A crit­i­cal melt­down

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

‘ 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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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