It’s the age of the Amazon/Yelp/Google/etc. review. Should everyone get a voice when it comes to criticism? Is it still criticism? Is it even reviewing at this point? I’m just glad there’s another literary genre going through the sort of soul searching we poets have had forced upon us since the rise of Instagram “poetry”.
Book reviewing is a form of journalism. More than a report on publishing industry news, book reviews situate literature in the here and now, and make it accessible to the public. People often focus on the commercial nature of book publishing: do people use reviews to buy books? How can reviews compete with algorithms that make recommendations based on your browsing history? They don’t have to do that.
Then there’s the idea that reviews are esoteric, long-winded, irrelevant essays. They don’t have to be. Reviews have an opportunity to explain how books connect to the world around us.
All this said, let me spin a tale of the joys of populism for you: I used to review for the Globe and Mail, back when it had a proper books section and was still a national newspaper (it doesn’t deliver to large parts of the country now, including much of the east coast), and I remember a turning point in my reviewing came when my father, who doesn’t really understand the whole ‘poetry’ thing (remember, this is a guy who mostly reads The Sun), would read my reviews because he counted newspaper publishing as “real writing” (an even more impressive publication was when I’d do a “Word Power” game in the back of Reader’s Digest….). One day he said to me, “I read your article in the Globe and Mail on the weekend…” and when I asked if he enjoyed it he said, “Yeah… I stopped reading when I came to the word ‘intertextuality’… I didn’t really know what it meant, so I just stopped reading.” It was a wake-up moment for me. Who was I writing reviews for? Other people like me? The Globe’s style guide said to write to a grade 11 level. So who was reading this stuff? I’d assumed mostly other writers. But if, just IF, there were others like my dad coming across, was I doing them a disservice by having my writing speak to others with specialized vocab and education? Was I doing the books I reviewed a disservice via the same? So, I separated the ideas of Review and Criticism in my head. Criticism furthers the literary conversation and advances our understanding of a work via close analysis. Review helps someone decide whether or not they want to spend $20 on a book of poems. So, now I write reviews like one might write a music capsule review: if you like Poet X, and Poet Q, you will like the work of Poet G. And the first trickles of fan mail I ever received for a review came after I started doing it that way. Bizarre. People don’t want to be talked down to.