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The Crises in Book Reviews

The following is the text of a keynote address I gave at the Day Eight arts journalism conference entitled “The Crisis in Book Review.”


Thank you. I’m delighted to be here, and also very honored to be following three people whose achievements and intellect I admire so much.

The premise of this event we’re all enjoying here is that the book review is facing a crisis, and I have to make a confession. My original response when I was invited to deliver this keynote was “Only one crisis?” And then a few seconds later, I was like “I wonder which one they mean?”

Now, I honestly can’t help my cynicism here. I’m Gen X, and we’re cynical about pretty much everything. I do of course understand that the crisis in question here is that there aren’t enough book reviews to go around for all the new books the world is making… but I get very suspicious whenever anybody invokes the idea of scarcity.

I’m not sure that I actually believe in scarcity. I mean, yes, of course, sometimes, resources are in real terms genuinely scarce. But I’m not sure scarcity is a naturally-occurring phenomenon. Usually, when you take a closer look, you figure out that scarcity is actually artificial. Manufactured by people in power. People who don’t experience scarcity because they have all the resources they need.

People in power create scarcity for others as a way of maintaining that power. They create scarcity, hide their responsibility for it, encourage the rest of the world to compete for the few scraps they do provide, and then they blame the people who lose that competition for not having enough strength to win it.

Meanwhile, while most of us scrap for resources, spending our wild and precious lives trying to defeat each other, we don’t notice the people in power rolling around on great heaps of gold coins like greedy dragons. They‘re, like, right there. They aren’t hiding. We’re all just too distracted by hunger to see them.

Most of the time. Today, right now, could be different. Because we have all laid down our arms for a while to be together in peace. And I want to use this moment to ask what I think are the real questions:

  • Who are these people in power?
  • Why do they benefit from book review scarcity?
  • How can we screw our collective courage to the sticking place, to borrow from Shakespeare, and take back our power?

 

To answer those questions, though, I think we need to start by thinking about how books actually work and why we review them. Or really, why we like to talk about them at all.

Before we could make books, we humans really had a limited set of tools for propagating ideas. You could write things on paper or parchment and pass them around, or even make copies by hand. You could compose songs and teach people to sing them over and over again. You get the gist.

Mostly, though, if you had an idea, you told people, and they told people, and so on, and so on, and in all that telling, the idea changed, sometimes pretty rapidly. Like a big game of telephone. Remember telephone? The idea evolved. People made the idea their own. If you were the person who had the original idea, you didn’t have very much control over what happened to it. It very quickly didn’t belong to you. It belonged to everyone.

Then came books. With a book, you write down one very big idea, make multiple copies of it, and then send those exact replicas of the original idea out into the world. Books gave idea-makers more control. Books are one voice amplified; before books, we had multiple voices collaborating.

That’s why all the first books were really big ones. Particularly religious books, authorized by big institutions that really wanted control over ideas.

Almost as soon as there were books, though, there were book reviews. The earliest book reviews, to my mind, were marginalia. If you owned a book, you could scribble your thoughts in the margins and then share that book with someone else, and that was a rudimentary book review.

Of course, printing books eventually got cheaper, and before long you didn’t need as much funding or the official approval of some august institution to publish one. You could even make a book to respond to a book, which of course people did. And in time there was just this great big mess of people everywhere trying to get their ideas—their fixed, not evolving, set in print ideas—to propagate the farthest. In other words, the publishing industry.

Remember that game of telephone, though? That impulse to receive an idea from one person, let it stew in your own mind, interact with your own thoughts, and then pass it on, slightly transformed, to another person? That never went away. That’s a normal human impulse. In fact, that’s actually how we get new ideas. And we desperately need new ideas all the time.

So how do books work? Well, they work, to my mind, by fixing ideas so that they propagate to as many minds as possible without evolving so much. And why do we review books or talk about books? We talk about books so that we can reclaim the ability for ideas to evolve.

Together—books on the one hand, and talking about books on the other—make up an idea ecosystem. Ideas live in that ecosystem.

Now… what do we know about healthy ecosystems? For one thing, they have to be diverse. Lots of species. This is critical. In our case, if there aren’t lots of different people making books AND lots of different people talking about books, the idea ecosystem isn’t healthy.

We also know that ecosystems have to remain in balance. In this case, we have to maintain a balance between books and talking about books. Between publishing and reviews, for the ecosystem to thrive.

We don’t have—let’s be clear—either diversity or balance right now. We’re in trouble. That’s the core crisis we’re facing. Our ecosystem is unhealthy. So… who poisoned it?

Who benefits from a world in which only a few ideas get to propagate? Who benefits from there being too few people to care for those ideas? To tend the ecosystem? Because that’s what the best reviewers do, isn’t it? They encounter ideas and then translate them for the benefit of others. Responding with their full humanity, contributing to the evolution of what they find. Who benefits when there aren’t enough different kinds of people to do that necessary work?

The answer, to me, is obvious. The people who benefit from letting a limited set of institutionally approved ideas dominate the ecosystem. The same kinds of people who benefit when we only grow one strain of corn or teach one version of American history or hold one set of beliefs.

They go by different names. The 1%. The Gatekeepers. The Rich and Powerful. But also… Dogmatists. Cult Leaders. Dictators. Fascists. Propagandists. Even, dare I say it, Constitutional Originalists. I like to shorten that list to the Dogmatic 1%. That’s who benefits from an unhealthy idea ecosystem. The Dogmatic 1%. People who want to control the flow of ideas and profit from them.

So let me go back now to those three questions I started with:

First, who are the people in power creating a scarcity of book reviews? Answer: the Dogmatic 1%. The people who profit from controlling ideas.

Second, why do they benefit from there being too few book reviews? Because that way, we don’t have enough people to tend our idea ecosystem and help wild new ideas flourish.

And third, what do we do about it? THAT is the most important question: what do we do about it?

Well, let’s start with what we DON’T do about it: we do not sit around waiting for the Dogmatic 1% to solve the very problem they created. The for-profit institutions that could afford to pay people to write more book reviews aren’t going to just magically do it. Even if we really bug them about it. Because it’s not in their interest.

The unavoidable truth is that we’re going to have to solve this problem ourselves. But the really good news, I believe, is that we already have everything we need to do it.

The internet has made it easier than at any point in human history to seize the means of cultural production. Every single one of us can read a book, write a review of that book, and then publish that review instantly. Think about how amazing that is from the perspective of the first people who ever published anything. It’s absolutely miraculous.

Now, is every single one of us, say, Ron Charles? No. Decidedly not. Does every single one of us have a lifetime of reading and study and practice and the ability to translate ideas like he does? No. Very few of us do. But do we all therefore have NO role to play in that part of the idea ecosystem? Of course not.

This is why we live in a world full of Bookstagramers and BookTokers. This is why we have book clubs and reading groups. Because WE ARE the very thing we are looking for. We are the thing we think is scarce.

In other words, we need to solve the problem of book review scarcity partly by defining it away. We need to realize that there are plenty of people talking about books. They just aren’t all doing it on the officially sanctioned platforms of the Dogmatic 1%.

Maybe we need to do a little navel-gazing and ask ourselves why those platforms are so important to us? What have we all invested in the notion that the interlocutors on those platforms are the ones we value the most? We’re all here because we’re saying we want to change the book review world, but perhaps—to borrow from The Beatles this time—we need to free our minds instead.

But here’s the even bigger vision I want to leave you with: perhaps we need our own platform. The People’s Platform. A neutral, non-profit space—not owned by any publishers—on which people can share their thoughts about books.

Imagine a platform on which writers could welcome reviews of their work from the Vox Populi and, if they choose, share the reviews they value. A platform on which all writers and readers, not just a select few, might be heard. On which all of our voices, collectively, could become loud. A Vox Amplify, perhaps. A platform independent of the influence of the Dogmatic 1%.

Imagine a platform for ideas in conversation, evolving, becoming new ideas. Some of which we desperately need.

And if you don’t think it’s possible, I just want to ask you to ask yourself: why do you think that? Are you a cynical Gen Xer, like me? Or has something more sinister worked its way inside your mind? Some poison idea that feels like—maybe, a little—like being afraid of the Dogmatic 1%? I would call that idea a weed in our ecosystem. And I would suggest we pluck it out.

Thank you.

Gwydion Suilebhan is a writer, arts advocate, and arts and technology innovator.