In a recent article in The Independent, the chair of the judge’s panel for the Mann Booker prize, Sir Peter Stothard, voiced his opinion that book blogs are harmful to the art of literary criticism.
“Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition,” the former editor of The Times says. “It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”
The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, he says. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”
Once I got over my shock that a British knight would say “ain’t,” I considered what he said.
It sounds superior and supercilious, that not everyone’s opinion has the same weight. That’s downright un-American, right? We’ve been taught that we’re all important, that each of us has the right to our own opinion and the right to speak it.
The idea also hints of classism. The intelligentsia of the literary world handing down book judgments from on high to the simple readers of the world.
It makes me think of when people in the arts presenting world call themselves “taste-makers,” as if audiences can’t decide for themselves what types of shows they enjoy.
But as I think more about it, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with Sir Peter. Maybe we’d be better off if we just left the literary criticism to the experts.
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be book blogs. And I’m also not suggesting that bloggers should stop offering their personal opinions on the books they read. Heck, I’ve written a couple of “reviews” myself, although I don’t feel entirely comfortable doing so.
I do, however, believe that not all opinions are created equal and we should be more discriminatory in which blogs and opinions we trust.
I just finished reading Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. I considered picking the book up because I’m fascinated by Hemingway and loved The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and was convinced after reading a host of five star reviews on Good Reads, though.
The anonymous (to me) readers raved about the novel, the story, the characters, so I had high expectations.
Unfortunately I didn’t agree with the Good Reads reviewers at all. I thought the book was poorly written, predictable and I didn’t care about the characters at all. Even Hemingway.
A couple of times I thought hope that the plot was going to surprise me, but each time it just held out the possibility of unexpectedness and went down the conventional path instead.
It was obvious that the readers reviewing the book on the website weren’t my kind of readers.
And isn’t that what Sir Peter is saying? That every reader is going to have an opinion, but not every opinion should be trusted? And there are some people, that intelligentsia, who think about these things for a living and have more than a gut reaction to back up their opinion on the quality of a book?
I’m not saying that I’m going to trust all professionally written book reviews or stop trusting the opinions of regular old readers. There are people in my life who, when they recommend a book, I’m fairly certain I will like it.
Am I going to stop writing about the books I read? No.
Should we ban book blogs? No.
Should we take the time to develop a circle of readers we know and rely upon, and take other opinions, professional or otherwise, with a grain of salt? Absolutely.
And I’m ok with leaving the real literary criticism to the pros, too. I’d rather read and enjoy than deconstruct and analyze anyway.
But that’s just my opinion. You can decide whether or not I’m to be trusted.