How many people read the New York Times Book Review? Raise your hands. Hmmm…small crowd. How many people go and buy the books after reading a NYT Book Review? Extremely small crowd. My novel was reviewed in the New York Times and I did regard it as a benchmark, a status symbol of the novelist finally arrived. I do read the New York Times Book Review. Religiously. Every Sunday. But I must confess to a feeling akin to reading short stories in The Saturday Evening Post and that is I am reading something that belongs to a different time. The books reviewed are of a certain staple: fiction, international fiction with protagonists who overcome incredible odds in war torn regions. Biographies of long lost literary figures or Teddy Roosevelt. Alec Baldwin’s diatribe on his divorce. Up and coming novelists on the back pages. Literary lions no one has heard of outside the literary lion circles. Historical fiction. Not that this is bad content….but it is no secret that book sections in the major newspapers are vanishing.
The Chicago Tribune’s book section was marginalized to the Saturday edition. The Washington Post Book World was practically eliminated. The New York Times Book Review is one of the last holdouts and thank God for that. So, the question is where are people going to find out about books now? An answer might be they are going nowhere to find out about books. Or we might believe what Steven Jobs said who proclaimed no one reads anymore–a self serving observation from Mr. IPOD. But the fact is people are still reading and reading a lot. I know. I have been to land over the rainbow and it is a bit like OZ. Strange new munchkins called Citizen Reviewers are reading and writing the reviews in cyber land and this is what people are reading. It is not only the big Book Blog sites that are claiming the attention of the reader, it is the ordinary posts of the ordinary reader. If books are still sold in the fundamental way of word of mouth then it makes perfect sense that the middleman paid reviewer would become antiquated in age of the Internet. We now have the direct links for readers to click on to find out to what the most relevant class of reviewers think–other readers.
The obvious site for this well of reviews is Amazon where readers post directly to the book they just read. A book with fifty some reviews will give the reader a more balanced view of a book then the opinion of one Ivory Tower reader. Consensus is the word of the day in cyberland. Other sites like Library Thing, Shelfari, Goodreaders all work off consensus reviews. A hundred people read a book and rate it and then you get an average. The fringe reviewer who doesn’t like anything and the over the top reviewer who loves everything are marginalized by a healthy discerning middle. No one is getting paid and yes you will have the author friends and enemies weighing in, but in there also will be people with honest opinions. The result is much more democratic and that makes sense in a democracy. Art by the people and for the people and reviewed by the people. It doesn’t matter really if we like it or not because it is here. The argument for a paid reviewer is one that he or she is trained to review. Maybe. But don’t you get a skewed viewpoint by a single rarefied person reading books they prefer? Getting through the literary gates of most heavy hitter review publications is reserved for those who catch an editors whim who is literally deluged with books. We can’t expect a fair and judicial process from harried overworked reviewers or editors who have even less staff today. So, by default, we end up with a polyglot of books being reviewed by a polyglot of readers. The New York Times Book Review will always be the benchmark for the literary world and I think that is a good thing. But the Citizen Reviewer will certainly be a second opinion…something everyone should have.
William Hazelgrove's latest novel is Rocket Man due out in the fall