Book reviews: too nice and maybe also too fake?

Book reviews have gotten some negative press this summer. 

Computer science professor Bing Lu estimates that one-third of all online reviews are fake.

For all the fuss about too-racy books, too-obscene YA books, and banned books, book reviews, it seems, sometimes stir more controversy than the books themselves.

Writers have long argued that the book review was a silly exercise at best. Edgar Allan Poe called reviews a mere “tissue of flatteries,” as the Guardian recently reminded us. Virginia Woolf once said “the clash of completely contradictory opinions cancel each other out.” Perhaps most damning was Elizabeth Hardwick, who, in 1959, had this to say about book reviews: “sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns…. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.”

Today's literati remain equally at odds over the value of the book review. Jacob Silverman stirred up a tempest in the literary teapot earlier this month when he suggested in Slate  that the online book culture has spawned an epidemic of "niceness" and turned book reviews  too tame. Salon's Laura Miller responded with a defense of positive reviews, while Dwight Garner of The New York Times made a case for "critics who are actually critical."

But all of the above is, at least, honest controversy about professional reviews. What to make of business-for-hire review writing, the less-than-ethical practice that had one entrepreneur advertising on Craigslist for folks to churn out positive reviews of books for $15 a pop?

According to an excellent expository piece in the New York Times, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” Todd Jason Rutherford made a small fortune selling positive reviews of self-published Amazon titles. He started his website, GettingBookReviews.com, in the fall of 2010. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes the Times’s David Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”

Orders started pouring in for good reviews and Rutherford quickly realized he couldn’t produce all the reviews himself. “How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.”

“Before he knew it,” writes the Times, “he was taking in $28,000 a month.”

Rutherford’s business was eventually outed and forced to stop churning out paid reviews – but by then Rutherford has flooded Amazon with scores of phony reviews (4,531, to be exact) by folks looking to make a quick buck, the vast majority of whom had never even opened the book they were reviewing. 

Amazon has said it took down some, though not all, of Rutherford’s paid reviews, according to the NYT piece. Still, Bing Lu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that fully one-third of all online reviews are fake – and it’s nearly impossible to tell the fake from the real.

And though many users never put full stock in online reviews, literary or otherwise, this latest news has us wondering what to trust.

(For the record, Rutherford is now selling R.V.s in Oklahoma City and says “he is now suspicious of all online reviews – of books or anything else. ‘When there are 20 positive reviews and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,’ he said. ‘I’m jaded.’”)

So what’s a reader to do?

Use smaller and more traditional outlets. For some quick feedback, turn to smaller, more specialized sites, like Goodreads or Librarything, where you’re more likely to find genuine reviews by trustworthy readers.

And don’t forget the traditional book review (we won't be shy about mentioning the reviews provided right here at CSMonitor.com/Books), those literary appraisals maligned by writers like Woolf and Poe, and which may now be making a comeback thanks to Rutherford and company.

“[I]t ... seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review,” writes the Guardian. “Reviews in, say, newspaper book sections ... are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books…Yes, there’s only one voice rather than the wisdom of the crowd, but these critics are convincing, independent, entertaining and trustworthy enough that, time and again, they are paid to offer their opinion.”

“And not in the way that Todd Rutherford was paid, by the authors of the books themselves.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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