Blogs Rule!

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.

Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday and books blogger fought the corner for print reviews. Rosy Barnes, novelist and co-founder of Vulpes Libris presented the case for online reviews.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

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9 thoughts on “Blogs Rule!

  1. I think there is a place for both, i would agree that print reviews carry more authority but they’re more likely to be written with the attitude ‘I’m an experienced reviewer and I’m going to tell you what you should think about this book’ and more likely to subscribe to mainstream accepted views of literature. Online reviews are valuable because they give real people’s views about the books, and I find that more interesting and often more of a guide to whether I want to read the book. I sometimes think that the reviewers who are paid to write for newspapers etc are just scared that the surge in online reviews is going to do them out of a job

  2. I am a big fan of Amazon reviews. I think that print or blog reviews are fine but you are limited to the view of one person and you may know little or nothing about their tastes. With Amazon reviews, you usually benefit from there being several views and it’s not usually terribly difficult to filter out the slightly mad ones. Quite often Amazon reviewers will include little gems of information about a title which will inform my decision, for example, examples of errors in history books that would make me doubt the author’s research.

    I don’t rely on reviews to make book choices though. I am always interested in them but because I know there are 1 star reviews of books I love, I know not to be too swayed by them. Amazon’s Kindle is a bit of a revolution here. You can download a sample of a book before you buy it. Samples differ in length title to title but you usually get enough to make an informed decision.

  3. I think both print and Amazon reviews are flawed because they are so susceptible to bias. I prick my ears up in the bookshops – get much better reviews there from regular people who read widely – like me – without the hype or snobbery.

  4. That’s an interesting thought, Crafty Green Poet. It hadn’t occurred to me that print reviewers would be concerned about competition from online reviewers but that might be the case.

    Hi Gillian. Yes, the opportunity to see several differing views of the same book side by side on Amazon is definitely an advantage. It’s great that Amazon reviews have drawn your attention to factual inaccuracies in books. Only an expert in the field of the book would be able to point out those inaccuracies and if it weren’t for Amazon reviews, they might not have a forum in which to do that.

    Rachel, that’s maybe why book groups have become so popular. I read book reviews because they are quite entertaining in themselves but when it comes to actually getting recommendations you can’t beat the advice of other readers.

  5. Pingback: Blame the weather. Err, and me. « Vulpes Libris

  6. I think plot summaries should not be a staple of book reviews- there is a risk of spoiling things for the reader. Sometimes it is better to read an introduction when you have finished a book. Of course, a book review must mention the contents of the book but I think a good review, wherever it is, places a book in some kind of context, evaluates how well the author did what they seemed to have set out to do and reflects on its philosophical/ideological implications/ literary impact- just going over the plot seems a bit of a futile exercise to me.
    I agree with Crafty Green Poet that different kinds of reviews have diverse strengths and where the review is situated for me is not that crucial.

  7. I agree with what you say in the above comment. I read on-line reviews for the reason that they are easily accessible to me, and I like hearing what other readers have to say more than what professionals have to say. What do I usually go by? word of mouth.

  8. Hi John, while I agree that just going over the plot is a futile exercise, I do think that a plot summary is an important part of a review. Without it, how would you know if this is the kind of book you would like to read? Of course, the reviewer has to be extremely careful not to spoil any plot twists.

    Hi Jennifer, yes, word of mouth influences me the most when it comes to buying books. You’re good at spreading the word about books that you like on your blog. I haven’t forgotten about Wildlives. It’s on my to-read list 🙂

  9. Pingback: Blogs Rule! Some musings on last week’s event featuring Vulpes Libris « Vulpes Libris

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