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.
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.