On Saturday afternoon I slipped and slid along a snowy Leith Walk to a debate in McDonald Street library about the merits of print reviews versus online reviews. The event was called Blogs Rule! although I’m not sure that that was the conclusion of the discussion.
The crux of Kelly’s argument was that a newspaper reviewer has “authority”. He said when people question his authority to write book reviews he tells them that he has read a book a day since he was twelve. This means he has a weight of literary knowledge behind him. He said there were two major differences between print and online reviews:
- Choice of book – a blogger can choose which books they want to read and review but a print reviewer cannot. He tells his reviewers which books they are to review and has to make sure he gets a balance between books in different genres, books written by male and female writers, debut novels and books written by established authors.
- Editing – in newspapers each review is read by several different people (various editors). The opinion that you read in a newspaper review has been sense checked and fact checked. It has authority.
He is deeply opposed to Amazon book reviews, pointing out that there is nothing to stop people who are biased for or against the book in question from posting a review. He has noticed that reviewers on amazon often write that they could not finish a book. In Kelly’s opinion, if you do not finish reading a book then you forfeit your right to review it.
Rosy Barnes argued that Amazon reviews are useful because you can see a range of opinions and you can get a sense of what the book is like and whether or not you would enjoy it. A newspaper review gives only one opinion. She said that bloggers may be better placed to write a review than a paid professional if they are an expert amateur in a specific genre, for example, sci-fi or fantasy fiction. She also pointed out that people could search online easily for reviews of books they are interested in.
Stuart Kelly added that if you were searching online for a book review, you would be more likely to read one published by a respected newspaper than on a blog because you would trust the opinion of the newspaper reviewer more.
The conclusion, after an occasionally heated debate, was that there is a place for both.
I personally disagreed with Stuart Kelly’s argument. I think that if you have read a book, you are qualified to write about it. I don’t think it matters if you have not read a book a day for decades. Who are books written for, anyway? Are they written for people with a weight of literary knowledge behind them or are they written for someone who enjoys reading? And if they are written for someone who enjoys reading, surely the opinion of a fellow reader is just as valuable as the opinion of a professional reviewer.
I also think that if you are browsing Amazon reviews and you see that a lot of people have started a book and been unable to finish it, that says something about the book. Someone who has not finished reading a book should not be put off posting a review on Amazon, as long as they make clear that they have not read the whole book and comment on why they stopped reading. Amazon reviews do not pretend to be anything more than one reader’s opinion and as such, I think they make a valuable contribution to the discussion of a book.
The real question here is what is the definition of a book review? Stuart Kelly said that books are about “cerebral enjoyment as much as emotional enjoyment and a good review should take both of these into consideration.” There are certain things to be expected of a book review: a summary of the plot, comparison with other books by the same author or books in the same field and quotes which give a sense of the author’s style. The review must also, according to Kelly, “measure up what the book achieves with what it set out to achieve.” While there are plenty of websites that publish this kind of structured review, there are also many that offer something else: discussion or commentary or opinion pieces on books. These articles complement rather than compete with ‘standard’ reviews.
I think any attention paid to books in newspapers or on the web is a good thing and I enjoy reading about books in print and online.
Do you have a preference for either print or online reviews?