The reviewing of books has never been a pure expression of impartial judgement, as some may imagine it was in the past.
The literary critics of an earlier generation, however, had a power of influence founded on integrity of viewpoint. It was this that made readers turn to see what they had to say in their weekly book columns and helped to sell the papers for which they wrote.
A lot has always depended on personal contacts, the whims of a moment, favours to return or scores to settle, but the literary pages of those times had a generous spread. There was an openness to fresh talent, and with it a sporting chance of new writers of non-fiction and fiction getting noticed.
How times have changed.
Under the influence of the internet, that sort of coverage for authors’ output has dwindled. The names of those eminent critics, figures like Cyril Connolly, Raymond Mortimer or Philip Hobsbawm, are almost forgotten.
Today the feeling is that anyone can write a review, while the book pages are controlled by literary editors who seem to live in a world of their own and exercise a discriminatory stranglehold over what they let past.
No wonder the internet has, in some aspects, become a new Wild West, and the Amazon website in particular a free for all, open to exploitation.
It comes as no surprise to find reports of writers protesting at a situation where mountebank reviews are being placed on Amazon by publishers to gain an advantage over their rivals.
The temptation is obvious. These purportedly independent assessments are likely to be read by thousands, unaware of how they are being hoodwinked into clinching a purchase. The scene has grown so commercial that some publicity agencies are charging up to to £5,000 to place a favourable ‘review’ that could never be called anything except a further piece of blurb writing.
The term ‘literary merit’ has become steadily less meaningful as a result. How is the integrity of anyone’s opinion to be relied on?
The situation has a curious parallel with that applied in the book chains, where shelf space and window position can all be bought by the big publishers owned by multinational conglomerates who have funds at their disposal that the independents can never match.
The value of a book, therefore, comes to lie in the amount of money its promoters are willing to throw at it to boost its sales, while exposure in the market place is denied to equally or more worthwhile titles. The end result is a cultural impoverishment and a limitation on the free circulation of information.
The abolition of price maintenance for books was intended to end restrictive practices, only apparently to introduce new ones that are far less transparent or honest.
Even worse in the Amazon case, it seems the same tactic of placing bogus opinions on the customer reviews section is now being exploited by authors, some of whom should know better, to pour scorn on books by their competitors.
In this way, everything is devalued in the end. What use is it to anyone to have a system open to the abuse of delivering peevish personal attacks?
When we look at the review pages of newspapers and magazines today we often see a similar picture. This world is now more than ever a forum of literary editors, where friends and colleagues compliment each other and enemies take revenge. The books themselves tend to receive scant attention. How many times have I read a review in a respectable newspaper where it is blatantly obvious that the reviewer read, at most, the first few pages before going on to compose a ‘critical’ assessment that shows they never bothered to check the validity of what they were writing?
And then there is the lethal weapon of ignoring a book altogether.
This is used either for political reasons, to suppress uncomfortable truths, or lest it might offend a certain powerful lobby with which the media organ is associated. It is appalling that, in a free society, we still practise methods that run contrary to the political and cultural freedoms that are the basic tenets of our democracy.
Wherever you read the book pages, you find them crammed with the same book being reviewed over and over. It strengthens the impression that the literary editors are a tight-knit fraternity like the Freemasons, whose purpose is to maintain a powerful hold on our literary output.
Thus the outsider has little chance of breaking into or joining the fold.
Naturally I have often felt aggrieved when a book of outstanding interest and merit is given hardly any mention at all. But the literary editors are the untouchables, the tsars of our cultural age. Their decisions on what books are or are not to be reviewed are sacrosanct, and as a result, small independent publishers suffer.
For commercial reasons, the literary editors are duty bound to favour the conglomerates.
During the course of my entire working life, pursuing various careers that have gone from banking to retailing, from fashion to films and theatre production, I can truthfully say that today’s literary tsars are the hardest to deal with that I have ever encountered.
Even when they do take the trouble to respond to your calls, they hide behind the eccentricities they assume as part of their image and refuse the basic civilities of communication.
They are a new breed in the media, which has contributed to the cult of celebrity and ‘reality entertainment’ by pampering to the triviality of interest these people evoke and closing the door on so much worthy talent that stands outside, striving to be recognised.
A few of the older generation of literary editors still remain, but with the passage of time their numbers are dwindling rapidly. I dread to think how it will be when the last vestiges of the old tradition of fairness have irrevocably disappeared.
Being an optimist by nature, I still have faith that this downward trend will be arrested as people realise that our cultural heritage is at risk, that the celebrity culture is bogus, and that they deserve something better.