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Starter of conversations, killer of poets

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Samuel_Johnson_NYT.jpgPublisher's Weekly recently hosted a panel as part of its "Think Future: What's Next in Publishing" discussion series on the question of "Will Book Reviews Still Matter?"    

I didn't attend the event, and I don't know what was said, but a fair guess is that the discussion, like the animating question, was of a piece with other expressions of the massive insecurity in the industry right now: will people read books in the future?  Will book stores continue to exist?

Not being one who views change as synonymous with annihilation, I am comfortable projecting the continued existence both of books and book stores.  My relaxed optimism extends with even more confidence to book reviews - though I might wish it to be otherwise.  Here's why:

Short of folks stuck in ski chalets during blizzards who are driven by boredom to peruse the only book on hand, people's choices in reading materials are rarely random.  They're usually guided by some previous knowledge about the book.  Their friend recommended it.  They've heard good things about the author.  The book got good reviews.

Although a friend's recommendation, or a prior positive experience with the author's work, will likely remain more influential than reviews are to an individual's purchasing decision, reviews are nonetheless likely to continue to be important for sales.  Reviews start a public conversation about a book, as well as setting the agenda for that conversation, and such conversations prime an audience's appetite for the book.    

Conversation, whether in meat-space, virtual space or mental space, is vital for any book marketing effort because conversation is the social corollary to the private act of reading.  Most of us are social animals and most of us, therefore, want to talk about what we read.  In communities with a relatively high level of literary output, but without apparatus for sparking public conversation about books - for example, in Nairobi, where I've never seen a single book review, bookstores lack the space to accommodate book readings and the Internet hasn't picked up the slack - books don't sell.

So conversation is necessary.  And, though any glance at the line-up of television pundits might lead one to another conclusion, conversation (even in America, even today) is a skill.  Good conversationalists have thought-provoking, witty and passionate things to say.  Poor conversationalists - which includes most of us at some moment or another - can nonetheless function tolerably if they have the decency to quote (with or without attribution) that which they've heard good conversationalists articulate.

Reviewers, if they excel at their jobs, are good conversationalists who provide book-meat to the public for roasting, mastication and regurgitation.  Reviewers thus serve a critical social function that will in some form transcend the rapid (and foolish, in my opinion) disappearance of book review sections in newspapers.

The question to my mind, therefore, is not, "Will Book Reviews Still Matter?" but "What are the media platforms from which book reviews will be disseminated?"  

If the answer is (as it likely will be), "the Internet," then we will probably see a similar pattern to that which has emerged elsewhere online: faced with overwhelming choice and no editorial filter, netizens will default to trusted familiar voices.  We will see, not a diminution in the importance of book reviews for book sales, but an increase in the importance of certain online reviewers' opinions about books.

And as anyone with even passing familiarity with Lord Byron's poem "Who Kill'd John Keats?" knows, concentration of the critics' power is never a positive development.   

(Image of Dr. Samuel Johnson, in Harold Bloom's words, "the most eminent of all literary critics," from The New York Times)  

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Who Kill'd John Keats? category.

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