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Whose opinion is it anyway? Everyone’s a critic these days

Once upon a time a writer wrote a book that somehow found its way to being published and then, miracle of miracles, it was among the minute percentage chosen for review. In awe and terror, said writer would wait for the august verdict from on high. Would the venerable Telegraph reviewer, for instance, give the thumbs up, or not?

That’s changed now. The venerable Telegraph reviewer still exists, but Joe Public has online licence to stick his oar in, to argue and endorse for better or worse. And populating the blogosphere are vast numbers of book reviewing sites – lowbrow, highbrow, specialists on particular genres, those who know and love books, and those who simply simmer with hate or lust.

This bombardment of comment, confusing to writers and readers alike, was behind the telling question –‘Whose opinion is it anyway?’ – posed at the stimulating TLC Conference, WRITING IN A DIGITAL AGE, earlier this month. Whose opinion indeed?

Sam Leith, former Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph, spoke for the ‘old guard’ in addressing the question … with three more questions: ‘What is criticism for, who is it aimed at, and who is to be trusted?’ he asked rhetorically. We sat forward in our seats. The average newspaper review, he declared, was ‘middlebrow stuff for interested readers, not academic criticism’. Reviewers aimed to entertain, to distinguish whether a book was ‘worth reading’ and whether it succeeded in doing what it set out to do.

Less clear about her mission – or perhaps less doctrinaire – was the blogger, Lynne Hatwell. ‘While a book review should be objective and unemotional, I have licence to throw myself into the emotional deep end of a book. I write about how a book makes me feel, and only choose books I enjoyed.’

Lynne’s blog, ‘dovegreyreader scribbles’ was established in 2006 and has grown into  a strong online community in which news of a good book can spread around the world in minutes. This ‘grass roots’ championing and popularising of a work can have an effect on sales that is more important than the approbation of old-school reviewers.

This impact of blogging on sales was endorsed by Mark Thwaite, Head of Online at Quercus Books. In addition to his Quercus post, Mark is the founder and managing editor of a literary website called ReadySteadyBook. ‘I aimed for an online renaissance of literary criticism,’ he said. ‘This has not happened.’

His pessimism or modesty notwithstanding, The Times newspaper, however, has endorsed Thwaite’s ReadySteadyCook as ‘one of the best places on the web for clever, wise, sparky book-related discussions and reviews’. This may be a case of the printed press licking the hand that might be destined to feed it – or something like that. Whatever, the answers given by the panel to the question posed by its chairman, bibliophile Paul Blezard, were gloomy indeed.

‘Is print reviewing dead?’ Blezard wanted to know.

‘Not quite,’ pronounced Sam Leith. ‘But the patient is looking peaky.’

While it was agreed that the rise of the blogger had impacted on the power of the professional reviewer, a note of caution was raised about ‘amateur reviewers’ who, under the cloak of anonymity, could be dishonest, disreputable and/or ill informed.

And so – what do you think? About anything ..

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