It’s easy to be believe that the latest bestseller is a ground-breaking panorama of passion, tragedy and humour with an insightful edge surpassing the combined wisdom of Austen, Tolstoy and Cartland. You’re hearing about this new book everywhere, so it must be good. Then you read the reviews. And you realize the bestselling book of 2012 is not necessarily the best-written book of the year.
If you prefer to judge a book by its content rather than its bestseller status, you can turn to reviews to make an informed decision before you buy. Bestsellers are worthy of discussion simply because they are bestsellers, so most of them will build up a portfolio of between ten and twenty reviews, from professional book critics. Editorial reviews, such as those by professional book critics at New York Times tend to have the most authentic analysis. Some reviews will help you recognise the latest book as a promising new friend; others will make you question why the book was published at all.
A survey of the bestsellers currently on idreambooks.com, a book discovery site that aggregates editorial book reviews to generate a highly authentic rating, reveals that only half of the books on the current bestseller list are critically acclaimed. So if you’re curious about the truth behind the latest bestselling masterpiece, you can check the critically derived rating before you dive into an anthology of reviews.
If you are a loyal fan of Mary Higgins Clark, you might choose to ignore the frowning cloud next to her latest bestseller, The Lost Years (only 52% of the reviews were favourable). Devotees of James Patterson might prefer Now You See Her (with 86% approval rating) to his other current bestsellers, 9th Judgement with 66% or The Postcard Killers with 63%. I can’t help wondering whether Patterson could improve his critical ranking if he stopped trying to have so many bestsellers on the chart at the same time. But Patterson – who is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having more New York Times bestsellers than any other writer – probably knows what he’s doing.
Personally, I love reading the reviews themselves – especially the bad ones. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all positive reviews resemble one another, all critical reviews are scathing in their own way. Tina Fey’s bestselling memoir, BossyPants has earned a borderline score of 73% approval rating. While the positive reviews dutifully report “I laughed out loud at every page” while paying homage to Fey’s biting wit and comic timing, the negative reviews have a certain biting wit of their own.
That Woman by Anna Sebba, the latest biography of the notorious Wallis Simpson, falls just below 70%. All the critics acknowledge the challenge Sebba faced in presenting the complex saga of an extremely unsympathetic character but only 68% of reviewers believe she succeeded in meeting the challenge. (Although Wallis would be gratified to know That Woman scored much higher than Elizabeth the Queen). My favourite negative review, by Steve Donoghue of Open Letters Monthy, begins by jeering at the cover photograph chosen for That Woman: “The taut, sinewy grasper trying her best to look thoughtful, vulnerable, and even alluring, ‘that woman’ is Wallis Warfield Simpson…” Donoghue’s review was so enjoyable and thought-provoking, I’m secretly hoping he’ll stretch it out into his own biography of the Duchess of Windsor.
Like Wallis herself, most books only begin as bestsellers through the public interest in a prolific author or a popular subject. They remain on the best-seller list when critics and reader agree that the book’s unique narrative, descriptive power or sheer readability entitles it to bestseller status. So if you prefer some flirtatious courtship before embarking on a long-term relationship with your next book, try reading the reviews, especially the editorial ones. And when you’re ready to make the commitment, you’re sure to enjoy at least one happy weekend curled up together in your armchair.
Kirsten Ehrlich Davies is a Literary Analyst at idreambooks.com, a web app that aggregates editorial reviews from publications like NY Times to generate a highly authentic book rating.