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The literary critic: an endangered species?

This a guest post from Simon Appleby, who runs Bookswarm, a digital agency specialising in work for authors, agents and publishers – services including e-book design, website and blog design, author videos and more. He’s also a director of AMS Digital Publishing, which runs a number of online marketing channels for publishers, including Bookhugger.co.uk and Bookdiva.co.uk, and operates the Real Readers review generation service. He’s a hands-on computer geek and a prolific reader and reviewer of books via the blog that he founded in 2008, Bookgeeks.co.uk.
 

Everyone’s a critic

The web, and not least Amazon’s customer review functionality, has been blamed for the demise (or at least the endangered species status) of the professional literary critic. There’s not doubt that the amount of space in the national press given over to books is less than ever, and the number of literary editors has diminished too. Needless to say, the whole newspaper market is changing and shrinking, thanks to this Internet thingummy. So, Bookmachiners, I ask you – is this such a bad thing?

I have a weird dual perspective on this issue…

 

Geek on

Since 2008 I have run and reviewed for Bookgeeks.co.uk, a review blog that was started on a whim, but which now has over 40 regular (unpaid) contributors and closing in on 1,500 reviews, with new ones published every day. We’ve had reviews blurbed on book jackets and on the cover of the Bookseller – hallmarks of press reviews in the past. So are Bookgeeks and the numerous other book blogs responsible for the demise of the professional critic – or once we started to be blurbed and courted by publicists, did we start to expose ourselves to the same temptations and risks as professional critics (keen to maintain our access to books and the people who write them, to literary launches and so on)? I like to think not, but then so do most lit critics I should imagine.

 

Real readers really read

Building on our experience of our own reviews, we built Real Readers – www.realreaders.co.uk – to enable publishers to reach those committed book fans who are so important to the book trade. Readers who sign up (they have to tell us a LOT about themselves and their reading tastes) are allocated books to read and review based on how close the books our publishers give us are to their interests. They then post their reviews on retailer websites, social networks and blogs. It’s like Amazon Vine, without the algorithms.

So, does running these two websites make me and my cohorts at least partially responsible for the endangered species of the professional critic?

Maybe we are – along with the myriad other blogs and websites in this space – but I wonder if that’s the wost thing in the world? While the standards of amateur reviews can vary widely, it would be dangerous and indeed patronising to think that book buyers cannot sift the wheat from the chaff. Arguably they can differentiate better between the ill-informed and the eloquent on a website (where they can see a reviewer’s entire history) than they can navigate the maze of mutual obligation, back-scratching, hyperbole and hidden agendas that Private Eye frequently documents taking place in the book pages of the national press.

What do you think? Should the book trade worry about the reduction in national press column inches and the people who write them? Should we do more to help support them? Or should we accept the inevitable evolution of the ‘opinion industry’ and make sure we can take full advantage of the wisdom of crowds? Perhaps we already have?

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Comments (7)

  • I think people do want a level of transparency when reading a review, which is the benefit of review sites as you say. Also, of course, everyone is still bleating about the internet being a fabulous engine for democratisation, and how everyone’s view is equally valid. 

    As far as I can see, and as far as I DO see, this leads to the review market being flooded with inexpert opinions. While we all love the authenticity of someone we know isn’t paid recommending a book, I think people also look for the opinions of people who are more widely-read or know the subject matter well. The destruction of printed review space in national press won’t change that.
    So after a while gatekeepers will spring up again (like your site, albeit in a vanilla way as you collate reviews rather than commission); certain contributors rise to the top of that pile as informed, witty, trusted reviewers who are then pandered to by publishers; and we’re back to square one. Except now it’s not in the national press, it’s in niches online where only the very engaged readers will bother to look. And another channel of discoverability for the casual readers, and the sales associated, is gone.Book buyers can sift the wheat from the chaff, but not all of them will search for either. So, yes, the trade should worry. 

    • A good synthesis Felice – the cynic in me agrees that as long as there are publishers they will have a desire and a need to develop their relationship with reviewers, of whatever stripe, and bind them in to the ‘system’ so that they at least think twice before leaving a negative viewpoint. It’s very hard, as a reviewer, not to become someone with a vested interest – if you know you’re going to the book launch, you’re more likely be nice about a book, in case you end up talking to the author! And so on…

  • You raise the question of which critic we need. If it’s only the one who gives us ideas of what to read, then it doesn’t really mind if professional critics disappear; bloggers or Amazon consumers will easily make up to it, extending the range of our friends’ advice.
    But if you want to discover what you didn’t see in the book you read, if you want to deepen your understanding of the world around you, then it matters, for you need quite a lot of time to work these things out, and an amateur critic won’t find it, no matter how witty he is.
    The fact we don’t see it that way means either that we want to enjoy reading as entertainment, or that profesional critics tend to forget why their work is valuable, and delegate the though part to the academic world, whose reach is considerably narrowed compared to the press.

    • A very good point – genuine insight is not necessarily an attribute that professional reviewers can always bring, and there definitely ARE plenty of amateurs who can offer genuinely thought-provoking criticism.

  • A nice piece about this issue from an author’s perspective was posted by Lloyd Shepherd on The Guardian yesterday: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/may/22/amazon-newspaper-review-fiction?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038

    For an instructive comparison, here’s Bookgeeks’ review of his debut novel The English Monster – http://www.bookgeeks.co.uk/2012/03/28/the-english-monster-by-lloyd-shepherd/ – and here’s one from the Independent – http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-english-monster-by-lloyd-shepherd-7440774.html – and one from the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/24/english-monster-lloyd-shepherd-review

    Now I know I am completely biased, but I think Bookgeeks is on a par with the Indy and both leave the Guardian for dust for readability and insight. Judith Flanders shows the preoccupations of a novelist when talking about the book (she is one, undoubtedly with her own book to promote), and manages not to talk about any of the themes of the book, getting preoccupied with historical nitpicking and stylistic niggles.

    But all being equal, the review of the three that would be most likely to be blurbed on a future edition of the book would still be the Independent or Guardian – so clearly the trade sets a lot of store by opinions that happen to be expressed in the national press.

    • Hi Simon – thanks for the link to my piece, and I agree: the Bookgeeks review was written from the perspective of, well, a Bookgeek. The Guardian’s review made my teeth hurt and still does. Personally, I think book reviewers should be enthusiastic about the books they like, even to the extent of saying “I can’t review this, it just isn’t me.” That’s probably a crazy idea, but unless a book is truly execrable, nitpicking is just annoying and unhelpful to readers who might like a book, even if the critic doesn’t!

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