"Only the professional critics ... know what they are talking about; bloggers are merely expressing an opinion." Discuss.
Oh dear. Someone's forgotten that in polite society one is meant to keep one's right-wing tendencies under wraps.
The story that's circulating about Persephone Books' latest Letter , in which they assert that book review blogs offer 'mere yammering' compared to the 'logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement', is an interesting one. Interesting for its utter bone-headedness, on one level; interesting too because of the ideas about branding that it raises.
Why do we trust an opinion? Take a book that has been positively reviewed in The Times by a well-known author or professional critic. 'Ooh,' the reader thinks, 'The Times is important. They must know quality when they see it; I shall purchase this book forthwith'. Well, maybe the reader doesn't think quite so expicitly about the endorsement - better things to spend your brainpower on, frankly - but that's the essence of it. The reader trusts the review because they believe in The Times' brand - a construct created by a successful, and in this case long-term, marketing strategy.
Now take a book that has been reviewed by, say, DoveGreyReader. DoveGreyReader hasn't written any books (that I know of), nor does she write reviews in order to pay the mortgage, so why should I trust what she thinks? I trust her, implicitly, far more than the Times review, in fact, because I know that she writes from the heart. I know that she isn't moving in a complicated, political world where books get reviewed because of connections. I trust her precisely because she hasn't got paid to write. Her 'brand', as it were, is above reproach. It achieves what large companies pay zillions of pounds to emulate and still fail to reach: a sense that the brand is trustworthy, that it has your best interests at heart, that it is honest.
There are comparisons to be drawn with news networks and news bloggers. I am almost at the end of my tether with the BBC news. Andy spends all day in front of a Reuters news feed - new stories appearing by the minute - and so when we get home and watch the five or six stories that the BBC has extracted and compare them to the hundreds of, often far more important and newsworthy, happenings, it makes me shudder to think of how ill-informed we are. Thank god for the news blogs: blogs that aren't hamstrung by political affiliations, spin, money and power. These blogs draw people's attention to events that would otherwise go un- or under-reported; events that actually matter. On this morning's BBC effort: Paris Hilton is in prison and something about strawberries. I'm sure there can be nothing more important. Nothing at all. Did you know that this week a mass grave has been discovered in the Ukraine containing thousands of Jews murdered in the Second World War? Or that it has been proven that Cheney personally blocked the promotion of a government lawyer who had raised objections to the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program, and that administration officials tried to get then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on the program as he lay recovering from major surgery in his hospital bed? Rob told me today that the U.S. Department of Justice tried to obfuscate a story by issuing 3,000 pages of documentation about a particular set of meetings, with a nicely-spun summary. The professional journalists took the summary and ran with it. A political news blog, TPMmuckraker, sent a call out for volunteer fact-checkers to get in touch. They divvied up the documents, worked through the night and uncovered all sorts of things that the Bush Administration had tried to hide. Far from being unprofessional, some blogs are doing the sort of investigative journalism that the salaried journos don't seem to bother with any more.
One more thing about professionals. I used to be in awe of professionals; people who, clearly, knew better than me, because of their training and experience. Their expertise was undoubted. I worked for a lot of them, within industry and as a consultant. Thing was, I was always surprised that their actions didn't always result in success. I thought it must have been some other factor: after all, these were the experts. Finally it dawned on me, of course: people can be in positions of power, and can be articulate, educated and bright, but it doesn't mean that they know what they're doing. Ineptitude coupled with arrogance: it rarely ends well.
Coming back to books: there's a bit of point-missing going on here, too. Who is the most important person in this picture? Wait - it couldn't - surely it couldn't be the reader? If readers enjoy a book, regardless of whether it stands up to the scrutiny of a scholar, that is all that matters. The enjoyment of a book is pretty much purely subjective. If people love it - and love it enough to talk about it on their own time from the heart - that makes it a success. Further, if professional reviewers were so great at knowing what people would enjoy, surely they'd have started their own publishing companies by now and used their powers of insight into taste to make their fortunes? Professional reviews aren't for the reader; they're for the reviewer.
It's the 'arbiter of taste' thing that I worry about with publishing itself. I can't get comfortable with the idea that publishers know, any better than the reader, whether a book is 'good' enough to be published. What training do we have that gives us the expertise to make that choice? There are much better-read, better-educated people than me out there. There are also a squillion people who enjoy books that I can't stand. The idea that experts are allowed to filter the readers' choice is one which I think will have to change, at some point. Cue the best thing the human race has come up with in the last fifty years, amongst all the warmongering, the power struggles, the whole planet-destruction-thing: the internet.
It is crucial that bloggers are supported and encouraged. They are one of the best ways of getting a democratic, honest consensus in a world where everything is spun and affected by political agendas. In fact - you can see where I'm going with this - I think they should be invited to get involved *before* publication. Any bloggers out there want to talk to me about this?
This post will probably mean we never get another newspaper review again. Fact is, if I had to choose between the support of the papers and the support of the bloggers, I'd go for the bloggers every time because they are the ones who the reader can trust for an honest, from-the-heart opinion, 100% of the time - and, in case you hadn't noticed, I care, more than anything, about the reader.