It is hard to approach a book written by someone known personally without bias. Even accepting a book from an author rather than their publisher establishes a connection, however tenuous, and with that comes a feeling of personal obligation. All is well if the book can be reviewed in a timely manner, and if writing and plot development impress, but this is not always going to be the case. Much as I wish to support those who provide us with books, reviews are for potential readers.
Authors get to know each other in the course of their work, of course they do, especially nowadays when they are expected to attend and perform at so many promotional events for their publications. Perhaps initial contact is made online via social media, or through closed discussion forums they are invited to join. Connections are made and then built upon. It can be mutually beneficial to publicly share news and interviews relating to each other’s work. Authors become cheerleaders not just for their own output – and favours are returned. Nurturing connections is a smart tactic as well as providing welcome support in what can be a lonely occupation.
As arts sections in newspapers and magazines increasingly face cutbacks, more of their book reviews are written by authors. These contributors are also readers and do, after all, know how to string words together. Such commissions provide a welcome source of income – however reduced the remuneration these days – with the additional advantage of that footnote of publicity for an author’s own publications.
Proof copies are also sent to established authors in the hope of acquiring a pithy and positive quote that may be included on a cover or flyleaf. I am not the only reader who has expressed disquiet on social media recently when promotional quotes are sourced from amongst the author’s known colleagues or friends.
I am wary of the impartiality, the veracity, of reviews written by certain authors for newspapers. I do not mean to imply that the reviewer is not writing what they think but rather to suggest that their bias does not make them the most useful critic of the text. One regular reviewer for the Guardian newspaper has stated that she only writes positive reviews, handing on to others books she cannot recommend. Knowing this, and her writing style, I have stopped reading her reviews as I already know they will gush praise. Authors and publishers may love her but how useful is her output for a wider readership looking for a critique that will help them decide if the book might be for them?
Getting too close to the book industry has an impact. Personal connections lead to compromises when deciding how to phrase an opinion. The arts world is full of sensitive souls who nurse scars caused by words that have cut them. Nobody wishes to hurt their friend.
Established book reviewers, including some of the better known book bloggers – many of whom have branched out into other aspects of book production and promotion – are understandably fêted by publishers. They work within a comforting bubble that tells them how valued their work is. I have been on the edge of this and stepped back. It made it harder to write reviews without prejudice. My honesty may not always be appreciated by industry insiders. I remind them that any review is, after all, just one person’s opinion.
Perhaps this is why, for all their flaws, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are the go to for most potential readers. The ridiculous 1* reviews for unread books or other illogical complaints are easily ignored. A variety of opinions, both positive and negative, are useful so long as reasoning is explained.
Book blogging became a thing because readers wanted to know what people like them, with no connections to the rarefied world of the book industry, thought of titles they were considering reading. Blogs are useful in spreading the word about books that do not get the spin of a huge publicity budget. They can raise the profile of gems that defy marketing categorisation.
Over the years I have observed bloggers come and then go as they grow disillusioned when they see others garner plaudits and recognition while they feel underappreciated. I would contend that these still impartial voices – those who read what they choose and then express their views coherently, without feelings of obligation – provide value for the many ordinary, non partisan readers.