A clinical exploration of how books get reviewed, what the consequences are, and whether any of it means anything at all.
In her first book, Chong (Sociology/McMaster Univ.) turns her critical eye to the art of book reviews and the conceptual insights that go into each review. “Book reviews matter,” writes the author at the beginning. “Getting a review in a high-status publication…regardless of whether the review is positive or negative increases the odds that a writer will go on to publish future books.” Some readers (and critics) will question the breadth of her study—the New York Times and the Atlantic are wonderful platforms, but most book reviewers won’t see their names in those pages—but Chong works diligently through the review process, starting with a consideration of “aesthetic quality” before moving on to the idea that while “reviewing is utterly subjective…this is not to say that reviewing is utterly unreasoned or idiosyncratic.” The center of the narrative focuses on consequences—believe it or not, even negative reviews can help sell books—and the author also takes into consideration the symbiotic nature of bylined reviews. Many critics are also authors, of course, and Chong notes the tendency of “playing nice” among writers reviewing under their own names. (Anyone reading this review knows that Kirkus reviews are anonymous.) The most intriguing question comes in Chapter 7: “Do We Need Book Reviews?” Whether it’s the threat posed by “amateur reviewers” on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online platforms or the existential threat that keeps reviewers up at night, “irrelevance,” these are questions worth pondering. However, noncritics and other lay readers aren’t likely to find much value in this speculative dissection of a complicated and evolving trade, “a highly uncertain endeavor.”
Useful reading for book critics and journalists who cover books, but the audience likely ends there.