Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and Chairman of this year’s Man Booker prize committee has said bloggers are detrimental to literature. John Self responds to Stothard much better than I can but I would still like to make a couple of points. Firstly, Stothard says There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. It may be widespread in TLS circles but it is not widespread as far as I know. But, even if this were the case, does it matter? Almost invariably, I read a book review to see whether I want to read the book in question. I want to want to know what it is about, what else the author has done if it is an author unknown to me, whether the book is well-written, whether it is in a style I might enjoy and whether it is the sort of book I would enjoy. That is the sort of review I write on my website. I write that sort of review because it is what I want and, I suspect, what a lot of people want. Yes, there are other reasons for reading a review – to see if the author agrees with your assessment of the book, to learn more what the books is about, in the case of a difficult book and to be able to talk about the book without reading it. But, particularly if we have not yet read the book – and the TLS and newspapers review new books, often before they are even for sale – we probably want to see if the book is worth reading so a detailed exegesis is not necessarily what we want.
Secondly, he goes on to say As much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. Self’s apposite responses is there are inessential blogs, just as there are inessential literary critics. Indeed, there are. Throughout history lit crits have recommended books that are rubbish and ignored works of genius. The advantages of bloggers are a) it is a hell of lot cheaper to start a blog than to start a newspaper or magazine. Yes, that means that there are more of them but it also means that a whole range of niche markets, undiscovered books, foreign books, hidden gems and so on are probably going to be unearthed by someone somewhere. b) it is a hell of a lot cheaper to subscribe to a lot of blogs than a lot of magazines and newspaper. I subscribe to around 250 literary blogs (including Stothard’s) in various languages. It costs me nothing beyond my broadband fee. As a result I can see a lot more than if I would if I just limited myself to print sources. I subscribe to just eight literary magazines. The TLS alone costs me £92 a year. I do read the TLS but have to go through every page to see if there is a review or article I want to read but with the blogs I just look at the article heading on my RSS news reader and can make a quick judgement as to whether I want to read further. c) because there are more of them, they cover a whole range of fascinating stuff. I have come across all sorts of interesting books on blogs that I would never have discovered in print media. Yes, I have come across quite a few in the TLS and other publications so I am glad to have both but, if I had to give up the blogs or give up my magazine subscriptions, it would be the magazines that would (reluctantly) go.
What bloggers have done – and this includes the wide range of literary bloggers – is open up possibilities to many readers. If you are interested in bodice rippers or space fiction or novels about cats, there is almost certainly a blog (or, probably, several blogs) for you and that can only be a good thing. Most people do not read the TLS because they can’t afford to or wouldn’t find it interesting or wouldn’t find their type of books in it. But, somewhere on the web, there is a blog for pretty well every reader. I can only hope that there will be many more.