Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Let's hear it for the humble hyperlink

There's a good deal of discussion at present (I gather; I haven't read 90% of it) as to whether bloggers are crap book reviewers, and are they driving hard-working, scholarly, underpaid newspaper chappies out of business; et cetera, et cetera. Here's an example of such discussion; and here's another; and another. And an overview of it all.

As a result of this discussion, or such parts of it as I've read, one thought strikes me rather forcibly; well, actually several thoughts.

The first thought is that bloggers have numerous practical advantages over the newspaper guys. In the first place, they can review whatever they like, or don't like: a book which is a hundred years old, one from a self-publisher, whatever. The newspaper-based book reviewer, by and large, has to jump to his editor's commands.

Second, a blogger can write at any length he wishes. Ten thousand words, no problem. One word? Equally acceptable. And nobody will go through the review, change this, alter that, improve the other. In print newspapers and magazines, not only is length constrained, but the evidence suggests that what goes underneath the reviewer's name is not necessarily what he wrote.

Evidence: see the Wikipedia article on Publishers Weekly; section on book reviews. Guy there says: 'On a few occasions, I’ve had opinions utterly reversed from what I wrote. I’ve questioned this, but I’ve never received satisfactory answers.' So much for principle. Gotta keep the advertisers happy.

Also, bear in mind what happened when Michael Dibdin wrote a scathing review, for the Guardian, of a book by the Guardian's political correspondent: they refused to print it. So Dibdin took his review, plus the story, to the Times.

Finally, however, let us remember one simple fact. However erudite the print reviewer may be, and however exquisite his taste and critical judgement, he is handicapped by comparison with the most humble blogger. Our print man cannot link directly to other sources.

This is, I would suggest, a major problem. Twenty years ago, of course, no one could even imagine it. But now it has to be faced.

For my part I have been running this blog for over three years, and as the weeks go by I increasingly find myself linking to earlier posts of my own. But even a blog which is three weeks old can lead readers to other online sources which yield immensely valuable information.

So let's give three silent cheers for the humble hyperlink. And for the fellows who first dreamed it up (Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, and friends).


Anonymous said...

Thanks GOB - you make the points that need to be made. Say, 100 book reviews listed on Publishers Marketplace on a Sunday, but out of that only 10 books reviewed. They must have good PR people! "Big" presses, "big" authors. No independent, small, or up-and-coming presses. Thanks for your work. www.beatitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com - rebuilding the libraries of New Orleans- The Beatitudes Network....moving right along.
Lyn LeJeune

ijsbrand said...

Apart from al your remarks, my boeklog offers me the opportunity to tag books according to author, or genre. So if I review an author, all my other thoughts about his or her books can easily be presented on a new webpage.

Also, I've noticed my reviews are far more easily found by the Googles of this world than the ones somewhere deeplinked in newspaper sites. This never fails to impress the publishers.

Andy O'Hara said...

I can't recall ever paying attention to critics when it came to choosing a book. Horrors--I may have enjoyed some books unnecessarily.

Hyperlinks. How true, and how quickly we take such things for granted.

Americanwriter said...

I agree with your point of view. A lot of publications won't even consider book reviews and those that do tend to stick with the latest title from the big-name writers. I prefer to see what the independents are publishing and listen for the new voices. I was reviewing for a while, though it wasn't a paying gig I enjoyed it quite a lot. I could be incensed at some works and sing praises of others and anywhere in the middle of that road.

And being able to link to other reivews on the same or discussion groups, well that's just icing.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who is SHOCKED to read that Publishers Weekly fudges its reviews?

How are independent bookstores and libraries supposed to choose books if the Bible of the publishing industry cannot be trusted?

Art Durkee said...


The hyperlink, and hypertext in general, as a concept, have done more to make reading multi-dimensional than anything else in my or my parents' lifetime(s). Back when I was writing academic papers in grad school, and earlier, I wanted such a tool, that would take my gestalt thoughts along as sidebars without breaking the flow of the main essay. With hypertext, that's all now possible. It's wonderful!

I really feel like this us vs. them aspect of the debate is a total red herring. BOTH print and online are valuable—and both are capable of being hypertext.

Iain said...

Anonymous (above) is shocked to learn that Publishers Weekly has been known to edit its book reviews to the extent of making them say something radically different from what the reviewer himself or herself intended.

A few years ago, I too would have been shocked. Not no more. Now that I've done a fair bit of article writing (though no book reviews, to be fair) I'm very familiar with the cavalier manner in which editors treat the raw copy (because that's how they see it) that comes in from the writer.

It was ever thus. Can't be bothered looking it up, but I seem to recall that Wilkie Collins and Mrs Gaskell amongst others weren't always happy with Dickens's editing –- frequently drastic -– of work which they submitted to his periodicals. Now while both were fine novelists, Dickens was an incomparable journalist, so his revisions may well have been to the good. It's just that when you read what others supposedly wrote for him, you can't be at all confident that you’re seeing their work and not his.

I repeat, it was ever thus. But there’s much more smoke and many more mirrors in publishing today than ever before. And it's all done so cleverly that most punters don't even begin to suspect.

Back to book reviews. The most valuable notice a book can have is a full page review in an upmarket newspaper, in which a respected critic says . . . No it isn't! May Fool! In the UK at present, it's a mention on Richard & Judy’s ultra-popular TV show. But anybody who thinks that the books featured on R&J are chosen by R&J is too naive to live. Nay more, anyone who thinks that those books are at least chosen by someone of impeccable and incorruptible literary taste should at least be considered for merciful release from this life.

Now please understand. I don't mean that every book ever recommended on R&J is there only because the publisher paid someone a gigantic bribe. But the fact is that horse-trading goes on, favours are distributed, debts are called in, and . . . and so on. The truth is that you don't have the first idea if R or J liked the book they're talking about, or even if they've read it. In fact, they almost certainly haven't, because they just wouldn't have time.

Which brings us to the Man Booker (formerly the Booker Prize). In theory, the judges all read every page of more than a hundred longlisted novels before deciding on the shortlist. Do they hell. As The Scotsman amongst others reported a couple of years back, it’s just too much to expect. (For what it’s worth, I would have been astonished to learn that they really did read them all, but so widespread was the myth that its explosion caused something of a scandal.)

Anyway, book prize judging is a special case because of the sheer volume of reading required. You can at least be sure that literary critics have always read the books they review . . . No you can't. I recall some years ago that the late (indeed, very late) Bernard Levin, reviewing Simon Schama's Citizens, his history of the French Revolution, begged readers to accept that he really had read the whole thing. Now why do you suppose he felt he had to make a point of it?

Then there's the little matter of those rave review quotes that appear on the back cover of a book, and make you think you just have to read it. If you happened to miss that little scandal when it broke three years ago, catch up on it now.

You really do have to be careful. If you want to be sure that a book recommendation is straightforward and unbiased, the only thing you can really trust is booksellers’ recommendations . . . Except that you can’t, as the pseudonymous Chris Lewis told us in a Spectator article back in 2001. And if you can’t be bothered following the link, here’s the opening: ‘There is a universal assumption that people who work in the book trade are learned, benign and eager to improve our minds. That is why they are able to rip us off so easily.’

I’m not saying that you can never trust reviews or supposedly independent recommendations. I’m only prescribing a healthy dose of scepticism.