Ten years : ten chapters

It’s extraordinary how much has changed in ten years.  I spent an engaging few minutes reading Robert McCrum’s last column as literary editor of the Observer, a position he’s held since 1997.   He sums up the changes he’s seen in 10 short chapters – but when you stop to think about them they’re really pretty epoch-making.  Have a quick read here and you’ll see what I mean. 

I love what he says about the Common Reader in Blogs vs Reviewing:

“If you believe, as I do, that Britain still sustains a vigorous and independent literary culture, look at America. The omens are not encouraging. American democratic instincts have transformed its literary landscape as surely as its colossal market has revolutionised bookselling. Anyone can review books – and now, in America, everyone does.

Book blogs such as emergingwriters.typepad.com, maudnewton.com and syntaxofthings.typepad.com now have such power and influence that a publisher’s editor in Manhattan is likely to advise a new novelist not that they will be reviewed in the New York Times but that they will be covered on curledup.com. This, according to Trish Todd of Simon & Schuster, ‘is the wave of the future’.

Occasionally, in the past year, this wave has threatened to sweep away many of the old landmarks on the coast of literature. In California, the LA Times merged its stand-alone book review section into a ‘comment’ supplement, while the San Francisco Chronicle’s book review shrank from six to four pages. But the news that hit the headlines and inspired widespread head-shaking was the decision by the Georgian daily newspaper Atlanta Journal-Constitution to abolish its books editor. Howls of pain reverberated across the States. The New York Times, which still publishes an excellent books section, noted mischievously that a certain Dan Wickett, a former quality-control manager for a car-parts manufacturer, was now singlehandedly writing ‘half as many reviews as appeared in all of the books pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’.

Readers had been posting reviews on Amazon for year. 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.”

 And, by the way, Vulpes Libris is a really excellent site.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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