Everyone’s a Critic?

27 September, 2010

Last week I went along to English PEN‘s Everyone’s a Critic? event at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon to see a panel chaired by Alex Clarke including Lynne Hatwell of dovegreyreader scribbles, John Mullan (Professor of English at UCL), Sam Leith (Literary Editor of The Daily Telegraph) and Erica Wagner discuss books, reviewing and the increasing popularity of blogging. Of course I went to the event to see Lynne as I’m a HUGE fan of her blog and also Erica Wagner who is Literary Editor of The Times. I am still heartbroken that her Saturday Times Books Section was culled. Bring it back, I say!

The discussion was extremely interesting and touched on topics such as professional critics (academics) vs. amateur critics (journalists and bloggers), the nature of criticism, whether negative reviews were helpful and the difference between newspaper and blog reviews. I was expecting bloggers to get a drumming and was pleasantly surprised to hear the encouragement with which both Leith and Wagner spoke of blogs. And although it shouldn’t have really surprised me considering everyone on the panel was in the literary trade because of their love of books, but they were all reluctant to actually damn any books they reviewed (unless the author was highly established). I think I came away from the discussion feeling that they all felt that books were precious and that anything that made people read was a bonus. Erica Wagner said a lovely thing; that the only conversation is between the book and the reader.

However they did admit that the publishing world was tough and Wagner said that although they review 20 books a week at The Times, she actually receives 150 books a day. And of those, there’ll be certain big names they have to feature which leaves little room for new authors.

One of the first things discussed was what the panellists thought differentiated print reviews from blog reviews. I was expecting to hear such words as professionalism, authority, etc., but Leith surprisingly said the only difference was in format. Journalists were as amateur as bloggers when compared to academics. But they get paid, said Lynne. Very true.

Mullan did bring up an important point that however subjective people’s reactions were to a book, if there are several people with that subjective reaction regarding a similar point, it no longer is subjective and becomes something objective. Deep. They also discussed why many readers may find certain books difficult or scary and Lynne pointed out that one of the reasons for her blog was to demystify such books (such as with her Ulysses read-a-long). However, Mullan believes (as an academic) that there are books where a casual reading without academic help doesn’t really do it justice. Not that you must get a literary companion text but that if you don’t, you may miss certain subtexts that may not be immediately obvious (such as with Paradise Lost).

And a last interesting point was the question of nepotism/favouritism in the reviewing sphere where mates review their mates’ books. Some in the audience though that wasn’t fair however I agree with the panellists who said that if you had a certain book about a certain topic, it would actually be more interesting to get a reviewer who was a fan or knew something about that topic to generate an interesting review/interview. It’s what normally happens with academic peer reviews (although not all are fans). Wagner however commented that at The New York Times, any connection with the author would automatically disqualify you from reviewing a book. Interesting.

I know that there are differing views regarding whether book bloggers should call their posts reviews or not (Lynne doesn’t like to call her posts reviews as she feels they are subjective). What do you think? Do you agree with the above?

And to end on a lovely note, I met up with some book bloggers in Oxford last weekend for a day of interesting book chat and some sightseeing. Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book for organising the day and to Becca of Oxford Reader for showing us around Somerville College. Beautiful. And it was great to see some familiar and new faces: Annabel of Gaskella, David of Follow the Thread, Jackie of Farm Lane Books Blog, Harriet of Harriet Devine’s Blog and Peter of Morgana’s Cat speaks. It was great to meet you all! And do check out their blogs if you haven’t done so already.

24 Responses to “Everyone’s a Critic?”

  1. Thanks for letting us know a bit more about the Everyone’s a Critic? event. I really wanted to go, but couldn’t make it. It is good to know that bloggers are getting a bit more respect with the print reviewers. I’m quite shocked that The Times recieve 150 books a day – are that many published each day or are they receiving multiple copies?!

  2. Charlie Says:

    I was thinking this was something I’d be interested in and you’ve detailed it so well, so thank you! Good to hear that the view on bloggers was mostly positive. And that’s quite a blogger meet up!

  3. amymckie Says:

    Sounds like a really fascinating event! As to your last question, I think that a review is whatever you want it to be. Subjective or objective! 🙂

  4. Arti Says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience… it’s so comforting and affirming reading your post: “Journalists were as amateur as bloggers when compared to academics. But they get paid, said Lynne.” Recently I heard from a journalist that blogging is beginning to gain recognition as a form of new media, and that as a blogger, I could get a press card just the same as other journalists to certain events! But I’m not sure how accurate this info is. Regardless, your post here is so informative and relevant for us today.

  5. gaskella Says:

    It was lovely to see you again too. I wish I could get to some of the London events – this one sounds very interesting. I too miss the Times Books section, it’s a real shame they cut it.

    The whole review/bookthoughts, objective/subjective debate is interesting and yet tedious at the same time for me. There’s less space for reviews in the papers etc these days, and bloggers aren’t restricted by new publications, so I’m finding I get as many if not more recommendations from bloggers these days as traditional routes. What is common to both though for me, is that reviews/bookthoughts – whatever you want to call them, by someone who you can respect and/or feel in tune with will influence far more than write-ups without any personality behind them.

    You can add to that, the personal selections of books to promote by indie bookshops who have to pick what goes on their shelves carefully – that never fails either for my local fave.

  6. Fëanor Says:

    she actually receives 150 books a day. And of those, there’ll be certain big names they have to feature which leaves little room for new authors.

    I’m afraid I don’t buy this argument at all. Why do they *have* to feature the big names? They have an entire marketing machinery behind them. It’s the new authors that deserve attention (unless, of course, the reviewer thinks they’re useless). Quotes like these are what entrench perceptions that reviewers, established authors and publishers are one cosy coterie.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I think it’s a question of space, what will sell copies and readers’ expectations. Both editors were really supportive of new authors and wished they could feature more. They work in the same industry so it’s inevitable that they know each other well, but what really struck me was that they all wanted to promote what they passionately believed in.

      • Fëanor Says:

        I’m still a bit confused. The editors want to help new authors, but they won’t spare much space for them. Are they concerned that readers are not interested in new authors? If readers are interested, surely space can be found? And is it the review editor’s remit to worry about what will sell? Baffled! 🙂

        • chasing bawa Says:

          I don’t think the editors are thinking of what will sell. Obviously they’ll go with what they like but it sounded to me like space is severely limited and they have to work within the limits (especially since book review space is shrinking). And as publishers will be pushing their titles, it must be a difficult decision to make even if they are trying to keep it balanced. They all agreed that it wasn’t exactly an ideal situation.

  7. Iris Says:

    It sounds like it was a very interesting event. I do doubt if several people having the same subjective opinion makes it more objective, I would say it would make it seem more objective. Anyhow, I was suprised that they didn’t seem to make the usual presumptions about blogging, that is a nice surprise! As for 150 review copies a day, that is crazy!

  8. chasing bawa Says:

    Thanks for all your comments people!

    One of the things I forgot to mention was that for new publications they have such a tiny promotional window which is echoed in print reviews as opposed to blogs so naturally you get a wider range of books reviewed in the latter. That’s probably one of the attractions of book blogs:)

  9. Novroz Says:

    Thanks for sharing this tought, it is fun to read. It really is nice to be considered by the profesionals.

    I am between agree and not with Lynne, blogger’s reviews are highly subjective…I know I am…is true, but if we do not call it as review, what should we call it then?

    To be honest, this is just me, I never read reviews from profesional critics, I prefer reviews from blogger because they are more honest…or I rely on my own instinct in choosing books.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello! What we call our posts certainly seems to be a complicated issue for many people. But then there are others who don’t really care what they are called. As long as they are interesting to read, I don’t personally mind. I was taught to call my book thoughts ‘reviews’ since I was at school so it’s stuck. For me, reviews usually make me want to read books rather than not, even if they are negative.

  10. mee Says:

    I marked this page to come back and read it when I have time. I’m glad I did, I enjoyed it very much, thank you. I use ‘review’ for my book thoughts just because there’s no alternative word for it. And I don’t care about subjectivity, all reviews are in my opinion, even by the academics or journalists. How can it not be subjective? It’s one’s person’s view. In all honesty I don’t like what’s so called the professional reviews. I feel they often beat around the bush. I feel like screaming in my head “Just tell me whether you liked the book or not!!” Bloggers’ reviews are (mostly) straight to the point and they tell me what I want to know.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Thank you for coming back to read this! I think it’s something that bothers all of us at some point, but each to his/her own, I say! I do agree with you that all reviews are subjective. Even academic ones because no matter how much you try there will always be some context with which read or view a book. I guess it also makes you consider in exactly what capacity you see yourself as writing these reviews. Complex questions!

  11. So sorry I was not able to attend this, but many thanks for your write-up, Sakura. I have already left a post on Dove Grey Reader, so won’t repeat it here. You actually touch upon a point I raise, about whether professional reveiwers feel obliged to tone down negative reviews. I was also interested by the idea that the professionals “have” to review big names 🙂

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello Guy, I was rather surprised that the professional reviewers even considered toning down their reviews because most reviews I see in print seem harsher than blog reviews. So it was nice to see that they actually thought about these things. I suppose in a way they are constrained by the readership of their newspaper/magazines so don’t have total freedom of what to review.

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