A debate’s been going on about what is the responsibility of a reviewer. Should reviewers be authors, that is to say, what kind of understanding about the process should the reviewer bring to their critique? Should reviewers read within their area of expertise? Should, even, they write negative reviews?
All these variants of who is qualified to write them and what is appropriate to say boil down to another question: what’s the point of reviews? From the point of view of the publisher, there’s some truth to the notion that any publicity is good publicity. Given the number of books that are published every year, to get any notice at all is a step out of the mass.
From a book reader’s perspective, what’s the point? Do you choose what books to read based on reviews? I almost never do: taste is so subjective, so I don’t rely on the yes/no vote of someone I don’t know. I do read a lot of reviews, however. Partly this is because I’m not entirely a recreational reader. I mean this in two senses: I write and I work in publishing, and reviews are one way to keep up with what’s happening in a diverse, prolific industry. Also, I do a lot of reading for purposes other than entertainment.
Nevertheless, there are some books that get a lot of buzz that I’m still not going to read, and reviews help me put those books in context. The context is key for me. One kind of context, again, is the taste of the reviewer. Your brother-in-law who never saw a kung fu movie he didn’t like is a frame around what he says about the latest Jane Austen movie. Your neighbor with a PhD in economics will have another take on it. Some of this personal context is held back by reviewers, and it can feel like cheating, like the book under review didn’t have a fair shake. But that’s giving the personal frame a dominant role in the purpose of a review.
If I’m not looking for the reviewer’s likes and dislikes, why do I bother to read them? A reviewer can put the book in a larger context, not just a personal one. A review can tell me if the book is important in the genre—or new, or boundary confounding, or derivative. It can let me know about an author’s career, or intersections between TV and books and movies. It can tell me about the historical era or the setting. Why is this book getting buzz, and does it fit into an area where I’m looking for more reading material? Good reviewers can fit it into the larger literary world and keep the conversation going after “The End” of the book.
But I keep saying “a reviewer can” do these things. I don’t think a reviewer has a responsibility to do them anymore than a football player has a responsibility to throw catchable passes. To do otherwise may not be a great financial decision, but we didn’t sign a contract. It may be reassuring to authors that in the end, the reviewers are being reviewed as well.