Ersatz enthusiasm is much rarer than simple incompetence among reader-critics – but there's also a good deal of worthwhile opinion
Should I join the ranks of the bloggers? I had serious doubts. Blogging, as anything other than an exercise in unrestrained egoism, seemed to demand a commitment to regular substantial posting that I wasn't sure I wanted to undertake. I had read too many posts that clearly sprang more from the writer's consuming love of the sound of his own voice than from having anything useful to say. And who was reading these blogs? Would I find myself preaching to an audience of the converted? What would be the point?
For better or worse, I preferred to place my writing where it might be seen and read and have an effect. As a working-class boy by origin, I preferred a potential audience that wasn't limited to the demographic of readers of the literary pages. Internet reviewing seemed to combine a number of advantages. I was already reading the books. I could post when I chose. I was under no compulsion to review any particular book (and I still don't review everything I read). I would have no boss, and, working unpaid, I would be genuinely independent. I could review any book that took my fancy, rather than having my reading dictated by an editor's judgement or publisher's schedule.
On the downside, unlike a professional reviewer, I would have no income stream, no early access to review copies or proofs, and no particular authority. I would be reviewing for the hell of it.
But where to post? I chose to place my reviews on Amazon's UK site. Immediately the question arises: why would you do that? Why give away review material to a commercial site? My answer is always the same: because that's where the readers and the other reviews are.
As a reviewer, my perspective is that of a reader. I review to inform other readers, not to impress publishers, academics or writers, not purely to gratify myself. I wanted to place my reviews among others, not in isolation, because readers like a range of opinions. The discipline of writing within review guidelines would be a useful corrective to the inevitable flights of ego. And I would use my real name: not because anyone would recognise it, but because I felt that it was a basic guarantee of the integrity of the review.
I didn't set out on this course – which has now seen me publish something over 200 reviews of varying lengths – to be "an internet reviewer". But I wouldn't have persisted if I hadn't believed that reader reviews are of value. I have been reading online reviews for more than 15 years now, and while I would be the first to concede that it would be foolish to depend on nothing else, it seems equally silly to insist that the fact that they appear on commercial sites must mean that they are necessarily valueless.
Bad and useless reviews are a fact of life, of course - the flip side of the coin of freedom of comment. In my view, the deliberately fraudulent "sock puppet" reviews whose exposure attracts journalistic comment are enormously outnumbered by reviews that are simply unhelpful: reviews in which the reviewer, while genuine, has forgotten that a review comment is a service to others, not an opportunity for a display of personality. Such reviews are generally easy to detect and ignore. Excessive praise coupled with surprising vagueness about specifics gives away cousin Bert, who was begged for a review but hasn't read the book. Abuse of competing writers trips up the sock-puppeteering author. Unbounded enthusiasm for everything and everybody betrays the fan.
The qualities that make a good online reader review are the same qualities that make for a good review anywhere. When I read a review, I ask myself: has the reviewer read the book with attention? Does he seem to know what he's talking about? Does he seem prejudiced? Does what he says about what I don't know gibe with what I do know? The answers to these questions determine whether I will trust the reviewer – which is more important than whether the final judgment on a particular book is yea or nay.
Full essay at The Guardian