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literature & technology: book reviews

Technology continues to impact the ever-changing book industry, and recently the literary world has been questioning the authenticity of online book reviews. Popular crime writer RJ Ellory has admitted to faking glowing, 5-star reviews on Amazon for his works, using different pseudonyms, while at the same time writing negative reviews of rival authors’ works. This has got me thinking about book reviews in general. Print media is no longer the only source of book reviews. Thanks to the internet, anyone with an opinion to share can write and publish a review of a book. Sites such as Goodreads are built around this very purpose. People go online and share what they’re reading, what they thought of what they read and their recommendations. Not to mention the thousands of blogs dedicated to book reviews, and online book stores which encourage customers to review their products. This begs the question, how, in the internet age, are we supposed to sift through all these opinions and choose what we want to read?

I’ll admit that I don’t. There are some magazines and newspapers, both online and in print, where I go to read book reviews. But as for Goodreads and Amazon, I pay very, very little attention to what other users have written about a book. For one, these reviews are often very short and don’t offer me anything I couldn’t fathom from the blurb or the book extract, and, two, I probably have very different reading tastes to these readers. Also, as a writer myself, I know I look for different things in a book than what readers who aren’t writers look for. I’ve often recommended books to non-writer friends who have absolutely hated them, and vice-versa. I’m a stickler for use of language and how the book has been crafted, and am not impressed by a great plot which ignores these other things. What I want to read comes down to my own tastes anyway. I am not implying my tastes are better than anyone else’s because I’m a writer, but the fact that I’m a writer shapes what I enjoy reading, just the way my hobbies and interests and a plethora of other things shape what I enjoy reading, just as it does for everybody else.

So, what role do book reviews actually play in helping readers choose which books to read? Or is their role solely to generate sales for the author? Certainly if enough is written about a book, or a series of books, people will get curious and go and buy the book. Harry Potter. Twilight. Fifty Shades of Grey. And so on. I can’t deny that if I hear enough about a certain book, I’ll seek it out and flick through it and then decide if it’s worth reading or not. But at the end of the day, I still feel like I chose to read the book based on my own opinion, and not on a review I may or may not have read. So is the point of a review simply that- to know that it was interesting enough to be reviewed?

But that theory breaks down when we see how many reviews are plastered all over the internet. To sell books online, those books need to have reviews. A customer can walk into a bookshop and browse through the books, deciding which they will buy on the look and the feel and the blurb and the first sentence or so. That is so much harder to do online. Sure, you can read a blurb and an extract, but how do you know where to start looking? It’s practically impossible that something will catch your eye and jump out at you; you need to know precisely what you’re looking for. So in this sphere, book reviews are essential.

Book reviews definitely have their place. At the moment it is simply a matter of redefining what that place is. I would hope that most writers have more integrity than RJ Ellory and not fake their own reviews for the sake of more sales. At the same time, if readers are more discerning about which books they review, and what they write in the review, it will make it easier to take their points into account when deciding whether or not it is the book for them. Let’s not make a mockery of book reviewing. Let’s keep the reviews fresh, original, genuine and insightful, so that they continue to spark discussions about books. After all, isn’t that the point?

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