Yes but what’s it for?

Amy Hertz’ lead-off column for the Huffington Post’s new books section has bunched up the undergarments of some folks in the industry. Some commenters think her “no reviews” stance is pure genius; some think it’s delusional. Myself, I vote for a bit of both but that we won’t know if it leads more toward genius or delusion for a few months yet.

But that’s another discussion.

What struck me was this passage: “Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.”

So what purpose do book reviews have in this “age of engagement?” Are they a dinosaur waiting for the information of its death to reach its brain? Or are book reviews about something else, especially in a magazine like Locus?

I don’t know that I have any good answers. I’m hoping that you all might have some thoughts. Why do you read book reviews? What do you hope to get out of them? Or are they already a dead medium?

5 thoughts on “Yes but what’s it for?

  • October 14, 2009 at 2:57 am

    OK, so Hertz doesn't want to oversee a book-review venue–it's her store (or her concession space in the HuffPo Big Store, anyway), and she's clearly looking forward to an inside-baseball discussion of the book biz with particular attention to problems of promotion and marketing. Which means that I can safely ignore it, especially since I have minimal interest in how to twitterize the blogosphere or googlebomb bookscan or whatever the city mice are obsessing over this week.

    Still, even in this context, I puzzle over her take on reviews. I've long understood that, outside of reviews-of-record in PW or LJ or such, reviews have minimal impact on sales. But conversation stoppers? Really? And I'm not sure exactly what this "age of engagement" is supposed to be. As opposed to what? Were we disengaged in the Bad Old Days of Dead-Tree Publishing? Did all that paper somehow come between us? Are electrons and photons more democratic? More hygienic? Or only cheaper to send around and harder to meter for payment?

    But about reviewing. Of course it's a conversation, and the fact that in its traditional mode it is nearly always one-sided doesn't mean that it stops communication. I've been addresssing imagined audiences via Locus and other periodicals for going on thirty years, and when a (perhaps non-representative) sample of readers gets to talk back, say, during a convention panel, it seems to me that I haven't even slowed down the conversation. But then, I've never had to write the thumbs-up/thumbs-down buying-guide kind of review and never needed to do a killer review. Those might indeed be conversation-stoppers. Instead, I get to read what I think I'll enjoy, describe what's in front of me, and account for it–think out loud about why it's enjoyable or interesting or new or comfy-familiar and where it came from and what other books it reminds me of, and anything else that pops into my tiny mind while my fingers are on the keyboard.

    Of course, I don't have to worry about whether a book sells, though I have a rooting interest–I am, generally, hoping for another book from a given writer, and that requires a degree of commercial success. But securing it is not my job, and I'm content to let Amy Hertz fuss over that in the HuffPo Books section. Better her than me. If that diminishes my engagement, so be it.

  • October 14, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    It strikes me that what Hertz is really saying, at great length, is just another version of the great Huffington Post mantra: "write my content for me."

    Really — she's saying that she doesn't have any staff or reviewers. There's no one there who will actually read or think about books. She just wants to get free content from publishers, and is dancing as fast as she can to shove that content away from "tediously promotional" over towards "moderately readable."

    Or, in other words, "I've got a big audience for you here, but you have to do all my work for me to get it."

  • October 15, 2009 at 1:47 am

    Does that mean we will all wind up sitting in the back of a bus looking at each other first with exhilaration and then, gradually, with unease and even apprehension?

  • October 15, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Russell, I think you've just described the Internet.

    And I hadn't thought of Hertz' saying "write my content for me" but now that you mention it, that's exactly what it feels like to me, too. So if I post a similar screed, will someone write my content for me? Or bring me a cookie or something?


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