Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why read book reviews?

Scott Pack responds at length to Rachel Cooke's bizarre (if predictable) avoidance of the genuine literary blogosphere by turning to his real complaint about broadsheet book coverage: My moan is that they review too many books that no one really wants to read.

As Waterstone's former book buyer, that's what interests him, and many others apparently. And while I too don't want to read most books reviewed in newspapers, that's mainly why I read them.

I open those precious few pages to see what I might be missing. Otherwise, how do I find out about books I might otherwise ignore? It's something the self-satisfied populists might do well to learn. Of course one must learn to filter. Rather than rushing for the latest Booker winner and assume that stands for literary fiction (it doesn't), one reads between the lines to see if it presses those obscure buttons. Even a negative review can now excite my interest.

A positive example was in the TLS this week. It has a full page review by Mark Crees of a novel by the late Anna Kavan. I'd only vaguely heard of her before but the review suggests her novels might be worth seeking out. Where would I have discovered this in Scott Pack's reader's republic? The latest mercenary populist publication can surely look after itself. Book reviews should be there to induct a work into the whole of literature, not to provide uniformed assistance toward the 3 for 2 stalls.


  1. Anonymous5:35 pm

    Hello. I don't think we disagree on this subject really. As I state on the blog post you kindly link to:

    For the record, I enjoy newspaper reviews. I find them entertaining and informative. There are many critics whose recommendations will prompt me to look at a book I may otherwise have missed. I can say the same thing about many regular Amazon reviewers as well as online contributors such as John Self at Palimpsest, Dovegreyreader and others. They are all part of the critical mix that I, as an avid reader, dip into to learn more about the books that are out there.

  2. The growing anxiety of the corporate media about bloggers is quite revealing, I think. Possibly in part because it has commercial implications. Most of the time I now prefer to get my news, political analysis and book reviews from bloggers, not from newspapers. I used dutifully to buy the Guardian or the Independent every day of the week, now I just buy the Guardian on Saturdays and that’s it. I don’t need them.

    As my local library service has been annihilated by Blairism I now have to buy virtually all the books I want to read. And these I now get mainly from second hand shops (which is where you are most likely to find the fiction of Anna Kavan).

    My local Waterstones has not stocked a single Saul Bellow title for many a long year. I thought when he died they might see a smart commercial opportunity. Not so. In fact I am always driven to a frenzy by book recommendations on blogs, because Waterstones never stocks the titles. I spend a lot more money in the dedicated Oxfam bookshops than I ever do in corporate bookshops. For new books I mostly shop at Amazon or

    But Steve, don’t get too excited by the thought of Kavan’s Ice. I think by your rigorous standards the book will disappoint you. She was massively influenced by Kafka but never really absorbed the influence sufficiently to detach herself from it. I like her fiction (see this post) but she’s not remotely in the same league as Bernhard or Handke.

  3. Anonymous10:08 am

    The problem is that if she'd acknowledged some of the more erudite commentary on the net from here and RSB then her article would have lost 50% of its premise and 90% of its vehemence. Maybe it's a sign of your successes that you're no longer considered part of the Pooter Brigade (given you and Mark have written for the TLS, I'd say so). I note she also didn't mention The Midnight Bell, that fine pricker of literary ego.

  4. Anonymous10:53 am

    I also like reading book reviews in newspapers and blogs of books I know I am not going to read, as life is too short and I already have about 300 in a physical TBR pile and in my Amazon "basket".

    But as Scott says, I do fairly often read books that I would not otherwise have read if it were not for a review (on a blog or newspaper or book magazine). This also applies to my children -- bit of a gap between the books that were around and one read when a child, and what is available today -- so the many excellent children's book blogs and newspaper reviews are useful.

    To Ellis: have you heard of the newish website by the UK independent booksellers? It is an aggregate website. Booksellers are signed up to it, you can search and order your book online and pick it up from your local bookshop (or they will mail it to you). One advantage is that if you have a query you can email or call your local bookshop and speak to a proper bookseller.
    Here is the link:
    And here is my post about it:
    Petrona article
    Hope the bookshops link is useful and reduces your frustration levels.

  5. Anonymous11:56 am

    In any case, Cooke's piece had absolutely nothing on the wit and verve contained in Steve Almond's attack on the litblogosphere a while back:

  6. Far more childish though.

  7. Anonymous9:43 pm

    I agree - a negative review, whether poorly done or well done, can easily excite as much interest as a well-done positive review. Not sure about the poorly done postive review, though...



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