Inspired By the Discussion Over at CCBC, I’ve Come to a Realization about NF Reviews
The discussion over at the CCBC listserv was supposed to be about professional reviews — which ones do people read, which are useful, how, why, how do reviewers review, etc. Before that thread ever began the discussion lurched to one side as Debbie Reese described her experience as a reviewer and her conviction that she needed to bring her Native American perspective to reviews — which soon set sail into the wars over authenticity and who gets to speak for whom. All both fervent and familiar. But as I read the posts something hit me — a fundamental difference between what an author thinks a review is and what many/most reviewers aim to accomplish.
An author who has labored on a book for a year, say, of course wants a star, a pat on the head, a boost in sales, a sense that his/her book will be on the table when award committees meet. But in addition to wanting approval, the author wants engaged understanding — wants to be read closely, wants the reviewer to notice the care that went into crafting that sentence, selecting this — not that — piece of art, making that last correction that incorporates a new insight from a scholar. To the author, a review is not just a pass-fail binary judgement (much as it is that), but also an engaged reading — a first response speaking for thoughtful readers. But almost all reviews in our world do not aim to accomplish any of the above. In fact, they see themselves as the first of many reviews. That is, the reviewer is advising a librarian, a teacher, a parent, a bookseller on whether to add the book to a collection. The reviewer assumes that the teacher, parent, young reader will then read the book and evaluate it. In other words the reviewer merely advises on whether you should have the book — with the idea that the next reader, the real end user, will go on to make the deep engaged read on his or her own.
See the fundamental difference in review needs and objectives? The author wants engagement, the reviewer is deciding on collection development. That is one reason these flare up issues — authenticity, cultural diversity, stereotyping, harmful words or phrases — loom so large. They are pass fail judgments, not engaged responses to the book as a whole. One reason why a librarian can even consider buying a database instead of books is because books have been reduced to a pass fail checklist — which databases pass with flying colors. If reviews cannot give readers a sense of the depth and texture of a book, the buyers have no way of knowing that the book is any more than the sum of its grade level, interest, lexile score, match to standards and scope and sequence needs, and possible areas of dispute or alarm.
I don’t know how to fix this bad fit between books and reviews, but it is clear to me that it exists. What do you think?