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Into The Hands Of Amateurs

Through Amazon and Goodreads, through blogs and a multitude of outlets, book reviewing has gotten out of the hands of professionals. Now a good deal of reviewing, especially of novels, is done by unpaid amateurs. But why did we take on the job?

The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with. … [P]eople sometimes suggest that the solution lies in getting book reviewing out of the hands of hacks. Books on specialised subjects ought to be dealt with by experts, and on theother hand a good deal of reviewing, especially of novels, might well be done by amateurs. Nearly every book is capable of arousing passionate feeling, if it is only a passionate dislike, in some or other reader, whose ideas about it would surely be worth more than those of a bored professional. But, unfortunately, as every editor knows, that kind of thing is very difficult to organise. George Orwell, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”

George Orwell had no presentiment of the Internet, so he had no idea “that kind of thing” would become easy to organize. Through Amazon and Goodreads, through blogs and blog tours, through a multitude of outlets, book reviewing has gotten out of the hands of professionals. Now a good deal of reviewing really is done by amateurs – especially of novels, as Orwell so discerningly said.

The “down-trodden, nerve-racked creature” that was Orwell’s professional book reviewer had one motivation: money. As he summed it up, “In much more than nine cases out of ten … the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ ”

But we amateurs are not being paid. Money is an understandable motive for nearly every human action, but what motivation do we have?

There is, of course, one noble reason to review books, one that is near to the heart of every book-lover: to get more books. If you review books, publishers and authors will give you books to review. And being unpaid, you can accept only the books you actually want to read. And keep them.

Sometimes reviews are simply a way to talk about books. (There are people who like to talk about books, and people who like to talk generally.) Sometimes there’s more calculation than that – or perhaps I should say more purpose, lest this observation be mistaken for what they call a value judgment: Some people review books with an eye toward a whole genre, or an industry, or culture in general.

A social, and perhaps a community, side of it has developed as well. The genius of Goodreads is that it’s a social site that revolves around books, and blog tours provide opportunities to find and connect with people who share your interests. In a community of readers, reviewing books becomes social.

Another reason to review books is, of course, that one enjoys writing reviews. Probably all amateur reviewers do enjoy it, but I think that most people who review regularly need more motivation to invest so much time, not to mention the effort of sitting in front of a blank screen and trying to muster a series of coherent thoughts.

When we are, as Christians, conscious of the two greatest commandments, our reviewing will also be shadowed by a hope, however modest, that we will be useful to readers, to the author, and to God.

But whatever purpose or motivation anyone has for reviewing a book, the way to go about it is always the same. First, read the book (and pay attention). Second, think about the book, what stood out as different or made an impression on you, how it felt and how it sounded, what it was and what it was meant to be. Think about what was said and done, and take a stab at the meaning of it.

And then say something about the book worth saying.

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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