Why Readers Know Best (And Writers Should Listen)




After I’ve created something new, it faces two tests; what the critics think and what the public thinks. In the old days, the second was reliant on the first.

I thought of this today, because in the US two movies crowned the box office at 26 and 24 million dollars respectively. One garnered almost 100% critical approval while the other got very nearly zero (it would have been a perfect 0 but for one ‘meh’ review). In all my years of film studying, that’s the biggest gap I’ve ever seen between critics and box office.

‘Dunkirk’, a film based on a subject that theoretically most of the world neither remembers nor cares about, should have been the flop. Word of mouth propelled it to the top and kept it there. ‘The Emoji Movie’ appeals to the uncritical young in the summer holidays, so it’s buoyant.

Most of us now know of the critics’ satanic pact; damn the film and you risk losing access to studios, praise it unreservedly and you risk undermining your credibility. Film PRs have long walked this tightrope.

In theatre, art and literature critics are still formally trained. In the popular media they’re not. Cinema and TV criticism had stars; David Thompson, Donald Zec, Dilys Powell and Pauline Kael were learned and respected. In came the jokers; Clive James, Victor Lewis-Smith, Charlie Brooker et al. In, too, came the ‘names’, B-listers who lent their names to press columns, most of which were ghosted. I have a friend who specialises in ghosting columns. The money is lousy because most of it goes to the ‘name’.

But papers were important. They once even had their own TV show; ‘What The Papers Say’.

As paper press withers away, the arts pages are always the first to be culled. When I worked for Time Out, every issue had 4 to 6 pages on books alone. Those days are over. As newspapers abdicated their responsibility to readers, online sites took up the reins.

daily mail

At the Independent, we were required to answer all readers’ queries personally and justify our judgements. That fine newspaper fell into the hands of a Russian playboy and folded. The Daily Mail, a paper based on the exploitation of ungrounded fears, flourished. For the first time since their inception in 1702,  national newspapers reversed polarity and surrendered the educated high ground. I exempt the Guardian and the Telegraph, although both promote powerful agendas.

You would think, then, that the broadsheets would employ experienced, knowledgable critics, as they do in the best US papers. But they can no longer afford too – they can’t even afford good staff photographers. Look at the buying-in of stock shots that afflicts every paper.

Cheap & Cheerful

This morning I sat in a cafe reading Kevin Maher’s excoriating review of ‘Valerian‘ in the Times. I loved the film, he hated it; fine. Maher seems like a terribly nice chap, someone to whom you’d lend your socket set, a feature writer employed to represent the views of the bloke in the street. He handles various bits and bobs at the Times, and is probably very good with shelving units and HDMI cables, so someone suggested he should have a bash at film reviews.

The ‘Valerian’ slam spectacularly misunderstood the film’s appeal. I don’t think we’ll catch Kevin cruising the shelves of Forbidden Planet looking for bandes dessinées anytime soon. To be fair, the Times’ remit is to be mainstream, sensible, aspiring, celebrity-focussed, populist and brief (no long reads here, as in the NYT and the Guardian, just buzzwords and catchphrases). Most UK papers are for browsing, not reading in depth.

But the Times was once a critical bellwether. You didn’t pick it up expecting The Thanet Advertiser, you wanted The Thunderer. Thus are the seeds of destruction sown.

Who needs the uninformed chucking in their two penn’orth when there are thousands of knowledgable reviewers online? When my publishers looks for a nice quote for my book covers, they know that the public now accepts the opinions of Crimetime or Deadgood, or any of the other sites filled with literary experts, because that’s what readers read. They no longer base opinions on What The Papers Say.

What The Readers Want

Does having a quote from the Daily Mail count on a book jacket? Does an award count? The evidence suggests not. Readers themselves made Harry Potter popular. Readers discovered the brilliance of Hilary Mantel long after she had garnered good reviews. Readers found Kate Atkinson. True, publishers can also ensure that volumes are sold by making a book ubiquitous, but true excellence is uncovered by readers.

The most perspicacious UK reviews I’ve received in the last few years have nearly all been from online readers and reviewers. Back when I wrote volumes of short stories, press critics gave me the usual two lines saying, ‘Read it with the lights on’, (as if you could any other way) until online reviewers started taking me seriously.

So to anyone who creates something from nothing, I would say this; listen to your readers, not your critics. They’re smarter than anyone gives them credit for – as newspapers found out to their cost.

15 comments on “Why Readers Know Best (And Writers Should Listen)”

  1. Jo W says:

    Interesting post,Chris, now I know why,at your last book launch, I kept being told that I was a really important person,whenever I said I was just a reader. 😉
    Hope you are enjoying those hot temperatures out there.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    I’m a Guardian reader of many years standing, and although the reporting remains fairly good the punditry has taken a nosedive in recent years. The number of columnists that I just don’t bother reading any more because of their repeated displays of massive ignorance just keeps clocking up. When it hits 100% I’ll let the subscription lapse. The meatiest pundit-style journalism now exists on-line, though some magazines still manage it occasionally.

  3. Misha Herwin says:

    London Review of Books, plus Guardian Weekend Review is where I go for serious reviews. LRB doesn’t do mainstream though.

  4. davem says:

    ‘Back when I write volumes of short stories …’

    Despite how much I enjoy all your other work, still my favourite books.

  5. Chris Webb says:

    So you’re into lending socket sets today are you? Yesterday it was cups of sugar 🙂

    If I were a writer I think the accolade I would cherish the most would be to get a Waterstones staff picks card. They let their staff write short reviews on cards and put them on the shelves under the book. Waterstones staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic so I think their opinions are very meaningful.

    If a review (book, film, whatever) is well written it shouldn’t matter whether it is good, bad or indifferent. As you did with the Valerian review, the reader should be able to think “OK, that’s the reviewers opinion but it contains enough information for me to decide for myself”.

    Years ago we had a move-around in the office and I ended up at a desk that had been vacant for a while. In the bottom drawer I found a tatty paperback (some kind of naval war story I think) and the only review on the cover was “A thumping good read: The Yorkshire Evening Post.” Oh dear…

  6. admin says:

    There’s always a smartypants, isn’t there? On the naughty step, Mr Webb!
    Don’t knock Yorkshire papers – they’re often a better read than London ones!

  7. Chris Webb says:

    Wasn’t intended to be Northernist. I just thought it was a bit sad that the publisher couldn’t find anything more erudite than “a thumping good read”.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    “A thumping good read” suggests to me an adventure story with lots of action and tension, possibly some sex and often set in war time. Oh, and aimed at male readers. It may not be erudite but it carries its message clearly & briefly.

  9. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Might have been ‘The Cruel Sea’. That was a thumping good read. No sex though. Wonder if it would seem so now.

  10. Jan says:

    Surely it’s a good thing that the professional critics day is drawing to a close. (Sorry Mr F bet it was a good gig) I always wondered about the concept of the creation a set of people whose opinions had been elevated to a level where they made decisions for others. Why did we trust them to decide for us?

    The belief that critics could be trusted because they possessed a higher level of erudition always had a touch of the Emporer’s new clothes.

    Now technology supplies the equivalent of listening to the comments of an audience leaving a cinema or theatre. Which normally gave a good clue as to whether money would be well spent.

    Know this didn’t apply to book sales until recently. You could pick up when a book was going to be big though. A decade and a bit ago friend of mine who is a school librarian was reading a book brought home from work which she said was massively popular. Her two young daughters started telling me all about the story set up they were really caught up in it. The book – Harry Potter and the Philosophers stone. For me right from there it felt like the whole thing was going to be important.

  11. I totally agree that you should listen to the readers, Chris. I work in an independent bookstore in the U.S and picked up the arc of ‘Victoria Vanishes’ several years back because I was supposed to be blurbing the new Christoper Moore and I didn’t have my glasses on. Oops! Best mistake ever! Now I’ve read every single Bryant and May in print; even the short story collection London’s Glory. Books like ‘All the light we cannot see’, ‘Be Frank with Me’ and ‘In the Woods’ and most recently ‘Dark Matter’ have sold because we booksellers have lit the fuse, stood back and watched customers recommend the hell out of them.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monserrat (?) My Dad thought it was a thumping good read, too. The Guns of Navarrone was another one in that line, although Force (something) on Navarrone wasn’t.
    Oh, yes, there was no doubt about Harry right from the start.

  13. Jan says:

    “What the Papers say” might have gone the way of the dinosaurs but now there’s a considerable amount of time devoted to the contents of the Papers on both the Beeb and Sky news the rolling news channels each and every evening.

    The product though the Papers themselves are definitely shrinking away before our eyes. I for one will be sorry when they do disappear it will be a dreadful shame and as you say Mr F the process began with the Independent.

    Helen it was a Force 10 from Naverone …..

    Was a funny thing the Potter phenomenon kids got into the stories straight away through word of mouth alone. In way I don’t recall happening before a generation of kids grew up along with the series. My nephews dragged me along to the first film when it was shown at their after school club. Talk about H.Ps exploits and how the story would end was a big thing with kids. The books became more complex and scary as the generation of children matured. Then the publishing dates, fight for film rights, film release dates became a self perpetuating publicity engine. Amazing really.

    People thought a lot of JK Rowling because she did really well from a tough position in life. Interesting now the reactions to her later adult works (none of which I ‘ve read to be honest) are so different in tone. Now she’s seems to be viewed, especially by other authors, as taking advantage of her status. Which she could be I dunno. Wholesale enthusiasm gradually became tinged with negative judgements about her work. Judgements made out of envy perhaps?

  14. Jan says:

    Went to see Val and the city of a 1000 planets yesterday. (Went to Poole + it was raining)
    Really did like it I have never seen 5th element but enjoyed Lucy which I saw on Film4. Think it was Lucy …

  15. Jan says:

    With Scarlett Johansson

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