Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The book review is slowly dying, and we don’t need to mourn it

A few months ago, as part of my scheme of deAmazonization, I deleted my Goodreads profile and with it some 38 book reviews (the preservation of which had been my main reason for not deleting the account much earlier). It was all the easier to do this because I’ve come to think of reviews as a particularly impoverished form of book discussion. There are some professional reviewers — Laura Miller on Slate, Constance Grady on Vox and Rabeea Saleem in a variety of publications including, on occasion, The Irish Times — whose work I find valuable, but in general I think there’s a much more interesting conversation to be had about books than can be found within the traditional limits of the review.

The three reviewers I mentioned above are professionals. We’ve also seen in recent years the rise of the pro-am, such as Larry H., a regular on Goodreads who also posts his reviews on his blog. I used to read his reviews avidly and they’re responsible for some discoveries that I’m very glad to have made. These days I find myself skipping them (partly because he’s developed a taste which I don’t share for YA fiction) and I think it won’t be long before I remove his feed from my RSS reader.

As for me, I seem to have gradually abandoned the review, almost without noticing. I did at one point intend to move some of the more substantial of my Goodreads reviews (which I had previously crossposted to Google+ of blessed memory) to my own site but that project soon lost impetus. In the meantime, I’ve posted a handful of essays which are aimed at people who have already read the books in question. These discussions make no attempt to avoid “spoilers” (a term I find inaccurate, since it implies a malicious intent to impair the reader’s enjoyment).

I’ve long felt that many reviews, professional as well as amateur, go to such extreme lengths to avoid “spoilers” that it makes them useless as reviews. A favourite example of mine is the Clint Eastwood film, Million Dollar Baby, which I’d never have bothered to watch if it hadn’t first been “spoiled” for me. I had been under the impression it as the kind of film I just wasn’t interested in watching. I believe that this happens increasingly often: the reviews and marketing material for a book or film are presenting an utterly misleading impression of what the work is about. As guides to what you should read or watch, they’re effectively useless.

I was reminded of all this recently when I read a review of Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep, which includes the following passage:

Something happens early on — watch for the clues — and, it might be a cliche to say it, but I could feel my jaw actually dropping.
It is for this reason that I’m going to say nothing further at all about this book! I came to it knowing nothing except that I knew it would be wonderful — which it certainly is — and so I had the considerable joy of discovering all of its secrets for myself. And so I’d urge you not to read any reviews (except this one, of course).

This is obviously well intentioned but it completely fails to perform the function of a review, which is to help the reader to decide whether the book in question is something she should read. It’s a good example of a phenomenon I’ve been observing for some time: the obsession with avoiding spoilers is inhibiting the online discussion of books (and films), to the point where the internet has come to seem like a repository of generic, contentless expressions of enthusiasm or its opposite.

I hope we’re going to see a shift away from reviews towards a more critical and enlightening online discussion of books and films. Sites like Amazon and Goodreads have presided over the devaluation the user review (and not just for books). And I haven’t even touched on the problem of consumer “reviews” which have been bought and paid for. It’s time to let the book review expire peacefully in its sleep.

Posted by Art, 28-Sep-2019.