June 8, 2016
Didn’t we all major in English so we could stop getting real grades?
by Ryan Harrington
Literary Hub—the daily go-to site for essays, excerpts, gossip, and all other things literary—announced on Tuesday the launch of a Rotten Tomatoes-style book review aggregator.
The site, called Book Marks, pulls from major media sources, assigns each review a letter grade, then averages those ratings, giving an overall grade to the book. The site also provides pull quotes from the reviews.
In a press release, Lit Hub explains:
While online readers’ reviews create robust conversations about books and foster new and diverse book-loving communities, it is also valuable to read what professional critics have to say about a title. Book Marks will aggregate reviews from more than 70 sources—newspapers, magazines, and websites—and average them into a letter grade, as well as linking back to their source. Each book’s cumulative grade functions as both a general critical assessment, and more significantly, as an introduction to a range of voices and opinions that make up the world of American literary criticism.
The plan bears a certain resemblance to The Complete Review, M.A. Orthofer’s venerable online book review, which has long aggregated other venues’ reviews of books alongside Orthofer’s own, and assigned each a letter grade (without, however, averaging them together as Book Marks does).
The announcement hasn’t been met with unalloyed praise, and a handful of notable literary figures—with Ron Charles of the Washington Post and author Jeff VanderMeer among them—voiced concern on Twitter that strict letter grades will undercut the nuance of the original reviews, and are antithetical to Lit Hub’s mission of bringing the full richness of books to The People:
@thelithub Assigning a letter grade in a context, too, where most of the reviews you accumulate don’t is subjective and too commercial.
— Jeff VanderMeer (@jeffvandermeer) June 7, 2016
@thelithub It’s the reduction of critical evaluation to a number that troubles me: the faux precision, the unearned authority of stats. — Ron Charles (@RonCharles) June 7, 2016
Book Marks would counter by saying that the system actually spotlights critics and their work, bringing readers one step closer to critics. The site’s FAQ section explains, “we want to encourage everyone to read the reviews behind the letter grade, so while we do assign each specific review an individual grade, we only publish the average grade for each book.” This is an admirable goal.
The site has hit the ground running, and is already speaking on some of this summer’s most anticipated titles: The Girls by Emma Cline (B+), Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (B), and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (A-). Were these reviews helpful? Compare them to the New York Times reviews for The Girls, Homegoing, and Modern Lovers and see for yourself.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.