The Booker chair's critical review

<p>It has long been a contention among some book bloggers that they owe their existence to the poor quality of newspaper reviews. If the reviews printed in our national newspapers better reflected what people actually read then there would be no need to seek out literary opinion in the blogosphere--they argue.<br />
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The bloggers now have a new champion in the shape of Sir Howard Davies, chairman of this year's Booker Prize judging committee. Speaking at the Booker ceremony, <a href="http://www.themanbookerprize.com/perspective/articles/1008">Davies said that too many reviewers adopted a reverential tone for books that barely deserved a review, let alone recommendation</a>. He also questioned what he called the &quot;sins of omission&quot; &ndash; books ignored by critics. &quot;I think a little more distance, and critical scepticism, is required by our reviewers, together with greater readiness to notice new names,&quot; he said.</p>
<p>In a 29-paragraph speech, Davies devoted just four paragraphs to the subject, however he was clearly aware that his words would not sit well with literary editors, &quot;I can even now hear the mouse clicks which will delete my details from the outlook contacts of literary editors all over London,&quot; he said. He was not wrong.<br />
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Robert McCrum, the Observer's literary editor, <a href="http://books.guardian.co.uk/manbooker2007/story/0,,2195896,00.html">called it &quot;one of the most embarrassing Booker speeches in living memory&quot;</a>. He also rounded on the prize, accusing it of being &quot;out of touch&quot; and in need of &quot;root-and-branch reform&quot;. &quot;It is amazing what one speech can do,&quot; he wrote unselfconsciously.<br />
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Nicholas Lezard, literary critic for the Guardian, <a href="http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/nicholas_lezard/2007/10/a_critical_i... it clear what he thought of Davies</a>: &quot;the 'Sir', incidentally, is for the glorified counting of beans, and is the product of a system that undergoes far less hostile scrutiny than that of the book critic&quot;. Before adding, &quot;it isn't nearly as big a problem as Sir Howard says it is&quot;.<br />
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Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times, wrote somewhat weakly: &quot;<a href="http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/... is very difficult, I have found over the years, to offer any coherent defence of how and why novels are reviewed. What a strange business!</a>&quot;<br />
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Only David Lister, writing in the Independent, <a href="http://arts.independent.co.uk/books/features/article3073461.ece">thought to engage with Davies' argument--or at least some of it:</a> &quot;There is an onus on the editors of literary journals and those who commission book reviews in newspapers to demonstrate to a wider public a proof of independence and rigour that will assuage any suspicions, however unfounded, of an old boys' network, or a publishers' cabal.&quot; Lister proposed three rules: the first is to have no reviewer reviewing a piece of work written by someone published by the same &quot;house&quot;; the second is to exclude reviewers who are friends or colleagues of the reviewed; the third is to prevent any writer reviewing a book by a writer who has reviewed a work by that self-same reviewer.</p>
<p>So far none of the responses have countered Davies second contention that the reviewers are simply reviewing the wrong books. Davies was merely reiterating an argument that has already been played out. <a href="http://meandmybigmouth.typepad.com/scottpack/2007/10/a-couple-of-yea.htm... than two years' ago Waterstone's former book buyer Scott Pack argued that the books that the broadsheets tended to review did not really reflect the books their readers actually read.</a> At least not as much as perhaps they should. Pack was making an industry point. Booksellers could not rely on the reviews to generate sales: &quot;literary editors are increasingly turning what should be a force for good in our industry into a complete waste of time&quot;.</p>
<p>Pack's point still holds two years on. Take this week's Observer, its lead review is taken up by a McCrum review of a history of the British Empire. Its second review is of Eric Clapton's <em>Autobiography</em>. It has one page on children's book, a side-column on Alan Greenspan's T<em>he Age of Turbulence</em>, and two-thirds of a page on paperbacks. Aside from the Clapton book--which has already charted--it is doubtful that any of the other 16 titles mentioned would trouble the book charts. As Pack writes in response to McCrum calling the Booker &quot;spectacularly out of touch&quot;:&nbsp; <a href="http://meandmybigmouth.typepad.com/scottpack/2007/10/pot-kettle-kett.htm..., Kettle. Kettle, Pot</a>.</p>
<p>What has happened over the past two years, is that review blogs, such as <a href="http://www.readysteadybook.com">readysteadybook.com</a>, <a href="http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com">dovegreyreader.typepad.com</a>, have grown in influence and are now as much part of the literary debate as newspaper review sections. If the US is anything to go by, then that influence is only set to grow--and <a href="http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2007/10/22/internet_off... the expense of newspaper review sections</a>.</p>
<p>The huffy responses of McCrum et al to the legitimate criticisms of a Booker judge suggest that there is little happening in the offices of our national newspapers to resist this virtual tide.</p>