A critical meltdown
‘ PEOPLE of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices,’’ Adam Smith wrote. But there is always more involved in money when guilds, be they barristers or book reviewers, feel threatened.
This is certainly so in the present argument over the damage being done by online commentators to the standing of book reviewers and literary commentators in the print press. Nobody ever got rich reviewing. But while this is a case of pride before pelf, the concern among people who are published in the papers that online book chat is eroding their authority demonstrates a real fear at the way the web is changing the agencies of cultural authority.
The guild of literary journalists and reviewers found a champion last year in Andrew Keen, who worries that the way the web is working out will democratise, and thus destroy, elite culture in the arts.
Keen first warned us what was going on in an essay that he has turned ( how quaint) into a book. His basic argument is that when everybody can be their own filmmaker or musician, political pundit or literary critic, they will, publishing their opinions online.
In the process these citizen content creators are destroying the living of people in the elite media whose audience is eroding as consumers abandon the print and electronic press. This is very bad, according to Keen, who claims: ‘‘ The purpose of our media and cultural industries — beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people — is to discover, nurture and reward elite talent . . . Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learned, read, experienced or heard.’’
Fair enough. The collapse of copyright in music, movies and publishing the web hath wrought has undoubtedly eviscerated the old media. And there is no doubting that the quality of most homemade comment and creative is crook. While the best bloggers, on everything from politics to publishing, are as good as anybody who writes for a newspaper, most aren’t. Blogging does not have the polish that comes when editors hold writers to account for their arguments and prose. And just because bloggers love literature and are passionate in their opinions does not mean they are able to express them.
But the brutal truth is that the online world of citizen chatters has already ended the monopoly on opinion making that used to belong to the guild of critics and commentators. And this particularly applies to publishing.
Across the English- speaking world, especially in the US, books pages are shrinking and literary editors are disappearing as newspapers, struggling to compete with the web, cut costs in areas that do not produce much money. However, the reason for the decline is broader than the erosion of advertising because, just as advertising is moving online, so is book culture and criticism.
A decade ago reviewers in a handful of magazines with global reach and big city broadsheets could decide the critical fate of a book. They don’t any more. The power of the old media opinion makers has not disappeared but it has dramatically diminished. Today, readers who want to share their opinions of books online build their own blogs or podcasts, e- zines or YouTube clips, just as people do in every other area of human interest.
The creation of an online literary culture in the past 15 years or so is amazing. It is a fair bet that there are now many more critics working independent of papers than ever existed in print. With entry costs confined to a fast internet connection, a personal computer and massproduced software — and time to read and write — anybody interested can comment on books and chat about other people’s opinions.
And it is driving the guild of print literary commentators absolutely nuts. There was an outburst of umbrage in the British press late last year with critics who see theirs as an elite craft deploring the digerati.
Writing in The Observer, Rachel Cooke argued critics ( I think this is code for people whose thoughts on books are published in the papers) are ‘‘ useful because they know a lot ( also, you know who they are, unlike so many faceless bloggers and internet reviewers who hide behind the anonymity the web provides)’’.
In The Daily Telegraph, a paper at the other end of the political spectrum, John Sutherland made much the same point. ‘‘ Nothing stands still on the web. There is emerging, on Amazon, a corps of regular ‘ reviewers’, so- called, trusted to kick up dust and move books. Why do the web reviewers allow themselves to be recruited as unpaid hacks? Partly for freebies. But more because they enjoy shooting off their mouths. And they enjoy the power.’’ This is classic guildspeak: the new technology and the people who use it are not to be trusted and standards will collapse if things change. And it is nonsense.
Of course the vast majority of online book chat is pretty ordinary. But there are also outstanding online critics. And the web does something that no newspaper ever can: create a global conversation about books and writing on specialist subjects. Most important, online discussion about books is precisely that, an exchange of opinions among readers.
For pundits who prefer to present their opinions unchallenged and do not like the idea of having to shout to be heard in the marketplace of ideas, this is scary stuff. It also feeds the fear that empowering people to be their own book reviewers will reduce the authority of opinion makers writing in the press and broadcasting in the mass electronic media.
And so it will, if readers value the opinions that are available online, more often than not for free, over what is available in newspapers. It’s a reality that keeps people at The Weekend Australian on their toes. We are in business for only as long as readers know the reviews and essays, news and analysis in these pages is more accurate, acute and entertaining than what they can find anywhere else, including online.
While the guild may not like it, this is exactly as it should be. There is nothing superior about a book review or a literary essay just because it appears in print. It has to be better than the other available offerings.
So what is bad for the guild is good for readers. As Smith put it: ‘‘ Rivalship and emulation render excellency, even in mean professions, an object of ambition, and frequently occasion the very greatest exertions.’’
matchetts@ theaustralian. com. au