Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Book Reviews: 2010—practitioners ask, what will they look like?

By Karen Long

The nature of authority and the wisdom of the crowd were batted about Saturday afternoon during a packed Book Expo America panel discussion entitled “Book Reviews 2010: What Will They Look Like?”

More than 200 crowded into the session, sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle.

“My feelings about how books get made and how they get to people are confused to the point of fury,” said panelist Ben Greenman, a reviewer for the New Yorker. Peter Krause, an entrepreneur launching a new book review web site this summer, said, “Obviously things aren’t really working out the way we want them to in the transition from print to on-line.”

Publishers Weekly blogger Bethanne Patrick said she had concerns about standards. “There is a difference between a book review and a book recommendation. I don’t want to lose sight of the book review itself.”

One perspective came from Otis Chandler, founder and CEO of Goodreads. “I think it’s largely defined by the system it’s entered into,” he said. “I didn’t think that Amazon reviews were sufficient. They are also corrupted by the publishing industry.”

Since its founding, users of Goodreads have rated 50 million books and posted ten million book reviews, albeit more than 90 percent of these are less than 150 words, Chandler reported.

“I like this question a lot,” he said of the matter of tastemaking. “As we move into the digital age, do we need a guide to navigate the wilderness? We read what our friends read. That’s why I started goodreads. My theory is that is how most people decide what to read.”

For other panels, that approach was necessary, but not sufficient. Greenman spoke of his zest for engaging with John Leonard reviews even when he disagreed with the late New York Times critic seventy percent of the time. Krause said, “I do listen to my friends. I like my friends a lot. But I wouldn’t like to rely solely on them.”

Greenman said the yeasty conversation “fills me with a little bit of productive despair.”

Not only do contemporary reviewers need to think about getting the right book to the right reader, now there is a question of getting readers to the right web sites. “All this democratization of voices has led to a lot of clutter,” said David Nudo, formerly a New York Times vice president who also worked at Shelfari. “Many times the idea of user-generated content means the lowest common denominator. With books, that’s not always the best way to go.”

Nudo said even though Publishers Weekly starred reviews are old media, they still command respect. Krause contended that the longevity and consistency of those reviews help build their authority. And even as some of the old media stuffiness breaks down, Nudo said he has experienced discouraging moments on Shelfari when he is peppered with questions about “The Kite Runner” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

Part of the unevenness of web reviews are attributable to the newness, Krause said. “On this frontier, some of the less experienced people are the first to go out and try these things because there is not a sustainable financial model. These are not the people who know the most about what they are talking about.”

Steve Wasserman, the former Book Review Editor of the Los Angeles Times, was listening in the audience. He wrote a well-read essay two years ago sounding the death-knell of newspaper reviewing. He said he was heartened that the newspaper review went unmentioned during the hour at Javits Center—that the discussion was moving forward. The panel was organized and chaired by John Reed, Brooklyn Rail Books Editor and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The tension in the panel topic, Wasserman said, “gets at the heart of democratic culture, populism and elitism. In the end, I always think the victory goes to those who can parse the best sentences.”