Critics agree: This book is an A+ face mask.
Critics agree: This book is an A+ face mask. Stas Ponomarencko

Literary Hub has been a good resource for books people since it started a year or so ago. They excerpt new books, give poems new homes, publish criticism, and their daily/weekly "Best of the Literary Net" newsletter thingy is a useful, well-curated list of thoughtful literary things to read, culled from the hundreds of literary things published everyday. The only other site that I knew of that did a similar thing was Arts Daily, and they were kinda stuffy and tricky-conservative (which was always kind of fun, actually).

Two days ago Lit Hub launched a newfangled books review aggregator that gives books a letter grade based on an assessment of the books' critical assessment. It's called Book Marks. They draw on several media outlets that still have the gall to publish book reviews (including The Stranger and our sibling paper, The Portland Mercury). And guess what. Some books people are all mad about it.

Cassandra Neace over at BookRiot has collected a list of grievances. None of these problems on the list seem like problems to me.


Their growing list of publications includes a variety of literary websites and mainstream newspapers and magazines. What it leaves out entirely is the book blogging community.

The last words on Lit Hub's How-it-Works explainer page read: "Think an outlet merits inclusion but isn’t listed above? Let us know." If you're a member of the "book blogging community" and you want to be included, it seems like you can just let them know. And they'll consider it. And if they decide no, then they decide no. Fuck 'em. WHO CARES? You're the book blogging community. You have a whole, you know, community.


Then there’s the rubric. As a teacher, I hate rubrics. They are too general and don’t take into account the details...When you’re evaluating a set of reviews, you can say that a reviewer does or does not think a book has compelling content. What you’re ignoring is what that reviewer considers “compelling.” That’s going to vary from reviewer to reviewer, from publication to publication."

As a teacher, I love rubrics. They're a way of establishing a set of expectations and also setting up a shared language that everyone can use to discuss one thing. Over time, through several acts of pointing out strengths and flaws in books, everyone learns what "compelling" or "excellent" or "awful" means in the context of the class. In the case of Book Marks, people who visit the site will, over time, be able to tell what the nation's literary book critics find "compelling," which is useful. At a glance you can tell if the nation's book critics are a bunch of woman-hating racists who only like books written by white men about climbing mountains. Groups like VIDA have been doing that work for a while. Now you can do it at a glance! You can also tell if the literary book critics are a bunch of fraid-y cats / social climbers who refuse to write a negative review.

3. Which brings me to the issue of grade inflation, which Alex Shephard discusses in New Republic:

Nearly all of the more than 100 books graded by Book Marks seem to be worth reading, which renders it somewhat useless as a recommendation resource, which wasn’t lost on many of its early readers.

The point of a book review isn't to sell books or trick people into reading books. The point of a books review aggregator isn't to sell books or trick people into reading books, either. If 99 percent of the books are getting A or B grades, then it could be the case that the state of American literature is pretty good! Or it could mean that those grades, over time, will become relative! We may come to learn that a 'B' at Book Marks is really a personal 'D.' If you only want to read the A+ books, well, the list of excellent books you can now choose from has dramatically shortened from something like ~100 to (currently) 4! Close your eyes, spin around, and point!

Okay, back to BookRiot:


There are other issues, too, with the way the site is set up. Because it is tied so closely to the traditional publishing world, it will likely suffer from the same lack of diversity.

If this "lack of diversity" means gender/race/class/etc. of the authors, then see point #2. If this means lack of generic diversity, then so what. The website is called LITERARY Hub. The folks there seem to have chosen to serve an audience of people interested in literary books. If your interests lie in the realms of genre fiction, or travel guides, or cook books, then seek out those places. It's okay to serve a niche market.


And it’s going to be a long time before they have a library as comprehensive as that which can be found on Amazon or Goodreads or even Litsy (which is a pretty new kid on the block, too)....Bottom line – the concept of a site that aggregates book reviews is an intriguing one, but it seems to fill a niche that didn’t need to be filled in the first place.

I take comfort in the famous quote from Marc Stielger's weirdo sci-fi book, David's Sling: "In the Information Age, the first step to sanity is FILTERING. Filter the information; extract the knowledge."

Lit Hub's Book Marks is a filter. There are many books and many book reviews in the world. Book Marks tries to increase the potency of those reviews so that readers don't have read 10 reviews in 10 different papers and come up with their own grade. The site displays this info in a nice, clean way. If readers don't find it helpful, they don't find it helpful! Nothing is stopping them from reading the entire literary internet every day.