The Art of the Online Review

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Recently, I recommended a book to a good friend of mine with the promise of being available as a sounding board for her reactions. As someone who has always enjoyed the act of live-tweeting — both performing it and reading it — I was happy to volunteer for what would be a kind of retroactive book club. After serving as her sounding board through its arduous 720 pages of pain and loss and dashed hope (yeah, it’s A Little Life), I was rewarded with a link to her Goodreads review of the book.

The review was gorgeous, capacious. I remember once attending a panel at AWP in which writers read the one-star reviews for their books and the results were mostly hilarious in how terse or trite they could be. “A real stinker!” read one; another complained the main character wasn’t nice enough. But my friend had not only devoted her time to writing a more thorough review of the book than what I had seen most publications run, she’d done it for a book she genuinely enjoyed. She had drawn together her thoughts in a piece that, while not without a handful of critiques, ultimately praised A Little Life for being an overwhelming success.

There is something extraordinary about the person who writes a nine-paragraph Yelp review extolling the service at the local Applebee’s or who spends the time embellishing the Wikipedia page of a favorite artist. Certainly, there are numerous examples of lengthy and entertaining critiques — Pete Wells’s legendary takedown of Guy Fieri’s restaurant comes to mind — and I continue to be fascinated by individuals who devote their time to producing in-depth analyses or critiques that are mostly of praise. Particularly, individuals who do such a thing for free.

It’s hard not to imagine every review as just a shout into the abyss. It’s why something like “A real stinker!” makes sense: it’s to the point. It says, “I would highly recommend you don’t buy this book.” While Wells’s review of Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar is a work of art and comedy itself, the very nature of critique lends itself to a rant. It’s amusing to plumb the depths of hate. It’s harder to discuss admiration with nuance and fairness. And if discussing it isn’t hard enough, it’s difficult to persuade someone to read a lengthy review written by an anonymous reader on Goodreads.

So why do it? Avoiding the inevitable tie-back to the whole “why make art?” question, I can’t help but think that there must be some merit to writing about the books you read. Several friends of mine keep book journals to reflect upon the things they’ve read, and I suppose the act of writing a careful and thorough review on Goodreads allows the writer to process the material.

Of course, this phenomenon is not without its ethical complications. In the end, Goodreads and similar websites — as well as the authors themselves — benefit from what is essentially unpaid labor. It’s hard not to say that Wikipedia more or less convinced enthusiasts to write and maintain an encyclopedia for free. Or, that in a time where so much editorial work has become unpaid in exchange for “exposure,” the act of writing a Goodreads or a Yelp review just continues to perpetuate the idea that unpaid editorial labor is an acceptable standard.

Nonetheless, I admire the dedicated online reviewers. I’m grateful that they exist: if not only for their candor, but also for the fact that they have allowed me to deepen my perspective on a book many a time. The Internet has opened many avenues for collaborative art forms, and I’d like to elevate the online review as one such example.


Image: “Star Sign” by Pavel Ignatov.

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