15/04/2017 4:29 AM AEST | Updated 15/04/2017 6:25 AM AEST

Are Book Reviews A 5-Star Idea?

The brave, new(ish) world of citizen reviews can inform, but they can also misguide.

I don't have great expectations about my own reviewing skills, but I might test them out.
psphotograph via Getty Images
I don't have great expectations about my own reviewing skills, but I might test them out.

Never has it been easier to write a review. Eat at a restaurant where the service is sluggish and you can post a scathing diatribe before the dishes have been cleared. Attend a concert and you can write a running commentary on the performance during the interval. Sell your house and you can rate the agent before the ink on the contract is dry.

The citizen reviewer is omnipresent and all-powerful, and while experts might be losing some of their authority, Luke from Corio's opinion is held aloft.

I have been thinking about all of this as I approach the end of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. While in some ways I would like to review this much-loved book, I can't get past the feeling that I don't really have the right. After all, writing any book seems to me to be such a herculean effort that it would be impossible, or at least arrogant, of me to review it. And given the subjective nature of reading, is it possible to apply any kind of star system to such a complicated beast as a work of fiction?

Kurt Vonnegut was clear in his opinion of the impact of professional book reviewers on the authors whose books they wrote about:

"As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

I shudder to think about what his view might have been of the citizen reviewer who wields their mighty sword today.

I am not the only one who has expressed doubts about the rise of the citizen review. Doctors, lecturers and teachers have pointed out the danger of trusting reviews from members of the public who are at best untrained, and at worst, potentially unstable or aggrieved. A former high school teacher led a concerted campaign to shut down the Rate My Teacher website after becoming angered by the vicious and defamatory comments posted on the site, with some reviews proving insulting and even ending careers.

A recent article in The Conversation questioned the accuracy of online reviews or ratings for products, revealing "most online reviews are too simple and may misguide consumers". An analysis of ratings for 1,272 products, compared with objective quality scores from the independent website Consumer Reports (a bit like Choice in Australia), revealed average user ratings correlated poorly with the scores from the consumer report. The difference was attributed to the broad range of criteria such as subjective aspects of the use of the products (appearance, popularity, emotional benefits), and that many reviews were based on small samples. In addition, reviews are usually written by those with strong feelings about a product, skewing the results. Of course, reviews and ratings are also regularly contaminated by bogus entries from the marketing departments of the businesses themselves.

All of this is not to say that the citizen review is a bad thing -- reviews of products and services abound across the internet and many are engaging, relevant and helpful. In fact, I have come to rely on popular ratings and reviews when searching for a hotel, restaurant or movie.

People want to know what their next-door neighbour thought of Big Little Lies, rather than the opinion of the critic who has a degree in the history of literature.

And while I might be uneasy about the role of the citizen review to the exclusion of the expert one, and about the flippancy with which we can ascribe stars to an object of the emotional and artistic value of a book, I understand that reviews play an important role in offering an insight into the opinion of everyday Australians.

It appears that is exactly what people are after. They trust their peers and want to discuss the latest book releases with them, whether in their local book club or on Goodreads. They want to know what their next-door neighbour thought of Big Little Lies, rather than the opinion of the critic who has a degree in the history of literature.

And maybe that is where the real value of book reviews lie -- not in ascribing some kind of rating to a book, but as an opportunity for readers to compare notes. Reviews provide an online 'watercooler', where readers can discuss what they have been reading. In this way, it is an entirely different prospect to the online reviews of other products. It is not a way of measuring up a product for purchase, but the opening of a bookish conversation.

So, perhaps I will take a step into a brave, new(ish) world of citizen reviews and write about Jane Eyre. I'll just remember that I'm not critiquing Charlotte Bronte, but joining a discussion with other booklovers about my favourite topic: books.

For more on books, visit ReadAbility books blog.