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Books, Features

Literary Taste – Who’s to Judge?

Last week, while the Chair of the 2012 Man Booker Prize judges Peter Stothard was claiming that book bloggers are ‘harming literature’, I was busy sifting through the incredibly diverse and original ‘Best Book I’ve Read This Year’ entries in the competition to celebrate my first year doing just that.

Blogging about books, that is.

The range of books nominated inspired me to write about literary taste; I hadn’t planned to write about the Blogging v. Criticism debacle until it occurred to me that there’s a connection.  Stothard believes that ‘traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline,’ and bloggers are at least partly to blame.  He predicts that ‘People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.’

What?

How do you feel about the idea of a select group of individuals being appointed to tell the rest of us what is good and no good?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with me even though I think professional literary criticism is valuable and important.  On the whole, I don’t think the critics themselves are guilty of such arrogance.  Literary merit is not an absolute – it’s a question of taste and opinion; just look at the vastly differing reviews J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy has attracted.  The more I discover about the publishing business, the more I hear, ‘it’s very subjective,’ and whilst it’s one thing not to acknowledge professional critics’ subjectivity, it’s another entirely to allege that bloggers are damaging literature by ‘sharing their own taste,’ inviting others into what is essentially a conversation.  Bloggers and professional critics are not in competition.  Readers decide whose opinions and recommendations they want to pay attention to and how much relative weight to give them.  I see blogging as an extension of word of mouth, which is known to be a huge factor affecting book purchase and selection.  We are free to do it.  Lamenting the rise of book bloggers is about as futile as trying to stop people talking about books in the street.

I’m so glad I asked you to tell me about the book you’ve most enjoyed reading so far this year and thank you all for your interest – the competition had hundreds of hits and I bet many of them were people as fascinated by the nominations as I was.  Since the number of entries was a manageable 27,  I spent an enjoyable couple of hours yesterday researching the titles and analysing the results.  Don’t ever say I don’t take you seriously…

There were so many surprises!  At first I felt inadequate having read only a quarter, but I suppose it could have been a lot worse considering you could nominate any book, published any year, ever.  In fact, very few of the books chosen were published in 2012 and some were decades old:  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992), an international bestseller long before the Scandinavian bandwagon came to town.  There were 3 novels that were already on my TBR list, two of them by Brooklyn authors which I’m planning to read when I go back there at the end of the month – Great House by Nicole Krauss and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  The third is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, which I wouldn’t have considered before hearing the author speak at the York Festival of Writing, for reasons well-expressed by my fellow blogger Helen Mackinven.

I was struck by the variety of books named in the entries, which included titles, authors and even genres I’d never even heard of.  (Iain M Banks’s Surface Detail is ‘everything a space opera should be’ – I’ll take your word for that).  Settings varied from Mumbai (Shantaram (2003) by Gregory David Roberts), to post-hurricane Mississippi (Salvage the Bones (2011) by Jesmyn Ward) to the Caribbean following a flood (Archipelago (2012) by Monique Roffey).  Non-fiction made an appearance too:  Must Have – The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy (2010) by Geoffrey Miller, which I would read with trepidation!

I also asked competition entrants to give the reasons for their choice, and the entries are proof, if it were needed (and it really isn’t), that you don’t need to be a professional critic to have finely attuned critical skills and the ability to articulate them.  There were many insightful observations on writing, structure, characterisation, plot, of the kind you’d find on the best book blogs – speaking of which, I’ve recently discovered a very impressive one – Words of Mercury by philosopher Alan Bowden, who’s just been announced as a runner-up in the And Other Stories short story competition.

Inevitably, a few of your nominations made it onto my already monstrous TBR list.  I liked the sound of This is How You Lose Her (2012), a collection of linked stories about a Latino love rat in New Jersey by Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, and although the winning entries were picked at random, I’m definitely going to read First Prize winner Claire Snook’s choice, Heaven and Hell, the English language debut of Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson.  One of many we can chat about during our Literary Lunch next month!

I don’t have space to mention all the entries, but  you can see the originals in full here – they make a great set of recommendations, very different to any listing I would have come up with.

So, I’m embarking on my second year On the Literary Sofa with more enthusiasm than ever.  Thanks for your support and welcome to the many new followers here and on Twitter who found me through the competition.  I’ll keep blogging as long as you keep reading.

We aren’t harming literature, we’re keeping it alive.  Aren’t we?

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

31 thoughts on “Literary Taste – Who’s to Judge?

  1. Unbelievable comments. Only critics should have a voice? Really? He actually voiced that opinion. Yes, I suppose critics are important, for the reasons he suggested, but readers are the people who read the books and as you say, a blog is today’s version of word of mouth. You can’t just say people should stop talk about books. What a ridiculous statement.

    Posted by Rebecca Bradley | October 2, 2012, 12:21
  2. Wonderful blog post – you put so much time, effort, and thought into it. I agree with you, NO ONE can tell ANY ONE what’s a ‘good’ book, and what isn’t. That is up to each individual. It’s called freedom. Just as when I teach creative writing, and I don’t criticize someone’s choice of genre, content, use of POV, etc. We each express ourselves in different ways, just as we enjoy different kinds of books. YAY for individual book reviewers. We rule!!!

    Posted by roughwighting | October 2, 2012, 14:40
    • Thanks Pam, I appreciate your comments and from what you say about your approach as a teacher of creative writing, I’m sure you’ll be interested in what Fiona says here in her comment about CW MA courses. A good mentor or teacher helps a writer write their very best in their own style and about what matters to them, I totally agree!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2012, 09:10
  3. Thanks for the mention Isabel. And yes, I agree that it’s a ridiculous idea that bloggers cause any harm to literary criticism. I think I’ve said it before in one of your previous posts that I wouldn’t ask a stranger at the bus stop what their opinion was of my outfit, but if I rate a person I know and trust, then I would take their opinion seriously and the same applies to book bloggers. Power to the bloggers!

    Posted by helenmackinven | October 2, 2012, 14:41
    • I don’t think most bloggers see themselves as doing the same thing as professional critics, I know I don’t. What I particularly appreciate about good criticism is the critic’s ability to contextualise the work in question, using their indepth knowledge of the author’s other writing, the genre, movement or whatever. However, book blogs wouldn’t have taken off the way they have if nobody thought they had anything interesting to offer.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2012, 09:16
  4. Very interesting blog and raises some very timely questions. I do think there are some hack reviewers on the blog sites and some do rate books on very slim criteria, but, and this is a big but, readers are intelligent too and will always find a blogger/reviewer that they trust from past recommendation. I have also heard the issue of taste come up in MA writing courses where a writers’ natural style or territory is not what the school is looking for- the writer loses confidence etc etc. I do however think it is important for readers and reviewers to learn to read like a writer as this gives them a sense of what the writer is trying to do and can judge it on its own terms and not simple like or dislike. Super post, lots to think about in these exciting times for reading and writing!

    Posted by Fiona Melrose | October 2, 2012, 15:03
    • Thanks Fiona, I found your comment very interesting, and of course it’s true that there is some very mediocre stuff online masquerading as book review when it is nothing of the sort. There is a lot more to reviewing than saying whether you do or don’t like a book. I think there are definitely readers who have the distance to appreciate the merits of a book even if they didn’t ‘like’it – the other members of my book group, none of whom are writers, can. Anyone who is able to see fiction in this way is opening up a whole new way to enjoy reading and get more out of it. Look forward to continuing our discussion when we see Richard Ford at Southbank!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2012, 09:28
  5. Great post, Isabel. I agree that professional reviewers do a great job, but what utter piffle (I’m feeling polite today) to say that theirs are the only reviews we should heed. How DARE anyone tell me whose views I should listen to! Apart from anything else, bloggers review thousands of books that never find their way onto the hallowed desks of the professional reviewer. And don’t get me started on the gender thing …

    Posted by Susan Elliot Wright | October 2, 2012, 15:04
  6. Hi Isabel, hope you don’t mind me joining the debate. I’m a paid literary critic and I blog, too – I wrote about this issue here: http://www.lesleymcdowellwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/literary-blogs-vs-print-reviews-who-pays.html. I thought your point about bloggers and critics not being in competition with each other might not be true for everyone. Back in 2008, it was already noted that in the US, papers were starting to use bloggers for free, displacing paid critics. And in the UK, many newspapers now are using ‘free content’, and as a paid critic, I worry about that threat to my job. On the question of taste, of course we all have different taste and like different things. My job isn’t about taste, though. I’ve got to try and assess what a book does, what it’s trying to do, and whether it succeeds, and I’ve got to try and do that as objectively as possible, according to certain criteria. Whether I ‘like’ it or not isn’t the point (although often of course I’ve ‘loved’ a book and said so).

    Posted by Lesley McDowell | October 2, 2012, 16:10
  7. Although I do read professional reviews, I certainly don’t rely on them as much as I used to – after all, why would I when I can now get so many addtional opinions? Reviews in papers mean that a book has got onto the literary establishment radar, but if I like the sound of it from the review the first thing I’ll do is log onto Amazon and read the opening pages. Then if I haven’t been put off by the writing style, I’ll look at the reviews and see what the ordinary bods who have shelled out cash for the book think. If there are only 4 or 5 reviews and they are all 5* I’ll ignore them as I’ll assume they are all the author’s mates. If there are 20 or so, then I’ll read a couple of the 5*, a couple of the 3* and a couple of the 1* if there are any. I find that gives me an overview of what the reading experience is like: if they all say ‘great sentences but a weak ending’ or ‘too long’ then that’s what I’ll expect. I tend to give more weight to the slightly critical 3*s in deciding whether what annoys them would annoy me, before I decide whether or not to buy, Although professional reviews may draw my attention to a book, I do give them less weight now I can shop elsewhere for opinions as well.

    I’m also being influenced in my book buying by ‘people who bought this book also bought..’ on Amazon as a way of finding the many books which aren’t on the desks of the professional reviewers. I look more at Amazon than book blogs, but there I’ll also take more seriously a reviewer who has been positively rated by other Amazon users.

    Posted by Catherine | October 2, 2012, 19:18
    • I find I’m hearing this more and more, and it’s very worrying. There’s been a great deal of press recently about ‘sock puppets’, writers putting up fake reviews on Amazon, giving their rivals only one star, for instance, or themselves five stars. I find it very worrying that potential buyers of a book will think five star reviews are ‘all by the authors’ mates’ and not be suspicious of the one-star reviews. I also find the anonymity on Amazon troubling, as well as the ‘star’ being placed right next to the book and price, making a psychological connection between review and purchase. The recent debacle over J K Rowling’s new book, where she received a slew of one-star reviews because of the price, and because the Kindle edition didn’t work straightway, also highlights the very worrying nature of Amazon reviews. Authors don’t dictate price, or manufacture Kindles. They don’t deserve one-star reviews because of that!

      Posted by Lesley McDowell | October 2, 2012, 19:32
      • I don’t think I’m that easily fooled by reviews so that I’m ‘worried’ I’m being misled (I’m quite highly educated, including an MA in 20th century English literature, so I don’t think I get led by the nose by star ratings). Although Amazon reviewers are anonymous there are several ways I distinguish :

        (i) by volume, which is what I was trying to say – if there are more than, say, 20 it’s less likely they are all mates or sock puppets, and that makes me more likely to read a sample of reviews to get an overview.
        (ii) I like to read the 3* reviews, as I said, because mates and sock puppets don’t have a habit of littering Amazon with 3* reviews
        (iii) whether the reviewer has a positive rating as a good reviewer by other Amazon users, and how many other reviews they have posted – if they are rated as one of the best reviewers and have posted lots of reviews they are unlikely to be a sock puppet and other people have found what they say to be helpful,
        and then there’s the results – I do find Amazon readers’ views useful in getting the ordinary purchaser’s view on whether they were glad they read that book: If I didn’t find them a useful supplement to reviews in newspapers I’d stop reading them, but I do find them useful and I’m going to carry on reading them.

        Posted by Catherine | October 2, 2012, 21:41
      • It seems that some of the sock-puppeting has been more sophisticated than you suggest (It’s been committed even by ‘best reviewers’, and whilst some have been obvious, others have been much better at hiding their tracks), but I’m not suggesting you’ve been unintelligent in your reading of reviews – I hope everyone reads as conscientiously and extensively as you do. I’m simply saying there are several problems with them – which your own post identifies. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t have to do all the research and check out how many reviews, what ratings they’ve given before etc etc to make sure.

        Posted by Lesley McDowell | October 2, 2012, 22:01
    • Hi Lesley
      Thanks for commenting. I’m actually delighted to have a professional critic join the debate here. Yes, I did see your post and the very interesting debate around it on Twitter last week – and I can appreciate that from where you’re standing there is an additional angle if you fear your livelihood is under threat. I think it would be very detrimental all round if criticism were to be squeezed out. Your reply raises many questions for me and makes me realise that I (and perhaps others?) have a patchy understanding of how literary criticism works – in terms of objectivity, assessing by established criteria, etc. I hope this doesn’t sound like a facetious question because it’s totally serious: how are readers to account for the difference between one professional review and another if we are told that taste and subjectivity play no part? I feel I am really missing something and I would love to know more. It’s too big a topic to handle in blog comments. Perhaps we could continue the discussion another time?

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2012, 09:44
  8. I’m on the fence about this. On the one hand, I’m happy to listen to a wealth of opinions about a book, I don’t care whether they’re professional or not. However, I do think the fact that the internet is crammed full of people analysing stuff for free is seriously threatening paid journalism. And I speak as someone who works for a webzine that is currently trying to work out how the hell we can pay our contributors (many who work almost full-time, including myself) when so many people are offering a similar thing for free.

    I also think the misconception that literary criticism is basically just an issue of taste is probably quite a common one, and people might not realise the value of professional criticism vs. bloggers. I think the point raised in the comments about why there is such a difference between professional reviews if they are supposedly more objective is an interesting one. Professional criticism is bound to look at whether books stick to the ‘rules’ of characterisation, pacing, plot, etc (or, if applicable, how successfully they break the rules) and I suppose that could be an area for discrepancy.

    I guess no matter how ‘professional’ / objective you think you are, personal taste has got to come in to it a little.

    Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | October 3, 2012, 11:50
    • Hi Cariad, so glad you took the time to comment as I knew you would add something interesting to this debate, so thanks. This is an incredibly complex issue and understandably of great concern to those earning a living through paid criticism. But to return to the question of what literary criticism is and what it sets out to achieve, I just wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t at all suggesting that I thought it was entirely down to taste, far from it, just that I believe it must play some part.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2012, 14:30
      • Sorry, yes, it did look like I was accusing you of thinking that. I wasn’t! I agree with you, I think taste has got to come in to it, otherwise every ‘professional’ review would be the same.

        Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | October 3, 2012, 15:56
  9. Great post, Isabel – clearly argued. And a fascinating discussion. While I’m interested in a range of views on a book – and your opinion is always worth reading – I love (professional) reviews for exactly the reasons you outline: context and background on the book and the author, and analysis of the writing. I find them valuable to read as stand-alone pieces, which often (weirdly, I know!) inspire my own writing. In fact, I have to confess not just to reading them on old-fashioned paper, but to being unable to throw them out – and as a consequence living with wobbling piles of weekend Review sections – because I know there’s a gem in there that I’ve yet to find …

    Posted by Sarah Hegarty | October 3, 2012, 13:59
    • Thanks for contributing Sarah, and for appreciating the blog too. I’m sure what you say will be welcome to any critics reading this, and what’s more, I’m sure many readers share our view that critics can offer something that most bloggers can’t, and aren’t particularly trying to. Even if I was qualified to do it, I wouldn’t want to subject myself to a regular savaging by Guardian readers! BTW My favourite critic is NYT’s Michiko Kakutani, whose reviews are never boring. I personally think she often trashes books unfairly, but if she ever rates a novel, I make a beeline for it! She liked the book you won in the comp, Richard Ford’s Canada, which is the best novel I’ve read all year.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 3, 2012, 14:39
  10. It just arrived in the post! Looks great – I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. V envious of you getting to see him at Southbank – not surprisingly, it’s sold out!

    Posted by Sarah Hegarty | October 3, 2012, 15:25
  11. Hi Isabel, this is obviously a charged and intriguing topic – I commend you for taking it on in such an intelligent manner. While I understand that paid critics are probably reviewing books according to certain defined criteria, I also believe that intelligent, unpaid bloggers are capable of doing that as well. And though I also worry about unpaid content winning out over paid content, the fact is that the Internet is here and the world isn’t going to stop sharing information for free. We have to accept this. And are we really concerned about bloggers or the dilution of literary quality due to the fact that writers can publish their own works without the traditional publishing model? The fact is, If I don’t get something out of reviews, paid or unpaid, I won’t continue to read them. We’re in an exciting, and perhaps sometimes scary, time in the publishing world right now. But it is provocative, isn’t it?

    Posted by Kristin | October 3, 2012, 18:30
    • Thanks for commenting Kristin. You’re so right, there’s no turning back the way life has changed with the Internet. I do feel for people and businesses who are seeing their livelihoods disappear, but protesting about it is a bit like shouting in a storm.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 5, 2012, 08:55
  12. Hello Isabel, Thank you for this thoughtful post and also for my copy of Rook – it arrived today. Love that it is set in West Sussex – love it there. On the Man Booker judges comments, well what can I say, I buy books – I pay good money for them and I want to be entertained, challenged, inspired, and learn new things – particularly about places I might never go to. I will browse to find what I like, read reviews in papers or blogs, research ideas for my own blog, or hear about them through word of month. I enjoy the months that are the Man Booker prize months, but in the end many good books don’t make the prize – or any prize, and most are never reviewed anywhere at all. It is for the good reader to hunt them out for themselves.

    So pleased to hear that you have added Junot Diaz to your to be read list, I have spent the past week telling people to read him. I think that the ‘love rate alter ego’ that he’s created to roam across so many short stories is intriguing. Yesterday it was announced that Junot Diaz been awarded a MacArthur Foundation award – known as the genius award in some quarters. Well deserved in my view.

    All the best, Tricia

    Posted by Tricia | October 3, 2012, 21:51
    • Hi Tricia, glad you are pleased with Rook, it is a beautiful and moving novel and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Thanks so much for acquainting me with Junot Diaz, can’t wait to read him, and as you say it is a great testament to his talent to have won the ‘genius award’. Lucky him!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 5, 2012, 08:51
  13. Hi, I’m reading your blog for the first time tonight and am one of your new twitter followers taking you over 900! The Man Booker thing made my blood boil at the time for all the reasons you put in your post above. But I am now so over it because I know he is wrong about book blogging diluting the quality of writing out there. I read a lot of blogs about books, pretty much all of which are written by measured, erudite readers I have come to respect over the last few years (you are right about Alan Bowden – he is particularly good). The great thing about book bloggers is they can give airplay to books, small presses and authors that might not ordinarily get national coverage in the press; they might not even have national distribution for their book. Word of mouth in these situations is key. Book blogging is an amazing grapevine. I think there is already too much mediocre writing in the market but book bloggers assist in giving great writers, who don’t have the backing of big book deals, some exposure.
    On Junot Diaz; when you’ve finished “This is how you lose her” seek out “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Too late for me to enter it into your competition, but really excellent. In terms of the best book I’ve read this year so far, it would have to be “Pig Iron” by Benjamin Myers – exactly the sort of book I was talking about earlier – small press, very little national coverage and yet refreshingly original.
    Good luck with your own book!

    Posted by afictionhabit | October 4, 2012, 21:09
    • Welcome to the Literary Sofa and nice to have you following me on Twitter. It goes without saying I agree with your take on blogging. I do it for lots of reasons, many of which are quite personal. It’s fun to do alongside writing as an as yet unpublished novelist and has given me confidence that people enjoy my writing. Like you, I think it’s important to give publicity to deserving books, and on my own site, it’s me who gets to decide what they are. Any threat, real or perceived, to professional critics is entirely unintentional!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 5, 2012, 09:01
  14. Love your blog!

    Posted by Gregorio Attridge | October 5, 2012, 06:34

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Guest Post – Lesley McDowell on Literary Critics and Book Bloggers « Isabel Costello - October 8, 2012

  2. Pingback: Just Another Opinion « Reading and Writing - October 11, 2012

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