Friday 15 May 2020

But Was The Book Any Good?

Alexander Larman asks why it's such a struggle for reviewers to say what they think about a book. It doesn't help, he says, that editors basically have two choices when it comes to handing out assignments.
The first is to allow a significant literary figure to write a lengthy piece displaying their erudition, and which permits sub-editors to come up with a headline along the lines of ‘Julian Barnes on Jean-Paul Sartre’ or similar. The book itself is secondary, its coverage almost an irritation. And the other is nuts-and-bolts criticism, an engagement with an author’s intentions and aims where the fascinations of the subject are secondary to whether the writer has managed to make them accessible to a general audience. This may be less lofty, but is undeniably of more use to the profession, and probably to the potential purchaser, too.
The problem is that the "nuts-and-bolts" approach keeps losing out:
There is certainly a time and place for long thinkpieces about authors and subjects, but one also hopes that a brave editor will have the courage to say to the fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has filed their piece, ‘Sir David, this was marvellous, but could you please let us know whether you thought the book was any good?’ There may be a moment of wounded pride, but the extra paragraph of pure criticism appended to the review could make all the difference for the practice’s survival in its current form. And, on behalf of writers and reviewers alike, I can only hope that such a survival takes place, to give us all something good to read.

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