Book reviews are different from reviews on, say, massage parlors, yes? How are they different? Let me count the ways.
- People don’t agonize joyously/pontificate endlessly/wax poetically about massage parlor reviews. They do books.
- Exhibit A: Fiction Writers Review had a whole series of articles on book reviews, including The Good Review, Some Thoughts on Reviewing Poetry, and my favorite Owl Criticism.
- Exhibit B: all the hyperlinks from the Fiction Writers Review pieces to other articles on book reviews. (The Internet is like a bag of chips; you eat one, and you gotta eat ’em all, or at least walk away bloated and groaning.)
- Exhibit C: yours truly jumping on the bandwagon
- People read massage parlor reviews for one overwhelming reason: to decide whether they should get a massage at the parlor. They have practical questions that they want to answer, questions like, “Is this parlor good? Will I feel happy leaving it? Should I go to another parlor?” Book reviewers, on the other hand, view “practical” as a pejorative.
- Addressing objection A: yes, people who read massage parlor reviews pay attention to the writing of the reviews. Nonetheless, they pay attention not for style, but rather evidence of credibility. Did the reviewer actually visit the parlor? What commonalities does he/she have with what I’m looking for? Will I enjoy the massage if he did? A better written review conveys trustworthiness, is appreciated as such, and not, say, as blazing radical thoughts on the art of massage parlor criticism.
- Addressing objection B: yes, one can read book reviews for practical reasons. Should I buy this book? Should I stock it (if I’m part of that vanishing tribe, the bookstore owners)? Who should I recommend this book to? However, such reading, and such reviews are not good reviews. “. . . what does this sort of review teach us about being readers? Or, as fellow writers, about craft or style or execution? What does it tell us about technique? About literary trends? About the voices of contemporary fiction and how they relate, connect to, or riff on the long history of writing that has come before them?”, asks Jeremiah Chamberlin. Reading between the dripping disdain, I got that his answer is “nothing”. They may as well be massage parlor reviews.
Why are they different? Let me count my speculations.
- Reviews are writing about writing. Reading a book review is reading. In contrast, reading a massage parlor review is definitely not getting a massage. Accordingly, book reviews are judged by the same criteria that writing is judged: construction, form, stuff that Charles Baxter terms the “formal properties” of the book. Massage parlor reviews are not.
- Books form a chain of discussion. They do not go linearly from being written to being read. Writing and reading are but two links in the chain & in between, mediation and discussion flourish. We have editors, book clubs, authors’ readings, exchange of information between readers of the same book, and finally formal assessment, i.e. the field of literary criticism, of which, reviews, or writing on writing, are a part. (Of course, we also have meta-meta-writing, like the current blog post.) I’m not aware that massages involve so many words.
- Book reviewers are literary creatures. It’s part of their make up to wax poetically, whatever they’re discussing. Massage parlor reviewers, perhaps not so much.
- Discarded explanations:
- Book reviewers get paid; massage reviewers do not. As such, book reviewers put out a higher-quality products. Substitute “massage parlor” for Zagat, Lonely Planet, or any other paid publication, and this explanation should fall by the wayside.
- Books are complex; massages are not. Therefore, an assessment of one is more complicated than the other. Rebuttal: doctor’s services are complex; reviews of doctors’ offices are not.