Sour Grapes: Publishing Industry Insiders Bemoan The Rise of Outsider Book Bloggers

Copyright 2006 by Galen A. Tripp

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.

Earlier this week Bill Gates was profiled in the NYTimes as a book blogger (a hobby he has pursued for over six years now), and The Times (paywalled) is not happy about the attention he is receiving:

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.”

And:

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.

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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.

images by Pip R. Lagentajwyg

About Nate Hoffelder (11162 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

11 Comments on Sour Grapes: Publishing Industry Insiders Bemoan The Rise of Outsider Book Bloggers

  1. How are those wagon wheel makers doing? Oh, that’s right, they went out of business when technology changes destroyed their industry.

    I’d be scared if I was a newspaper critic as well. I’d probably lash out. Maybe, just maybe, that will halt the wheels of modernity and I can keep that job and perhaps scratch out the few remaining years needed to get my pension.

  2. I was enjoying your article and it got me thinking about both sides of this issue, and I was pretty much taking your side, although not completely since I do see the point of their complaints as well, but life goes on as the world changes and I do enjoy reading blogs more than I enjoy reading book critics.

    And then you said what you did about shit volcanoes and proved their point. Blogs are good and useful and full of information and when bloggers grow up and become more professional they’ll be even better.

    Barry

    • But that’s not my word. It was coined by the professional book author that I linked to, so if you have an issue with it then take it up with him.

      Edit: This gets off the topic, but does anyone else want to weigh in?

  3. Sour grapes? I think we can all suggest some cheese to go with their whine…

    Hmm, picture of pipe-smoking author looks like Harlan Ellison, famous writer whose work I read in the 1960s.

  4. There have been enough pompous book critics over the decades who endeavored to destroy good writers because they either didn’t like them personally, were jealous of their talent or because they refused to “kiss the ring”. Often it was all of the above.
    Competition is a good thing.

  5. “People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good.”

    Heh. Yeah, traditional publishers would never jump on something like, say, “50 Shades of Grey” if it looked like it might sell.

  6. The shit volcano term is absolutely applicable to this. It’s also not lost on me that the person who coined that is now writing Star Wars tie-in novels helping a mega-corp like Disney make billions from cynically recycling a beloved 40 year old film. Shit volcano, indeed.

    • @ Dan

      Yes, Chuck was making the exact same point as Stothard and the others, only in more inflammatory language. It was definitely relevant.

      And what is more interesting was that it was coined and advocated by a pro author, and not the indie authors he disdains. And then it was snobbishly thrown in my face, even though I didn’t invent it.

  7. The comment that you make about people giving up on book bloggers when they don’t agree with them is bad not good. That is intentional myopia, cutting out dissenting opinion to surround yourself with a bubble in which your perceptions and opinions are always validated and never challenged.

    This is why literary critics serve a purpose that book bloggers and user reviews simply can not. They look for qualities that make a book important to read even if they don’t match our current aesthetic. They offer opinions that challenge our mindset instead of conform to it. Many works that are considered to be literary classics today were poorly understood, received and read in their time.

    And Peter Stothard has a point. It is difficult from a google search to find a well educated literary critic instead of someone simply paid to post blog entries. It is not straight forward to find great works vs. currently popular works. It is difficult for critics to bring to the attention of the public lesser known works that are worth reading. And that is the coolest thing that critics do is find those works and explain why we should be reading them.

    Egalitarianism should not apply here. While it is easy for someone to read a book and offer an opinion, their analysis is usually not as insightful as one offered by a literary critic. A critic is usually someone who devoted their college and grad school education to the study and analysis of literature and then went on to pursue a career in the same field. They usually are also experienced writers.

    Filtering out works that are not to our taste is a survival instinct in the world of the “shit volcano”, but also filters out great works that we are sadly missing out on. The problem of content makes the role of the critic more important than ever!

    • I didn’t recommend “people giving up on book bloggers” or “cutting out dissenting opinion”. I choose milder terms specifically to avoid that possibility. While I agree with you about reading contrary opinions, I also do not plan on spending my money on entertainment that I will not enjoy.

  8. “The average writer when asked about Amazon reviews hold their head in their hands”

    Let me help you with that…

    “The average writer when asked about Amazon reviews prays for lots of reviews”

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