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Guest Post – Lesley McDowell on Literary Critics and Book Bloggers

Last week’s post Literary Taste – Who’s to Judge? attracted a lot of interest and thought-provoking contributions from readers, including literary critic Lesley McDowell.  Her comments made me want to understand the perspective of professional critics, so in the interests of balance, I invited Lesley to join me On the Literary Sofa:

When Sir Peter Stothard said that “the role and the art of the (literary critic)” was being undermined by online bloggers, especially by what he felt were inferior reviews compared to those published in broadsheets, he touched a nerve. Are critics “just being submerged” by the sheer mass of opinion available online? And will this in turn“harm literature”, as he claimed?

I should be clear: I’m both a professional critic and a published author. The last thing I want is an end to blogs – as an author, that would be madness. I want as many people blogging, talking about, reading and buying as many books (preferably mine!) as possible. But there’s a problem, which I’ll come to.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain about the day job first. In 1997, I was teaching English Literature at St Andrews University. A friend doing work experience at Scotland on Sunday overheard its literary editor, Rosemary Goring, saying she needed new reviewers. I needed cash, so I phoned Rosemary who gave me a try with Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us – luckily, my flatmate had some of Bloom’s short stories and one of those formed the opening chapter to the novel. My review wasn’t based on taste – the kind of book I like or don’t like. I knew I had to assess the merits of this book, how well it had achieved what it had set out to achieve, what it did differently, or how it raised familiar aspects. I tried to make sure I took an angle on the book, too, so that I wasn’t simply summarising the plot. I’d never seen a short story used as a novel’s opening chapter before, and that seemed crucial to me. Rosemary was delighted – she was sure no-one else had spotted that.

After that, I reviewed regularly for her and loved it so much I left academia for freelance journalism. If I’d known what was ahead of me, I doubt I’d have done it. Cold-calls to unfriendly editors; trying to sell ideas and books to review on a daily basis; the rigours of deadlines, often at short notice; being edited and sub-edited; financial instability where a review commissioned in February appears in March which means payment in April (if nobody messes up – then it’s payment in May). I kept punting my stuff at London editors, too, and finally got to review regularly for the TLS and the Independent on Sunday.

Because I had a PhD in James Joyce and feminist theory, I used that feminist background to carve a niche for myself reviewing primarily books by women. I’d no chance of getting the latest Amis or Rushdie, they’re always reserved for men – Jodi Picoult is, alas, right about the gender bias of broadsheet reviews and this recent survey bore her out.  But I got Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, to myself. And I’ve been doing that ever since, as well as publishing short stories, a novel, a work of non-fiction, and winning arts council bursaries and getting shortlisted for literary awards.

That last part isn’t to boast – it’s to emphasise my credentials for the job I do, because I’m feeling it’s under threat. Some bloggers might not see themselves in competition with print reviewers, but many do – and as newspapers face cutbacks, more and more are looking for free content. Bloggers work largely for free – as a blogger myself, I know I do. I also know how much fun it is to write about whatever you like, for whatever audience, at whatever length you choose. I interview writers on my website – I don’t have to make a case for them to some editor, I don’t have to time things with book releases, I don’t have to ask searching questions if I don’t want to. I can please myself, a hugely appealing thing to do.

Less of the rigours of the broadsheets, then. Does that also mean worse writing, as Stothard says? And what of the “harm done to literature” by blogging? I know that blogs are essential for writers ignored by broadsheets – my boyfriend, Russel D McLean, writes hardboiled noir fiction, the kind no broadsheet will touch, so blogs get him coverage by experts in his field. Many of those blog reviews will be of an excellent standard, although I take issue with blogger John Self who recently wrote about this issue in The Guardian and mentioned several highly-rated blogging sites. They were all by men and all except one review predominantly books by men. Same problem as the broadsheets, then.

But there’s another problem. When so much talking is being done, something happens. It’s happening in the publishing world right now, and to me, it’s a result of increased discussion, and the standard that much of that discussion is pitched at. Publishers are increasingly emphasising the single-issue book, the book with a strong ‘what if’ that readers can talk about. It’s one reason Jodi Picoult is so popular – her books are classic ‘what ifs’ and they do make for great conversation and strong reactions from readers. New presses like Two Roads and Tinder Press are emphasising ‘strong stories well told’ from writers – that translates very often as precisely this kind of fiction.

But what if you’ve written a book that it isn’t easy to make a strong judgement about, or has no clear-cut issue to discuss? I’m not saying that blog reviewers only go for books like the kind I’ve just mentioned; what I’m saying is that the volume of discussion they generate, and often the kind of discussion, favours that kind of story. I know many writers whose work is being turned down by publishers because, even though editors have loved them, sales departments don’t know how to sell them. You have no issue in your book – so how do you generate blog interest? How do you get the conversation going, and in turn, generate sales? In the brave new publishing world, sales take precedence (it’s why so many authors are upset about fake reviews on Amazon – one star next to your book at point of sale can be hugely damaging to your sales figures. Imagine walking into Waterstones and seeing the book you want right next to the till, with a big sign above it saying ‘this book is rubbish.’ Would you still buy it?)

I started this post by saying that as an author, I want books to be read, discussed, appreciated, bought. I’ve ended it by seemingly saying I don’t want that amount of discussion. That’s not quite true. What I don’t want is unprofessional discussion that has all, or a great deal of, the power. As an author, I want power in the hands of professionals (even if they don’t like my books), and publishers who don’t feel they have to generate discussion. As a critic, I want power in the hands of professionals like myself with expertise and experience. I want bloggers to exist in their many numbers. I just don’t want them to have quite as much power as they do.

Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers by Lesley McDowell is published by Duckworth

Many thanks to Lesley for this stimulating – and possbily provocative – piece.  Having run out of space here, I’ll give my reaction in the Comments below.  Has reading this changed YOUR mind or made you think differently about the Bloggers v. Critics question?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


4 thoughts on “Guest Post – Lesley McDowell on Literary Critics and Book Bloggers

  1. Thanks for the post Lesley. I’m always slightly scared by the instability of professional book reviewing. I have a few thoughts!

    I can’t help but feel that this argument conflates several distinct points: Firstly, the ‘qualifications’ of professional critics and the presumption that taste and judgement are somehow a reserved domain. I think the sophistication of many bloggers is neglected here; I for one (and I don’t suggest I’m always successful) aim for more complex judgements than any ‘single issue’ book should support. PhDs are certainly not prerequisites, except to the extent that they are evidence of a degree of skill in research and argumentation. (I do think my philosophical background helps me write my reviews, but others might consider them too dense). Far more important, I think, is a commitment to reading widely, situating what one reads within that wider literary landscape, and marrying one’s initial response to a considered assessment. (I tend to follow Hume’s view on this. But that’s the philosophy again).

    Secondly, I’m not at all convinced that the bloggers I would recommend (and no, they are not all men) fall over to acquire or promote ‘what if’ books. But, then, that is testament to the diversity of book bloggers. I think more distinctions need to be made. ‘Book bloggers’ is too broad a concept to do any useful work.

    Thirdly, the financial argument, whilst important, is separate. The decline of many literary pages is far from the fault of bloggers: it’s a reflection of the state of print media in general, the slow death of which is particularly damaging to arts pages.

    Fourthly, I would be very happy for publishers to abandon the kinds of strategy you outline. It damages literature. Your real problem seems to be with publishing strategies rather than bloggers, who can only ever be responsive to such things. I think these particular strategies are more typical of commercial imprints anyway, so maybe I’m just not that familiar with them. So, again, perhaps a distinction within the publishing industry is needed.

    These are distinct issues and we could disagree along several dimensions with regard to each. I don’t think blogs should take the place of ‘professional’ reviewers, but many professionals blog as well (as you acknowledge – being one of them). Thus the divide is not always particularly clear.

    With that said, I’d love a resurgence in professional criticism, but I don’t think we should valorise ‘professional’ overly. That’s a fairly recent historical development anyway. The better solution would be to acknowledge the fluidity that the internet has brought to criticism and its consumption. Goodness knows how one does that.

    Anyway, this is a good discussion to be having. I can’t see these issues going away any time soon. Thanks again for the post.

    Posted by wordsofmercury | October 8, 2012, 12:50
    • Thanks again Lesley for your willingness to share your views on this issue and Alan for so ably articulating many points which I personally agree with. Here are a few thoughts, some of which pick up on and to an extent reiterate last week’s post and comments.

      I am heartened to hear Alan say what he does about the taste and judgement issue. When I said that my previous question (see comments) about the objectivity of professional critics wasn’t facetious, neither did I mean it to be rhetorical. I am still hoping somebody will shed some light on this for me and anyone else who is interested. I think many are genuinely mystified.

      Alan’s point about the sophistication of some sections of the book blogging community needed to be made and he is the right person to do it. I think any suggestion that bloggers can be dismissed en masse as lacking critical skills and judgement is highly suspect and one of the main reasons Sir Peter Stothard’s remarks met with such a cold reception. It is a modest claim in present company, but I have a degree in a literary subject and if as a 20 year old I was able to hold my own in hour-long one to one tutorials with tutors who could not let a session pass without mentioning F R Leavis, I have few doubts about my ‘qualification’ to write in-depth book reviews which make no claim to being ‘professional’. (Nothing to fear from me – my writing ambitions lie squarely in the realm of fiction!)

      It would appear that we agree that the current bias in publishing favouring issue-driven and high-concept fiction is detrimental to both readers (who can only read what’s published, after all) and writers. I know this first hand because it is affecting the prospects of my own novel. In due course there will be a correction because people will start to tire of it. Of the 20+ novels I’ve reviewed here in my first year, only two could be loosely described as ‘What if?’ – there is plenty of interest in other well-written fiction in the area that interests me, namely literary/commercial crossover.

      ‘Bloggers v Critics’ makes for a good headline (and we’ve used it) but pitting the two groups against each other is a false dichotomy. As many commenters on the original post made clear, they take both into account and I bet there are many avid readers out there who couldn’t care less what any of us think. We’re not going to crack this one, but it’s a really interesting discussion – thanks for taking part.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 8, 2012, 23:13
  2. Thanks for that considered response, Alan – I do wonder though, if things are much more connected than you suggest though, as I’m not sure the financial argument is a separate one. About 9 months ago, the Guardian ran an article about the relationship between publishers and bloggers, showing the pressure many bloggers were under to produce a review that the publishers liked, or else the publishers wouldn’t send any more review copies – they’d drawn up ‘rules’ for bloggers too (I tried to find this article but couldn’t, apologies). Publishers would much rather send books to people they have power over than print reviewers they don’t have power over – and that has nothing to do with how newspapers are performing in the market-place or the number of arts pages they have. As the sheer volume of blogs grows, the more power the publishers can wield, and it’s power that costs them only a review copy of a book. In 2008, Jay Rayner showed that US newspapers were replacing paid critics with unpaid bloggers – unpaid bloggers who might very well have been pressurised by whatever company has sent them the goods to review.

    Posted by Lesley McDowell | October 8, 2012, 14:39
  3. As to the pressure point, if it’s true, then it’s very sad. A lot of the bloggers I know have been worried at one time or another about whether they are at the mercy of publishers who only want good reviews (rather than coverage in general). The response from both other bloggers and publishers themselves has always been that it is far better to maintain one’s integrity than to succumb. (After all, a blogger who is always positive is less likely to be taken as a reliable guide to whatever genre/domain they are working in). I’ve posted negative reviews which didn’t prevent the same publisher sending me other books, but I can well believe that others aren’t so scrupulous, even though I’ve never encountered any rules or been subject to any pressure.

    I would reiterate, however, that this is a problem with publishers. They may believe it makes financial sense to hedge their critical bets, or just rig the whole thing, but that should always be resisted. Again, I don’t think it’s a problem with blogging per se, even if some do bow to it. I also think, at least in Britain, that bloggers who post on newspaper sites are unlikely to be easily pressurised, or to cover the kinds of books where that pressure (or the single issue agenda) is likely to be present. Put it this way, if I were to write an unpaid review for a newspaper (which I wouldn’t be too keen on doing, I should add) then I would in no way submit to such pressure from a publisher. I’d be interested to see if there were any evidence for that trend, rather than the separate points about pressure and unpaid bloggers. Newspaper articles alone aren’t hugely convincing.

    Posted by wordsofmercury | October 8, 2012, 15:24

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