Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

So it seems that John Sutherland wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend about the encroachment of bloggers and the online world on the literary establishment, which not-at-all predictably caused some upset. (The article itself doesn’t appear to be online, unfortunately.) This morning, the Today Programme featured a brief discussion on the subject between Sutherland and Scott Pack (see also). If you have RealPlayer, you can listen to the discussion here; if you don’t, here’s a handy transcript.

John Humphrys: Who do you trust to tell you that a book you’re thinking of buying or reading is good or bad? Newspaper reviewers, maybe. But increasingly we turn to the internet, apparently, sites like Amazon, and the ordinary punters who’ve read it and tell us what they think. Can we trust them? Does it matter if many of them are rubbish — many of the reviews, I mean? John Sutherland, eminent reviewer himself, Professor of English at University College London says that it does, and he is with me; Scott Pack is the commercial director of the Friday Project, which is an online publisher. John Sutherland: why does it matter, so long as we’re getting other peoples’ opinions?

John Sutherland: Well, it seems to me that we have a terrific book trade in this country, we also have a terrific book reviewing establishment. I mean, today’s Thursday, between Friday and Sunday there’ll be about thirty places where books are reviewed. Now, they’ll be very different opinions, but one thing we can rely on, that most of those reviews, in fact I would say 100% of them, are independent, they’re ethical, and they’re honest. The Times and the TLS will not review HarperCollins books well because in fact they’re both owned by Rupert Murdoch — in fact quite often they give books under that imprint a savage review, if they so think. Now we’ve spent a long time setting up that kind of reviewing establishment, and I would hate it to go the way of — you know, when you go into a DVD shop, a Blockbusters, and you look at the box and it says “greatest movie ever!”

JH: Yes, they’re all the greatest movie ever made, quite so.

JS: … and these are by quote whores …

JH: “Quote whores”!

JS: … you know, from a magazine you’ve never heard of. Now it seems to me that may in fact push that particular product, but you’ve lost something once that happens.

JH: Scott Pack, doesn’t that worry you?

Scott Pack: Not so much. I think that it was a very enjoyable piece that Professor Sutherland wrote, and he made some valid points, the problem I had with it, and the thing that’s annoyed quite a few people in the internet community, was the implication that book reviews should be left to the literati and the academics, and there’s no place for the little people who post on Amazon or these new-fangled bloggers. And I think that’s a shame, I have an issue with that, I think that it’s quite right to point out that you can question the motives of some of the online reviewers, but I don’t think the newspaper reviews are quite as squeaky-clean as he points out. I think it’s reasonable to say that the vast majority of reviews online and the majority of reviews in newspapers are perfectly honest decent reviews from people who love books, and that’s a good thing.

JH: And it is true, John, when you described it you did use the word ‘establishment’.

JS: Absolutely, and it seems to me, you know, that you should be honest about this. Editors choose book reviewers because they write well, and because in fact they have, you know — I mean, James Naughtie on this programme is a book reviewer, not because he’s on the Today Programme but because he’s a good book reviewer, and that’s the criterion editors use. Now it seems to me that not many people read them — this is the point that Scott makes — compared to the number of people who read, or listen to, say Richard and Judy, who are trusted. But in fact they’re not great literary critics. But you wouldn’t want to get rid of Which? magazine because it’s got a very low circulation. You know, that is there to some extent as a signpost, and it seems to me we need these signposts.

JH: And isn’t the danger, Scott Pack, that these … freelance reviewers, if you like, if that’s a sensible way of describing them, will kill off the traditional reviewing industry?

SP: No, I don’t think it will, I think there really is a place for both. Clearly more and more people are turning to the internet for advice —

JH: Exactly!

SP: — but of course there’s a place for book reviews, I think they’re great, I think it’s true that perhaps their influence has diminished over the past 10, 20 years — but there’s still a place for them, they’re still very important, and they’re still write by some incredibly articulate and informative individuals. The point, of course, is that the majority of reviewers online are doing it purely out of the love of books and for free, whereas we do have to point out that the people doing reviews for newspapers are getting paid for it, and they need to fill the space. That doesn’t mean that either of them are biased — it just means that there’s a place for both, and it depends on who you trust.

JH: I take your point — John Sutherland, couldn’t you say that anybody’s opinion — this is reducing it to the absurd, perhaps — but almost anyone’s opinion is as valid as the next person’s? You’re a distinguished professor, you might find a book particularly fascinating and wonderful, I might find it rubbish. You can’t arbitrate, can you?

JS: No. I mean, there was a time when Scott was the most important reviewer in this country, in the sense that he set up what essentially was the stock of Waterstones. And that was a critical judgement on his part, it was done ethically I’m sure, and it was done because he thought these books were the best books, and they were also books that were going to sell. But the thing is, you have to trust the people who make these judgements. People go to Richard and Judy or Oprah not because they’re great literary critics but because they trust them. And that question of trust, it seems to me, is not always evident on the commentary you get on the web. I wrote something which displeased bloggers and I got death threats. Now, that is not reviewing. That just seems to me, as it were, the judgement of the lynch mob. And there’s a lot of that out on the web.

JH: Well, I wish we could pursue that, we’ve run out of time I’m afraid, but John Sutherland and Scott Pack, thank you both very much indeed.

21 thoughts on “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

  1. “But the thing is, you have to trust the people who make these judgements… And that question of trust, it seems to me, is not always evident on the commentary you get on the web.”

    Hmm, isn’t trust exactly the reason people like blog reviews?

  2. This Internet age is so confusing. In the olden days, before blogs, people relied entirely on professional reviewers to get their book recommendations. That’s why we never had any silly neologisms like “word of mouth.”

  3. Grargh. I read the article in the paper, and was annoyed by it then. But here he seems to be making even more of an idiot of himself. While he has a point about the existence of, for instance, dodgy Amazon reviews, most online reviews aren’t like that! There’s everything from Serious Reviewers (the sort of people who also get published in places like the TLS, and I’m not convinced that they magically lose all their critical thinking because they’re on the Web instead of in print…) to people who are posting what they thought about what they read for likeminded friends (which is where I find most of my recs these days).

    I don’t “trust” J. Random Reviewer in the Telegraph because I have no idea whether his or her taste in books is anything like mine. The effusive reviews of the Latest Literary Phenomenon are no use if I don’t enjoy literary novels. But if someone on my LJ flist says, hey, if you liked X you’ll like this book Y which I just read, well, I’m likely to take a look.

    This actually reminds me quite a lot of the whole fanfic / profic debate again. Different things, different purposes, different methods. And just because you get paid for doing something doesn’t make you necessarily better at it, or more suitable for a given reader.

  4. There’s a spin-off column in The Guardian – http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/11/post_5.html – about Harriet Klausner, where the columnist (Claire Armitstead) is notionally looking for a book for a girlfriend, and consults la Klausner’s reviews for hints. She says:

    “On the positive side, I fairly quickly get an idea of her taste — fantasy, SF, chick-lit, romance, crime. That’s good. My girlfriend likes froth.”

    Can’t kick back without registering; can’t be bothered to register.

  5. I can’t for the life of me work out what Sutherland is saying. He seems to be conflating trust in the reviewer’s opinions and their intellectual rigor with trust in their integrity, and then assuming that the checks and balances of traditional paper journalism ensure both qualities while treating internet reviewers as an undifferentiated lump. He also ignores the meritocratic element of online writing – possibly because he is genuinely ignorant of it – and seems to be operating under the assumption that the mere act of posting an opinion online ensures that it will be as widely read as any other opinion, and given as much credence.

    In short, yes, I have heard this one before.

  6. There is a problem with some internet reviews in that they are self-published by writers who are solely self-published, thus omitting the checks and balances an editor will bring. It is hard to trust X in the same way that one learns to trust Niall through his reviews published in a varirty of forums and journals, where a form of peer reviewing is ongoing.

  7. This Internet age is so confusing. In the olden days, before blogs, people relied entirely on professional reviewers to get their book recommendations. That’s why we never had any silly neologisms like “word of mouth.”

    FTW!

    The problem is one of perspective; if you don’t partake in the networked community of internet review sites (for books or anything else), then you’ll have no idea of how to determine how much or how little value any given opinion might have to a jury of its writer’s peers. Add to that a healthy dose of academic/literati condescension, and you have a man who is opining on a phenomenon that he simply doesn’t understand. Another day, another old-guard MSM ostrich-imitation.

    Attitudes like Sutherland’s are exactly why the younger and more open-minded demographics prefer to get their reviews on the web – they don’t feel patronised by an inaccessible cultural hierarchy.

    (And on a more personal level, I’d not trust the opinion of a culture hack for the Torygraph if my life depended on it. This little flap has confirmed my worst assumptions.)

  8. Clearly you’re slipping, Paul.

    I agree with most of what everyone’s been saying, particularly with Sutherland just seeming to be a bit confused and there being no necessary inherent difference between online and print publication. I’m also vaguely amused at the way this is bubbling up in the mainstream now, six months after it did the rounds of our corner of the blogosphere.

    I have somewhat mixed feelings on the subject of authoritative voices, though. For instance:

    It is hard to trust X in the same way that one learns to trust Niall through his reviews published in a varirty of forums and journals, where a form of peer reviewing is ongoing.

    I’m actually not that comfortable with people trusting me to the extent of just taking my word for something. If we’re talking about actual reviews, I don’t feel that I should get a free pass just because someone knows me; I still need to make whatever case I’m making with enough evidence and detail that it can stand on its own merits. And that goes double if (as is the case most of the time) I’m writing something that is equally likely to be read by people who don’t know me. The great advantage of the online world in this regard, it seems to me, is space; newspapers don’t have unlimited space but here, I do.

    (Of course, there’s plenty of room for more general bookchat, too, and in some respects that’s where the blogosphere comes into its own, because that really is about trust and relationships and word-of-mouth. Or keyboard.)

  9. Niall, just picked you as a prominent example.

    What I meant was trusting you in the sense that a reader can learn where your strengths and weaknesses are, where your tastes and theirs overlap or clash, and if you are consistent. Also in learning to recognise the rigor of your approach or otherwise.

  10. Lest we forget, it’s not that long ago that many of us were going on about how shit online reviews are. He’s merely agreeing with us from a position of ignorance. We should all like… go over to his house and shout “hack the planet!” at him or something.

  11. I mean, today’s Thursday, between Friday and Sunday there’ll be about thirty places where books are reviewed. Now, they’ll be very different opinions, but one thing we can rely on, that most of those reviews, in fact I would say 100% of them, are independent, they’re ethical, and they’re honest.

    Anybody who follows Private Eye regularly knows the lie in that.

  12. He does however have somewhat of a point in that it is more difficult to recognise good reviews online than in the pages of The Times or whatever. For example, most of the traffic to my own booklog comes from Google searches; how the heck will these people ever know that a) what I say about a book is true and b) my liking or disliking a book is any indicator that they will like or dislike it?

  13. Martin — by looking around your site for books they’ve already ready? I suppose we’re talking about two different models of trust, here — the traditional one, in which you trust that the person writing for the Times will know what they’re talking about, because they’re writing for the Times, and the new one, in which you go off and google the person to see what else they’ve written, and judge whether or not to trust them on that basis.

  14. This one will run and run! Thanks for the transcript. I’ve just done my own post re this and someone kindly pointed me at this debate.

    I’m still laughing (and crying) at this line re those who review in broadsheets …
    ‘I would say 100% of them, are independent, they’re ethical, and they’re honest.’
    I can’t begin to formulate an argument with someone who genuinely believes that to be true! Of 100% of them!

    Most blog reviewers are unpaid book-lovers who frequently concentrate on authors who rarely if ever make it into the broadsheet reviews. Like anything else, online or in print, you can accept or reject their opinions.

    In my experience, most bloggers don’t use their position to score cheap points, they have no hidden agenda, they don’t use the opportunity to show how clever they are at the expense of others … In other words, the vast majority are … er … independent, ethical and honest!

  15. Both traditional reviewers and bloggers take their tasks very seriously, but they’re inherestly different tasks—it’s the difference between content and conversation.

    The task of a traditional reviewer is to deal in content, to create this stand-alone thing called a review. It is only conversational in that it responds to a book, but the give and take usually ends there. Therefore, their goal is thoroughness and presenting something that approaches “authority”.

    Bloggers and other online reviewers trade in conversation. While they may write something similar in style and structure to a traditional review, they write with the expectation that their work will be publicly responded to. They write knowing they needn’t (and shouldn’t) be 100% thorough, because their goal is to generate discussion, not to provide the be-all-and-end-all statement on a book.

    It’s like the difference between a lecture and a seminar. Both have their place, and both have value. But if you confuse the two, if you substitute the values of one in the format of the other, it’s complete junk.

  16. It is quite odd to read yourself in transcript. The interview was good fun but very short. I had my real killer lines ready to go but the piece was cut short. A shame.

  17. Andrew — fair comment, although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the “shouldn’t”; sometimes I write to generate discussion, sometimes I attempt to be definitive, and while I agree that the former is a great strength of the online world, I don’t think it’s the only thing the online world should do.

    Scott — yeah, I got the sense they trimmed the discussion because something earlier overran. But I think the basic positions still got set out fairly clearly, and it can’t hurt to have people thinking about it.

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