The Democracy Of Books

“I’m of the opinion that authors should avoid reviewing books of their peers” Philip Kerr.


There’s been a nice wee authorial square-go erupted between our very own Philip Kerr and Allan Massie.  Its not quite the talk of The Scheme but Philip Kerr raises a fair point (above).  Should authors review their peers?

I can only speak for myself but Kerr’s is an approach I’ve stuck rigidly to for the last 15 years, turning down every fiction/poetry review job I’ve ever been offered (except where I’ve already read the book and was keen to recommend it).

For that matter, I don’t write cover blurbs either. The Trainspotting one about ‘deserving to sell more copies than the bible’ was culled from a flyer I wrote back in 1993 and not offered as a blurb.  Nor do I ask for blurbs to be put on any of my own books. I like my book jackets to be aesthetically clean.  It’s a personal approach although it was an argument I didn’t win for the Rebel Inc titles when I joined forces with Canongate Books.

But as a general rule?  I’m not so sure.  Somebody has to critique new work.  New work often needs a wee shove.  But by whom?  Academics?  Poorly qualified bores?  Paid hacks with axes to grind?  Mates of the author?

If a new movie comes out I make a rule of never reading any reviews before seeing it.  I’ll clock the marks out of five if the review is written by a critic whose taste in films I respect but that’s as far as it goes.  In cinemas I shut my eyes and always put my headphones on during the Coming Soon trailers.  Like reviews these trailers are spoilers.  They give away the best lines and take away the element of surprise.  Why??  Surprise is essential to the enjoyment of any cultural product.

On the other hand I often do a quick check on the Rotten Tomato-o-meter and the iMDB ratings if I know little or nothing about the film.  These websites tend to provide useful democratically weighted endorsements which aren’t skewed by commercial success or marketing hype.

I’m not sure if this aggregated approach would work so well for poetry and fiction since a book’s readership, especially at the beginning, is often quite small and the results could easily be manipulated by unscrupulous authors or overzealous publishers.  (I’m pretty sure that happens on Amazon but can’t prove it so don’t sue me.)

But the one thing I learnt from my years in publishing is that reviews don’t sell books no matter how good they are.  The only real value of reviews (to publishers) is for extracting blurb quotes for paperback editions.  So perhaps Philip Kerr is making a fuss over nothing.

When you get down to it the only thing that really matters to a book – beyond decent distribution which is another matter – is word of mouth recommendations.  That’s both the beauty and democracy of literature.  At the end of a long and arduous day we’re a community of equals.  Passing on book recommendations is always a pleasure and never a chore.

The internet is perfect for this.  Much more so than mainstream magazines and newspapers.  There are loads of great literature and poetry webzines knocking about.  The fun is finding them.  Usually, again, by word of mouth recommendation.  Or, as creative play would have it, by chance.

The book as cultural artefact needs no supplementary equipment.  No add-ons.  No annual upgrades.  Books  ask only for concentration.  For reflection.  For time. They repay the effort by encouraging imagination, context and ideas in a social and cultural landscape that is increasingly conformist, fragmented and decontextualised.

Maybe that’s just one reason why – in an age of social control-freakery, vacuous soundbites, and gawping passively at so-called reality TV – books are still potentially dangerous and subversive.   I like to think so.

Bella Caledonia is now officially open for peer-to-peer reviews of books that need an audience.  Get in touch.

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  1. milgram says:

    “New work often needs a wee shove. But by whom? ”

    Librarians! I’ve been getting my recent reading by picking up the highlighted stuff at my local library and it’s working very well. Authors I’ve never heard of but uniformly high quality.

    (Doesn’t help sales though, unless I decide that it’s a book worth re-reading…)

  2. Kevin W says:

    Aye, librarians, deserve a mention! I know there’s public libraries in Edinburgh – and not forgetting the staff at Scottish Poetry Library too – who do a lot more than just stamp books. And you trust them more too because there’s no motivation of commerce involved.

    Unlike, say, Waterstones who simply charge publishers a wedge of cash for their titles to be included in their “Waterstones Book Of The Month” selection. I was a bit peeved when I first learned about this racket (many years ago when I was working at Canongate). Thought it was a con trick on the customers.

  3. naldo says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the blurbs on Alasdair Gray’s book covers.

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