. And the question that then has to be asked is what will the reader get out of it? Remembering, of course, that everybody has different tastes – and somebody will, quite certainly, thrive on what they have read even if the reviewer doesn’t. That needs to be recognised. I kind of hope that more ‘reviews’ (comments, really) on Amazon and other sites follow that approach.
And meanwhile, if you want to check out – and review – one of my books, here’s Fantastic Pasts – a wild comedy adventure in alternate New Zealand history. It’s free to Amazon Prime customers in 2016.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016