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Cheers to the Gatekeepers

August 31, 2011

Short post today, since–well, New York!  And hurricanes.  Let’s not forget the hurricane.  (Which was fine, as it turns out, but a bit of an unnerving welcome to the city.)

I came across this National Book Critics Circle blog post from last week, which in turn links to a great article on the state of book reviews at Poets & Writers.  The long and short of both commentaries is–unsurprisingly, perhaps, given their rather industry-centric sources–that professional book reviewing is far from dead.

More power to it, I think.  People often go on about the democratic nature of the Internet as a medium.  Down with the gatekeepers of popular culture!  Let ordinary people, rather than big media outlets, publishers, or production companies, decide what’s worth watching/reading/paying its 15 microseconds’ worth of attention.  Now, I do admire some of the democratically-oriented self-publishing potential of the Web (I’d have a hard time justifying this blog if I didn’t).  But as for the ability of the great mass of Internet commenters, reviewers, and bloggers to guide me toward good reading material any better, any more authentically, any more sincerely than the New York Times book review…

Let’s just say that, even skimming away the worst of forum flame-wars and the YouTube comments that make me despair for the state of humanity, I’m skeptical.  Things like Amazon’s Vine program and other reviewing incentives lead me to distrust even the supposedly “democratic” nature of some customer/blogger/average-Joe reviews.

At Critical Mass, Mark Athitakis picks out this point from Ciabattari’s P&W article: “The book reviewing long tail is daunting.  Whom do you trust to help you decide what to read next? Despite the flood of friendly recommendations coming from Amazon and the social-networking sites, many readers still turn to familiar gatekeepers for curatorial guidance.”

Book reviews, and indeed any kind of reviewing that finds itself migrating more and more onto the Web, face not a dearth of interest or readership, but a problem of accessibility.  Too much critical input from too many sources is just as bad as none at all.  In the case of movie reviews, friends of mine long ago pointed out tools like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes that do the work of sorting through that big aggregate swamp for you, and delivering some kind of consensus snapshot from a variety of sources.

What I appreciate most about Ciabattari’s take on the book-reviewing landscape is her point about accessibility.  It’s not that the gatekeepers are dead or dying; it’s not that we don’t need or want them anymore.  Far from it.  It’s that their nature has changed somewhat.  They’ve become more accessible, and in so doing have begun to combat their own (perceived) loss of relevance.  We still want gatekeepers in some cases; they just need to stay easy to find.  Ciabattari notes that the once-industry-only Publishers Weekly has lately expanded its audience beyond publishing professionals and writers, thanks to the Internet.  Elsewhere, she remarks, professional review sources “incorporate the reader-friendly approach and informal language of the Internet, and some have hired literary bloggers or use them regularly as freelancers.”

So three cheers for professional reviewers.  We don’t have to agree with them, but when we’re searching for something new and vibrant–and not necessarily “popular”–to read, we’ll still know where to start looking.

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