Literary blogs vs print reviews: who pays?

This week, the chair of the Man Booker prize judges, Sir Peter Stothard, voiced his concerns that "the role and art of the (literary) critic)" was being undermined by online bloggers, especially by what Stothard regarded as inferior reviews to those published in broadsheets. He argued that "critics are just being submerged" by the sheer mass of opinion available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard?intcmp=239, and that this in turn will "harm literature".

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.

    

Comments

  1. I wonder also if part of the problem is the public's general mistrust of the press. Rightly or wrongly the past few years of Murdoch mania must have had an effect. The man on the street is relying more and more on peer reviews that seem to have no axes to grind - you just need to look at the popularity of Trip Advisor to see that.

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  2. And yet, Trip Advisor is one of the ones exposed recently as using fake reviews to denigrate rivals! In literature, Jeremy Duns has been exposing fellow crime writers who have used fake identities to post negative reviews of their rivals on Amazon. And amazon's 'real' reviews are hardly commendable. I was criticised for my bad writing by a reviewer who couldn't spell, punctuate or use grammar properly. I think there is now increasing mistrust of unregulated blogs, websites etc.

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    1. Yes I agree that there has been a lot of jiggery pockery (sp?)on blogs which I tend to ignore but you have to admit that there are some dubious reviews in broadsheets that have been exposed as being done by the authors' mates. As a traveler I do find trip advisor more useful than Lonely Planet etc they are more up to date and you can usually spot the fake reviews. There is of course more at risk there than buying a book. The only book reviews I tend to read are ones in the Scottish Review of Books and the London Review of Book. Also Goodreads because those are reviews by my friends.

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  3. But why is reading reviews on Goodreads by your friends, better than reading reviews in newspapers that you suspect might be written by the authors' friends, Moira? I agree there hasn't always been enough accountability in newspaper reviewing - leaving Private Eye to expose the connections. But now Jeremy Duns is exposing an even worse connection, I think. I know of very few occasions where a newspaper reviewer slagged off a book for personal reasons against the writer (although I do know it has happened). At least there, though, there's usually more transparency.

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  4. The biggest change, as with so much of the internet, is in the relationship between creatives/producers and their audience; it's becoming much more direct, and that also includes the connection between authors/publishers and reviewers. Unlike a lot of book bloggers, I'm sufficiently old fashioned enough to refuse direct requests from authors to review their books, especially if they're self-published. Partly that's out of a simple fear (OK, a prejudice) that few self-published books will be any good; mostly, though, it's simply because I prefer to have the protective distance provided by working for a neutral third partner, rather than feel in any way beholden to the author/publisher.

    Call me an old hack, but when I'm commissioned to write a review, my first responsibility isn't to the potential reader, publisher or author -- it's to whoever commissioned the review. It's my job to produce and deliver (to the agreed length, and at the agreed time) a work of journalism that's appropriate to the publication (and its readers) and requires a minimum of work on the editor's part.

    Most bloggers don't have to worry about hitting deadlines, meeting word counts, or matching magazine house-styles. Which is fine. But it does mean they can be a tad rambling as a result.

    My main problem with the few Goodreads reviews I've read so far is that, without fail, they have only told me one thing: whether the person concerned liked or didn't like the book. I've been told by some people that THAT's precisely the point of Goodreads. If you happen to know the tastes of the person concerned, then I guess that could be of some use in judging whether a book would be of interest -- few things more powerful than a personal recommendation by a friend. But if you don't? The whole exercise seems pretty redundant. In any case, I was brought up to consider "I like'/"don't like" the least important question in literary criticism. Times, though, appear to be changing.

    That said, I have to accept that I'm probably not the average "interested reader" these days.


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  5. I think what's behind what I'm saying, and what you're saying too, Paul, as two people who are paid for writing for newspapers etc,is that there's a real difference between how we get our work, produce it, the resulting effort and what is done on blogs. I do think some literary blogs are very well written and can give attention to things as Self says in his article. But, having started a blog myself, I can confirm that writing a review, feature, whatever for your own blog bears no comparison with writing one for a newspaper - the two things really can't be put on the same level. Given that difference, I don't want the two things to get equal parity, to be seen as equally important. As you say, Goodreads reviews do a particular thing - that's fine. But it's not what a newspaper review does.

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