Climbing free of the online book review sinkhole

My love and admiration for the ability of the internet to allow anyone and everyone to publish their thoughts and opinions should be well known to regular visitors. Sometimes though, I realise that I may be making assumptions about the way other people consume that information.

I’m a cynic (yeah, I know, a cynical optimist – it’s a weird combination, and makes for the occasional sleepless night, but that’s just the way my brain works). Unless I know I’m reading fiction, I tend to take almost everything with the metaphorical pinch of salt. Especially stuff on the internet. Once you’ve been online for a few months, it becomes obvious (I hope) that the quality and/or truth of much of the material there is, at best, questionable. After a while, one builds up a certain set of trusted sources. This is why the blogosphere works, and has become so popular.

I’m also a book reviewer, both online and in print. I’ve discussed this role before – to recap briefly, I’m quite big on objectivity, cheek by jowl with honest personal impressions, with a big serving of integrity on the side. I want to tell the review reader what I thought of the book [personal taste], but at the same time make it plain that aspects of it that I liked (or disliked) might be received totally differently by a reader with different tastes to my own [objectivity]. I also want it to be plain that I’ve read the whole book, and that I’ve not simply scanned a few other reviews and gone with what everyone else has said already [integrity].

I like to think that people can get some value from my reviews; some idea of what is between the front and back covers, as opposed to emblazoned upon them. There are a lot of book reviewers about, of course, and I expect some of them have rather different approaches. I don’t really see that as much of my business. Tidy up your own front yard before whinging at the neighbours, and all that, y’know. The readers (the few who seem to slip through from Google once in a while) will decide what utility my work has.

However, this fellow Gabe Chouinard has taken serious issues with what he sees as the crapulous state of online book reviewing [link removed due to domain reappropriation]. He may have a point – I expect there’s a lot of dross out there. This is the internet, and nowhere else does Sturgeon’s Revelation apply so well. I think (or believe, or maybe just hope) that I’m not doing the sort of work he’s so riled by, either:

“Sadly, the internet is a desolate landscape for substantial reviews. There are far too many sub-literate, boneheaded twits (myself most definitely included) littering the internet with their virtual anal leakage disguised as “reviews”. My example from Rob’s review is hardly unique; all of the major SFF review sites flourish on the backs of these sorts of review sinkholes.

The only way I know this is because I am an addict. I read reviews in copious quantities whether I want to or not, like a meth head scratching at meth bugs under my skin. It’s a compulsion.”

While I can see his point, in that there are poorly written and fawning reviews that get quoted for book blurbs, I don’t think that this a particularly new phenomenon. I always remember that (probably apocryphal) joke about a famous literary reviewer who said that he “never read a book he had to review, it can prejudice one terribly.” Lazy book reviewing can’t be any less prevalent (or indeed well-established and long-running) as lazy journalism of any other type.

I’m with John from SFSignal on this one. I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you think online reviews suck, well, stop reading them. At the risk of dipping into Freudian analysis, describing a need to read bad reviews as being similar to a meth addiction possibly reveals a deep-seated realisation that it’s not really doing you any good. If you honestly believe that most online reviews are rubbish, why waste your time on reviewers who’ve disappointed you before?

Develop a network of sources who you can rely on to give you an honest account of the title they were sent. Stop visiting the tin-pot PR-regurgitators. Only you can make these judgement calls as they apply to your tastes. If the wine is sour, spit it out.

FFS, d1s 4m t3h int4rw3bz, d00d!!1! If you haven’t got your spam filter and bullsh*t deflection screens cranked up to the max, you’re just going to be a very tense and angry review reader for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s time to go cold turkey on the bad stuff? You’ve already taken the first step by admitting you have a problem…

6 thoughts on “Climbing free of the online book review sinkhole”

  1. You need to fix your template for these pages – they have no link back to the home page. At least I can’t find one – and if I can’t find it, that’s bad.

  2. I have to agree with you. Drivel isn’t exclusive to the vast number of book reviews one can find online.
    There are quite a few really good review sites out there as well. Perhaps Mr. Chouinard has an “intellectual masochism” fetish that drives him to peruse such wretched writing……

  3. BTW, that link ( now goes to an unusually foul-looking porn front site. Time to remove it?

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