Readers and reviewers

Would somebody remind me please that there’s no reason to expect every author who writes a good book now and then to refrain from saying stupid things? I came across this quotation from Ian McEwan (via):

Publishers seem to be very keyed up to embrace the Internet, but I don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.

He wrote this at back in June, in response to a reader who asked what he thought about disappearing literary reviews in newspapers and magazines. Now, how many problems in logic do we see in his claims? Do I even need to spell them out? Well, why not.

Okay, first of all, why separate “readers” and “reviewers”? Aren’t all reviewers automatically readers? I would hope so. And if what he really means is to distinguish between regular old amateur readers and professional reader/reviewers, I’m not sure there’s such a clear line between the two. I don’t really know much about it, but maybe somebody can fill me in: what are the entry requirements for becoming a professional reviewer? Is there a class you take, a degree you get, a test you pass?

When he says that “reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment,” I agree completely. And, the truth is, I agree with his last line too: “I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” I’m just not sure how these sentences fit together. To take the first line, aren’t there multiple ways to gain expertise, wisdom, and judgment, and couldn’t a regular old “amateur” reader have those qualities? And, to address the second, can’t you read “amateur” reviews by “amateur” readers and still believe that one person’s view is better or worse than somebody else’s? I think so. To read the work of nonprofessionals is not necessarily to give up one’s right to make critical distinctions. Quality reviewing does not always correspond with whether one gets paid for those reviews or not.

There’s an underlying idea to McEwan’s claims that is not quite so objectionable: that it’s quicker and easier to find quality reviews in traditional sources than it is to find quality reviews online. If you don’t want to spend time hunting down websites you like and filtering out the ones you don’t, perhaps print reviews will do just fine for you. But I’m not sure that it’s that hard to find the good stuff — read a few book blogs and you’ll see the top ones linked to over and over again.  Start there and see what you like.

So, to return to my opening question about good authors and stupid comments — I should just forget dumb stuff like this when I’m reading his novels, right?


Filed under Blogging, Reading

10 responses to “Readers and reviewers

  1. SFP

    I wonder how he’d have responded if he’d been asked how he felt about potential readers learning of his books through word of mouth. Would he have said he preferred readers to be led to his work only after reading professional reviews? I kind of doubt it, but then I kind of doubt he knows much about any of the sites except for things like Amazon–which could definitely sour a writer’s opinion on the quality of what’s on line.


  2. Cam

    When I read comments like McEwan’s my first thought is always that the person hasn’t been exposed to the worthwhile reviews on the internet by so-called amateurs, and is, therefore, relying on stereotype. I think we all know that there are blogs that talk about books in a 6th grade book report style (” I really liked this book. You should read it. It was great….”), but I think it fair to say that blogs that post soley about books in the guise of reviews while offering little substance don’t last.

    Glib comments like McEwan’s are as uncritical as those poorly written blogs that he is criticizing; his comment doesn’t appear to be based on fact or experience. At least the blogger writing an uncritical ‘I liked this‘ post is basing her recommendation on genuine experience, rather than stating, as McEwan did, that he isn’t going to take the time to read online reviews because the assumption is that it must be, by the very nature of the medium, an uncritical and therefore unworthwhile evaluation.

    As a popular author you’d think that McEwan would be more attuned to the “voting” readers do at the cash register than to imply that they wouldn’t know quality writing from crap if it leapt from the page and bite them. Hmmm…maybe I should rethink my assessment of On Chesil Beach and why I was so disappointed in its ending. Maybe I can’t detect a flawed ending in a book; maybe I was just too amateurish of a reader to see the brillance of his epilogue. Maybe what I thought was someone pinching me on the subway as I read that last page was really quality flying off the page and biting me in the ass.


  3. Oh, Dorothy, I love your slightly snarky post! Everything you say is true. And I suppose when you read McEwan you should try to forget about stupid comments he’s made, but it makes it hard doesn’t it? To judge a book by its quality and not by its author’s personality or reputation, etc, is the mark of an excellent reviewer in my opinion. Even Professionals don’t manage such a feat at times. But Dorothy, I think you are an excellent reviewer so I trust that you will be able to keep McEwan the man separate from his books. Lucky for McEwan 🙂


  4. John

    I just finished an extended blog conversation at with another author on a similar subject — the web makes it so easy for amateurs to publish these days. He was indignant at being lumped with poseurs and wannabes. Why choke fledging authors at the source, I argued. Let Web 2.0 sort it out. After all, I wouldn’t have found his writing it were not for his blog. The same is true for reviews. The web has mechanisms to sort the good from the bad.


  5. These sorts of comments don’t even surprise me anymore. As a matter of fact if I saw an author who embraced the internet as a source for quality reviews or writing, I might even fall over. It’s simply not fashionable. (Maybe in another generation?). It’s times like this that I think it’s better not to know too much about an author and what he thinks and just read/judge his writing on its own merits.


  6. Such remarks don’t affect my assessment of the quality of a writer’s work, but I confess that they do make me feel less inclined to read it. When there are so many worthy books out there jostling for my attention, I do pause to think about why I would devote my time and energy to the work of a writer who has so little regard for me as a reader. I hadn’t noted McEwan’s remarks when he made them, but that was my response when Michael Dirda and Richard Ford made similar statements. I understand that they said what they said in support of the continued existence of substantial newspaper book sections (something I am strongly in favour of myself), but able wordsmiths that they are, surely they could find a way to express that support without alienating the vast majority of their readership who are presumably not professional book reviewers.

    And I agree with you that the distinction between readers and reviewers is a false one. I don’t think that there are very many professional reviewers out there, if by that we mean people who review books full time rather than the legions of freelancers who are paid for the odd review. And, as far as I can tell, those who do review books full time generally gain their expertise through experience rather than from any specialized training beforehand. The reviewers who write for the Saturday book section of the Toronto “Globe and Mail” seem to be, for the most part, freelance reviewers whose qualifications are precisely the same as mine. They are writers and avid readers; some of them write excellent and illuminating reviews and some of them don’t. I thoroughly enjoy reading that book section every Saturday morning. But so too do I enjoy reading the discerning opinions of the many book bloggers whose blogs I frequent on a regular basis.


  7. Well, I haven’t read a single one of his books, so no problems for me. 😀


  8. It sort of makes you wonder who they are writing for? Are they writing for me or just the “professional” critics?


  9. Susan — interesting analogy. If he thought of it in those terms, he might change his mind. Blogs inhabit such an inbetween space — between talk and writing, between formal and informal, permanent and impermanent, amateur and professional — people just don’t know what to do with them.

    Cam — that’s right, maybe we should all just shut up and never write or speak another word about a book again. 🙂 You’re so right that people shouldn’t make glib comments about things they obviously haven’t experienced. There are arguments to be made for why individual people with certain temperaments might not enjoy reading blogs, but too often people dismiss them completely without any real reason.

    Thank you Stefanie! It IS really hard to keep the author and work separate — at times impossible. If I know an author is a misogynist, for example, I’m going to hold it against him. And maybe it’s okay to do that. It’s really not a clear-cut issue; sometimes the author’s life does matter.

    John — you’re right about the internet separating good from bad, and people don’t tend to see that. It can take some time to figure out what’s what, and I can see that someone might not want to invest that time, but people shouldn’t imply it’s impossible.

    Danielle — I’m not surprised either, and you’re right that an author who takes the internet seriously is out of the norm. I agree that it’s a generational thing — I wonder what the situation will be like 20 or 30 years from now? And if I felt an author was writing for “professional” critics and not readers, I’d lose interest really fast.

    Kate — thank you for addressing my question about how one becomes a reviewer; your answer is about what I expected — that there aren’t many full-time reviewers, and that you become a reviewer by getting experience — and by writing well. And, of course, there are quite a few bloggers — such as yourself! — who also write reviews for other publications. And yes, it would be nice if people could find a way to support print reviews without bashing online ones. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

    Imani — well, there you go — lucky you. 🙂


  10. In the words of a good friend of mine – what a goober. Readers are, by definition, reviewers. I haven’t read any of his novels either but I do have one in the Mountain…I might place it further down the list as punishment!


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