September 26, 2012
So says the chair of Man Booker prize judges, Peter Stothard. You can read The Guardian article here.
I don’t usually weigh in on the arguments spawned by articles like this. I’ve been a journalist and I know how spin works: put a sting in the title, irk the minority, kick back and enjoy the backlash. Controversy sells. So does smut, bitching and pixelated photos of topless royals. A savvy journo can lead you off on a tangent that was never intended by the interviewee. My blog title—that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?
Anyway, I think this dude is talking about the kind of literary reviews that are more endangered by budget cuts and the death of print media than a bunch of booklovers talking about books. Personally, these types of print reviews don’t speak to me. I don’t read many of them because they’re not reviewing the kinds of books I like to read. Let’s face it—YA books and popular fiction aren’t generally given 1000 word pieces in newspapers, arts supplements or magazines and, if they are, I’m still not likely to read them because they’ve been reviewed by expert, adult reviewers. They’re measured, professional and considered responses—but I want to know whether a reader has laughed or cried, if they have a book hangover, or if they’re so riled that they’ve used the pages for toilet paper. I like more heart and less polish in my book reviews—but that’s just me.
Literary reviewers and book bloggers can co-exist without having to justify their existence; they’re usually not even hanging in the same playground. People who read literary reviews are not being dazzled by something new and pretty and easily-digestible. They’re not switching allegiance and the effect of reviews is not being watered down by the sheer number of book blogs. Books that don’t fit the criteria for traditional review might disappear without the discussion created by book bloggers. I believe more people are talking about books than ever. How can this be harmful to literature (unless we’re talking about serious literature, in which case it raises a whole new argument about literary snobbery)?
As a booklover, I respond to reviewers who speak my language and review the books I love to read. I seek out like-minded readers and begin to appreciate their style, to trust their judgment and to buy the books they recommend. For most readers it’s a relationship, not a fickle bed-hopping jaunt or a mass exodus from the traditional review arena.
This guy needs to give readers more credit. Apart from the odd few who gravitate to wherever the online drama is unfolding, most of us booklovers are pure of heart—we find our level and play in our own playground. We haven’t ditched reading literary reviews because we were never reading them to begin with. The proliferation of book blogs—particularly with a focus on YA fiction—is a case of supply meeting demand.
I’d even venture to say that those who think this article has a valid point are the same people who believe literary writing is the pinnacle of storytelling and that the rise of YA fiction and publishing phenomena like Harry Potter and 50 Shades is proof of society dumbing down. Bollocks. Readers are individuals with diverse tastes and book reviews should reflect that diversity. For a long time, print reviews have been skewed towards big names and literary fiction and non-fiction—now there’s something online for everybody.
Saying book blogging is harming literature is oversimplifying a complex shift in the way we’re reading and the way we communicate. I think everything finds a balance once freedom of expression is allowed. Literature will always be written and read, and readers will talk about it. Now the conversation is more widespread and immediate. Surely the form is less important.