Can Instagram derail the ‘hallowed’ profession of book reviewing, once reserved for prominent publications and journals? If the prevalent trend of ‘Bookstagramm’ is any indication, then we may be entering a new era of book reviews — aesthetic, millennial, and decidedly much more compact.
In the last few years, we have seen influencers of all kinds — makeup, fashion, travel, body positivity, and wellness. It’s now time for literary Instagram influencers, or Bookstagrammers, to shine. Gone are the days when book reviews were only found in stuffy journals and serious newspapers, written by equally stuffy reviewers. Now anyone and everyone can offer their two-pence on books and influence the reading habits of their peers.
People now don’t have to wait two weeks, which is usually the time taken for review articles (if not more), to figure out whether a book is worth their time. These Instagram reviews are fairly quick and social-media friendly — they can even be uploaded a mere days after a book has been released.
In India, this Bookstagram trend is quite prevalent, with users sharing short reviews of fictional and non-fictional literature. These are always accompanied by photographs of the books, staged in a characteristic, pastel-hued millennial aesthetic. Perhaps much to the chagrin of conservative bibliophiles, these short, snappy reviews are fast becoming the norm among the younger generation. No one has time for needlessly long, artificially praiseful, or self-righteous book reviews anymore.
The page ‘frenchflaps_and_deckleedges’, which is run by two literary enthusiasts, Apurva and Mansi, has over 57,000 followers on Instagram. Every day, they have a new post on a new book accompanied by a very pretty picture of the book. One such review of Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am, I Am, I Am reads: “Her prose is beautiful and intense, talking about how fragile and precious our life is without making it sound too heavy.” Another page called ‘_penandpapers’ by Aayushi, with over 17,000 followers, combined a review of the novel Celestia Chronicles by Anagha Ratish with a giveaway contest. Nothing like smart millennial marketing.
A lot of these reviewers have taken a leaf out of film review formats, like the page chaibooksandthemoon, offering star ratings for these books. Others, like graphic designer Kritika Trehan, follow the niche internet trend of ‘emoji book reviews’, offering a more graphic, yet minimal, take on the books they have read through just emoticons. She gave Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens a ‘brain’ and an ‘explosion’ emoji, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments a ‘superman’ plus ‘sparkling’ emoji. Robin Sloan’s novel about an engineer-turned-baker, Sourdough, was awarded a ‘hugging emoji’, while Mahesh Rao’s book Polite Society, about a rich South-Delhi aunty’s escapades, got a ‘smug face’ emoji.
So if anyone is feeling too lazy to even read an entire caption, they can just look at the star or emoji rating. This might startle literary purists, but if Chetan Bhagat’s books are considered literature by some, then Instagrammers can very well be considered serious reviewers.
Complicated history of book reviews
Before the advent of social media, book reviews were considered sacred and could be written by only a select few columnists or journalists. There was, in fact, a rather cosy and exclusive ecosystem of reviewers, publishers, and authors. Not everyone could review books, and not every book would be taken up by an established reviewer. It was an ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ affair.
In this sense, like in any other field, critics have always had a rather tenuous relationship with authors, and even readers. Far too many books have been judged extremely harshly, and even rather incorrectly by book critics. And quite often, these books went on to become bestsellers. A New York Times review called Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a novel “lacking in imagination”. In another instance, a reviewer of the French daily La Figaro declared that French realist author Gustave Flaubert “is not a writer”, while reviewing his seminal novel Madame Bovary. Ironically, literature students today write their thesis on Flaubert’s writing.
In 1846, American author Edgar Allan Poe had noted that book reviewing at large was a sham. “We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright,” he said.
Even in terms of readers, book critics have never been very popular. Most “mainstream” books are almost always slammed by reviewers. Let’s be honest, how many of us have actually read most Man Booker Prize-winning novels. One is more likely to find a person who has read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey — the bane of every critic’s existence — rather than Kazuo Ishiguro or Toni Morrison (highly recommend both, though).
Book reviews have often occupied an almost pedestal-like position in people’s lives. They have been an integral part of Sunday afternoons, where people attempt some form of intellectual exercise by engaging with these reviewers who almost always pontificate about a larger-than-life idea of literature.
Instagram’s democratic space
Instagram has now broken through this exclusive circle of expertise. A certain democratisation has seeped into the business of books reviewing.
This shift to Instagram reviews also signals, more prominently, a shift of authority from critics to readers. Something similar happened a few years ago in the realm of cinema. Movie enthusiasts realised that they don’t have to wait for some big-shot critic to pass their judgment on a movie. They can just take to Twitter and Instagram to offer their opinions as audience members.
These new-age reviewers posit themselves as readers and lovers of literature foremost, unlike official book critics. Literary critics have conventionally seen themselves as above the novel, author, and reader. Honestly, that’s a rather old-fashioned way of looking at things.
But can these Instagrammers beat the privileged pedestal of something like the NYT Bestsellers list? We can just wait and watch. Or scroll.
Views are personal.