The literary critic: an endangered species?
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…
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?