Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

April 1, 2011

The Gryphon Lecture on the History of the Book: Digital Reviewing

Last night I attended the 17th annual Gryphon Lecture on the History of the Book for the Friends of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  The lecturer this year was the very prolific and always amazing Prof. Linda Hutcheon speaking on, to my delight, “Book reviewing for a New Age”.  Well well!

Though Prof. Hutcheon is an academic and the Thomas Fisher is an institution within the University of Toronto, the Gryphon lecture is intended for a “layman” audience of supporters and friends.  Unlike so many talks I’ve attended on book reviewing and the internet, the audience here was entirely devoid of persons employed by the publishing industry.  These were readers, heavy ones, and especially, readers of print book reviews. So understandably, much of Hutcheon’s talk was aimed at making a case for digital forms of book reviews, and what they offer to readers.

In this regard, she was not tremendously successful. She began with outlining the decline of the print review, giving us a good history of which papers have scrapped their Books sections and why. The reasons given by the papers and by Hutcheon were all economic: it is no longer, apparently, worth it to a publisher to buy advertising at the same rates and quantities in print.  The blame for that has been placed on the internet, probably rightly. The same advertising budget now has to include websites like Amazon.com, the lit blogs and the review copies given out through the thousands of social media channels.

The decline of print reviews has been matched by a much larger increase, however, in digital reviews. All signs point to an overall increase, rather than decrease, in engagement with books. Hutcheon explored at length the “economic, political and ethical” implications of this new divide.

I’ll leap ahead to the end in order to justify my opinion that she ultimately failed to make her case, however: no matter how many good points she made about the value of a more democratic engagement with books, or about increased readerships, the discussion never came full circle to re-include the print reviews.  Ideally, she argued, print would broadcast the paid reviewer’s specialty: reviews with a “broader cultural scope”; expansive, reflective articles from persons who (ideally) are more professional and accountable than the customer-reviewer of the internet.  Which sounds like a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t explain how this is going to be paid for.  If publishers haven’t the advertising budgets to maintain Books sections in newspapers across the Western world, I don’t think it matters whether they contain snappy, puffy reviews or expansive, global-scope ones.  Who’s paying for it?  The internet has split the same dollar, and I don’t see either new money being added to the pile, or the internet losing it’s advertising appeal.

In any case, Prof. Hutcheon made some lovely and eloquent observations about the literary bloggosphere that addressed our weaknesses and highlighted our strengths.  Though the most-often cited advantage of internet reviews is the “democratization” of the process – now anyone, anywhere can (and does) have a platform to let their views be known and the “tastemakers” or “gatekeepers” are losing their grip. But Hutcheon rightly points out that more noise doesn’t necessarily mean more dialogue – after all, can it be a dialogue if nobody is listening? Can critics have the same effect on our “cultural consciousness” if the discussion isn’t being broadcast (vs narrowcast) to a large audience?  This is certainly a fair critique of the lit blog formula. Regardless of how measured, professional and well-spoken a blogging critic is, if he or she doesn’t have the same impact on the public sphere that the Globe and Mail, New York Review of Books or Times Literary Supplement has, the role of the critic in society is being diminished.

There are many advantages to the fragmented online review scene. It allows readers to seek out and connect with reviewers who share their tastes.  Meta-tools like “liking” reviews on amazon.com do provide a way (however flawed) to distill some of the noise into helpful information.  The customer-reviewer is an excellent person to consult when your question is “do I want to buy this” rather than “what does this mean” or “how does this fit into a greater cultural context?”

That customer-reviewers are a wonderful marketing tool is pretty inarguable. But are they anything else? A blogger isn’t as much a taste-maker as a taste-matcher; after all the reader can always go to another reviewer if they start to sense that her tastes are diverging from the reviewer’s.  Hutcheon advances the suggestion that online reviewers are “cultural subjects” (after Pierre Bourdieu’s “Political Subjects”), meaning that even if they might not be the focus of a cultural turn or shift, they can at least be the subject of the discourse on culture – and I would take this to mean that the bloggosphere as a whole can be spoken of (“the blogs are saying…”) rather than specific blogs. This certainly has an egalitarian feel to it – we the masses making cultural decisions rather than individuals in powerful (paid) positions. Hutcheon suggests bloggers and reviewers are motivated by the reputation economy and by, of course, love of the subject.  So perhaps as cultural subjects our impact is freer from the politics of power.

Except, I have to interject, I think that view of the bloggosphere as a rabble of altruistic amateurs happy to contribute freely to the dialogue is at least a little naive.  The CanLit blogging scene, for example, is definitely blurring the professional/amateur line. Many of my favourite lit blogs are written by freelance print reviewers, and those that aren’t are written by people who, for the most part, have ambitions of becoming part of the paid “real critic” circle. Their blogs are, in this respect, proving grounds and elaborate CVs for budding writers and journalists who would be thrilled to death to be the next William Hazlit or Cyril Connolly.  It seems difficult to escape the fact that the same people who are blogging are the people who are reviewing for the Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail, writing for the Walrus, Canadian Notes and Queries, and the National Post, and publishing books destined to be reviewed by the same.  It’s a small world out there.  These are “customer-reviewers” to an extent, but it’s also becoming and increasingly legitimate in-road to becoming a professional critic.  Even for those who have not made that leap to legitimacy yet, their contributions have to be read as something coming from someone who does consider themselves professional, even if no money is changing hands – yet.

In any case, the audience of Prof. Hutcheon’s talk seemed interested but unmoved by her arguments for the cultural importance of lit blogs and customer-reviewers. The average age of the audience-member was probably 65 years old, and these are, don’t forget, a self-selected group of people who choose to donate money to a rare-book library. The question period certainly was dominated by incredulity and derision at the state of the print reviews.  Still, it’s good to know these issues are reaching even these, the least-receptive ears.  The dialogue is spilling out into a wider audience, and it will be interesting to see how the discourse develops as the institution of reviewing continues to evolve.

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