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Hamlet without the Prince

February 26th, 2008

In the February edition of Prospect, William Skidelsky has a piece on the decline of book reviewing. As is standard for any adverse trend in the early 21st century, blogs get a fair bit of the blame. The write-off (lede for US readers) says

the authority of critics is being undermined by a raucous blogging culture and an increasingly commercial publishing industry

and the conclusion is

blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

As a slow, mature critic, I’m sure Skidelsky is well placed to make authoritative judgements of this kind, based on the kind of lengthy reflection unknown to gossipy bloggers. Still, it would help us instant-reaction types to follow him if he had, you know, cited some actual blogs, perhaps even some that run book reviews.

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  1. archer
    February 26th, 2008 at 18:52 | #1

    I’ve actually written a ton of book reviews for publication in the US (well over 30 in the last 15 years), so I am in a unique position to take issue with Skidelsky. He’s just plain wrong. He gives the real issue in the first graph.

    Fewer places are publishing book reviews, period. And from my perspective as a reviewer, it started well before blogs became popular. Ad pages were cut heavily in the dot-com bust. Even though freelancers are cheaper than full-time staff, every pub I dealt with dropped all its freelancers and either entirely eliminated or considerably cut back on book reviews. Timeframe 2000-2001. Now tell me how many people were reading blogs then?

    And I very seldom write reviews now because the pay scales are way down. It’s just not worth the trouble unless I haven’t published in a while and the need to get my name out overrides the narrow economic considerations (not that writing features is a great financial proposition either, but they are a better calling card in my main field of work, management consulting, and also much better compensated relative to the effort).

  2. melanie
    February 26th, 2008 at 18:59 | #2

    ‘an increasingly commercial publishing industry’ sounds like a tautology. IIRC the publishing industry stopped being non-commercial around the time of Caxton. And how can you blame bloggers and commerce in the same breath?

  3. Ikonoclast
    February 26th, 2008 at 20:02 | #3

    One gets a sense of wounded self-interest in Skidelsky’s first quoted statement. His second quoted statement has some truth to it I think.

    I haven’t read any great essays in blogs but then maybe I haven’t read the right blogs. Or maybe blogging is not the medium in which one should expect to find great essays.

  4. gandhi
    February 26th, 2008 at 21:59 | #4

    The irony is that book reviewers are often under pressure to rush out reviews, sometimes on quite massive volumes, and the results are frequently all too obvious.

  5. February 26th, 2008 at 22:02 | #5

    “IIRC the publishing industry stopped being non-commercial around the time of Caxton” – ah, no, that was printing. Until quite late in the Victorian era, authors themselves very often did the publishing – rather the way actor-managers used to produce and direct plays. Then, for a long time, publishing was considered a “gentleman’s profession”, in the same sense that art dealing was, i.e. there was nothing gentlemanly about it but you had to talk the talk, so many “gentlemen” got into it.

  6. February 27th, 2008 at 06:23 | #6

    or maybe book reviewing has been popularized. the music industry has been transformed by the web, with word of mouth and file-sharing, movie distribution is re-shaped, amazon is not the only or most important aspect of the web for books, also.

    bad luck for book reviewers, but times are a changing.

  7. PeterC
    February 27th, 2008 at 06:54 | #7

    This is not exactly a new complaint. George Orwell was extremely critical of book reviewing 60-odd years ago, citing publishers, newspapers and reviewers as all bearing their share of the blame.

  8. February 27th, 2008 at 13:58 | #8

    I write book reviews online – not a blog, but, they are short and perhaps “blog like”, see http://dannyreviews.com/

    But I can’t see how my reviewing can be responsible for a decline in longer more detailed reviews, in print media or academic journals or elsewhere. Heck, I often review books which aren’t reviewed anywhere else, except sometimes in specialist journals.

  9. 2 tanners
    February 28th, 2008 at 14:45 | #9

    This is the last place where I would expect such delusionist thinking to take place. Admit it, you cutting edge technophiles. It has long been predicted that this new technology is going to supplant books, and as a direct consequence book reviews must become an endangered species.

    I am, of course, talking about television.

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