It’s the standard answer from actors – ‘I never read reviews’, and we used to think ‘Oh, I bet you sneak a peek at them all the time.’ But lately there’s been a fundamental change in the way the press works. With everyone and their dog’s sitter learning how to type in a rudimentary manner thanks to social networking, publishers are thinking ‘Why should I pay for a reviewer?’
And I have to admit they have a point.
I was given a copy of the Daily Mail from the day I was born, when it was still a broadsheet and hadn’t filled yet its pages with rabid nationalistic drivel. There were no reviews. There was news, sport and a little coverage of theatre, that most transient of arts (or at least it was until Andrew Lloyd-Webber turned the featherlight form of the musical into a series of bloated, earthbound cane toads).
The arrival of the Sunday Times and other leisure papers resulted in everything from food mixers to bicycles being given a review. Books came with their own sets of reviewers, specially chosen by the literary editor. So, old fogeys would review books from the Oxbridge set, hipsters would find a way to mention their favourite bands and so on.
Then it was realised that the best reviewers were probably writers themselves. But with each postbag bringing an ever-greater avalanche of books, who had time to read them anymore? So reviews got shorter and shorter, and are now vanishing. The Times and the Sunday Times are laying off 150 freelancers. Over at the FT we’re all having our columns massively reduced and staff are going part-time. The broadsheets don’t pay well but at least they pay; the majority of the reviewing I do is unpaid work. As readers switch from newspapers to tablets, nobody wants to pay for content anymore when you can crowdsource.
And while I love to read well-turned prose, perhaps the day of the review is over. Why not let passionate readers do it? Ask yourself – is it better to read one annoyingly opinionated reviewer or check the aggregate of readers online? I wanted to find out if Ian Martin’s ‘The Coalition Chronicles’ was any good, but he’s a Guardian columnist so he probably won’t get reviewed in other papers. However, Amazon readers have posted a series of terrifically cogent, intelligent reviews about the book, and I was able to make up my mind that way.
My rule of thumb, for my own writing and others, is this – if six people point out the same flaw, it’s a flaw. So let’s return the press to reporting instead of just opening PR releases, and let the readers decide whether a book is any good or not.