Who Has the “Authority” to Review Books?

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Kathleen Hale’s recent Guardian article has generated a lot of commentary, most of it judgments of whether or not Hale was right to take the actions she chronicles.  Somewhat overlooked in the general backlash, however, is a claim that a number of Guardian commenters (who seem to be neither bloggers nor people who utilize sites like Goodreads) are making: that in order to preserve the “integrity” of book reviews, only “qualified” people should be able to voice their opinions.  None of these commenters, as far as I can tell from browsing, gave a workable definition of what people have legitimate “literary authority” (beyond implying that professional reviewers who work for places like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly do).  If we work through the question, however, it becomes apparent that there really cannot be people who can judge books “correctly” and people who cannot.

Am I qualified to share my opinions on books?

If we accept for the moment that there is a hierarchy of literary authority, I want to point out right now that I am pretty high up it, so I can reassure anyone doubting the “validity” of my opinion that the rest of this post is worth reading.  I have a BA in English literature, I am currently pursuing a PhD in English literature, I have experience interning in the book publishing industry (3 internships), and I have about three years of experience running this blog.  If anyone is higher than me on this imaginary hierarchy, it must be people who have already earned PhDs in literature and people with many years of experience in book publishing.

I have not worked reviewing professionally, but I have met people who have.  At the time, they had BAs in English literature and potentially some internships in the publishing world.   The bar, then, to have a “professional” opinion is not unsurmountable.  Basically, one needs to have studied literature at the undergraduate level.  I think a lot of bloggers have passed that test.

But how would publishers even know who is “qualified”?

If we continue with this thought experiment and say, yes, that makes sense, publishers should have “standards” that need to be met before they send readers review copies, we still run into problems.

First, a lot of Guardian commenters are proposing a very basic solution: bloggers need to provide publishers with their real names and addresses.  Well…I think many do.  Generally speaking, you need to be a real person to receive mail.  But knowing someone’s name and address, someone’s REAL IDENTITY! does not actually tell the publisher anything about that person.

So is this a proposal that publishers also run background checks on bloggers?  Or that they issue applications where bloggers state their “literary qualifications” and then conduct in-person interviews to make sure they are not creeps?  Because no publishing company is going to waste time and money doing that.  Besides, anyone who has ever had a job can attest sometimes seemingly unqualified people get through the hiring process anyway.

Also: Publishers already vet bloggers.

Most require a blogger to have been blogging X many months, to have Y many followers, and to write reasonably intelligent reviews before they send them review copies.  There are industry standards for this type of thing, which said Guardian commenters appear to be unaware of.

But no standard if ever going to eliminate “unqualified” reviewers.

It is possible to run a book blog reviewing only books that are purchased or borrowed from the library.  Many bloggers do this.  Krysta and I did this for years before beginning to request a limited number of e-ARCS.  Even if publishers become more discerning about whom they send ARCs, they can never fully control who gets to review their books, either before or after publication.

And that is perfectly fine because of a right most countries today recognize: free speech.

Most importantly, however: Books are written for everyone.

“Amateur” reviewers have valid opinions of books.  Fiction in general is not directed towards people with doctorates in literature or towards industry professionals; their audience is the masses.  If people are talking about Kathleen Hale’s book in particular, it is important to remember her book is classified as young adult.  AKA it is marketed to teens.  AKA people with a high school level education.  They are supposed to have an opinion of the book, which means everyone else is allowed to, as well.

Conclusion

If anyone prefers to read professional review of book instead of “amateur” ones, they have every right to do so.  We all have some standard of quality we like to see in reviews.  But “quality” is subjective, and making the blanket assumption that professional reviewers are more intelligent or more qualified than amateur ones is naïve.  (Also, who decides who gets to be a professional reviewer?  And why should I blindly trust the opinion of this anonymous person who hires them?)  Saying that amateur reviewers should not review, that their opinions should not be allowed space for expression, is a blatant affront to respect and free speech.  If someone can read, they have the right, the authority, the qualifications to form an opinion on a book and share it.

28 thoughts on “Who Has the “Authority” to Review Books?

    • Briana says:

      Ooh, that’s a good question! If I had to get into the minds of the commenters I reference, I think they might say that publishers have some magical process by which they determine the authors they publish are worthy (because they do seem to have some implicit trust in the publishing industry and figures of authority). They probably think self-published authors are terribly presumptuous people inflicting their unqualified, un-vetted booked on the world, though.

      Although this all makes me wonder what makes them think their own opinions hold enough weight that they’re worthy to be posted as comments on Guardian articles. Because, personally, I don’t think posting my opinions on a blog is more presumptuous than posting them as comments, but apparently there are people drawing that line.

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  1. Angel - 27 Days (@angel_reads) says:

    Totally Agree!
    and those ‘professional’ reviewers that are ‘quilfied’ to write reviews are most of the time really biased especially towards those of books in the young adult genre. Well I know that in Australia a lot are like that.
    Anyone can review books. It’s a matter of free speech and opinions. teens are most likey going to relie on the reviews of YA books from other teens it’s because we think and feel things in similar ways.

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    • Briana says:

      Yes, I think there still is a stigma against YA books in some circles, though even people who think they’re “bad” must recognize they sell well at this point!

      Exactly! A variety of reviewers allows readers to find people whose opinions they generally trust and agree with. And we don’t all have to share the opinions of professional reviews who, admittedly, might sometimes come from a more privileged perspective than many readers.

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  2. Eustacia Tan says:

    This is a really good post! (And if you’re not qualified to run a book blog, then I should be deleting mine now :p)

    Books are for everyone to enjoy. And I think that each reaction is as valid as the next – a “professional” reaction is not somehow more valid or better than mine because it’s in a newspaper or a publishing site.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Exactly! While I also enjoy reading professional reviews, I recognize that those reviewers are still people sharing their personal opinions. In the first place, “Kirkus” doesn’t review books–a bunch of people working for them review books. And I don’t always have to agree with what they say.

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  3. Gina Drayer says:

    Good post.

    Personally, I find the idea of a “professional” reviewer hilarious. As you said fiction is written for the reader. If you get 100 readers in a room you’ll get 100 different experiences. Probably the only thing we can all agree on is that bad grammar and typos make a story hard to read.

    I read a lot (well over 100 books a year). I have particular things I’m looking for in a book. I’ve picked through the best sellers list and have been applaud at what is selling like hotcakes (most of them aren’t for me!). That’s why a number of the books I read, I pick up because of reviews from people I follow. The reason I follow them? We share similar book taste.

    I’d take the opinion of a favored review over the NYT book review any day.

    But that being said, bad reviews aren’t the death nail of a book. If a book has only good reviews I’m immediately suspicious. I love reading the bad reviews, and have picked up books based on comments made in a one or two star review. Just because someone doesn’t like xyz in a book doesn’t mean that’s not exactly what I’m looking for!

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    • Briana says:

      These are all great points! Professional reviewers are individuals just like amateur reviewers, and their personal opinions and life experiences are going to color their reviews, too. They aren’t going to be more more or less “right” about a book than a randomly selected hobbyist book blogger. That’s what makes the blogging community so great; the wide variety of opinions allows readers to find other readers’ whose opinions coincide with their own,

      And you’re right that bad reviews are not necessarily bad publicity. People read books for different reasons. A detailed review, positive or negative, allows readers to decide if the book has aspects they would enjoy–no matter what the original reviewer thought of those aspects.

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  4. Krysta says:

    For me, the strongest and perhaps most obvious reason for bloggers to be allowed to review books (aside from, of course, free speech) is your last–most books are written for the general public, so the general public certainly ought to be allowed to comment on them. It’s not like getting someone random off the street to review a highly specialized science article, where they most likely wouldn’t know how to interpret the data or even if the reported results were plausible.

    To me, the idea that the general public can’t express their opinions is just weird. Where does that even come from? And how far does the line go? Am I allowed to talk about what I did or did not like in a book verbally? Are we assuming that’s okay because the other person knows who I am? (Which is tenuous at best–what if I meet them standing in line for a coffee and we just strike up a conversation? Should I hand them my resume before I opine on the book in their hands?) If we are assuming verbal opinions are acceptable because the other party “knows” you, that can be almost as true in the blogosphere. You “know” a blogger from what they’ve written. Their pattern of likes and dislikes, their genre preferences, their diction, their signature style is all available to you and is enough, generally, for you to decide whether or not you can trust their opinion. You can, most definitely, learn a lot about a person through their writing.

    In the end, however, I’m just amused because I can’t stop thinking about your Tweet where you wondered if that makes product reviews acceptable. In that case, I actually usually want a review from someone like me, not a professional. I want to know that someone with my skill level can use/enjoy the product. With book reviews, I think it can often be the same. I tend to take reading suggestions more seriously from people like myself (that is, people I know who generally have the same reading preferences). If someone else totally trashes a book, but we don’t normally enjoy the same things anyway (like, I don’t know, the mere presence of a dragon in a book destroys it for them), I’m probably going to read the book regardless of what they say.

    I don’t “know” professional reviewers, though. When I see a review on Kirkus or wherever, I admit I don’t normally look for a name and, even if I did, I wouldn’t have a history of that person’s reviews to let me know their reading preferences and quirks. I have no reason to take their opinions more seriously than the opinions of the people I read or talk to on a regular basis. To me, a professional review is a random voice and one that, unfortunately, too often seems to feel pressure from those circles who still think only literary fiction is worthy of being read. Why would I base my reading on the opinions of reviewers who often seem to detest the genres I enjoy the most?

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    • Briana says:

      Yes, there are a lot of logical and logistical problems with the assertion that only professional reviewers should be allowed to review–but after I saw multiple people comment on the Guardian article to voice that statement, I thought it should be addressed. I doubt any of those people will see this post (they obviously aren’t the type to frequent “amateur” blogs), but I like to know it’s out in the world.

      The reviewers for some publications are actually anonymous, to give the impression that that publication has a voice–but the reviews are actually submitted by a variety of people, whom we will never know. And, you’re right, we can’t even track their review history to see what types of books they’re likely to enjoy or not.

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      • Krysta says:

        Yes, I have noted that some reviews are anonymous, which makes it even harder to get a sense of the qualifications and reading preferences of the individual. But sometimes I think the smaller reviews might not have names, bu the bigger ones do? Even so, I tend to think of all the reviews as the “voice” of the publication since they all seem vetted to have the same sort of biases.

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  5. ccplteenunderground says:

    Exactly!

    The only qualification that you need to review a book is that you have read the book. Everyone’s opinion is valid. We all have the opportunity and choice to read or not read any review that is written. We all have the right and responsibility to choose for ourselves whether we will read a book because of or despite a review—“professional” or “amateur”—or whether we care about reviews at all.

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    • Briana says:

      Yes! Books are for everyone, and everyone’s reaction will be different.

      And you’re right that there doesn’t need to be any official policing of reviews. As with anything on the Internet, if you don’t like certain types of reviewers, you can just not read their reviews.

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  6. Nordie says:

    I’ve avoided the whole Hale discussion, as I dont really want to be pulled down to the level of someone who is prepared to stalk and then turn up on someone’s doorstep because they took some kind of objection to a review.

    I will admit I have two email addresses: 1 is on my website, and I will admit that it’s not my “real” address. Email will get to me, but….This is for those authors who randomly wade through bloggers looking for a freebie review. Depending on what level of trust I develop with them, I will ‘release’ my real address (often when I’ve forgotten which email account I’m using!) – if we’ve exchanged more than 2 emails, we’re pretty much there (though there are some authors that still dont know my real email/name etc, and we’re cool with that).

    My second email address is known to people like: Proper publishers (penguin, random house etc) – you know, the professionals. Plus places like goodreads and librarything. A few “special” individual authors. The ones I’ve met in person so who (almost) know where I live already no matter what I write!. The ones where I have actually written a review or an interview.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think much of the outrage stems not only from the behavior of Hale, but also from the fact that The Guardian’s publication of her account seems to legitimize and approve of her actions. The cute little title, picture, and summary all suggest that the blogger was in the wrong and that Hale went on a personal, cathartic crusade to crush the evil that is a negative Goodreads status update. Her account possibly would have been more easily dismissed as the wrong that is is, except that a major publication appears to be backing her up.

      We use a specific blog e-mail to field any requests. I wouldn’t say that that means it’s not “real”–it’s obviously our official blog e-mail that we use to communicate with. We receive so much spam on it that I wouldn’t want to have to deal with on my personal e-mail and, frankly, we’ve gotten a few odd review requests, so, yes, it does seem safer this way.

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  7. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    At first I was wondering why this one didn’t come up in my feed, then I noticed the date. Great post! And after some of the things I’ve read lately, this is a good discussion to have. I spoke with someone from Kirkus on the phone last week and even their reviewers are normal people. Of course, some have certain backgrounds more suited for certain genres or hold degrees in fields that make them ideal reviewers for non-fiction, but is there really an expert on YA and romance novels? Who’s opinion would qualify for a good horror novel? Stephen King? It’s like the agents told me in their letters. Publishing is subjective and not everyone will love the same thing as another person. Some people love the books I loathe, where others hate my favorites. I think the best reviews come from consumers, not the person paid by a magazine or publisher to write a glowing review. And authors who write in the same genre will often write a review for another author, and I have to wonder if their opinion was influenced by the feelings they have toward the person and not the book.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the funniest thing about the idea that only professional reviewers are qualified to review books is that no one is professional until they are. On Monday you weren’t being paid for your ideas so apparently they weren’t good ideas but on Tuesday when your new job starts, your ideas are now worthy of being heard? And maybe if you are an artist you can judge judge other art, but maybe you’re better at being an artist than in being a critic. It all depends on the individual.

      I often wonder about authors being asked to review other authors. You obviously can’t say anything negative about one of your colleagues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        That’s such a ridiculous thing for someone to say. Like you said, there’s no such thing as a professional reviewer. It’s not like the Kirkus reviewers are doing it full time. From what I gathered from their sales rep, they’re normal people with regular jobs. Art is another thing that’s hard to judge because it’s open to interpretation. I never trust the opinion of another author because I always think their opinions are whatever their publicist told them to say. Sometimes they have the same publishers or are friends and no one is going to bash their friends work. I prefer a review from a reader. But it also annoys me when someone posts a super harsh review that’s completely unmerited. No matter how much I dislike a book, I always recognize at least one thing about it that I like. There’s very few books where I can’t find that one thing.

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        • Krysta says:

          True. And author reviews are often very generic: “A magical world.” “Enchanting.” “Drew me in.” I sometimes wonder if they read the book or if someone wrote out the line for them and they said, “Sure, looks good.”

          That’s true. I rarely give one-star reviews because I recognize that there is probably something good about the work from realistic dialogue to a tight structure, even if I hated the book.

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          • Briana says:

            Thank you! I also kind of thing there’s no “evidence” the author read the book from the quotes they use on the book jacket. “Delightful.” You could be talking about anything! (Which is not to accuse the authors of lying, but if someone said something that generic in my class, I would just naturally question whether they’d done the assigned reading. Specificity please!)

            Liked by 1 person

          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            Oh, yeah I can’t stand those generic headlines for reviews. We all know they’re made up. I once saw a review on a book cover from George R. R. Martin, and I wish I could remember which book, but he clearly didn’t like it from what I read. Though they made it sound like he did. I was able to read between the lines. I don’t have a single one star review on Goodreads or Amazon. If I don’t like a book, I rant about it, don’t post it on any review sites, and move on.

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    • Briana says:

      Oh, yeah, sometimes I tweet old posts for people who missed them! Sorry to trick you. :p

      I interviewed for Kirkus Indie once, but they didn’t hire me. Maybe in the future! But I think that basically supports my point that the random, amateur bloggers on the Internet aren’t necessarily that far removed from the “professionals.” In the end, we’re really all just offering opinions.

      I think reviewing as an author would be so tricky. I think there’s definitely pressure to say nice things. How awkward would it be if you had to go on a book tour with someone after you publicly wrote a review to the effect of “This person can’t write”?

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      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        Haha! You got me. 😉 Oh, so they do hire for positions at Kirkus. The sales rep made it sound like it was something they do on the side. That’s their loss they didn’t hire you. That’s true. My second novel is a romance, and I keep thinking what if one day I get it published after criticizing E. L. James’ writing, but it’s so hard not to. That would be crawl under the table and hide awkward.

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        • Briana says:

          It’s basically paid per review, as far as I understand, so probably not going to support someone full-time. I haven’t seen any applications for Kirkus yet though, just Kirkus Indie.

          You can just make your blog private or something, I guess? But it would be a good thing to have to worry about, being published and famous enough people care about your opinions! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

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