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Professionals vs. Amateurs

June 11th, 2007 by Bob Bly

Novelist Ian McEwan doesn’t like the fact that you can post your opinion of his books on

“I don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing,” says McEwan in an interview with Time magazine (6/18/07, p. 6).

“Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom, and judgment,” he says. “I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.”

Which do YOU value most — a thoughtful review by a professional reviewer or writer in the New York Times Book Review, or reader reviews on

Do you think McEwan is right — that reviewing takes expertise and should be done only by professionals, and not by amateurs?

Do you — or don’t you — think that, as and other review sites seem to believe, anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s?


This entry was posted on Monday, June 11th, 2007 at 8:15 pm and is filed under General, Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

55 responses about “Professionals vs. Amateurs”

  1. Ted Demopoulos, Blogging for Business said:

    Perhaps McEwan doesn’t want people to voice opinions? I’ve got a couple of book reviews myself from people who apparently hate me!

    But the fact is that people have opinions, and today have multiple outlets to broadcast them far and wide.

    Who do I trust?

    For book and movie reviews, personally I trust “amateurs” the most.

    In some other areas I trust the pros. For example, I’m much more interested in what Roy Hersh or Robert Parker, professional wine critics, think about 2004 Vintage Port than even I do. I simply don’t have the experience to tell from a taste how good it’ll be in 20 or 30 years when it’s ready to drink.

    I was also more interested in my professional home inspector’s opinion of the shape of the house I eventually bought than my wife’s or handyman’s.

  2. Stephen Dean said:

    I agree with his statements, but user reviews can help me pick. uses a percentage to show how often your movie ratings match the reviewers… so if you match 80% of the time, you’re more likely to get value from their review.

  3. John Dumbrille said:

    While we’re at it – Anyone care to comment on the efficacy of Wikipedia? Like, times change.

  4. Tom said:

    I think the key point to make here – especially with the advent of online and social media is that people like to read reviews from people on a similar ‘level’ as themselves. If you’re a Phd student studying literature then you probably want to read a review exploring the concepts and themes of the novel/book. If, however, you read a chapter a day on the tube then you probably want to read reviews which say “great!!” or “really moving, fantastic writing” or “i’d recommend to anyone”.

    The issue Ian has is that he is reading the reviews from all kinds of different people and he can’t relate to most of them. His point that a professional review is better only holds true IF IT’S THE ONLY REVIEW YOU READ since it will be written to appeal to all different types of reader. If however, you can read lots of different reviews then you will tend to trust and respect the ones which you identify with.

    This is the power of the internet and social media in that you pick and choose the parts which you identify with and leave the rest. I think Ian is missing this….

  5. Gloria Hildebrandt said:

    When I started reviewing books professionally, it was pointed out to me that there is a difference between reviews and criticism. Anyone can review a book; criticism implies more specialized knowledge. Anyone’s reviews can indicate what the market might think. They might not give a good evaluation of a book’s actual worth. A book might be an important contribution to its genre; at the same time it might not be very entertaining.

  6. Michael said:

    Well, some people have agendas when they review (not that professional reviewers don’t?!), but reviews still amount to only that particular author’s opinion—whether from a professional or not. I’ve read scores of bad reviews of a book by both professionals and amateurs only to enjoy the book when I read it. But then, I’ve also hated books that were given a thumbs up. It was weather I found the book good or bad that ultimately mattered.

  7. Sean Woodruff said:

    Sounds like Mr. McEwan should be working for an advertising award in an ad agency.

    The reason reviews from “non-pros” work is that the pros have gotten it wrong so many times that they have lost credibility.

  8. Ali Manson said:

    Mr McEwan seems to forget who buys his books. Who keeps him in such a privileged position.

    His readers.

    Without readers, an author is nothing. His work is just words on a page, worthless without a willing mind to be set free in.

    Of course, a reader can reject the author’s work. But that is the beauty of free speech.

    Maybe Mr McEwan is worried that more people trash his work than praise it? He should be. It might spur him on to write something better than his usual tripe…


  9. Riel Langlois said:

    When I’m buying a book, I like to hear a professional reviewer’s opinion and a reader’s opinion. However, I tend take the reviews posted on Amazon and similar sites less seriously because anyone can post them, including friends of the author or even the author herself.

    With pro reviewers, you have a better chance of getting an objective opinion.

    I mostly look at reader reviews for tidbits of information about the content of the book I’m considering.

  10. Dianna Huff said:

    I’m not a professional reviewer, but I read a ton of books. I guess I know when a book is good and when it’s not.

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Dianna: But lets you post your review even if you DON’T know when a book is good and when it is not. I think that’s what McEwan objects to. BTW, I don’t share his views.

  12. Dianna Huff said:

    Bob, Yes you can post reviews on Amazon even if you have no idea what you’re talking about. But, can’t you tell good reviews from not so good reviews? (I’ve also found having to write reviews has made me want to get better at them.)

    I purchased a book even though one reviewer (a professional) deemed it hogwash. However a bunch of people noted he hadn’t read the entire book and blasted him for it.

  13. Bob Bly said:

    Dianna: a problem occurs when ignorant reviewers inappropriately give a book a bad review: their one or two-star rating drags down the average, so you can click on a great book and find its average rating is only 3 stars, which discourages many buyers from purchasing.

  14. Lisa Taylor Huff said:

    I’m with Ali… and I find it a bit insulting that McEwan assumes that his readers’ opinions are less valid than some so-called professionals. (I’m not one of his readers, however.) The professionals’ opinions are just that — opinions. They’re not necessarily correct any more than the readers’ opinions. I will read a professional review of a book to find out more about the plot or subject matter, but there have been many times I’ve ignored a bad review, read the book anyway, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve also read spectacular professional reviews of books where getting past the second chapter was an ordeal and I hated the writing. So who’s right, and who’s wrong? Neither – it’s all entirely subjective. And I think we need to not lean on the reviews as a crutch to stop us from making our own choices and forming our own opinions. As far as ignorantly-written reader reviews… I take them with a grain of salt. Often it’s pretty obvious the person who’s writing the review doesn’t really know what he/she is talking about. If all they can say is “I hated this book! Don’t buy it!” but they can’t articulate WHY, then that’s not an opinion I’m going to listen to.

  15. Jim Logan said:

    I prefer the amateur review. And the negative reviews are the ones I look to read.

    Systems like Amazon are “gamed” all the time. I am confident many of the positive reviews are planted. That’s why I read the negative reviews.

    I’ve bought more than one great book because the negative reviews made me want to read it.

  16. Bob Bly said:

    Jim: I and many others know for a fact that Amazon is rigged. Authors ask their friends to post 5-star reviews all the time (of course, I have never done this). Online marketers bribe their subscribers to buy their book on Amazon with free gifts, artificially kicking up the ranking to the top 100 or higher.

  17. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:

    Bob–I can personally vouch that you never asked me to write a review!

    All kidding aside, although it’s a secret all over the block, it’s gutsy of you to boldly zing it to like that! Hopefully your stature will influence them to clean up their act!

    As for the question itself, I have to say it’s outrageously arrogant of McEwan to trash his readers like that. Maybe only reviewers with press passes should be allowed to buy his books!

    And he’s wrong anyway. Sites like and have changed much of the way business is conducted today. I just told my son not to buy a certain printer because I saw a load of complaints about it. Yes, I read reviews in PC Magazine and PC World before I buy, but user opinions are often closer to the real needs of the average buyer.

    (See, Bob? I got through that whole thing without mentioning “Web 2.0” and “conversations” even once! Aren’t you proud of me?)


  18. Bob Bly said:

    I get where he’s coming from. He’s saying that print media is controlled and professionally produced, while much on the Web is uncontrolled and produced by amateurs. Yes, non-professionals can voice their opinions in print through letters to the editor. But the editor controls which letters are printed.

  19. Dianna Huff said:

    I agree with Lisa. I remember reading a Parents Magazine review of Star Wars (the very first movie) back in the day. The movie critic completely panned it. Said it was dumb.

    I think I saw that movie a half dozen times — and it’s still my favorite.

    I’m sure George Lucas is laughing all the way to bank.

  20. Patti said:

    I am rarely looking for “literature” when I select a book to read. I suppose “literature” is nice. I read about 200 books a year, about half and half fiction and non-fiction. What I look for in a book is the ability to amuse or educate while still being easy to read.

    Telling me that a book is “important to the genre” while unreadable doesn’t make sense. If it is important and yet a crappy job of writing and editing, what’s important?

    Professional reviewers can get so wrapped up in their own importance that they make statements like that above while not really thinking it through. I suppose authors who are “important to the genre” and write crappy stuff like it, however.

  21. Tim King said:

    Professional reviewers don’t review just for the passion of it. They review because they have to. And they’re very good at it. Ironically, as a result, many of them lose the magic that made reading fun, and they lose the ability to communicate that magic to me, a potential reader. (I notice this also in movie reviews, TV reviews, video game reviews, etc.)

    To put it another way, if you don’t like a site where readers do all the reviewing, what would you rather have? A site where non-readers do the reviewing?


  22. Professionals vs. Amateurs : My Netrepreneur said:

    […] Professionals vs. Amateurs Novelist Ian McEwan doesn’t like the fact that you can post your opinion of his books on “I don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing,” says McEwan in an interview with Time magazine (6/18/07, p. 6). “Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom, and judgment,” he says. “I am not much […] […]

  23. Jodi Kaplan said:

    While there are situations in which professional expertise is critical (brain surgery for example), I agree with Morty that Mr. McEwan is being arrogant. I’m not Mario Batali, but that doesn’t disqualify me from cooking dinner!

  24. Alan Margulis said:

    I suspect the author’s intention is to censor criticism, but I can understand a macro-level objection to anyone and everyone being able to publish their thoughts, regardless of qualifications. We’re becoming a narcissist culture that values talking more than listening. Writing more than reading. And the end result is going to be generations of junk where art and literature once existed.

  25. Darren said:

    I think Lisa was spot-on with her last few comments. You can usually discern when a reviewer’s opinion is legitimate. And I’m not talking about discarding a review because of a grammatical error or mis-spelling. We all do that. But it’s the combination of everything — the language used, the tone, the linear thought process (or lack thereof)… I think it’s pretty easy to pick out the kooks. But that still doesn’t solve the problems of the “gamers” that Jim mentioned. They’re usually pretty articulate.

  26. Lori said:

    To Mr. McEwan, I ask this: who ultimately pays your salary? Reviewers? Readers? I understand where his concern may lie. Too many readers may not like a story for personal reasons. And that’s fine. However, McEwan should understand that we’re smart enough to discern whose reviews are in line with our own tastes. For example, I’m not going to take the opinion of a high-school kid who was forced to read the book to heart. This is someone who didn’t choose to read it independently. Then again, book reviewers work under similar conditions, no?

  27. Van Michaels said:

    I don’t think there is any relevance to professional book reviewers unless they know, practice and apply real literary criticism in their approach to a review.

    There is a distinction between the opinion of a reader and a professional literary critic and both are useful in determining if a novel is meant for a reader.

    The novels I choose are based on my perspective, desires, likes, dislikes and emotional needs at the time I am choosing. The novels I finish reading satisfy those, the novels I stop reading, don’t.

    A literary critic delves into the substance, structure and meaning of what was written and how. He or she compares, contrasts and exposes the significance, relevance and craft of the novel using principals and contextual understanding of literary criticism.

    This, imperfect as it is, serves as a catalyst for the reader to choose one novel over another because both were held up against similar scrutiny of the authors’ craft and purpose.

    I prefer first to read the professional literary critic’s thoughts on a novel – I know from this if the novel is worth choosing because it might satisfy what fiction I need to read.

    What I look for in the comments of other readers is a clue for someone looking to find the same thing in the book – and if they did.

  28. Greg Padley said:

    There’s more than one way to skin a cat…I think most people combine information from several resources to determine a purchase – book or otherwise.
    The “professional” reviewer should be working within a specific professional framework and is supposed to be somewhat neutral. You could check his/he other review to learn more about him/her.
    The “amateur” reviewer could be a liar, a kook, a scam to boost rankings or the author’s mother.
    Your friend, cousin, business associate is a source you know so you know if they suggest a book you will/ won’t like it based on your knowledge of this reviewer.
    McEwan is naive if he dosen’t realize this fact.

  29. Lisa said:

    I think you have to take every critique with a grain of salt, professional or not. A professional might be more experienced with writing reviews but they might have unusual taste or they might be using criteria that would be irrelevant to most people (i.e. genre purists).

    When I read Amazon reviews, I try to discern the personality and intelligence of the reviewer based on things like word choice, rationale, and cross comparisons to similar products. I can learn a lot about the product from someone who is vastly different from me, as long as I am mindful of our differences. I also find it helpful to read the 2-3 star reviews, they tend to be more nuanced and provide lists of pros and cons.

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