By Steve Donoghue
The most wonderful thing about all the stereotypical old bookstore stories is that they all really happened. The customer who wanted book recommendations simple enough for her adored Pomeranian and needed to be told that dogs can’t, in fact, read; the customer who’d just heard about the lost plays of Sophocles and wondered if the shop could order them for him; the customer who wanted help finding a book she’d seen in the shop five months ago: “It had a man on the cover – and he didn’t look happy.”
As has been said many times, people say the strangest things in bookstores, and if you happen to be working in the shop, you hear everything, from the nice old couple going to the Religion section “so we can find something to fight about” to the customer holding an author’s new release and saying ruefully “I like this guy, but he never shuts up.”
These kinds of comments, which would sound silly or even embarrassing in any other context on any other subject, seem like a perfectly natural part of the landscape in a bookshop – because books are the strangest things you can buy: something static that’s nevertheless different for every user, something printed by the thousands that’s nevertheless intensely personal for each individual.
It makes the whole idea of book reviewing sound extra impossible. This impossibility has long been acknowledged when it comes to theater reviews, for instance. Except in the most mechanical and longest-running big blockbuster shows (where the dialogue has become so rote for the actors that they’ll whisper chat about their evening plans in between the lines they’re shouting for the audience), every play’s performance will be a thing of exquisite uniqueness, something that not only cannot be captured in words but that cannot be exactly repeated even the following night. One old theater critic used to quip that every theater review ever written essentially boils down to “You just had to be there.”
On one level, it seems that something like this must apply to book reviews as well. A book can be a silent communion with somebody who might be centuries dead, a waiting epiphany, a kind of slow-motion telepathy that surely can’t be assessed as though it were one variety of ceiling fan among many.
It’s under the shelter of such talk that many book reviewers turn in boring plot summaries and call them reviews, and it’s under this same kind of shelter that some reviewers, fresh from reading some steaming pile of cow-crap, will shrug and say, “Well, what do the critics know anyway? It’s all subjective.”
It isn’t all subjective, of course. If an author is writing tedious, tired prose, it will be possible to determine that. If an author introduces Aunt Lulu with some fanfare in Chapter 2 and quite obviously forgets about her by Chapter 10, that fact can be known, assessed, and mocked. If an author’s latest work purports to be [A] but is in fact [anti-A] and trying to fool the reader, not only can a reviewer objectively demonstrate that fact, but every reviewer should. If things were really “all subjective,” there wouldn’t be any such thing as good and bad writing, and we all know there is.
But that still leaves the question of exactly how valuable book reviews are, and what we mean by valuable. This came up recently on Twitter and was cynically argued around the block by critics and pundits who mainly just wanted to sound smarter than they are. The question was raised: how important are reviews to the success or even the marketing of a book?
A couple of people referenced quotes from 2022’s Penguin Random House trial, in which one publishing executive after another made it pretty clear that most publishers don’t account for reviews at all, because in their business plans, reviews don’t help book sales one bit. On Twitter, other people plaintively asked, “Who reads book reviews? Who’s ever decided to buy a book based on how it was reviewed?”
I’ve often wondered what strange alternate universe these people occupy. Yes, some weirdos only decide which movie they’re going to see once they get to the multi-plex – but far, far more people look at their options ahead of time and make their choice based on, you guessed it, reviews. If critics are universally panning a movie, you’re less likely to want to see it. That seems so plainly obvious that it’s always odd to see it questioned.
Likewise book reviews, surely? Although maybe publishing poo-bahs aren’t looking in the right places for the reviews people are reading? If a new book shows up and gets people talking, it might be true that the comparative handful of people who read the brilliant observations about it by Christopher Lehman-Haupt in the New York Times were probably going to read the book anyway. But the vast majority of people are going to skip the Times review, go straight to Amazon or Goodreads, and decide whether or not the book is worth their time based on the reader reactions they find there. When you’re browsing in a bookstore and you pick up a book that’s completely unknown to you, the first thing you do is flip it over and read the reviewer blurbs on the back.
It’s been my experience that the reviewers who complain about the fact that nobody reads book reviews anymore are really complaining that not enough people read THEIR book reviews. And that, as the kids say, is a YOU problem.