Once upon a time, in a pre-Internet galaxy far, far away, I used to buy a lot of books. The process went something like this: read a few reviews in magazines or newspapers, maybe get a recommendation from a friend, or sometimes—and stick with me on this one—just pick something interesting looking from the bookstore shelves without even reading a review! This method proved pretty effective, overall—a typical run resulted in a few lousy books, a few astonishingly great ones, and many more that landed somewhere in-between. A diverse crap shoot—you know, a lot like life in general.
Then one day those bookstores started disappearing and the Amazonian conqueror took over the land—now I could not only buy nearly any book I desired from the comfort of my recliner, but I could read dozens, sometimes even hundreds of reviews without any extra effort—a reader’s paradise all in one place!
But then came the not-so-happily-ever-after ending to the reader’s fairy tale: ever so slowly, before I even realized it was happening, I stopped buying books. I would head over to Amazon with a new title, and before hitting the purchase button, I would naturally scan the reviews. The positive ones tended to say much the same things, so I often found myself jumping straight to the negative ones. And although they sometimes tipped me off to a truly avoid-this element, more often than not the cascade of conflicting perspectives left me feeling so ambivalent about the book that I’d decide it wasn’t worth taking a chance with my hard-earned money.
Time went by and I caught up on stacks of unread New Yorkers, but one day I woke up starving for a novel—a good one, a bad one, a somewhere in-between one--I didn’t care. So I went and bought a book. Without reading any of the Amazon reviews. And then I bought more books, and have been buying them ever since. This method has proven pretty effective, overall—a few lousy books, a few astonishingly great ones, and many more somewhere in-between. A diverse crap shoot—you know, a lot like life in general.
Simple enough for me as a reader, but as an author, such review-rejection is a little trickier. I don’t know many writers who can resist the siren song of reading his or her own reviews, and in many ways, the increased interaction between artist and audience that the Internet allows is a powerful new avenue for learning and growth. And yet I can’t help but wonder at the consequences, particularly for artists, of this strange new world in which everyone can (and often does) comment upon and rate everything, all the time (and then comment upon the comments…). The best case outcome of this increased feedback is that it provides the artists with more pathways forward on that never-ending, obstacle-filled journey of improvement; the neutral outcome (and the one I suspect is most often the case) is that, like so much else about online “networking,” a lot of people end up conversing with themselves in a virtual wind tunnel; but the worst case scenario, which is not too hard to imagine if one has been paying attention to the careers of certain writers, artists and musicians these days, is a crippling cacophony of never-ending voices drowning out the most essential, vital part of this whole process: the artist’s own voice whispering to his or her soul in the solitude. Flawed and struggling though it may be, if that voice gets lost in the din, an Internet full of readers and reviewers and critics and editors cannot rescue it.
Another curious aspect of the reader review phenomenon is the tendency (of which I myself have been guilty) for authors to conflate such feedback with professional reviews from industry publications. (Recently, a fellow author even suggested that I should be concerned about the enthusiastic Amazon reviews for my novel Verland: The Transformation because potential readers might think that I had somehow manufactured or manipulated them; although possessing such Svengali-like mind control over my readers would certainly come in handy, I’m going to give most people the benefit of the doubt in being neither paranoid nor absurd enough to travel down that route.) But consider that in a simpler time, a writer’s reviews came primarily from newspapers or magazines; everything else was regarded not as a “review,” but a “response”—a fan letter (or a hate letter); an “I loved/hated” your book at a signing or store appearance; a letter to an editor, perhaps—and I often think that it might be a happier, healthier (and more realistic) perspective to regard feedback on sites like Amazon and Goodreads as just that: often highly personal, individual reader responses—and yes, as potentially insightful/infuriating/enlightening/exasperating/worthwhile as reader responses have always been—but in no way replacing or replicating the objectivity and purpose of a professional review.
I’m off to buy a new book now; you’ll forgive me, I hope, for skipping the reviews.