The expression "everyone's a critic" gets more true every day, now that every retail website offers a feedback form, and every potential purchase shows the aggregated ranking of all its past purchasers. Buy anything and you will be afforded an opportunity to tell the world what you thought of your new shirt, hotel stay or bagel.
For the most part, this is great. Like everyone, I routinely look to CitySearch or Yelp! when I need a mechanic, or I'm going to be in an unfamiliar town at lunchtime: Tell me, dear hive mind, who should fix my minivan, or where to find a good hamburger over in Newton. All this ranking carries a faint whiff of the original democratic promise of the internet. The free flow of information! The buzzing exchange of knowledge among a well-informed citizenry! (A citizenry defined, in this case, as "people shopping for stuff.")
But I start to get a little queasy when the stuff being ranked and rated isn't merely goods, but works of art.
Maybe it's because I'm a writer, and like all but the very luckiest writers I have experience getting bad reviews. There is a magical kind of nausea associated with sending forth into the world a creative expression of your very soul, then opening the New York Times and discovering how much it sucks.
But, hey, that's the gig. Being a writer means being sensitive enough to channel the world through the filter of your creativity, but thick-skinned enough to watch your baby get kicked around in the press. Plus, after marching through the Kübler-Ross stages of bad-review grief (from "future generations will recognize my genius!" to "they're just jealous!" to sulky acceptance), we can console ourselves with the belief that professional critics bring to their work some instinctual empathy for the artists under review -- an understanding of the passion and elbow grease that go into any sustained work of creativity, no matter the quality of the final product.
The question is, what happens to that empathy when this ancient dance of reviewer and reviewed meets the star-systems and feedback forms of the web?
The problem isn't that "amateurs" are doing the reviewing: the opinions of regular old readers or playgoers or whoever can be just as valuable, and usually more passionate and interesting, than those of the jaded professionals. But in a world where Amazon sells everything from books to lightbulbs, then asks the consumer to rank his purchase from zero to five, I worry that we start to forget that a book is different than a box of lightbulbs -- for the simple, cheesy reason that it emerged from the soul of a human being, and not from a light-bulb factory.
So I've decided that when it comes to being reviewed online, I can take it but I can't dish it. I am active, for example, on Goodreads.com, a site where I can find out what smart people are reading, share what's on my own nightstand, and (yes) try and get folks to buy my books. But when it comes to the site's obligatory ranking system, I give everything five stars. Beezus and Ramona? Five stars. Samaritan, by Richard Price? Five stars. Bob Dylan's Chronicles? Five stars!
Yes, I like some books better than others, but I always round up to five. It's my tiny little protest against a world that would have us weigh everything on the same scale. And it's a tribute to the fact that sending your precious book into the modern marketplace is a damn hard thing to do -- and getting harder every day.
Follow Ben H. Winters on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BenHWinters