Friday, August 12, 2011

The Role of Critics and Reader-Reviewers

What is the role of the professional critic in the new world of reader-reviewers, wonders Tom Payne in this article, which appeared in The Telegraph last week. I wish he'd answered this question, but sadly this article seems like just another screed by a professional reviewer against bloggers and members of social networking sites devoted to reading (he quotes a GoodReads user at one point). If I may be so bold as to offer my own opinion, I would say that the role of professional reviewers is to offer sophisticated book criticism that takes into account more in the way of context and background and attention to craft than I would expect myself to. I try to write chatty, fun book reviews that tell my readers a little about the book and a little about what I thought of it. I'm no scholar and I don't try to be, but I expect more from the pros.

But what I really want to talk about is what he talks about- the role of bloggers and "reader-reviewers." "Don't write crap" seems to be the minimum expectation- perfectly reasonable.  But so what if we do, once in a while? Payne criticizes a GoodReads user who reviews a book by making a funny statement about how many bus stops the reader missed while reading the book; no, this is not "considered appraisal" but who says every utterance has to be? What is actually wrong with expressing ones' self in an amusing way? Why should the average person commenting on a website be held to the same standards as a professional writing for publication and pay? Certainly this individual is not holding himself up as a professional critic; why should Payne do so?

Another criticism he levels at bloggers is having the audacity to think that they have a right to not like a book. "It’s as if bloggers take authors to task because the books weren’t written just for them," he opines. Well, who are books written for if not for readers? Are we obliged to like everything? Professional reviewers aren't expected to give glowing reviews all the time; does our amateur status mean we must lavish praise on whatever comes our way? Is the fault mine if a book doesn't speak to me? I don't think it is, and I don't think it's the book's fault, either. I've always thought saying "this book is not for me" is a diplomatic way of letting the author off the hook for a book one didn't enjoy. Not every book is right for every reader. I don't think there's any book that's right for every reader, and anyone who tells you differently is, to paraphrase the farm boy Westley, selling something.

I don't go to social media sites, or blogs, for authoritative, scholarly critiques. That's why God gave us The New York Review of Books. I go to social media and blogs to see what my friends are reading and get a bead on their thoughts. A lot of what gets written (and I include myself here, and maybe even this post) is casual, a little silly and a little light. So what? I sincerely doubt that the advent of book-related social media is responsible for creating a plague of inarticulate expressions of opinion or a lack of appreciation of popular books. It's just that we all have these outlets now. The woman who didn't think Bridget Jones' Diary was a good Pride and Prejudice re-write would have thought so whether or not she had a GoodReads account. It's just now she has a podium.

And maybe that's Payne's real problem- that average people have access to widely-distributed media, and that he has to read their tiresome and ill-informed opinions. He says he wants to know what people are thinking about books, but it kind of seems like he doesn't. I think it's a good thing that people who love to read have the opportunity to share their opinions with others. I love the online book community, warts and all, and I think we all have a lot to offer each other. And if you think I'm stupid and don't want to read my LibraryThing reviews or my silly blog, who's making you?