Who needs critics, anyway?
When the Harvard Business School released its working paper, What Makes a Critic Tick? Connected Authors and the Determinants of Book Reviews, it led to the predictable debates regarding the usefulness of professional reviewers. Of course, as is all too common with such topics, the paper actually had nothing to do with the relative merits of professional critics and reader reviews. That didn’t stop the Guardian, for example, getting as much mileage as possible out of the issue, running two articles within two days of each other, the second provocatively titled The battle of the book reviews.
I’m not criticising the Guardian. Far from it. They were astute enough to take a rather uninteresting and under-developed working paper that was poorly written and see how they could use it to do what newspapers should: provide some intellectual stimulation for their readers. It’s why I read the Guardian. When they misrepresent something I know it’s for my own good.
The whole debate is a bit silly and the only ones who see it as a battle are sub-editors who write headlines and those who believe, like Bernard Shaw, that all professions are conspiracies against the laity, and that reviewers are no different and we ought to draw up battle lines against them. Well, I happen to agree with Shaw. I think, for instance, that the medical profession spends quite a bit of its time in a conspiratorial huddle, trying to maintain the delicate imbalance between doctor and patient necessary for public adoration and high fees. But that doesn’t stop me from seeking the advice of a doctor when my temperature rises to 99.1.
And I am all for democracy and freedom of expression but that doesn’t mean that I treat all opinions as equally valuable or informed. Quality of voice, and purpose, are things which distinguish those who deserve an ear. To some, though, the internet is the true voice of the people and is therefore the only worthwhile voice bellowing in the marketplace. Like any democratic construct the internet bestows mediocrity with as much magnanimity as it bestows excellence; it is even-handed because quality is not its to give. It is a miser because it owns nothing. The internet has all the largesse of Ebeneezer Scrooge though none of his meanness.
In this case, the medium is not the message nor even the messenger. Whether reader reviews appear on the internet or scribbled on sides of buses makes no difference at all to their value.
A reviewer is a very different creature from a critic, though both are fairly hard to describe: reviewers because they come in so many different forms, like butterflies or beetles; critics because they are so rare that it is like describing a platypus to someone who has never even heard of one before.
A critic is not a buyer’s guide. A critic’s job is not to help you spend your money wisely but to help you judge the price. A critic is not content with saying, ‘This pleased me’ but goes on to try to explain what that means and understand how that was achieved. A critic engages not just with the style and facility but with the book as something of our time; as a manifestation of our culture, our philosophy, our habits, our failings and our glories, even when the book would seem to show none of that. The examination of an empty room can be just as revealing as the opening of a treasure chest.
The critic is a social agent; the reviewer is a personal one.
If lapses into elitism threaten the relevance of professional critics, then cronyism puts reader reviews in jeopardy. Few writers, if any, haven’t been guilty of urging friends and family to write a review on Amazon. When I look across all the reviews of my books on Amazon, I can see four that have come from family or friends, including one in which my mother, a teacher, judged one of my the books to be worth only four-stars. It was like having the notation, ‘Good work but can do better’ in one’s school report. Cronyism, though, goes beyond friends and family; the practice of authors cross-reviewing each other’s work is another desperate step that casts doubt on the respectability of reader reviews.
There is a demand for both, and room for both though, to be frank, there isn’t a need for either. Both readers and writers will survive without them. We’d be poorer, but we’d exist.
I wanted to end on something snappy like: ‘Reader reviews make me a better writer; critic reviews make me a better author.’ Something obviously meaningless with just enough in it to make one wonder if it really is meaningless; an enigma in an empty vessel (see, twice in one paragraph). But I couldn’t because when it comes right down to it, I’m irrelevant to the debate. Critics and reviewers aren’t about writers. They exist for everyone else except us.