Before she started studying book reviews, Phillipa Chong once worked to procure them. Chong interned at a Canadian publishing house during college, and quickly learned that book reviews were everything. “There was a sense that if you didn’t get a book review, your title was going to die on the vine,” she told me.
By the time she finished her doctoral studies in 2014, the landscape for book reviews had changed. Just as Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp did for film and restaurant criticism, Amazon and Goodreads democratized who could review books. “Suddenly, the debate was about whether we needed critics at all,” Chong says. “It was such a stark difference from my experience with critics during my internship. I wanted to figure out how those two storylines fit together.”
Now an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Ontario, Chong researches how fiction book reviews come to fruition, trying to solve the puzzle of why some books get reviewed and why so many more are ignored. Her new book, Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times makes the case for the persistence of old-guard professional criticism even in the Internet age.
Recently, Chong and I talked about the challenges of the reviewing landscape and why, despite them, the book review as a form isn’t disappearing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Scott Nover: Tell me a little bit about the people who write reviews.
Phillipa Chong: Most of people I spoke with don’t identify primarily as book reviewers. When I recruited them for this project, a lot said, “I really want to participate. But I don’t know if I count.” These were people who are hired on a freelance basis, and they might only review two or three times a year. So who are the people writing these reviews? Of the 40 people I interviewed, 11 were employed as full-time book reviewers at some point, 15 of them worked in colleges and universities, and the majority were also novelists or published authors themselves. There were 160 or more books authored by these 40 reviewers.
SN: What effect do you think that has on the book review business?
PC: I found that people’s identities as published authors were the anchor they used in their reviewing practice. A lot of people felt that the reason they were qualified to write a fiction review is because they’d written a novel themselves. When you’re a novelist, you not only have the experience of writing a book, you also have the experience of being reviewed and sometimes getting bad reviews. A lot of reviewers drew on those experiences to think about how forthright they wanted to be in their own criticism of other people’s books.
SN: When freelance reviewers don’t identify as official “book reviewers,” how does that affect book reviewing?
PC: The consequence of identifying so closely with the literary community is that critics often don’t feel that they’re part of the reviewing apparatus. They feel like they’re subject to it. This has two consequences. First, they live in a certain fear of it, because the kind of reception that their future books will have might be contingent on their relationship with the person they are reviewing. Second, there’s a lot of insistence that the book reviewing world is going through some challenges, but there’s very little consensus about who is responsible for making changes.
SN: Since many freelance reviewers internalize the professional consequences of writing a bad review, how can we trust book reviews? What are some of the questions of authenticity and trust the current reviewing climate raises?
PC: It’s a really good question. No one said they were giving good reviews to really bad books, or bad reviews to really good books. It’s more a matter of degree: how much am I going to gush about a book I loved before I worry about sounding stupid and pull back, or how much am I really going to tear into a book before I worry about potential fallout and pull back. And those aren’t just questions about honesty or authenticity, it’s also about what’s the right professional tone to strike when producing cultural journalism.
But to go back to the idea of authenticity and trust, this is just as much if not more of an issue for reviews on places like Goodreads and Amazon. Who is booklover123? Is it the author’s aunt? Agent? An ex-student who feels he deserved an “A”? Remember in 2004 when Amazon accidentally listed the identity of anonymous posters? It turned out that many reviews were generated by people using fake identities to boost or depress the ratings of books, something called “sockpuppeting.” There are personal and professional consequences to critics that actually facilitate a particular professionalism and integrity. Yes, it may be surprising to some that worrying about how other writers will respond to their reviews is part of how critics write their reviews. But it’s also this sense of “peer policing” that keeps most critics on their toes about producing good and work. Though it doesn’t always work …
SN: Do full-time reviewers evade these pressures better than freelancers? Are their reviews more honest?
PC: That’s the going hypothesis among some of the freelance critics I interviewed. They imagine that if they were full-time critics they wouldn’t feel so conflicted about the plight of the person at the other end of the review. But I’m skeptical. A theme in the book is that even though people hold positions with a lot of power, like holding a full-time critic position at a culturally influential publication, they don’t necessarily feel powerful. I was really surprised to hear some pretty powerful people say they felt shy or dread whenever faced with having to write negative reviews, for instance. And that’s not only because of all the uncertainty of the current review climate, but also the uncertainty intrinsic to cultural judgment, which is understood as subjective.
But I will say that I believe some critics were more comfortable with writing really positive or negative reviews than others. And these were people whose livelihoods were not so dependent on writing alone. So, for instance, people who had a career outside of books like faculty at a university, or people who also worked as journalists might invoke their responsibility for reporting the facts. I hypothesize that having footing in some other world, rather than being full time in the writing or reviewing world, has a fortifying effect on what people are willing to write.
SN: The number of news outlets that publish reviews has waned, or the quantity of reviews they publish has shrunk. Has an increase in new digital outlets that publish reviews affected the overall book reviewing ecosystem at all?
PC: Absolutely. I think one thing I wanted to move away from in my book was this idea that the Internet is bad and print is good. To frame the issue as the Internet killed book reviewing is to ignore how online publications and the websites of traditional print publications have matured over the years.
SN: Do people believe print reviews more than online? Is trust an issue anymore? Is there still a value in print vs. online reviews?
PC: Some of the latest research I’m aware of says that people who read books and consult reviews use both print and online reviews. To them, more is more as far as sources of information about books. And I don’t think the online versus print distinction is the most important one. Instead, it’s about whether the review is someone writing for a professional publication with all its attendant norms and values, or an amateur. And even then, it’s not useful to understand that distinction as a matter of professional critics are good and right, and amateurs are dumb and wrong.
As I argue in the book, professional and amateur reviews have come up against each other because there’s some overlap in what they do in terms of the audience and the range of books they report on. It used to be that professional book reviews, like those in the daily newspapers, were a primary source for the general reader to learn about new books as they came out. Now, general readers can consult online sources like Amazon just as easily. But I also think these two spaces can co-exist, because for all of the fear about traditional reviews becoming extinct, that’s not happening. They may feel constantly endangered, but they are not extinct. And the Internet and amateur reviews aren’t going anywhere. And the future of reviews will be defined by how these two spaces can carve out their distinctive value for readers.
SN: What did the professional critics that you interviewed think about the democratization of reviews?
PC: The rise of amateur reviewing is often framed as a problem for book critics. But the way these critics talked about it, it’s actually a problem for readers, too. When you give up the need for professional critics, you give up the idea that you need people who are well-versed in the literary world to say something special about books. One of the concerns that professional critics had was that amateur reviewers would talk about books like a pair of Nike shoes—they would take an object that was meant to be a piece of art and treat it like something that’s just supposed to keep glass out of your foot. But reading, especially literary novels—which is what I focus on—has always been practiced by a really elite group of people, and these are often people who are invested in the idea of reading as a way to understand the world around us. People don’t just read reviews to find books to buy, they also read reviews to learn about what ideas are circulating in the culture.
SN: Do readers really want to learn about the aesthetic qualities of books or do most of them want a consumer guide?
PC: There’s no doubt that when it comes to guiding a specific reader toward a specific book, Amazon’s algorithm may have some critics beat. However, for book reviewers, that’s not necessarily their main goal. It’s important to remember that there are over 50,000 fiction titles published in a given year, and only about three to five percent of those books will ever get a review in places like the Los Angeles Times or The Boston Globe. Reviewers act as a signal to readers, saying “Of the thousand or more books that came up this week, here are those worth knowing about.” Whether people actually go out and buy them is a different issue.
SN: Has the has death of book reviewing been exaggerated?
PC: I think the topic has been done to death. People often ask me, “What’s the biggest difference between book reviewing today and book reviewing 15 years ago?” One of the biggest differences is that stories about the decline of book reviewing are everywhere. They’re circulating with greater intensity, and they create this idea that critics today have to operate in a way that they didn’t before. But the idea that book reviewing is in trouble is not a new idea. Earlier this year, there was a Harper’s article by Christian Lorentzen that argued that commercial impulses are ruining book reviewing. In 2007, Andrew Payne was saying that the Internet was ruining our culture. And even in 1959, in Elizabeth Hardwick’s famous essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” she describes the book review section as being “in a state of painful depression.” To my mind, part of participating in book review culture is to be perpetually stressed and disappointed with book reviewing. We worry about book reviewing because we care about it, and we’re disappointed with it because we believe in its utmost potential.
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