Sunday, 14 February 2021

Don't Mourn The Longform Review

A discussion in an online readers' group over someone lamenting the death of "traditional book reviews" and the rise of bookstagramming turned the old gears once more.

Such grist for the mill seems to frequently come out of the Indian subcontinent, which boasts a long and colourful history of publishing along with robust and riveting discourse.

Some examples of bookstagramming provided include that of a graphic designer who offers minimal takes on books using emojis. At the end, the writer wonders whether Instagrammers can contend with privileged pedestals such as the New York Times bestseller list.

As expected, members of the online group commenting on the piece were put off by it. Someone pointed out the writer's choice of words, which I felt were polarising: the "new" ("short", "quick", "millennial" - ugh) versus the "old" ("stuffy", "hallowed", "needlessly long").

I also had to check the date: published 7 February 2021. Bookstagramming has been around before then. How long was this piece sitting in the writer's computer? Or has India finally woken up to the trend?

(Uh-oh. The writer majored in literature. Probably ego-searches on occasion. Better watch my step.)

Now, the piece makes some good points. For one, the ecosystem surrounding "traditional" book reviews has always been a rarefied circle jerk. Certain reviewers have a cosy relationship with the papers they write for, who in turn have connections to the big publishers and literary agents. These same people tend to end up in some book award panels too.

Even when the printing press was invented and the written word became more accessible, gatekeeping determined what gets and does not get published. Then and now, getting a byline in a paper is a big deal. While some have higher aspirations, middling critics like myself have more pragmatic goals: gaining free books, extra cash and writing cred.

But this cosy relationship narrowed the number of books that "matter", so the same authors and publishers tend to grab the headlines year after year. From their lofty lecterns under distinguished mastheads, marqueed reviewers sometimes take potshots at certain works, shielded from the anger and call-outs from readers.

Restaurant critic Pete Wells's takedown of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen and Bar in the New York Times was entertaining, but it was mean towards a guy who's a lot more than the hair, shades and loud shirts. (Okay, not a book review, but.) And what to say of Michiko Kakutani, who has been held in awe, dreaded and loathed for decades?

While the piece doesn't delve too deeply into the history of book reviewing to stick with the traditional-versus-Instagram tangent, the tone sounds off-putting. Was there a need to compare bookstagrammers with a controversial Indian author?

And if readers today are too "lazy" to even read captions on Instagram posts, perhaps it's because they feel that their limited time, squeezed out of a packed schedule weighed down by the stresses of modern life, is better spent elsewhere.

So what if "anyone" can influence what their peers read, especially with social reading platforms such as Goodreads? People in such circles tend to or would come to know one another, so they're comfortable with and confident in what they see there.

Also, people are more educated now. Technology is connecting people, granting them access to knowledge, and giving them a soapbox. Folks are finding their voices and skipping past the gates to be heard and read. Describing these newcomers in language that screams "hoi polloi" is tasteless and foolhardy; being picked apart alive by weaver ants seems more merciful.

Critics now are more exposed to the risks of being wrong or challenges posed by those who know more but aren't part of the nexus. So they better learn to tread lightly instead of longing, even briefly, for an imagined golden age when, presumably, it was fine to write with your head in the clouds - or up your ass.

But does that mean "traditionalists" and "purists" have to start bookstagramming to stay relevant? Whatever works, I guess. However, some rules - like ignore your personal feelings and biases, don't be too rough, and suchlike - can be set aside so you can get creative and interesting, but not mean and divisive.

Critics, for a start, should take to heart the monologue by Anton Ego, the food critic in the Disney production Ratatouille, which sums up the realities of criticism and is lent significant gravitas by the voice of the late Peter O'Toole.

But a larger pool of material means more to read and digest, which means gatekeepers are still relevant, perhaps more than ever. In George Orwell's "Confessions of a Book Reviewer", one line goes "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are."

As someone with a professional relationship with books, I've found this to be true.

Orwell adds that a short pithy statement is the only criticism most books warrant, while a professional reviewer would only bother with a book if they were paid to review it. But:

...the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. For if one says ... that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word 'good'?

So if a book isn't worth the time, maybe an emoji or a GIF meme will suffice - better than rendering superlatives hollow through overuse. Using cleavers on sparrows might grab more attention but it's wasteful and unnecessarily theatrical.

By now, I think there's enough space for criticism in many formats, of any length, and that space is still growing. A humongous marketplace of opinions should be celebrated and readers can take their pick in an environment where quality does shine.

However, as long as "traditional" book reviews are still being written, the format will never die. Longform articles will always have a key role in some situations when an emoji or a hundred-word caption won't do.

With growing scrutiny and greater access to information, perhaps they will get better and become more deserving of those hallowed pedestals than before.

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