Opinion: lice in the locks of literature?

Trevor Dolby
Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 29th January 2009

Publishing folk have for years been lamenting what they see as the declining quality of newspapers book reviews: reviewers no longer review, they pr cis; literary editors choose from a narrow spectrum of books; they are too insular in their choice of reviewers. To borrow A A Gill's view of theatre critics, literary pages are 'joyless and detached'. So what's the fuss? Newspapers have had their day anyway. They don t contain any news and they soon won t be available on paper. Well, 'ish'. Rolling TV and radio news, blogs, twitter, email alerts and the rest now supply news infinitely faster than newspapers. Look at the way Janis Krums used Twitter to send his photo of the Hudson aircraft-ditch minutes after the event. I don t think any newspaper editor believes the quality of the paper's book reviews helps increase circulation per se , let alone in preference to its rivals. Neither do book reviews any longer attract advertising revenue. They add a little to the personality and society of their journal, but that's about all. Once literary editors were national institutions and could add thousands to circulation figures and make a book a bestseller.

Might the years roll back if we still had dominating, ideas-setting literary critics like Cyril Connolly? One complaint is that critics don t criticise any more. This goes from restaurant reviews to cars, theatre, film (Mark Kermode excepted) and almost anything else. Half to two-thirds of any review has nothing to with what the critic is reviewing.

Today, columnists are writing the best criticism. People read what Matthew Parris or Christopher Hitchens has to say on any subject. The same for columnists like Jane Moore in the Sun, Richard Littlejohn in the Mail, Jane Shilling in The Times, Michael Portillo, or even Jeremy Clarkson, who is the perfect cross-over columnist ('the man with the stick'). Readers make friends with newspaper personalities and enjoy what they like and dislike, from under-age drinking to what books they are reading and why. It is the quality of the columnists that attracts and keeps newspaper readers these days, not critics.

Then there is the practice of novelists reviewing other novelists. I m not suggesting that novelists cannot be good critics. But there is a danger that vested interests reviewing vested interests leads to in-breeding.

There's also a myriad of new places people can get their direction. You need to search, but there are terrific reviewers on Amazon and in the blogosphere these days. Many have insight, are well read, and review in a way that is useful, educated and entertaining. There are blogs galore written by dedicated readers who want to share their considerable knowledge and personal taste with infectious energy. Then there's radio, and TV (if Mariella says buy it I buy two, read one and have the other on toast), every prize under the sun from the Man Booker to the Costa, to the Samuel Johnson to the Romantic Novelists, the Nibbies, and, yes, there's Richard & Judy. All of them much more relevant and effective at prompting someone to read/buy a particular book. And for the cognoscenti there s, amongmuch else, the Literary Review and the TLS.

As publishers, almost everything we do is predicated on our ability to be good critics. We must review, pr cis, present to our colleagues without puff and fluff, enthuse, evangelise, shout from the rooftops. Every publisher sees hundreds of manuscripts and ideas each year. It is our critical faculties that make us a living. We would starve if we just published our mates for our mates.

Trevor Dolby is Publisher of Preface.

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