I have a confession to make. I recently read a P.D. James novel and hated it. Okay, maybe not hated. But every time I recall the experience, every time I’m tempted by the thick lure of a James paperback, the dull grey memory of Death in Holy Orders washes over me?along with a sense of being duped by the rave reviews that convinced me to buy it. And now I can’t help wondering: how many bestsellers have been created by critics, not writers?
Historically, readers relied on the well-respected opinions of professional reviewers?those voices on high that opined from places like The Saturday Evening Post or The New Yorker, and that could make (or break) a book’s chances. We’ve got book bloggers, Goodreads, and Amazon now, but professional reviews still carry a lot of weight.
Not only are they splashed across covers and front matter, they also influence buying decisions at libraries. In fact, one public librarian mentioned them twice in a guest blog at Writer Beware. Along with admitting that libraries base a ?majority . . . of selections? on the critics? reviews, she notes that bad reviews can quickly consign a book to your local library’s Neverland.
So as I browsed the airport bookstore that day, It’s no surprise that I was hooked by the rave reviews in James’s book. ?P.D. James is a great writer at the very top of her art,? wrote the Roanoke Times reviewer. ?James’s characters . . . are so deliciously sketched out,? said Entertainment Weekly. Equally glowing praise came from The New York Times Book Review.
But halfway through the long, dull plod of Holy Orders, I began to wonder if those professional reviewers were talking about the same book. It wasn’t the first time, either. After seeing high praise for Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, including The Washington Post calling it ?a modern masterpiece,? I attempted them myself?but even my best efforts weren’t enough to slog through any of the instalments to the end.
Trouble is, I’d already become part of the machinery that drives up book sales and propels writers onto bestseller lists, even though I found those books so dreary they put me to sleep. Which got me doing the math. How many book clubs, libraries, and individual readers have launched a book up the charts based on what the pros say, only to dislike it? Indeed, how many bestsellers have achieved that status because readers truly consider them ?best,? instead of simply because they sold based on popular influence?
It’s impossible to know, of course, since most readers won’t take the time or trouble to return a book they didn’t like. And publishers certainly don’t make that data public.
It seems to me, though, that as traditional publishing mechanisms are slowly dismantled, It’s far from being a death knell for literature. Readers and writers are more involved in the publishing process than ever before, from self-publishing to online reviews. As those alternative review sources grow (and as measures are put in place to stop people from rigging the system), it could spell a major shift in which titles hit the bestseller lists.
Coincidentally, P.D. James has an intriguing new project set for release this fall?Death Comes to Pemberley, a crime novel that puts the characters of Pride and Prejudice smack in the middle of a whodunit. It’s got loads of promise: a murder mystery, period drama, familiar characters. So much promise, in fact, that I’m tempted to give Phyllis Dorothy James White another try?no matter what the critics say.