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The Decline and Fall of the Book Reviewing Empire

Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

If anyone ever asked me what parts of the bookish world I’m embarrassed by, they might be surprised by the answer. Am I ashamed of people reading Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, some of them even daring to read them in public? Nope. Am I horrified that grown-ups read Young Adult novels? Not a tiny bit. Maybe it’s how little we all apparently read? Nah. For one thing, I don’t think we read as little as is mentioned, and for another thing…who cares how much you read? Read a hundred books or ten books. Good for you either way.

No, the aspect of the book world I am most embarrassed by is the constant bitching and moaning.

It drives me insane. It’s constant and pervasive. All of those things I mentioned up there which I am failing to be ashamed of are themselves topics of moaning, hand-wringing articles. And when we aren’t hand-wringing, we are instead running around screeching that the sky is falling because a thing has changed books are dead now for sure you guys.

So why am I grouching today? Because recently, the New York Times published a piece called “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader,” and it turns out that oh my god it’s pretty bleak and unbearable out there. At least, if you’re a petulant, hand-wringing white New York male writer who has some idealized vision of the book world which possibly existed for ten minutes, sometime in the mid-20th century.

The article would just get passed by, were it not for its neat condescension to the reader and also the grand moaning about the fading of the Professional Book Reviewer, and it’s these two things which cause me to get frothingly mad over my morning tea (which is surely the purpose of publishing these articles. It’s the book world equivalent of the Daily Mail ranting about foreigners. The purpose is outrage and clicks).

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard moaning about the death of the Professional Book Reviewer, and I hate it every single time, but never for the reason I’m supposed to. For one thing, you have to define “professional book reviewer” in an incredibly narrow way before you can declare it a dying breed. I am on the low end of the spectrum, but I’ve been reviewing books in some capacity for years and years now. I reviewed them for SFSignal, I reviewed them briefly for The Future Fire, and I review them periodically here at Book Riot, when I’m not otherwise occupied responding to these bloody articles…

But I don’t count as a Professional Book Reviewer, because I do it here on the internet and not in the hallowed newspaper inches of the LA Times, or the New York Times, or wherever else. It’s slightly different, and therefore it’s not the same. Also, I’m not a Professional, I guess. Possibly it’s because my jackets all look like things from heavy metal videos and none of them are tweed with patches on the elbows.

So! The Professional Book Reviewer is a dying breed and this is very sad because previously, we got 100% of our book recommendations from them and from absolutely nowhere else in the world because we understood who our betters were and we knew wisely to listen to them.

But now? Oh my god you guys now things are pretty bad! According to the article, readers are on the internet in the millions, but…well, they’re just recommending books to each other without any academic or professional credits whatsoever. It’s appalling, these filthy commoners just saying to each other “you might like to read this” like they’re allowed.

This is what consistently pisses me off, this cheap condescension to “average” readers and their interactions with each other. I seriously doubt that the Professional Book Reviewer has ever, except outside of a very small audience, had a serious pull on the larger book buying world. People tend to read books, then talk to each other about them, which causes their friends to go buy those books. That’s how it worked in the Victorian era, and that’s how it’s worked in all the time since. People read and people talk. Professional Book Reviewers are important only to those publishers who need to get some blurbs onto the upcoming paperback releases of a book.

This heightened image of the Professional Book Reviewer is idealized beyond belief, unrealistic, and fairly stupid. In the grand scheme of people reading, reviewing books in a newspaper for a living is a microscopic burst of activity. A bubble which appeared, expanded, and burst. So it goes.

We are living in a golden age of reading. There are more books being published than ever, but there are also amazing books being published constantly. I don’t read bad books. This isn’t some grand artistic stand on my part, it’s just that I am easily bored and wander off if a book doesn’t fire me up. And yet even with only reading books that excite me and that I find excellent, there are still more amazing books published each year than I can get to.

Not only are there so many amazing books, but there are so many readers worldwide. Literacy has never been higher and reading is an astonishingly popular activity. Possibly not for my generation, which might be a lost cause, on the whole, but for everyone who came after me, reading is popular. It’s doing fine, and the dialogs running rampant in the world about books are exploding year by year until quite a lot of the internet is full of book chatter.

But alas, it’s just commoners. They aren’t Anton Ego, from Ratatouille (which – I possibly need to point out to this moaning article – was actually a fictional piece, and reviewers like that just don’t exist). Commoners who, in their enthusiasm, swamped the docks in America and shouted at incoming ships from England, “Is Little Nell dead?” in their excitement for the next installment of a Charles Dickens novel (Dickens, who was not always very popular with Book Critics, although he’s done pretty good since then).

Commoners who, in our modern time, have built places like Goodreads and events like National Novel Writing Month (both being events that the above article takes time to sneer at, because if you’re going to put everything else down, you might as well be thorough). Commoners who run book clubs in every corner of the internet, some of them even on Twitter, which seems like a remarkable undertaking. Commoners who, in their rampant enthusiasm for certain books, have led to my having a “to buy” list that is so long, it’s actually kind of silly. (Many of those books will be respected and lauded with praise and awards by Professional Book Reviewers but…ouch. Most of those Commoners found them through each other, not through the Professional Book Reviewers. Sorry, buddy.) It is their rampant enthusiasm for books — their opinions and their time and effort sifting through the books and finding plenty for everybody in the community to read — which is sustaining and expanding the book world, which is making it a crowded and noisy and excited tavern and not the lonely, pretentious beach of the above article. It is their energy and their discoveries which will continue to sustain it. The Commoners are the mighty ocean upon which the tiny raft of Professional Book Criticism bobs along. You can bemoan that ocean all you like, but it doesn’t hear you, and it mostly doesn’t care. As it should be. Good ol’ Commoners.

Anyway here ends the opinion of me, who makes his living talking about books, but who is forever a commoner and who talks about them in all the wrong places. You should probably disregard immediately. I’ll show myself out the servant’s entrance.


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