On Bogus Book Reviews, Facebook Hoopla, & Why Book Reviews Even Matter

So I read with some amusement and (tempered, jaded) dismay a good piece in the NY Times about bogus, “bought” online book reviews, here. I didn’t know about any of this, exactly, but I’m not too surprised. The ‘net is a hive of hoax, that’s for sure. Facebook, for instance, into which I’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming, and now find (somewhat) interesting and (somewhat) annoying, seems like joining the Pep Squad. (I’m also well aware that what seems weird to me on FB is old hat to others, who are used to it.) Everyone is so upbeat! Everything is great! You’re fabulous! I’ve never seen so many exclamation points!! I use them just to say Hi How ya doin’!!!! You changed your profile picture!!!!! Isn’t that fabulous!!!!!!
Nevertheless (and when can you say “nevertheless” with a straight face? that funky run-on compound that looks like it’s itching for hyphens?), I do try to preserve some kind of FB integrity, and only mean what I say/say what I mean. More or less. I mean, a little upbeat feelgoodism doesn’t hurt, in this dark world, does it? You do look great. Really!
But my real subject here is book reviews, both the bogus and the “real.” By real I mean the traditional idea of book reviews, the kind I’ve been doing for almost twenty years now: You (the critic, writer) are assigned a book to review by an editor (someone knowledgable about language/literature, we assume), written by someone you don’t know; the editor is essentially asking for your public opinion, not biased or slanted, or not unreasonably so (aren’t we all biased in our own particular ways?). But there’s a crucial difference between the real and the fake book reviews: I’ve reviewed for the New York Times, Houston Chronicle, and the Dallas Morning News. Never has an editor suggested what I should (or shouldn’t) think or say about a book. They edit for accuracy and style, but not content. As it should be. And I should note this: I consider my high point of reviewing when I was assigned and reviewed Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005), and my quote made it to the book jacket back page of the paperback edition, and appears in the Wikipedia page, here.  (Scroll down to the Literary Significance and Criticism heading.) I think book reviews are important, they matter. So many books are published in the world, we need some legitimate voices to offer preliminary opinions. I don’t believe everything that’s said, of course. But the best book reviews make you want to read, and that’s what matters most.

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