Do we need book reviews?

Book reviews have always been popular, now more so than ever, with easy access provided for anyone who wants to write or read one through platforms such as Goodreads and The Storygraph, as well as social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram. They have historically been both useful and enjoyable, guiding readers towards engaging with the books they read while encouraging discussion and critical thought. However, the necessity of book reviews has come into question, especially in an age of rapid social media growth leading to problems like ‘review bombing’ and misleading reviews, as well as a lack of the discussion of the book itself, which used to be the main draw for readers.

In her article Why exactly do we read book reviews?Kate Vane summarises the main point of book reviews: “Most people read reviews to answer the question, do I want to read this book?”For those who look for reviews before reading a book, they can prove invaluable in answering that question, creating a sense of excitement around the book and a desire to read it. Publishing companies have also seen the benefits to pre-reading reviews, with a growing trend of giving prominent reviewers Advance Review Copies (ARCs) of books before they are officially published in exchange for an honest review. These ARC reviews are a common occurrence on both traditional sites such as Goodreads, but also now on various social media sites too.

Reviews can also be enjoyable for readers as well, especially immediately after finishing a book, when readers want to see others’ opinions, and often see if their own opinion fits into the general trend or goes against it. The expression of opinions can generate discussion and critical thought around a book, especially on sites like Goodreads, making reading, which is often a very solitary activity, into something much more fun and sociable. Sites such as Goodreads,TikTok, and Instagram have also made reviewing – both writing and reading – much more accessible to a wider audience. This has widely been celebrated as a good thing, especially considering the insular, elitist world of traditional publishing and reviewing.

However, book reviews have recently come under fire, with many problematic aspects appearing. Reviews have always been subjective, with reviewers all having their own opinion about a book and going on to discuss it .But recently on social media sites like TikTok, this discussion can turn into something toxic very quickly, especially for those creators whose opinions don’t align with the general opinion, particularly on popular ‘BookTok’ books such as Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us. Many prominent ‘BookTok’ creators have spoken out about a culture of bullying and intimidation, leading to many being afraid to offer a dissenting opinion. This has resulted in a lack of the sociable discussion that reviews used to promote, raising a question of the necessity of reviews recently.

Reviews and the community they create online, which is in general sociable and enjoyable, as well as promoting healthy discussion, are invaluable to many readers

‘BookTok’ has had moments of controversy, but reviews especially have been criticised for a lack of critical thought. The books promoted by ‘BookTok’ tend to have a stronger focus on so-called “spice” (commonly defined as explicit sexual content) over substance, with many books being reviewed unfavourably due to a lack of “spice”, despite being received well by literary critics and other readers. This lack of critical engagement with books has been seen as a problem since reviewing sites have become popular, as reviews themselves can become weaponised, with the growth of ‘review-bombing’ – a particularly problematic trend. ‘Review-bombing’ is defined by as a “semi organised campaign of unfavourable user reviews, often as a general statement of disapproval for a creator, a publisher, or other business, rather than a general opinion about a specific product” and has seen a rise in the past few years. This action can essentially destroy a book before it is even published, and rarely has a legitimate reason behind it. Instead, mostly due to a bandwagon effect, people start reviewing a book badly before even reading it, without knowing why. ‘Review-bombing’ came into the spotlight on ‘BookTok’ recently, as author Cait Corrain admitted to ‘review-bombing’ the books of fellow debut authors and boosting her own novel. She has since been dropped by her publisher both in the US and UK, but she has clearly shown the negative impact that reviews can have on books and authors.

Overall, there are both advantages and disadvantages to reviews. For example, there are some negative aspects to reviews, especially on sites like TikTok, such as a lack of critical thought and the rise in harassment in the form of ‘review-bombing’. However, reviews and the community they create online, which is in general sociable and enjoyable, as well as promoting healthy discussion, are invaluable to many readers, and so they remain necessary despite the occasional downsides.

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