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On This Book Review v. Blogger Nonsense

Oh, Rachel Cooke. You can tell me: you were inspired by Rachel Donadio’s daft “think piece” from last week, weren’t you? It’s all right. We all make mistakes. You (and your factchecker–and by proxy, your editor) have already been called out in a rather thorough fashion, and responded to–in one of the blogs whose name you flubbed.

I think you and your opponents are, by squaring off in battle lines, missing the point of this whole exchange, a point which hinges on the ability of the reader to evaluate sources. Your insinuation that lovers of literature are unable to tell the difference in reliability between (say) a published, fact-checked book review and anonymous rantings on LiveJournal is, I expect, a little insulting to your readers, although obviously your fact-checker was on holiday for this little gem of an article (I find that when I am attacking someone, I prefer to have correctly quoted my adversary and correctly named whatever it is he has done. This is, of course, in addition to impeccable grammar and spelling, so that no pedant will get stuck on a screw-up and take it as evidence that my argument doesn’t matter because I have put little-to-no time, effort, or thought into it. But hey, to each her own, right?).

Those who read this blog regularly know that I rely on magazines and newspapers for information, which I often digest, about the literary world. There is a reason for this. When a magazine or newspaper publishes something, its reputation is on the line. This is a source with something to lose if an article is wrong, or rude, or doesn’t get its homonyms right. Weblogs, too, can be reliable (some occasionally break news, after all), but unless I am familiar with them, or they are backed by a publisher, magazine or newspaper I already trust, I tend to be much more skeptical. I would be willing to put down money that most people with any sense at all feel much the same way I do.

At any rate, I think the proliferation of opinions, both in the broadsheets and journals and in cyberspace is for the best. I expect most of us will find a few blogs we read daily, and a few more we check up on every so often, just as we do with book reviewers and opinion columnists. I doubt most readers are naive enough to take anyone’s word as gospel, be it Susan Hill’s or Rachel Cooke’s or my own.

The “populist” camp misses this point as much as Rachel Cooke does, unfortunately (why is a popular opinion necessarily always better than an expert one? If you want to find out whether you have cancer, do you take a poll of your friends or do you see a doctor?). Susan Hill’s unnecessarily incindiary post simply adds fuel to a fire that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Of course, before I continue further, I should note that Ms. Hill would not count me as a “true Blogger” [sic] as I am affiliated with a literary magazine and thus “a side-kick of the press”–never mind that we’re a nonprofit dedicated to making sure that authors from a “far far wider range than the weekly bok pages of the broadsheets and journals” [sic] see the light of day. Not to belabor a point, but that “bok” does seem to indicate that Ms. Hill might, in some respects, benefit from an editor “breathing down [her] neck.”

Bloggers and book reviewers are natural allies, it seems to me, at least insofar as they are all people who care passionately about reading in a culture that increasingly does not. And yes, bloggers do take pot-shots at book reviewers from time to time–I have done so, am doing so, and will likely continue to do so–but this is actually, believe it or not, in the interest of the readers of book reviews and the editors of the book sections. If widespread mockery of a poorly-researched article means that The Observer tightens its fact-checking guidelines, so much the better for the readers! If a boring piece about literary feuds is widely reviled on the web, that means not only is the piece being read by the people making fun of it, it’s being read by the people reading the blog entry.

Take heart, book reviewers! Think of the blog world as a large writing workshop, where you find out what works and what doesn’t, and can improve your prose on your next outing. Bloggers are not your natural enemies in the long run–so long as you develop a thick skin. Rachel Cooke’s higherups know this, even if she doesn’t; her article ends with the following note:

There has been lively debate this week around the issue on our new arts blog. To join the discussion, visit Richard Lea’s blog at: blogs.guardian.co.uk/books