If you're trying to decide whether or not to read a book, where are you more likely to find useful answers? In the New York Times or London Book Review, or among the short, amateur reviews on Amazon.com and sites like GoodReads? It may not help to know that one may be as good as the other. A new study from Harvard Business School shows that, when considered as a whole rather than individually, the hundreds of reviews they analyzed tended to reflect fairly accurately the judgments made by professional reviewers.
There are differences, certainly: pro critics are harder on first-time writers and easier on award-winners. That sounds a bit stereotypical of the critic (snobbishness and joining others in acclaim), but it may also just be the result of having read more books.
And the general public is no less biased, if one can be biased in giving one's opinion: novice reviewers prefer uplifting stories and likable protagonists. So unpleasantly real and flawed characters — award-winning author Cynthia Ozick notes that this list includes Hamlet, King Lear and Middlemarch among others — and bleak circumstances lead to more negative reviews.
The question seems to be whether you are looking for a recommendation or a professional judgment. You'd turn to your friends and acquaintances to learn about a good sushi restaurant, but most of us will admit that Roger Ebert's opinion on cinema should be weighted higher than our neighbor's. And yet if you took the average of a hundred people's opinions, it would resemble the pro opinion more than you might expect.
Regardless of whether "the democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing," as author and City University English Professor Morris Dickstein put it to The Daily Beast, there seems still to be room for both word-of-mouth recommendations and tastemakers like review magazines.
The study, by Loretti I. Dobrescu, Michael Luca, and Alberto Motta, can be read in its entirety here.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.