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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Everyone's a critic?

How slack I have been on reporting back from last Thursday’s excellent PEN event Everyone’s a critic. Well, the upshot was that yes, everyone is a critic, yes review culture in the UK is changing, but with a few old certainties thrown in. The discussion was led by Erica Wagner, the literary editor of the Times, Sam Leith, the ex-literary editor of the Telegraph, John Mullan, an academic, journalist and judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and of course the wonderful Lynne Hatwell AKA Dovegreyreader. There was more consensus that I was expecting, but then, as I walked home in the drizzly night I took to wondering why I had not expected consensus.

Basically reviewing culture has been changed by an increasingly pluralist body of critical voices. There are more critics from more places and they, unsurprisingly have a greater selection of comments to make. One of the “new voices” is the voice of the blogger and the panel spent quite a lot of time talking about the thorny question of what separates the blogger from a newspaper reviewer.... Sam Leith pointed out that reviewing even in newspapers had always been an amateur activity and that the real difference was one of format rather than substance. That having been said, one major difference in approach seems to be in relation to negative reviews. Lynne only posts positive reviews as she (like me!) rarely finishes a book she really dislikes. Also, and very laudably she aims to create a critical but kind space for thinking about books in. This is in contrast to point widely accepted amongst the journalists present that stinking reviews make good copy. Of course, as Lynne pointed out bloggers do it for free where as journalists get paid, however pitifully.

John Mullan really made me think about what academics add to reviewing culture. I have never been a great fan of critical theory and find that it can ruin a perfectly good book in acres of arcane and generic nonsense. He inspired me to realise that academics are useful in this area because they provide context and a meta narrative to read books inside. They can help you to understand why a book is good, sort of.

Print media reviews are more hidebound by fashion, public interest and “significance” in publishing than blogs. They are often deluged with review copies (Erica Wagner reported receiving a stonking 150 books per day). If an “important” book comes out there is an expectation that the major newspapers will review it and what is more, they may look to a particular writer to review it for historical or personal reasons. This is in contrast to the happy go lucky blogger who can review whatever they damn well like (such as something as unknown as Forlorn Sunset for example). But then the Times is read by rather more people than your average blog.... so I suppose you could say it is a case of swings and roundabouts.

Personally, I love the flexibility of the blog format, but that maybe because I have odd tastes. So, for the sake of “pluralism” and ignoring the fact that there is likely to be bias here, I am throwing this one open to the floor. Whose reviews do you read and trust the most? What or who really influences your reading?


  1. Great post Hannah. I was also there at the PEN event but may have missed you (I was a little overwhelmed...) I wish I had seen and said hello to you! Like you I was also surprised and pleased at the positive acknowledgement of bloggers but came away thinking that any form of reviewing is good and generally accepted by all. I think ultimately it is a matter of taste and sometimes if a review is too mean, it puts me off the review rather than the book. It was a really interesting event and really made me think about why I like to write about books.

  2. Mainly the blogs influence me especially if I like the style of writing and the genre of the books that the blogger reads (which should coincide with mine of course!!!!). In the case of the newspaper review I do not even tend to read if the review is on a book (or rather a genre) which does not interest me! Fickle I know but there it is.

  3. I always find blog reviews most useful as they tend to be written in the form of a 'friend'. I mean if you aske you mum what she thought of a book she is not going to barrage you with her critical analysis in terms of context. She will say yes/no I liked these parts/I hated this bit etc.

  4. Wish I'd known this was happening, it sounds fascinating! (And I'd have loved to meet you, of course.) Lynne representing all the book bloggers, as ever :)

    The thing which doesn't seem to be mentioned that often, although you touched on it and it's the thing which most strikingly divides bloggers from print reviews for me, is that newspapers cover books published in the last four months, and blogs cover books from the last four centuries.

  5. Great post Hannah on what must have been a very interesting event.

    I have always read the Times for book reviews. However I also love the literary blogs of course, and may I just say that yours is one of my favourites! Like you say there is flexibility in the blog format and the style of writing speaks to us perhaps in a different way? Also the feedback and communication in the form of commenting brings the review into a forum setting. There is no real point as a blogger in giving a negative or overly critical review necessitating in the reading of a 'bad' book, after all the aim is to read books and genre of interest to you and likewise the reader. Its good to have a balance but I just don't want to read a harsh and critical review written by a blogger - that can always be found elsewhere.


  6. What reviewing always and essentially is, is one person's opinion about a piece of prose - not everyone has the same ideas of what makes that piece great or not. For example my sister loves the Shopaholic series whereas they make me want to spit with rage. Equally she won't touch a Margaret Atwood with a barge pole.
    What makes book reviewing via blog unique is that it defies the barriers of what the literary media thinks we should like and allows both authors equal space and weight. It doesn't patronise the lighter reader, nor does it despise another's choice (unlike some newspaper reviews I've seen). It can often be less hung up on what the author has done previously as well.
    Still won't be swapping from my sister's shelves though...

  7. Lovely write-up of a fascinating event Hannah and I'm sorry we didn't get to meet...or did we? I met so many lovely people.
    Simon I certainly wasn't representing 'all the book bloggers' only my own rather particular and quirky take on the genre, and so was only expressing my own thoughts merged with those that had come in via comments on the blog when I had asked for them prior to the event, mostly from readers not bloggers.
    We did in fact have quite a debate about the blogger's ability to sidestep the book hype and the tiny publishing window that most books seem to be allotted these days, and to go where their reading mood took them, and do that in very original and innovative ways.. Team Ulysses was much admired. I think the critics were almost envious of our freedom to do that, but what came across to me most powerfully was that we may assume that because it's their job they do it because they have to, when in fact their love of books and reading and spreading the word about good books is as great and as deep as ours.
    A question from the audience about whether Erika and I would like to swap jobs for a week brought an instant 'yes' from Erika and a much more hesitant but eventual 'no' from me!
    I came away from the dinner afterwards with some wonderful reading suggestions from the 18th century from John Mullen, plus news of a writer who would supplement my professional expertise no end from Erika Wagner and I sent them off with some good suggestions too.
    All in all a really enjoyable evening and thanks again for being there Hannah and chasingbawa.

  8. What an interesting sounding event and wonderful write up, Hannah!

    Personally I enjoy reading newspaper reviews, because they flag up new books in interesting genres I might not otherwise have heard about, such as obscure literary biographies or non fiction titles, but for fiction, I will always go to blogs. This is largely because I want to know whether a book is actually a good read rather than a marvellous exercise in postmodernist prose!

    I have always maintained that a newspaper reviewer or university lecturer are no greater or more authoritative than a blogger. Most bloggers are well educated, intelligent, intuitive and unbiased, and their opinions are just as valid and worthy of note as their paid counterparts. At the end of the day, anything to do with literature and the arts is a matter of opinion, and whether you get paid or have a slew of letters after your name doesn't really make your opinion any more 'correct' or illuminating than someone on the streets', does it?

    Plus, newspaper reviewers only review modern literature, and also what the publishers have pushed them to review. Bloggers are unbiased and can read and review what they like, with no agenda and no marketing push, and no pressure to meet deadlines or tow the line with an editor. That makes me trust their opinions much more.

    I am glad that bloggers are getting more respect these days. I remember reading Susan Hill's comments about bloggers having no authority a while ago and being very amused by it. But of course, anyone who hasn't been hired by someone else to give their opinion, therefore has no right to utter one! Nonsensical! Bloggers are becoming a very important force in the world as people turn to their peers for advice more than anyone else, and I think it's about time this was recognised.

  9. What a fascinating evening - I want to write more but I've got a dreadful cold and can't concentrate.

  10. Very interesting! Thanks for that write up. I guess I mostly read the Guardian review section, but as to how much it influences me I'm not sure. I guess I migh think the subject of interest, and thus consider reading the book, but I'm rarely bothered about their assessment of the 'quality'! Weirdly, I notice I'm very influenced by my local library. I quite like reading whatever is new, just for fun, to sort of give up my reading to chance. I'm reading HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton, and loving it, and it came to me in just that way x


  11. If you mean do I listen to blog reviews more than newspaper reviews, the answer is yes. Actually, I never read reviews in print before I started blogging (and I still don't). Part of the reason is they never reviewed books I was interested in reading. Also, I don't read newspapers or magazines that much; I'm always too busy reading books! ;)

    I agree that blogs are a great format to review lesser-known books. It's interesting that you mention the print reviewers saying bad reviews make great copy--in the blogging world, I've noticed positive reviews tend to get a lot more comments than negative reviews, which suggests positive reviews are more popular in this format. Or maybe people just feel more comfortable commenting on them as opposed to negative reviews?

  12. Oh, entering the blogging world has changed my reading considerably. I now find most of my reading materials from book blogs. I also depend on Amazon reviewers, which I have done so for a long time now.

  13. Thanks for the review of the event Hannah, it sounds like a fascinating evening. I probably get most of my reading recommendations from blogs & from my online reading group. I love the fact that bloggers aren't tied to a publishing & publicity schedule & we can review what we're reading not what's just been published. I read mostly 19th & early 20th century books as well as some new crime fiction & non-fiction so I've found a list of blogs written by similarly-minded readers & I feel I'm having a conversation when I visit their blogs. I do skim the newspaper reviews & read Bookseller & Good Reading because I need to know what's new for my job but I find I read less & less new books & what i do read that's just been published is often reprints from wonderful publishers like OUP, Penguin, Greyladies, Persephone, Bloomsbury & Capuchin.

  14. Dear All,

    Thanks so much for contributing - what an interesting debate this is.

    Chasingbawa - I am mortified that I didn't meet you! I should have emailed you to let you know what I look like... we should do that next time there is an interesting PEN event.

    Mystica - I can understand that - not fickle at all...

    Jessica - yes that it totally true the "voice" of a blog is often more friendly than newspaper reviews.

    Simon - yes that is totally right. I considered asking a question along those lines and then bottled out. It seems to me that newspapers are quite hidebound in terms of thinking about recent books. Blogs more properly reflect what is actually available to people to read.

    Jeanne - you are *so* sweet - thank you. I love our blog too, it is like a ray of sunshine. As a general rule, if I really hate a book, I don't finish it and hence don't write a review at all. I broke this rule recently in relation to The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter which I just found so frustrating that I did write about it but I agree that I don't really enjoy reading "demolition" reviews as a rule.

    Tonia - yes I do rather like the idea that blogs are subversive of mainstream reviewing - go where it doesn't go - and accept where it doesn't accept. I think that there is something in that.

    Lynne - I am so sorry that I didn't meet you but I thought that you really were inspiring during the discussion. Such an enjoyable evening, hopefully there will be more.

    Rachel - yes that it silly isn't it. Silly also and in the same vein were Andrew Marr's recent comments at the Cheltenham Lit festival to which Lynne has published a very amusing response.

    Verity - oh - I hope that you are feeling better now (which you probably are as I am very late in catching up with my comments!)

    Sarah Norman - now I have never read any Patrick Hamilton but I have heard very good things about his work. I quite like the Guardian books section as well

    Heidenkind - that is a very interesting point. I think that commenters are more inclined to feel comfortable in *disagreeing* with a positive review than a negative one. Yes - negative reviews I think do not invite discussion.

    StephanieD - yes - amazon reviews I find can be extremely informative. I sometimes review on amazon although not all the time. Maybe I should do it more.

    Lyn - yes my "new book" quota is a bit on the small side as well...

    Bon weekend all