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What’s the point of book reviews?

The problem with literary criticism in the digital age.

Reviews don’t matter. “I never really trust reviews,” said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. In his story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist”, the late Denis Johnson, writing from the perspective of an ageing poet, comments that since dropping his “poet’s persona” he has “masqueraded as a literary critic, and with a great deal more success, but criticism isn’t real – it’s not a real thing”. WH Auden, introducing his 1962 collection The Dyer’s Hand, wrote that: “There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics.” When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn’t look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove’s comment, from June 2016, that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”.

Of course reviews matter. That’s easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U & I, Nicholson Baker describes “book reviews, not books” as “the principal engines of change in the history of thought”; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign?

To prove the influence of reviews, gather some that mix things you know about and have formed an opinion on, and things about which you are ignorant – BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review, which considers a book, a film, a television show and an exhibition, is perfect for this. Listen to the programme and make a note of reviews you agree with, and reviews you disagree with. Repeat several times and a pattern will emerge: correcting for personal dislike (some critics just rub you up the wrong way), you will tend to agree far more readily with reviews of work that you have not experienced, than with those of work you know. I have shouted at the radio as a novel, seemingly wholly different to the one I read, is discussed. Equally, I have decided not to bother with a film based on judgements made on the same programme . This proves two things: reviews matter insofar as they have a concrete effect, and reviews are never simply “wrong” or “right”.

Despite the modern quantification of criticism – exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes – which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points. As Auden writes, “So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgements.” Bad criticism isn’t about getting a particular work “wrong”; it’s about failing to give a real sense of it, and replacing argument and justification with unsupported superlatives.

For some, criticism is the enemy of art. This was George Clooney’s position when he told a Turkish journalist, “I’d like to see you make a film first before you get to talk about [Solaris]”, and Samuel L Jackson’s when he attacked the New York Times film critic AO Scott’s review of The Avengers (which excoriated its “grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism”). The spat inspired Scott to write Better Living Through Criticism, an interrogation and defence of his practice that considers, in part, what Scott calls “anti-critical discourse”, which he traces back to Glaucon in Aristotle’s Poetics.

In a new essay published as a Kindle single, Nicholas Clee, journalist and former editor of the trade paper The Bookseller, develops his own anti-critical discourse, claiming the “assumptions that inform a good deal of literary criticism and that influence the decisions of prize juries are wrong, and have resulted in the underrating of many outstanding novels”.

These “outstanding” works are underrated because they are genre novels – primarily the crime novels Clee enjoys. The critical establishment is blind to the quality of certain books because they take place on a spaceship, or revolve around murder investigations. It is interesting that Clee was guilty of this himself – he admits that when he judged the Booker Prize in 1993 he damned one submission as “thrillerish” – and his essential point, that genres exist “but tell us nothing about literary value”, is sound. But while his essay is enjoyable, and some readers will support his disparagement of Andrew O’Hagan for slagging off the Richard and Judy Book Club, Harold Bloom for slagging off Stephen King, and Martin Amis for slagging off everybody, he ultimately fails to meet Auden’s stipulation that a critic must describe his Eden.

When he attempts to do so, and show the anti-genre snobs what they’re missing, he fluffs it. Quoting a paragraph from Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, which was awarded the 2015 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, Clee praises her “expert” use of the rule of three. But this is a rule the lowliest advertising copywriter learns in their first week (as I did), and won’t do as evidence that a book is, as Clee claims, “a rich and affecting masterpiece”. Neither does the rest of the quoted passage: “Terry’s friends all had names like Bud and Mack and Red and talked about the good old days like preachers talked about heaven. They all had multiple ex-wives, angry mistresses, and grown children who wouldn’t talk to them.”

Serviceable stuff, but that “all of them” reduces these men to an undifferentiated mass, a group caricature, which seems to me the opposite of the specificity that great writing delivers (and which Clee praises elsewhere when he approvingly quotes passages by Dickens and Updike as “products of distinctive imaginations”). I haven’t read Slaughter’s book and I’m not saying it isn’t excellent, but  Clee’s argumentation doesn’t convince me. His Eden, on this evidence, doesn’t look so appealing.

But let’s say you agree with Clee that prize juries and broadsheet critics malign genre novels. Do their opinions still matter, when the advent of the internet has seen the media industry undergo wholesale reorganisation over the past 15 years? In The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters, an array of journalists, bloggers, academics and editors consider criticism’s position within the digital landscape. There are interesting pieces on the horizontality of the web (as opposed to the top-down structure of traditional media), the politics and practicalities of writing for free, blogging as a way of building a career, and, from Louis Bury, an analysis of “Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take”.

More than anything else in the book, the aspect of online criticism that might have a fundamental impact on the culture of reviewing is, as Bury describes it, “the expected response time in online critical discourse”, which has “accelerated to the point where the appearance of hair-trigger critical ‘takes’ seems normal, even desirable”. He supports this point with a detailed and enthralling account of the stages of critical response following Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of his poem, “The Body of Michael Brown” at Brown University in 2015.

As with “Cat Person”, the New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian that chimes powerfully with the #MeToo movement and that went viral in December 2017, the stunning rate of online exegesis, debate, parody, revision of opinion, re-revision of opinion and so on, can turn commentary, “supposedly a secondary, parasitic form of discourse” into “an activity that eclipses the thing itself”.

Digital commentary, Bury writes, can cover the source text like kudzu vines, “until only its faint outline remains”. As with book reviews replacing the book itself, now succeeding waves of commentary can overwhelm the source more rapidly than can be kept up with, which has led to the rise of the “take of takes”: summarised aggregations of the responses so far. It can be oppressive to think about how much of the cultural conversation it is impossible to keep up with.

While the contributors to The Digital Critic identify many areas of concern, they appear certain of criticism’s inherent value. I am sympathetic, however, to AO Scott’s more anxious conception of critics as figures that “wander through a maze of stories, images, sounds, and tastes, haunted by doubts that are ultimately about the value of our own experience. Should I like that? Did I get it?” But is criticism really, as he believes, a noble and vital activity? Sometimes I feel closer to Auden’s viewpoint: “I have never written a line of criticism except in response to a demand by others… though I hope that some love went into their writing, I wrote them because I needed the money.” 

Chris Power is the author of the short story collection “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

The Booker and the Best: Discrimination in the Book World
Nicholas Clee
Amazon Publishing, 67pp, £1.19

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online
Houman Barekar, Robert Barry and David Winters
OR Books, 203pp, £14

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.