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Book reviews: too nice and maybe also too fake?

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

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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."


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