‘Readers, Not Critics, Determine A Book’s Fate.’


Wristwatches. Cufflinks. Neckties. Tea-cosies. Newspaper critics.

What do they all have in common?

They’re all still available long after their original need to exist has vanished.

The future is never quite the future. Much of the past clings to it; retinal-display phones exist in the same world as letter-openers. For over 200 years newspapers provided us with essential information, because it was material we could get nowhere else. The UK has 11 national papers, all of which still have a demographic slice.

As the press works out how to monetize its model for an online world, there are winners and losers – the New York Times adapted brilliantly to online subscription, but nobody’s talking about how the online Sun is doing, and it’s depressing that Sight & Sound, the UK’s only serious national film magazine, has failed to add interactivity to its online pages when you can click on any photo in the small Canadian film mag Rue Morgue and initiate moving footage.

We’re in crossover times – subscription press, like streaming and Cloud storage, is becoming a fact of future life, but the old formats have to remain for a while yet. The next generation of home entertainment is arriving in the form of 4K TV – essentially just a picture that’s four times sharper than Blu-Ray – but right now there’s no delivery system that can handle it, so studios are pushing Blu-Ray, and while they’re keen to phase out DVD – the industry’s cufflinks as it were – an ageing population is still resisting because it’s a likeable, easy format.

Opening the Sunday Times online this morning, two things strike me – the app’s technically inefficient, and why on earth do we still have critics’ pages? AA Gill isn’t someone I’d want to meet but he writes a journalistically perceptive column, very little of which is to do with his job – restaurant criticism. But Camille Long writing on film is less edifying than asking the person in the seat next what s/he thinks of the movie. And reading that she thinks the film ‘Elysium’ should spend its time with the rich characters instead of the poor ones is insulting.

Let’s not single out Long, though; most book, film and theatre criticism survives in print papers as set dressing – it’s there because we expect it. In a world where everyone can give an opinion on anything the real surprise has been not that how much of it is bad, but how much of it is very good indeed. And its a meritocracy; the writers aren’t given columns because they’re blonde or because their parents were famous, but because they’re passionate readers or audience members who pay their way.

As it becomes easier to collate your favourites into personal editions – I’d be lost without Matt Brown on London, Kim Newman on rare movies and the West End Whingers on theatre – the pointlessness of paid pundits is obvious, and their pages shrink monthly – yet they remain, journalistic cufflinks.

Most newspapers aren’t interested in insightful criticism but in providing digestible capsule round-ups for the sake of completeness. In a week when Benedict Cumberbatch asked journalists to go and cover something more important than him, and the estimable Phillip French retired as a film critic, you have to ask yourself why press critics still exist at all.

17 comments on “‘Readers, Not Critics, Determine A Book’s Fate.’”

  1. Jo W says:

    Don’t have an opinion on newspaper critics. I don’t read the rags real or online. News I can get from the wireless. But. Tea cosies I definitely have an ongoing need for. How else would I keep pots of tea warm? (Loose leaf tea,of course.) Thanks for picture of Statler and Waldorf at the top of the piece. I love it, well it’s not bad,some of it’s ok…………oh dear I think I’ve gone into a Muppet moment!

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Wristwatches need to stay.

  3. admin says:

    I agree – wristwatches can stay. They’re pointless now but they do look good.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    True, but actually it will take far too long for me to learn to look in my pocket, rather than on my wrist. Long habits are so hard to break. However, I have my grandfather’s pocket watch. Maybe I could put it in the same pocket as my Handy/mobile/cellphone/whatever it’s so old and sort of transition…. Hummmm….

  5. Janet Wilson says:

    Dan, u shld def keep yr grandad’s pocket watch with yr i.fone- v. Dr?, v. steampunk. Txt spel delibrate- habit frm ten yrs of b/w fone with 3 letters per key, which I still use cos familiar. I’m beginning to appreciate the democracy of the i.net- no-one told anyone in the new print era of 16th-17thc. that they cldn’t write for publication cos they cldn’t spell or punctuate. (Well, not much…) And the future can be personalised to some extent, picking what we appreciate from any era. I hope there will be tea cosies on Mars someday…

  6. Jo W says:

    Only put tea cosies on Mars when hiding the bars from the rest of the family.but not for too long…….they melt.

  7. Steve says:

    Strangely…or maybe not so strangely since I’m an old geezer, I never look at the time on my iPhone, only on my watch or….again strangely….my computer.
    Wrist watches have morphed from timepiece/jewelery to jewelery alone for most I suppose.
    I just read what I wrote. It’s apparent that I need another cappuccino or two. It’s not even noon here yet.
    I think…er, no..I mean, er, yes but it’s all wrong! That is I think I disagree…?


  8. Steve says:

    Oh, wait….this was all about critics, who these days are even more pointless than watches.
    Top the lot of ’em!

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Does “Tea Cosies on Mars” sound like a 50s British B/W film that Admin might include in his next films book? (“Tea Cosies from Hell Attack” I’d want to see.)
    Not drinking yet, but I see the cosies in various floral patterns turtling along Mars well protected from the solar radiation. (If they had hid little blue men speaking with a northern accent and bopping each other, I say the film was a Sir Terry P. rip-off.)
    That’s all folks.

  10. Janet Wilson says:

    Ta Dan, you made me chortle fulsomely! ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Tea Cosy’? ‘Invasion of the Cosy Snatchers’? Better stop, or this could get silly!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I have a friend who provides me with a clipping service. One thing I enjoy is the TLS reviews – two full pages on still lifes with letter racks – often an essay on the subject matter rather than the book itself. When the article is an actual review of the book you often feel you ought to take shelter behind a stout oak table as the acidulous remarks fly. I enjoy reviews, both paid ones and those on Goodreads, because you get a feel for the book. At over $20 Canadian for a hardcover you aren’t going to take a chance on a new author without some idea as to the style and genre. The one review I won’t read is the publisher’s. The same thing applies to films, although getting to one requires more energy than I usually have.

  12. Mim says:

    I’m biassed here, because I do review professionally, but as a reader, I appreciate other people’s reviews. There are simply so many books, films, restaurants and so on to choose from. (I don’t bother with bar reviews; I’m happy to try lots of those out for myself!) A reviewer I trust helps me narrow down that massive field of choice to a few I can then think more carefully about. They could be a professional critic in a newspaper, or someone doing it purely for love on a blog. (I have to confess, I’m generally suspicious of bloggers who get paid in freebies as they have an incentive to praise everything.)

    I take the same approach to my reviewing: books aren’t cheap, and I’m helping someone make a buying decision, perhaps at the same time giving a writer who’s never had the attention they deserve a bit more of the spotlight, which they might never have had with their work stuffed at the back of a bookshop shelf or waaaaay down the recommendations list on Amazon. Cufflinks? Possibly. But there are still some people who prefer double-cuffed shirts and find the reviews useful…

  13. Janet Wilson says:

    I’m always amazed to find TLS stowed beneath tabloids at Asda (U.K. Walmart) alongside Racing Times and Coarse Fishing Today.

  14. Ken Mann says:

    I sort of agree. Part of the point of a critic is to know more about their subject than I do, hence Kim Newman is a good thing whereas the likes of Peter Bradshaw… Television gets even worse critics than film. I once read a piece in the old Time Out written by someone who didn´t know that films are shot out of sequence. He was therefore unimpressed by the skill of an actorÅ› depiction of a mental breakdown, unaware that the degree of breakdown had to vary from scene to scene almost randomly while it was being shot.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    And if an author has begun to fade away there is always Admin’s column to stir new readers into trying something old.

  16. snowy says:

    There are plans to morph the wristwatch into an aux. display for mobiles.

    If your phone rings, rather than rummage through your purse/handbag/pocket to find the phone. A quick glance at the wrist will display the caller id, text or email author/subject.

    [The ‘Pebble watch’ and the ‘Sony Smartwatch’ already do this, but are very expensive.]

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Back in the fifties we had the Dick Tracy wrist radio and later they added a camera element to it. Or rather the comic strip had those things, we only wished we did.

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