A thriller in ten chapters

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10 Chapters

An interesting and thought-provoking look back over the last decade by Robert McCrum who was The Observer's literary editor during that period.


When I joined The Observer in 1996, the world of books was in limbo between hot metal and cool word processing, but it would have been recognisable to many of our past contributors, from George Orwell and Cyril Connolly, to Anthony Burgess and Clive James. Everything smelled of the lamp. It was a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink. Our distinguished critic George Steiner used to submit his copy in annotated typescript.

Now that world is more or less extinct...

Certainly things have changed a lot since I founded ACHUKA in the summer of 1997. Then very few publishers had their own websites and only a handful of publicity departments were using email. McCrum chooses 1997 as the start of the new era because it was the year New Labour came to power, 'the year Random House launched its website' and the year the first Harry Potter novel was published.

I think McCrum gets his chapter about J. K. Rowling a little wrong, but it is probably only those of us who were in the business of reviewing children's books at the time who really know the extent that Bloomsbury did indeed vigorously hype the first Harry Potter novel.

But for us the most interesting and thought-provoking chapter is Chapter 8 Blogs Vs Reviewing. McCrum describes how in America online reviewing is quickly killing off or severely shrinking the amount of print space accorded books in newspapers. Here in the UK the most noticeable sign that we are headed down the same route is what has happened to book reviewing in the TES, since Geraldine Brennan's departure as books editor last autumn. Brennan had a team of experienced, knowledgable reviewers. Children's books were accorded a decent amount of space (thanks to Brennan's stalwart defence of her corner) and new titles of note could be assured a review in the TES if not elsewhere. Now the reviews are written by any TES readers who volunteer, rather than by a team of tried, tested (and paid!) reviewers.

Some take a very positive view of this democratization of reviewing. McCrum is not one of them.

Now these book blogs - in Britain, for example, a highly responsible site like Vulpes Libris - could take over and hand the power back to - time honoured term - the Common Reader. My view is that the Common Reader generates more heat than light. On closer scrutiny, we find that this creature, as fabled as the hippogriff, is just as uncertain as everyone else. The equation of Amazon plus Microsoft has left the Common Reader dazed and confused.

What do YOU think?

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This page contains a single entry by achuka published on May 26, 2008 10:18 AM.

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