Sir Peter Stothard ruffled a fair few feathers with his piece in the Independent yesterday. The subheading said "Editor of the TLS and Man Booker Prize judge Sir Peter Stothard talks about the bloggers killing literary criticism..." which for many bloggers was like a red rag to a bull.
Trying to be restrained, and fair-minded, I decided to do a little digging to see whether Sir Peter had a point. He says that "[The rise of bloggers] will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain't so."
So, is the rise of bloggers "bad for readers"? Looking at it from a YA angle, I tried to find some reviews of some of the hottest recent YA and children's releases.
NEWSPAPER REVIEWS OF RECENT YA RELEASES
The last 30 days have seen the releases of Ratburger by David Walliams, Dodger by Terry Pratchett, the latest Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Robert Muchamore's newest CHERUB novel, Missing Me by Sophie McKenzie and Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. All are established names in the field of YA and children's fiction with big fanbases. A search of the TLS website reveals nothing about any of these books. Looking at the Independent, where Sir Peter's article was published, we get a mention of Dodger back in April but no review. The Times gives us a review of Dodger, but nothing else. Head over to the Telegraph and searching for those titles brings up lots of opportunities to buy these books, and an interesting piece by Muchamore himself, but still no reviews I can find. The Guardian gives us an interview with Walliams, but no book review, and - Hallelujah! - an excellent review of The Diviners by Libba Bray. (Although I quickly found out that it was written by blogger The Book Addicted Girl.)
When the TLS itself, and the most respected newspapers in the UK, take so little interest in reviewing childrens' and YA books, is it any wonder people turn elsewhere to find reviews? A quick search for any of those authors and titles with the words 'blog' and 'review' gives me dozens to choose from for each title.
IS EVERYONE'S OPINION AS GOOD AS EVERYONE ELSE'S?
Of course, we have to bear in mind Sir Peter's point that "as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain't so."
I'd love to know more about what Sir Peter was implying with the quote. It seems to be falling somewhere between "some people have more of a right to an opinion than others" and "some reviews are better than others". I'd disagree strongly with the first, and agree with the second. I'd also say the second was rather stating the obvious. Does Sir Peter seriously think that everyone lumps all bloggers together as being equally good at blogging? Since I've never heard anyone say that all authors are equally good, all artists are equally good, or even that all literary critics are equally good, I'd suggest he's making rather a mistake there. There are some bloggers who I trust, or enjoy reading, more than others. I tend to head for their reviews. To find out whether I enjoy a blogger, I spend 5 - 10 minutes or so reading a couple of reviews they've written and seeing if I agree with them or are at least entertained by them. I'd venture that most other people reading blogs do the same thing, rather than diving into them at random as Sir Peter seems to imply.
IMPORTANT ISSUES - GOOD BOOKS BEING OVERWHELMED
To take another of his points "People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off. There are some important issues here." Really, Sir Peter? Firstly, I think you'll find that most bloggers tend to recommend books that they think are good, and that a large amount of them agree on a large amount of books. Obviously, there's never going to be a clear consensus - just as there are people who can't stand Catcher in the Rye, and the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy has nearly 500 5-star ratings on Amazon UK but 25 1-star ratings, there are people who dislike some books I love, and others who rave over ones I can't stand.
In the main, though, sensational books like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt, and Pushing The Limits by Katie McGarry are showing no signs of being 'overwhelmed' by others, and I'd venture to say they'd be significantly more damaged if there were no bloggers around and they were having to wait in vain for anyone at a newspaper to notice them. Also, as much as I love books, let's get real for a minute - 'important issues' is something of an overstatement. When it comes to heart surgery, defusing bombs, or pulling off complicated financial transactions I'd agree that they were best left to the experts (in 2 out of 3 cases, at least!) but there seems to be a limit to the amount of damage even a really bad book blogger can do.
20 BOOKS A YEAR?
Finally, while I'm impressed that Sir Peter has read 145 books in the last 7 months I'm surprised he describes that as "unnatural" and stunned that the editor of the TLS reads 20 novels in a normal year. Most book bloggers I know read anywhere between four times and ten times as many. If there were more people writing for the top journals and newspapers reading that many, perhaps they'd even be able to fit in some prompt YA reviews!
So, what does everyone else think? Are book bloggers "killing literary criticism" or providing a valuable service for authors and books who might not get reviewed otherwise? Please leave a comment below if you'd like to share your thoughts.
One of the best posts I've seen on the subject, by the way, is from Victoria Walters - well worth checking out at Victoria Writes if you have a few minutes to spare!