Way back in the early ’10s, around the time my first book was published, I diagnosed a problem within the indie lit community. Most of the reviews for new books in widely-read (lol) lit mags were universally positive. This makes a ton of sense, because in a lot of cases, friends reviewed friends books. You can’t trash your buddy’s stuff!
This led to a real problem that persists to this day: a lot of authors are amateur reviewers, and a lot of lit mags are run by authors, so you see a lot of reviews about how such and such book is the best thing ever. Tweets, too. What’s the problem with this? Well, say someone is interested in getting into indie lit. They’re going to go to the most prominent websites to find out what to read. Except, they’ll begin to notice that everything is getting praised. How do they trust any of these reviews? Is all of this shit actually any good?
Tastemakers and honest reviewers serve a thankless but important role in any scene. They are usually called hipsters or whatever (I’m thinking of the Needle Drop guy), but I respect their honesty and their commitment to taking the art seriously. If they have a problem with something, they talk about it!
If there isn’t a robust system for reviewing works of indie lit, that means the only serious conversations are happening around Big Five books. I think that when a book like Lauren Oyler’s comes out and gets praised AND trashed, it creates interest in a potential reader. Which side of the argument do you fall on? I may be enticed by the idea that a book could be good…but what if it could be good OR bad? Even better, what if there are well-thought-out arguments on both sides? Do you want to be a part of the “conversation”?
You might say, “well, David, Goodreads is a thing.” And boy do I ever know it. I have plenty of one-stars over there, but it’s not quite the same as an Official Magazine taking stances (or at least their reviewers doing so).
What I’d like to see is a Big Website that commits to running reviews from folks who agree to do so anonymously. The Big Website would vet the reviewers, of course, to make sure that they aren’t trolls, and they’d have a Standards & Practices set of guidelines to keep things from getting too wild (because you Can Not get too wild in 2021), but yeah. Say they assign me a book. I don’t like the book. I write a negative review. It gets published. I’d do it under my own name because fuck it, but any author has the right to do this anonymously.
What I’m suggesting is that there has be some kind of thoughtful, constructive/destructive critical eye within the “scene” that we find ourselves in. Without it, nothing is protecting the integrity of the work, and newcomers have no firm footing to stand on. A website of Honest Anonymous Tastemakers.
Mostly I’d like to see conversations around books that aren’t just about how great they are. What else are they?