3

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

(Almost) everyone's a critic. Really.

The adage that “everyone’s a critic” may never have been more true than it is these days, thanks to the Internet. We may prefer to call ourselves “reviewers” rather than “critics.” We may take a less formal, more personal approach than traditional criticism, discussing our subjective responses to a work rather than assessing it against objective criteria. And we may prefer not to “criticize” at all, choosing to discuss only works we feel positive about.

But that doesn’t mean that those of us who blog and tweet about product of all kinds--and that means books and movies and music just as much as it does food and fashion and travel, etc.--aren’t performing at least some of the traditional functions of the critic. On a recent Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Stephen Thompson identified those functions as “5 C’s:”
Curate
Consume
Cull
Contextualize
Care
As a writer and editor at NPR Music, these attributes factor into the “recommendation-based reviews” Thompson writes for the site. That term seems to describe what many of us are writing for our own sites. We probably do have more freedom than most professional reviewers to review only what we choose, and maybe only what we like, but the job may not be as different as we think it is...and I think those “5 Cs” are just as applicable.

Granted, professional reviewers don’t have to do so much of the job on their own; they usually have editors. I do freelance recommendation-based book reviews outside my blog as well, and I receive several galleys each month to consider for those. My editor has already sorted through many dozens more before sending out her picks to reviewers, and plenty don’t get that far. She has a method to let us know if there are any in the batches we get that she’s really like us to review, but the choices from that point on--further culling--are up to us. Once the reviews are submitted, they may be revised and further edited...and sometimes they may be edited so far they don't run at all, which is a form of curation as well, I suppose.

As non-professional reviewers, we bloggers perform some of those 5-C functions ourselves, and we may give some more weight than others. When we decide which review offers to accept, or galleys to request, or books to buy, we’re culling. Some of us don’t review every book we read, and in choosing which ones we think are worth talking about, we’re curating. Our eventual discussion of the book may include some consideration of its place in a larger context--perhaps within a genre, as part of a series, or in its overall theme. And ultimately, we find the most to say about the things we care about the most.

In the nearly five years I’ve blogged here, there’s only one book that I read for personal reasons that I finished and didn’t post about. (I just didn’t have much to say about it, and I was pressed for time with other commitments--ultimately, I didn’t care enough.) I’ve gotten much better at the culling-and-curating when it comes to accepting personal review copies and blog tours, so I’m less likely to end up with books I really don’t want to talk about, or wouldn’t care to recommend.

A survey of consumer purchasing behavior presented at the 2012 ABA Winter Institute had some interesting findings related to the power of recommendations in getting information about books:
“Readers find out about books mostly through personal recommendations (49.2%), bookstore staff recommendations (30.8%), advertising (24.4%), search engine searches (21.6%) and book reviews (18.9%). Much less important are online algorithms (16%), blogs (12.1%) and social networks (11.8%).”
I question those findings, because I think that in the current climate, there’s far more overlap between “personal recommendations,” “book reviews,” “blogs,” and “social networks” than these divisions reflect. If the Internet has allowed everyone to be a critic and has given rise to the non-professional review, the “personal recommendation” may just take different forms these days. I consider the reviews of just about every book blogger I read--and that’s a lot of book bloggers--as personal recommendations (positive or negative), and that totally mixes up those categories.

And when everyone's a critic, we have an additional job: culling and curating the criticism we consume, so that we end up with the recommendations we care about. It's one more thing to consider from a critical perspective, and personally, I think critical thinking is a critical skill. Maybe we should thank the Internet for giving us all the chance to be critics.