Thursday, March 25, 2004

Everyone's a critic

For some time we've been hearing about how much store is put by Amazon sales ranks by authors and publishers. But it seems they're not just looking at the numbers — they're actually reading customer reviews.

"It's all part of this culture we're now seeing where, 'My opinion is just as valid as the guys at the L.A. Times,' " said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "It may not be as informed or educated and is maybe wrongheaded, but there's no question that a reader has as much right to publish their own opinion."

I don't want to read reviews that recount the plot (if it's been told once by Publisher's Weekly, that's enough). I don't much care if you loved it or hated it if I don't know who you are. I need more.

Everyone has a right to their opinion, but how much should we value it?

One of Amazon's top-rated reviewers is often solicited for her opinion and receives free books by the boxload. For nonfiction books she often supplies the table of contents in her review — extremely useful.

Johnson, 36, is a freelance writer from Yakima, Wash., with a master's in education. She is known for her relentlessly sunny reviews and once even provided a blurb on a book jacket; she'll send a book back to a publisher rather than write a bad review.

Who will criticize the critics? OK, I will.

What's with all the glowing reviews?

Take Newt Gingrich, for example. Of all 135 reviews he's posted, he's awarded 3 stars (in a 5-star system) to only 4 books, one of which was authored by Bob Woodward. Everything else he read merited 4 or 5 stars. (To be fair, in the "About me" section he states: "You will not find any bad reviews here, just the books he thinks you might enjoy.")

Perhaps predictably, Newt's taste runs to spy thrillers and military books. Robert Parker seems to be one of his favourites, and of Colleen McCullough's The October Horse: A Novel of Caesar and Cleopatra he writes, "This is the culminating sixth volume of one of the most important historical novels of our generation. . . . This is a work of genius." He may have been qualified as a Speaker, but as a literary critic I have my doubts.

Johnson gives a lot of 5-star reviews. You can't convince me that everything she reads is not only above average but exceptional. Has she not read any crap? Never felt she'd wasted her time? I don't buy it.

I'm tired of hearing, "Oh, it's pretty good for what it is." Pretty good for being a piece of trash?!

It seems people are naturally inclined to find the best in things. This is not a quality I want in a critic. Give it to me straight. I want informed and educated opinions that are objective. I'll trust the professional with the credentials. I'll gladly pay someone to read crap so that I don't have to.

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