Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Friday in the News: Salon and the case for the positive book review

Setting Up the Case: Are book reviews overly positive and is that a problem?

As a librarian, collection development is one of the hardest, most time consuming parts of my job.  My goal is to build a collection that will circulate.  To meet this goal I have to understand my patrons – in this case teens – both as a general group and the interests of teens unique to my location.  Having worked now in 4 different library systems and 2 different states I can tell you, local culture matters. A lot.  Understanding who my patrons are and what they want, I now have to find a way to meet those needs.  My #1 tool: the book review.

The Background: The goal of collection development

Well, first I have to spend a lot of time pouring through an ever increasing number of sources to find titles.  These sources include professional journals, online sources and even Twitter.  Twitter is in fact one of my favorite places to stay involved in the book review/discussion loop.

When looking at titles to purchase, I need some basic overview of the plot, any relevant themes, and a basic look at whether or not it is well written and will appeal to teen readers.  It’s not as easy as you think.

Given the exploding nature of the ya market today, this is actually harder than it seems.  You see, there are TONS of ya books that will be published this year and I have a teeny tiny budget.  So I have to find what is popular, what is good, and what is unique to make sure that I have a popular, diverse, high circulating collection.  High circulating is important because that means my teens are checking out the books and my administrators are seeing that teens use the library and are increasing my funding. If there is any funding to increase with, which is increasing unlikely at this point in the life cycle of libraries.  I discuss collection development a little more in a previous post entitled Building the Stacks.

Book reviews are an important tool in librarianship

The Issue: Book reviews as a tool

Because I don’t have a lot of time to read every. single. review. out there, I don’t have a lot of desire to read reviews that basically say, “eh, this book is alright I guess.”  I want to know if a book is amazing, important, or relevant.  Or if there are books that I should definitely stay away from because they are deeply flawed in some way.  I wrote about my philosophy a while ago in the blog post Do You Write Negative Reviews: The TLT RA Philosophy.  And the truth is, writing a review for a so-so book is actually quite challenging because the gist of it is, in fact, “eh, whatevs – maybe.”

I feel like, given the amount of time and staffing and resources that exist in the lives of librarians today, knowing what other librarians think you SHOULD be adding to your collection is the most helpful approach.  But, and isn’t there always a but, sometimes there are elements of a book, or a genre, that merit some deeper discussion.  For example, I wrote a piece in Trend Watch: Darkness Ruled the Land where I discuss the fact that although I liked Embrace by Jessica Shirvington (and The Mr. LOVED it), that I was concerned that there was an incident that could have been construed as rape and I was wondering why no one was talking about it.  For the record, The Mr. recently read the sequel, Entice (which he also LOVED), and he said I would be very happy with it and I can rest assured about the whole matter.

As another example, I know that TLT blogger Christie Gibrich is working on a piece about an element of Every Day by David Levithan that really bothered her and she feels that we need to be discussing.  That piece will probably be up next week for the curious.  But a book review is quite different than a book discussion, the goals are different.

The Complication: Book reviews vs. book discussion

That is all a very long lead in to point out the fact that recently, there has been some online discussion in Slate and Salon about whether or not the online book community is “too nice” (links at the end of post).  The online world is definitely changing the landscape of the book world.  But I also feel that some of the discussion is muddied by the fact that, once again, there is a difference between a book review and a more in depth book discussion. 

In today’s article at Salon, Laura Miller (who I strongly had issues with earlier this week in her discussion of YA literature and “prestige”), makes a case for positive book reviews.  Miller’s main point is this: “Since the average new book is invisible to the average reader, critics who have a choice usually prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy.”  Which is what I said months ago. It’s a matter of time and volume.  And the truth is, things happen so much more quickly in today’s world.  At times there is a new movie – and a new number one movie – every weekend.  And there are a large number of new teen titles released every week.  With such high turnover, it makes more sense to focus on what we do need in our collections as opposed to what we don’t.

It’s also important to note that a book review is not the same thing as a book discussion.  The goal of the book review is to help people make reading and purchasing decisions, the other involves taking a more in depth look at a work and elements of that work.  Again, I refer to my example of Embrace.  I could bring up the issue in a book review, but since you haven’t read the book yet we can’t really talk about it.  In fact, I reviewed Embrace back in February and gave it a lot of praise because it is a good book and I thought it would be very popular and get good circulation in the library (I think I was right). It wasn’t until later, having given people the time to read the book, that I initiated a discussion about the scene in question that bothered me about Embrace.  And the fact is, the scene in question didn’t really negate the overall appeal of the book, it was just a thorny issue for me as a reader – and those are two entirely separate issues.  For those of you interested, I have had some discussion with others who have read Embrace and it wasn’t an issue for them at all and they didn’t read it the same way that I did.  That is helpful information.

I mentioned earlier that I did feel like the online community was changing the landscape of book reviews and discussion, and that is very true.  I talk some about it in an earlier piece called Relational Reading Revolution.  Today reviewers and authors can interact, and if you follow any of the online discussion you know that sometimes this works out well and other times it does not.  I have Tweeted an @ to an author for a book that I have reviewed, but that is because I loved their book and wanted to let them know.  I have had a couple of authors write a comment to my review, but never in any negative way.  At ALA I had a whole discussion with author Michael Grant about something that I said was an issue in his novel BZRK, and it was one of the best conversations I have ever had in my life.  And as you know, I have written gushing fan letters to authors that have written books that fundamentally touched the core of who I am.  But when I need to, I also discuss the issue that I have with books.

But the truth is that who I am as a reader, a fan, and a reviewer is often quite different than who I am as a librarian.  When I review, either for VOYA or TLT, I review books as a teen services librarian.  I am looking to see if my teen readers will check out a book, enough of them at least to make it worth spending my money on it.  So I read books with a split personality, Karen the reader is reading the book and Karen the teen services librarian is reading the book.  And I read book reviews in the same way.

Another Complication: Do we still talk about books?

Miller makes this final point in her piece regarding  positive book reviews: “Believe me, I, too, wish we lived in a time when every educated adult tried to read 10 substantive novels a year and liked to debate their strengths and weakness at cocktail parties the way people now talk about “Mad Men” or “Girls.” But wishing won’t make it so.”  The truth is, I think that people are having those conversations – at least they are in libraries.  Libraries often have book clubs and discussion groups. We talk at the reference and circulation desk with our patrons.  Every time I do one-on-one RA with a teen I tell them to come back and talk to me after they finished a book, and they often do. 

And since YA lit is gaining more adult readers, I even find that I am no longer the odd man out at dinner parties and we are talking about things like The Hunger Games and even recently The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, which was recommended to me by a friend.  We’re talking on our Facebook pages and on Twitter about books.  We are talking about books. 

The Verdict

For some books, I am sure that their success is almost entirely due to way that books are now discussed online.  It is so easy to retweet a review or share it on Facebook; things go viral much more quickly – and everyone wants to be reading that one book that everyone seems to be talking about.  Are book reviews changing? Yes. Is there a tendency to focus on positive book reviews?  Yes, but I think this is a good thing as it actually helps us all accomplish our goals – both as librarians and readers – in a world that is overloaded with a large volume of both books and information about books.  When we remember the goal of a book review as a collection development tool and as a reader looking for something new to read, a positive book review is, in fact, a helpful tool.  I may want to know what not to wear, but I don’t want to know what not to read – I want to know WHAT TO READ.

You can read about the discussion here:
Jacob Silverman for Slate on the epidemic of niceness in online book culture
Dwight Garner for the New York Times Magazine on a critic’s case for critics who are actually critical
Jane Hu offers a short history of book reviewing’s long decline in the Awl
Elizabeth Hardwick alerts 1959 to the decline of book reviewing in Harper’s
Emily Nussbaum reviews Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” for the New Yorker
The Case for Positive Reviews by Laura Miller