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.