Literary blogs vs print reviews: who pays?
Naturally, literary bloggers defended themselves against this charge, with John Self citing several superior literary critic websites that clearly hold their own against anything published in newspapers, and he argued forcefully for the various benefits to literary criticism, and to literature, of being a blogger: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/sep/26/book-bloggers-literary-criticism-stothard.
One of those benefits, Self argued, was that for bloggers, there was "no need to turn them (reviews) out at a certain rate to earn a living." This distinction caught my eye, inevitably perhaps, as I do earn my living from writing reviews for newspapers, and have done since 1998. It's a precarious living - no holiday pay (I haven't had a paid holiday since 1996), no sick pay (when I couldn't review for a month after my father died - I could barely concentrate enough to read a newspaper, never mind a book - my mother had to bail me out), no maternity leave, no incremental pay rises (I still get paid the same rate as I did when I started, 14 years ago), no career path to promotion etc etc. On the plus side, hey, I make my living reading books! How fantastic is that!
It's so fantastic - despite the financial insecurities etc etc - that I want to be able to do it for as long as possible. To do that, I need to be paid. Yet bloggers, as Self admits, are largely unpaid for what they do. I know this - I am, after all, writing this piece in my own blog that I started two months ago. The time it's taking me to write this piece could be time spent writing a review or a literary feature that would actually earn me money. My blog earns a little - see that box of adverts on the left? If you click on it once, I earn about 70p. But by and large, I'm writing for myself, in the hope others will read it and find it interesting. I'm not writing for someone who pays.
How much does that matter to the quality of criticism, if that's the main issue here? To me, it's about the professionalisation of what I do. There has been much written recently about the rise of e-book self-publishing harming the professionalistation of writers - that literary fiction writers in particular are suffering low advances that they can't possibly live on, as a result of e-books pricing them out of the market. I have some sympathy with publishers in this situation and I've written about this before. I can't expect a publisher to fund me £20,000 a year to write my literary novel over five years, and which will likely only sell a couple of thousand copies - the loss they make will be enormous (although, given that my loss would be off-set by the huge profits that another title, ooh, let's say an erotic heap of nonsense that has sold in millions, makes, perhaps I can expect it now...). Perhaps that's why a state-owned publishers would be helpful (as I've argued here before, too) for writing considered 'art'. If art survives in the market place, all well and good. But it shouldn't be dependent on surviving in the market.
But newspapers are different. They are not 'art', in the way we traditionally understand the term (although there is an art to literary reviewing, as Stothard says). They are wholly commercial beasts. They live and die by the money they make in the free market. And several of them appear to be dying slowly, haemorrhaging money as advertisers pull out, and online versions are available free. As budgets are cut, 'soft' journalism gets hit first, which usually means the arts, and books pages are stripped back. Now more and more newspapers are increasingly relying on free content - asking readers to participate in the paper, their thoughts unpaid, their only reward an appearance in the paper, for instance.
It's an attack on the professional journalist, and the profession of journalism, to do so, and can, only inevitably, affect quality. How soon will it be before editors ask bloggers, the majority of whom are unpaid, to contribute one of their online reviews, not for payment, but for the unpaid pleasure of seeing their review in an esteemed broadsheet? I don't know if this has happened yet, but I'd be interested to know if any bloggers out there have been approached to do so, and what they said. (Jay Rayner wrote about this back in 2008: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/jul/13/art.comedy?INTCMP=SRCH).
Teachers, lawyers, nurses don't have to worry about other people teaching, practising law and nursing for free; why do I have to worry about other reviewers possibly doing so, and thereby replacing me and putting me out of a job? I believe I have the expertise required for this job (I've published academic articles, journalism, short stories, a novel, a work of non-fiction, have been shortlisted for awards twice, won two literary bursaries, and I have a PhD on James Joyce and feminist theory). That's expertise that, I believe, results in a quality review, and it's expertise that should be paid for.
There is also the question of trust - and I'm grateful to a reader posting up a comment below who alerted me to this issue. Many people have long distrusted what they view as the insular world of a metropolitan literary scene, imagining that reviewers and authors all know each other (Private Eye's yearly log-rolling feature exposes writer friends patting each other on the back with their mutual recommendations). But writer Jeremy Duns has been working hard to expose the fake identities of crime authors who have posted up negative reviews of their rivals on websites like Amazon. Indeed, 'reviewers' on Amazon are often barely credible at all - one reviewer of my book criticised my 'bad writing' but seemed blissfully unaware of her own bad spelling, punctuation and grammar. The web is unregulated and therefore completely without accountability, unless someone like Duns spends a great deal of time and energy chasing up its rogue elements. This, to me, is worse than a perceived 'cosy' relationship between authors and critics in literary London (and for what it's worth, I live 500 miles from literary London, but my publishers are based there and I review for two London broadsheets). It seems ironic, too, that, as Duns has also exposed, writers are willing to pay for fake reviews that praise their work - just as real reviews are declining in monetary value!
One other small point - the author Louise Welsh recently posted an article on Twitter that appeared earlier this year, about the small percentage of women reviewers, and of books by women being reviewed, in broadsheets: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/02/gender-bias-books-journalism-vida. In John Self's article defending blogging, he mentions several top-rate literary blogging sites. They are all by men. I took a look at those sites. With the exception of 'kevin from canada', they're also reviewing predominantly books by men. The 'new art' of literary blogging, where new writers and new writing are given more attention, that Self extols, seems just as patriarchal as the broadsheet hegemony he critiques.