The Literary Debate: Reviewers, Critics, Writers, & Social Media

Audrey Hepburn:  not a literary critic.

Audrey Hepburn, reading and looking lovely.

I will not be at the Boston Book Festival.

My husband will not get on a plane.

And anyway we already went to the Iowa City Book Festival to hear Marilynne Robinson in a conversation with Ayana Mathis.

If I lived in Boston, however, I would undoubtedly attend “Where’s My Good Review?”, a conversation with Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra (my favorite book last year).

The description of the event at the BBF is as follows.

There have never been more opinions about books in the media. But what has happened to critical argument? Is there a difference between debates online and in print? Need there be? Books pages in the press are shrinking and books sections have closed while literary discussion is thriving on social media. But who has the responsibility for keeping criticism alive? Join a conversation with Sir Peter Stothard, newspaper editor, prize-winning author, and for the last twelve years, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. For more than a century the TLS has stood for the most searching criticism of books and ideas. Join in its analysis of the problems and opportunities ahead. Sponsored by the Times Literary Supplement.

Since the advent of the internet (which happened for me in 1996 when my job required me to invest in a home computer),  the democratization of criticism has become a hotly-contended issue.  Social media book discussions are indeed thriving. Talented bloggers write book posts or reviews, and some bloggers  participate in so-called “challenges” to read, for example, the English writer Margaret Kennedy.   Recently I have also browsed at Goodreads, where there are a dizzying number of book groups and reader reviews.

Traditional book reviews at book publications are my main source of information about new books. Yet I must intervene and point out that very  few newspaper book pages share the high standards of the TLS, which publishes scholarly literary criticism, or The Washington Post Book World, which publishes both criticism and reviews (mainly reviews).  Move to the wilds of the Midwest, Southwest, or any West, and you will find average book editors with bachelor’s degrees in journalism who assign reviews to book-loving reviewers who do not have scholarly  qualifications.  Often these pages are quite good, but bear in mind that the reader denizens of these towns also rely on The New York Times.

Amazon reviews are a big source of contention among writers.  In the new issue of The New Republic, Jennifer Weiner contends in her article, “No Author Is Too Good for Her Amazon Critics,” that writers need to suck it up when Amazon readers attack their books.  Weiner says that the writer Margo Howard, a former advice columnist, the daughter of Ann Landers, and the author of Eat, Drink, and Remarry: Confessions of a Serial Wife, a memoir published by Harlequin, is furious that Amazon reviewers who received free copies of her book trashed it before it was published.  Howard says that they are “dim bulbs,” they are “evangelical, unworldly,” “barely literate, and “deluded.”  The populist Weiner insists that Amazon reviewers are entitled to their opinions.

Although I don’t often read Amazon reviews, I do notice they are sometimes tough on my favorite writers.  Yet there are also knowledgeable people who write enthusiastic reviews.  Imagine my relief to find that Homer’s Iliad gets four and a half stars, and that Virginia Woolf is a four-star writer.

In One for the Books, Joe Queenan writes that “most people read drivel. That is their prerogative. The case can be made that it is better to read drivel than to read nothing, on the theory that people will eventually tire of baggage and move on to something more meaty, like trash. I believe that this may sometimes occur with the young, but I doubt that it ever happens with adults. Adults do not suddenly tire of reading Nora Roberts and jump up and exclaim: ‘Screw this crap; by God, I’m going to give Marcus Aurelius a rip!’”

Okay, Joe.  We get what you mean.

I love blogs, but the first rule of reading blogs is “Know thy blogger.”  Feverish PR can be a problem if a blogger feels under an obligation to publicists.  Then there is malice aforethought as practiced by enemies of a writer under a pseudonym or anonymously.

My general philosophy:  Caveat Emptor.

In the end, I trust only my own judgment.

8 thoughts on “The Literary Debate: Reviewers, Critics, Writers, & Social Media

  1. I think that “Know thy blogger” is a good mantra, and I tend to take recommendations from the ones I trust and the ones whose taste I respect. As for Amazon reviews – I’ve actually found these quite useful at times. You have to do a *lot* of sifting because some people are very partisan and there is often a case of “emperor’s new clothes” with some books. But they give a balance and the negative ones can often counteract the hyperbole of some of the reviewers who surely must be planted! It’s also nice to find your feelings confirmed when you can’t see what the hype of a book is all about…. 🙂

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    • Everything goes on the list, and I must admit I only have time to read ten or so bloggers a week (you’re one of them), so God only knows how many good blogs I’m missing. I find Amazon reviews helpful with “older” or out-of-print books, when there is almost no information about them online. Once in a while someone takes the time to review one.

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  2. Allow me to recommend two more print paper (as well as online) excelllent and readable and enjoyable periodicals: the London Review of Books and Women’s Review of Books. The LRB covers all sorts of topics, have “short cuts” (shorter pieces), diaries, original memoirs. Their staff is particularly rich. WRofB covers books not mentioned elsewhere much less reviewed in depth, it has womens’ poetry, an art section, personal pieces too. You need to know your reviewer in these periodicals too.

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    • I did recently read Jenny Diski’s memoir about Doris Lessing in the LRB. Very interesting! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen The Women’s Review of Books. Will look for it.

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  3. P.S. It would have been nice for your to meet Stothard though as he published in the TLS one of your columns, and I omitted the TLS — that is my 4th mainstay nowadays: TLS, WRofB, LRB, and NYRB and to keep up in the “swing” of things the New Yorker

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  4. Yes, Joe Queenan can be very funny, but this did not make me laugh. I felt that he was insulting his readers. In my experience, adult readers CAN be “brought up” to a higher level if standards are high in classes, book clubs, etc. If people talk down, it cannot be done. Sometimes it’s a matter of exposing them to literature. There are exceptions to the Nora Roberts rule.

    Very unlike Queenan not to make me laugh.

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