Publishing lecturer Adam Blades looks at how celebrity tastemakers are transforming what we read, and what this means for professional literary criticism.
Last week, Barack Obama released his annual summer reading list, receiving 250,000 Facebook reactions and 26,000 comments. The ex-president is certainly not the first public personality to tout their literary nous; everyone from Emma Watson to Kim Kardashian West has opened their bookshelves to the world. But how are these celebrity tastemakers transforming what we read, and what does it mean for professional literary criticism?
To answer this, we need to understand why these public personalities choose to share what they're reading. While all profess some form of altruistic mission, epitomised by Oprah Winfrey's desire to "get the whole country reading again", there are secondary benefits to having a successful book club.
1. Public perception
PewDiePie, a highly-popular YouTube creator who got his start over-reacting to scary video games, has since tried to distance himself from his past. By posting book reviews to his YouTube channel, he is attempting to adjust his public persona from immature, loud-mouthed gamer to intelligent and thoughtful cultural commentator. And it seems to be working:
This Youtuber who I used to watch because he screamed at barrels just lectured me on philosophy for 50 minutes.
- Top voted comment on PewDiePie's latest book-related video
Nonetheless, this kind of identity shift can be hard for audiences to swallow, especially for entrenched celebrity identities. Kim Kardashian West launched her book club in 2017, and received both support from fans ("Love that idea"), and derision from others ("You can read?"). Stevie Marsden speculates (in her 2018 study 'I didn't know you could read', Logos, 29(2-3), pp.64–79) that Kardashian West's book club was "part of her redemptive re-emergence into the public spotlight following the Paris attack [where Kim Kardashian was held hostage at gun point].” However the venture didn't get past the second book, and Marsden goes on to surmise that “few felt [Kardashian] had the relevant credentials or expertise to be a literary intermediary.” It takes a lot more than a book club to shift public perception apparently.
2. Social change
Emma Watson's feminist book club 'Our Shared Shelf', which has almost 250,000 members on Goodreads, is used to engage readers in issues around human rights and equality. Similarly, Jordan Peterson's list of recommended books inevitably reflects aspects of his ideology. Both reading lists act as extensions of the personality's world view, and work to bring social change via audience bookshelves.
3. Business opportunities
Starting as a curiosity, Reese Witherspoon's book club now reaches over 18 million Instagram followers every month, and is used in-part to feature books in which Witherspoon owns film rights. Thus she creates "the audience for her own movies before she even starts filming". While making possible films featuring strong female leads (Wild, Gone Girl), this business incentive undeniably influences the books Witherspoon chooses to feature.
With secondary motives underlying the stories promoted by these emerging literary intermediaries, what has happened to the art of objective literary critique, which demands “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument"? Is book culture being undermined?
On the contrary, literary critics have rarely been objective. From Edgar Allen Poe to Elizabeth Hardwick, all promote their own approach to book criticism, injecting biases and agendas into their work. In addition, a study from Harvard Business School concludes modern professional reviewers suffer from their own prejudices, being on average less favourable to first-time authors, and rating higher books that have already received media attention.
So maybe these new tastemakers aren't so different after all. They're just missing the flowery prose.
Adam Blades is a lecturer in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University.