The Times of London recently took up the cause of the literati who are dismayed that they should have to read the same books as the hoi polloi book bloggers that persist in publishing their reviews online.
Mr Gates is one of the most high profile of the so-called celebrity book bloggers who, as a diversion from the day job, have now taken to literary criticism. Art Garfunkel, David Bowie and the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have also all waxed lyrical online about their reading habits and preferences.
The trend has not been universally welcomed.
“What does Bill Gates know about books?” D.J. Taylor, a critic, asked. “It is curious to me that we would not accept that in other areas of culture. If you watch Match of the Day, you want Alan Shearer as a pundit.”
The rise of the celebrity critic follows the explosion in online reviews on sites such as Amazon. D.J. Taylor, whose latest book, The Prose Factory, in part explores the “migration of serious [literary] criticism”, said that authors became exasperated at the reviews of amateur critics. “The average writer when asked about Amazon reviews hold their head in their hands,” he said.
“There has been a loss of critical authority,” he said. “You have to have some kind of language, some kind of protocols to have the conversation about the meaning of books. Some say, ‘I didn’t like that book because I could not relate to the character.’ Well, what has that got to do with it?”
The literati have been lamenting for years now that the general populace is literate and capable of sharing its opinion on the internet. Some have even gone so far as to proclaim that book bloggers are harming literature.
"Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature, Peter Stothard told The Independent in 2012."It will be bad for readers; 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. There are some important issues here."
To put it another way, he's saying that there's a shit volcano of book bloggers out there who are obscuring the reviewers worthy of attention.
Well that's just too bad; with more and more newspapers and other legacy publications scaling back their book review sections, and with more books being published every year, online book bloggers are the future. And thanks to the democratizing nature of the internet everyone gets to have their say.
As Grant Feller points out at Forbes, that's not a bad thing:
Has the mass of unargued opinion devalued film criticism or has it made bylined critics less snobby and more attuned to people’s tastes? Has the mass of unargued opinion devalued travel experts who jet around the world on PR-funded freebies, or has it made hotel establishments keener to keep the customer satisfied? Has the mass of unargued opinion destroyed news journalism or made it faster, fresher and sharper?
He's not wrong.
Feller reminded me of a point previously made on this blog, that the mass of content available online (the shit volcano, as some would put it) is not a problem because you learn to develop filters so you can ignore the vast amount of unwanted content.
To put it another way, if a book blogger gushes about a book you end up hating, you'll come away from the experience with the awareness that your tastes differ from the blogger's. You'll be more careful about trusting the book blogger's next review. In other words, you'll be a consumer who's past experiences informed your future purchases.
But of course, we already knew that, which is why the whole issue of "unqualified" reviewers is less a problem than it is a case of insiders whining about the end of their exclusive privileges.