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 —
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.