A scene: You’ve just read (and re-read) the final paragraph of a novel you’ve been savoring, and you’re almost mad at the author for wrapping the story up so neatly, so poetically. How dare she refuse to imply the possibility of a sequel? What are you supposed to read now?
It’s tempting to peruse Amazon, your cursor hovering over what Customers Also Bought. You find a big, 800-page tome -- a Pulitzer winner that should hold you over for a while -- but wait, what’s this? A 3.5-star rating? You don’t want to be dissuaded -- the book sounds smart, fast-paced and full of heart! But, alas, you decide look elsewhere, hoping for something in the four-to-five-star range.
It’s something so many of us readers are guilty of: allowing aggregated user reviews to influence which books we pick up. But while these star systems featured on Amazon and Goodreads serve a purpose, they loom too largely over reader activity. Which makes sense; they’re the only quantitative assessments we have of books' worth.
That's why Literary Hub, a site dedicated to book news, essays and excerpts, has launched Book Marks, which they call a "Rotten Tomatoes for books," aggregating professional critics’ takes on new literary novels and assigning them a letter grade.
Andy Hunter, publisher of Lit Hub, told HuffPost how the endeavor will work. The site currently has a stable of 70 outlets with professional book reviews, ranging from The New York Times to blogs like The Millions and including HuffPost’s weekly book review, The Bottom Line. Once three of the 70 have covered a title, it gets added to Book Marks.
Because book reviewers aren’t prone to slapping a rating on their takes, Lit Hub editors -- many of whom have worked as professional critics themselves -- assign the reviews letter grades. But, Hunter notes, the site welcomes reviewers to submit letter grades of their own, to avoid any miscommunication. “We want this to be an open, collaborative thing that book reviewers are happy about,” he said.
“I think books are an extremely important part of our culture, and I think professional critics are people who devote their lives to engaging with books in a substantive way,” Hunter said, explaining why Lit Hub embarked on the project. “A book reviewer has a responsibility to talk about a book’s worth within the context of its peers and the history of its genre and the works of other authors that are tackling similar subjects.”
Hunter’s neat summation of the value of literary criticism makes sense; professional reviewers are tasked with understanding which works might’ve inspired a book, how a book compares with an author’s larger body of work, and how a book fits into a broader cultural context. Reviews, then, aim to be more than glib appraisals -- they’re meant to be thorough, thoughtful assessments.
But reviews aren’t embraced by everyone in the book world. Many sites -- including BuzzFeed Books and the popular blog Book Riot -- have explicitly stated missions that exclude reviewing books, in order to avoid the flak that comes with a negative critique. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” BuzzFeed Books Editor Isaac Fitzgerald said shortly after he was hired.
The climate of positivity that these approaches have created has been, in many ways, well, positive. Women and writers of color have been empowered to discuss their own literary preferences, rather than feeling invalidated by the old guard, which, as the equity-focused nonprofit VIDA points out each year, is still run by white dudes. But a more favorable long-term solution, it would seem, would be for outlets to employ women reviewers and reviewers of color, rather than eschewing professional book reviewing altogether.
Further complaints, most recently slung by Bookslut founder Jessa Crisipin, center on the perceived nepotism of book reviewing. Reviewers, she purports, are influenced too heavily by publishers, contributing to an insular community that doesn’t allow room for subversive takes. It is perhaps due to these criticisms of criticism that Hunter noticed “so much change in terms of the media [...] newspapers moving to websites and cutting down book review sections or hiding them on sub-menus.”
It’s an altruistic move on Lit Hub’s part to offer a solution to the multifaceted, hotly debated problem of professional book reviewing. Critiquing may have its critics, but it still serves a function that's practical for readers, and, often, supportive of writers.
“We felt that we could do something positive in terms of bringing these reviews to the fore,” Hunter said. “Putting them in front of people, where they could be useful.”