The genuine divide is between those critics who see reviewing as an end in itself and those who see it as a means towards marketing or career boosting.
By Bill Marx
Why are print book reviewers and litbloggers fighting over which group talks about literature better? On the one hand, the battle is less ferocious than we are led to believe: whenever they are given a chance a small number of online commentators scream about old media elitists stomping on the democratic virtues of the Web.
So it should come as no surprise that, when challenged by critics jittery about the decline of book reviewing in major newspapers, a few litbloggers respond with semi-articulate toasts to their online right to ramble in freedom, unhindered by editing or logic. On the playground level, the argument is already tired –- all the referee has to do is get the combatants to admit that they want the same thing –- serious coverage of books. Can’t we all just get along?
Still, deep down the tension reflects a sense that a radical changing of the critical guard is taking place. Hierarchies are wagging topsy-turvy. As major newspapers curtail or eliminate book reviews, many critics with established national reputations are threatened with what is, for them, a nightmarish vision –- readers will increasingly turn to book reviews online, wallowing in the Internet mosh pit with the rabidly opinionated. The mainstream media’s reaction to the popularity of criticism on the Web is becoming somewhat hysterical. The National Book Critics Circle is waging a campaign to save print book reviews: some contributors to the organization’s blog claim that the future of Western civilization is at stake.
The fear is that professional reviewers –- supposedly experts at evaluating books and calibrating their aesthetic merits — will be pushed aside by hordes of online amateurs who have only their two cents to recommend them. The truth is that there have never been any credentials for book reviewers. From the beginning, it has been a poorly paid, barely respectable job. Few professional book critics these days make a living penning reviews full time.
Thus the professional versus amateur smackdowns, along with the defensive blather about the crisis in credentials and the weakening of authority, are red herrings. The genuine divide is between those critics who see reviewing as an end in itself and those who see it as a means towards marketing. Alas, those who believe that honest discrimination is beside the point outnumber those who respect the values of disinterested evaluation. For the former, the rewards are small but ego-warming – a tiny fee, a byline, a burst of self-advertising, a chance to curry favors and repay and/or make friendships.
On the Web, reviewers must earn their reputations for insight and probity – they have nothing but their prose, analytic talents, and wits to keep readers coming back. The best bloggers are writing honest and thoughtful critiques that become part of a lively, Web-based dialogue. In contrast, the credibility of newspaper reviewers comes from their appearing in a ‘name’ publication, which is why so many of their critiques, dedicated to pleasing editors who want books puffed, are boring.
Why is the NBCC freaking out? As print reviews fade away power and prestige, though meager, is on the line. Critics who have grown fond of slinging blurbs and indulging in back scratching suspect the end of the gravy train is near. Guilt may also play a part in the over-reaction –- it is less painful and more self-important to raise siren calls about the end of cultural commentary as-we-know-it than face your own shameful responsibility in undercutting book reviewing by turning it into a mass of marketing.