The Accidental Reviewer | Karen Kao

My life as a book reviewer started when I joined Goodreads. I’d been told it would be good for me as an author to connect with my potential readers. If you’re a Goodreads Author (a self-identified category), you can fill your profile with photos and videos, author events and, of course, what you thought of the last book you read or wanted to read or just wanted to comment on.

As a Goodreads reviewer, my first task was to assign stars to the books I had read. I decided to limit myself to the books I had read in 2016. All the same, I agonized over the difference between 3 stars and 4. Would the author hate me? Would the author even notice?

Hold on, you say. Since when is handing out stars the same thing as writing a book review? I’m glad you asked.

Age of Reviews

Egyptian wrestlers
Egyptian burial chamber. Image source: Wikipedia

Everyone’s a critic. So it stands to reason that literary criticism has been around since man first set awl to stone. Book reviews, on the other hand, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Scottish author Andrew O’Hagen – novelist, essayist, and book reviewer – coined the phrase Age of Reviews to demarcate the period starting with Samuel Johnson’s death in 1784. From that point forward, literary types could choose not to write books but rather to write about them.

The arrival of the book reviewer was not generally applauded. Edgar Allen Poe (in 1846), Dorothy Parker (1928), and Elizabeth Hardwick (1959) all railed against the tyranny of the book review. Last month, Christian Lorentzen referred to it as the shit sandwich.
In reviews of a novel or a work of narrative non-­fiction a dreary formula persists: prolix yet cursory summary topped with a smattering of more or less irrelevant biographical information yielding to polite and generic adjectives of praise (compelling, engrossing, charming) before a dip into enthusiasm-­draining caveats placed into the penultimate paragraph to prove that the critic is, you know, a critic, and at last a kind conclusion to make sure we’re all still friends and no one’s time has been entirely wasted.
Christian Lorentzen, “[Criticism] Like This or Die” in Harper’s Magazine, Apr 2019 (retrieved 10 Apr 2019)

Invasion of the Book Bloggers

Lorentzen was describing the good old days when newspapers still printed book reviews, say, 20 years ago. Since then, we’ve witnessed the book blogger emerging from the fecund ecosystem called social media. For a minimal cash outlay, you too can become a blogger and thus free to write about whatever pleases you. The way the cream curdled in your milk this morning. The great debate of whether or not to change out of your pajamas. The contents of your refrigerator. Hell, you could even be a book reviewer like me.

Book reviewer first time
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris.
Image source: Goodreads

I posted my first 1000 word book review in January 2017. Since then, I’ve written almost 100 posts for the book review section of my website: Book by Book. This might seem like a clever marketing strategy but (a) it’s a lot of work and (b) who reads my book reviews?

What I should be doing is strategically liking and following people in the book industry who might be useful some day: authors, agents, and publicists. Instead, I’ve moved onto Instagram where I can post pretty pictures of the book I’ve just read.

If quantity is all it takes to call myself a professional book reviewer, then my work is done. I suspect however that there’s more to it than that.

For one, someone other than myself has to want to publish my reviews. Thankfully, there are a few of those, i.e. Bookish Asia and the best bookstore in Amsterdam, Boekhandel van Rossum. But then there’s the matter of payment, which I now take in kind. Yes, it’s true. I’ll work for books.

The Machine Age

It’s tempting to blame bloggers for the demise of the book review. Why should a newspaper hire a full-time reviewer when you can find reviews online and often for free? Why even bother to read a review at all when you can rely on an algorithm to tell you exactly what you’re going to like based on all your past choices?

If your life is a blur and you have no time for disappointments, you can’t afford to take a chance. An algorithm can ensure that you will never have to be confronted by an idea that you can’t recognize as your own.

Book reviewer

I want a book that will turn my world upside down. It could be a character whose life is utterly foreign to me or set in a world I’ve never imagined. A set of railroad tracks running underground the American South. A man made out of body parts, each one bent on revenge. Doors that allow refugees to slip across borders.

I’m interested in books and how they’re made. Some books are in conversation with other books. Translated works open doors to new linguistical terrains like calling a bicycle an iron horse. Occasionally I have some personal connection with the author through a reading, a master class or a writing group.

But when a book is bad, as they sometimes are, the writer in me wants to know why. That, to my mind, is the job of a reviewer. To analyze, to contextualize but, above all, to keep alive the conversation about books. The book review may be a clumsy vehicle for doing that, but so far, we’ve come up with no better way of talking about new books.

So I’ll hold on to this accidental role as reviewer to keep my end of the conversation going. Will you keep up yours?

Note: This post was first published on my blog Shanghai Noir.


Amazon reviews are often more like spoilers than reviews. It's interesting where 'reviews' have gone since we can 'all' write what we like about books we read isn't it. The star rating,I can't help feeling, lowers the whole idea of reviews, and brings it down to 'I LIKE/LOVE' this book or 'I HATE this book, it's RuBBISH'. Sadly that'so often personal taste rather than the writer thoughtfully considering the quality of the book objectively, and being useful to others who are wondering whether to read/buy a copy. Nonetheless, I write reviews (on my website). I write the ones I'd like to read, trying to raise the questions I'd like to ask the write and have answered by the w riter or other readers. (They don't of course).

Yes, book reviews have changed...
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for a very interesting piece Karen about a subject I have not really thought about. As an avid reader of poetry and novels I read lots of reviews, usually in Guardian Review which I find quite reliable. I occasionally like to give reviewers' opinions on a novel my students are looking at with me as it stimulates debate. They don't always like the novel we have chosen and sometimes the review helps distance it. Recently we had some disagreement over Norwegian Wood by Murakami and I wrote my own selective review in order to defend him. I'd better stop before this carries me away! Thanks again.

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