Well, I would have started posting again yesterday, but I had a little trouble with what turns out to be the browser cache. I'm sure you understand...
Anyway, what with one thing and another, I lost an hour's work yesterday, so here is a shortened version of what I said then. And who knows, this version may even be better.
The question that I want to address is this: Why is it that some books get reviewed in every newspaper? And not only reviewed, but favourably reviewed.
A case in point is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days -- a book that I wrote about myself a while back. Using the review-search facility on Publishers Marketplace (for which you have to subscribe) I can find 26 reviews in major US newspapers. Of these, 16 are favourable and 2 are negative; the rest are in the middle.
The negative ones echo my own opinion that the book really isn't very good. The New York Times describes it as 'a clunky and precious literary exercise... self-important and ham-handed.' But most other reviewers are impressed (or claim to be), including one who declares that Specimen Days is a work of genius.
Let us separate the particular from the general and go back to my question. Why is it that some books get reviewed everywhere? Even when they are written by first-time authors. And why is it that, when they are so widely reviewed, such books are mostly greeted with enthusiasm?
In thinking about this circumstance, over the last few days, I came up with three possible explanations.
2. You can fool some of the people some of the time.
3. A vague concept to which I gave the preliminary name The System.
Let's look at each of these.
First, bribery. Now before you get all huffy and puffy about me insulting a fine body of men and women, let us remember that it is quite normal in the book trade (and other trades) to purchase favourable treatment or a desired result.
For example, all publishers advertise. All big publishers pay money to the major bookselling chains to have their books prominently displayed or labelled 'Book of the Month'. And, nowadays, all major publishers entertain the big retailers at lavish functions (sometimes involving trips abroad) and introduce them to celebrity authors. All these things are just normal business practice.
But do I believe that reviewers are bribed, with used notes being handed over in brown-paper bags in supermarket car parks? No.
Second explanation: some people are stupid enough to believe anything. Even, apparently, that Specimen Days is a work of genius.
Well, yes, some people certainly are stupid enough, but that does not explain the ubiquity of reviews of certain books, or their (mostly) unanimous insistence that really quite average books are examples of excellence.
Which leaves us with explanation 3. A vague concept called The System.
Fortunately I came across an article by Matthew Parris, in last Saturday's Times, which enabled me to see more clearly what I it was that I had in mind when I spoke of The System.
Matthew considers the press reports of the recent London bombings, and concludes that there is 'an unwitting conspiracy' between four groups which leads to a particular slant being given to the news. A slant which may or may not turn out to be supported by the facts, but which is certainly not so supported at the present time.
Four powerful groups have a vested interest in arguing that the worldwide al-Qaeda network is fiendishly clever, powerfully effective, and deeply involved in the London bombings. These groups are: the press; the Government; the security services; and the terrorists themselves.
The press love sensation. 'We are all going to die' is a headline which will sell far more copies than 'Another fine day again today'.
If we must have bombs in London, the Government would prefer that they were planted by fiendishly clever men, so that there is at least some excuse for politicians' failure to have prevented the resulting deaths.
Ditto the security services. If the bombers are clever, highly trained, and backed by endless money, then it is hardly the security services' fault if terrorists are able to carry out attacks. Furthermore, if the enemy are frightfully clever chaps, then any arrests, or other forms of progress, are brilliant achievements on the part of the security men.
And finally, of course, the terrorists themselves very much hope that everyone will regard them as powerful and clever. That spreads terror, and it aids recruitment.
Thus, Matthew Parris argues, there is no wicked and malevolent conspiracy to distort the truth about the London bombings. But there is a 'line' on the news which suits the purposes of at least four groups with powerful vested interests. In the absence of firm evidence and reliable facts, it is that line which tends to be followed.
Let us take Matthew Parris's analysis and apply it to publishing.
In publishing there are four powerful groups with a vested interest in seeing to it that certain 'big' books are not only widely reviewed but also favourably reviewed. These groups are: the big publishers; the retail chains; the newspapers and those who write reviews for them; and the writers of books.
Every analyst of the modern book trade tells us that the trade lives or dies on the big sellers. A thousand small books, each with low individual sales, are not (apparently) any good to anyone. The trade lives or dies on the monsters.
Thus it is that the big publishers each select one or two books a month which will be given huge publicity budgets and a big push into the media. Often such books come from established authors or celebrity authors (ghosted if need be); but occasionally a completely unknown newcomer is touched by the magic wand. It is absolutely essential for the big publishers' financial health that most such books should succeed.
Ditto the booksellers. They do not want a thousand books a week which sit on the shelf for a year and then sell one or two copies each. What they want is one or two books a week which sell in thousands, pretty much as fast as they can unpack them.
The newspapers want a number of things. They want advertisements, which are paid for; and they want interesting stuff to fill up the white space. If need be, they will buy the serial rights to certain books, but they prefer to get review copies for free, and to be offered interview subjects for free. Free is so much more cost-effective.
By and large, it is not in a newspaper's interest to be dismissive of a book in which a book publisher has made a major investment. True, the occasional controversial hatchet job arouses interest and discussion. But if Clapham & Irons's big books are always panned, Clapham & Irons are pretty soon going to cancel their advertising. And when Clapham & Irons, by the grace of God, stumble across Princess Diana's Secret Lesbian Love Diary, the newspaper which has been invariably unkind is not the newspaper which gets the exclusive.
Same goes for the critics who write reviews. They enjoy the prestige of having their name in a quality newspaper, and the prestige has spinoff benefits. But if they systematically knock the big publishers' big books, it will not be long before the managing editor reminds them of the benefits of advertising and keeping on good terms with said publishers.
And, finally, the writers of books. All writers imagine that the book they are working on now is the one which will make their name. So they too will then get the star treatment. And they can't wait. So they are not (usually) going to criticise the status quo while they are waiting for their turn to come.
OK. There you have it. My question is answered.
It is not that there is some wicked cabal of sinister men who bribe and bully reviewers into declaring that very ordinary books such as Specimen Days are incomparable masterpieces. Such opinions are not bought -- not directly, at least. But for those who live and work and have their being in the book trade, it makes no sense at all that a book which a big publisher has selected for a big push should be panned.
It's not a conspiracy. It's just the way things are.