Over at The Writing Factory, m’colleague has recently given the TV programme ‘Newsnight Review’ a damn good kicking, and whilst my own opinion on it is slightly less agitated (probably because it often features book reviews, and there are precious few places on TV one can find those), I think he touches on a very valid point (well, he’s been blogging for some years now; like the infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters trying to write Shakespeare, statistically it was inevitable at some point).
He refers to the fact that reviewers on such shows – and indeed in the book review sections of the used-to-be-broadsheet newspapers – often say “this is a tremendously important book” or words to that effect. Now, I think I know what they mean by this sort of thing – I’ve just this week finished reading a book* which satirises alarming aspects of modern life (such as the post-Diana hysteria, religious intolerance, politicians exploiting the mob mentality, and the general rise of superstition), and whilst there were several times when I actively thought ‘ooh, very astute’ when the author made a point which I thought was worth of proper rational debate in society at large, I can’t really see that happening. I rather suspect that the important points made in the book will be largely ignored or undiscussed (and not just because people won’t read the book in question; rational debate of too many issues seems to be sidelined in favour of high-volume or high-emotion one-sentence opinions nowadays, unfortunately). As the comedian Mark Thomas once said, if you make an argument on certain subjects, people seem almost chronically incapable of listening properly to what you’re saying: “If you say the words “legalise Cannabis” half the people don’t hear the words. They hear ‘Make heroin compulsory for 6 year olds’.”
Leaving aside this kind of ‘signal to noise’ problem in debate generally, I genuinely believe a lot of books which critics and professional reviewers proclaim as being ‘important’ have very little importance to the reading population at large. I don’t think I’d be saying anything too new if I was to suggest that as far as most people in the UK are concerned, the most important book of 2007 was the final Harry Potter novel. It sold well to a large group of people, many of whom were emotionally invested in the outcome of the series. And yet I suspect that many reviews stated that new books by, say, Martin Amis and Cormac McCarthy were important and vital books (not knocking Amis there – I quite like his stuff; McCarthy, however, leaves me cold and scratching my head in bewilderment at the fuss, like the book equivalent of the Arctic Monkeys).
And of course there’s a huge difference between important and popular – I can’t imagine that Cancer Ward or Invisible Man (the Ralph Ellison as opposed to the Wells version) were necessarily huge-sellers, but I think it’s fair to say that they’re important in social and political terms, though that might be more with the benefit of hindsight. Appropriately enough, Germaine Greer’s frequently on these review programmes, and there’s little doubt that The Female Eunuch was (and remains) an important book.
It’s hardly a new insight that there’s a disparity between what book critics and reviewers say and/or believe, and the opinions of the broad reading public, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between books which deal with important issues (such as those mentioned above) and books which are important to a lot of people, and those which critics feel are important – the latter, I’d argue, is more a kind of verbal shorthand for ‘a book which I feel deals with issues which should be more widely discussed’.
Yes, it is important that there are reasoned and detailed debates on all manner of subjects, but I think that for most people these ‘important books’ are often anything but. Which may be a pity, but more than anything else, I feel it demonstrates the gulf in understanding between professional critics and people who read books for entertainment, illumination, or even both.
Incidentally, I’m not dismissing the idea of books being important to people, not in the slightest; books have been very important to me for pretty much as long as I can remember, and have often served to make me think again on issues I felt I’d reached an opinion on, or to add to my depth of knowledge on subjects. I’d start listing them, but that’s not what this post is about – though I’ll wager you could think of at least one book which was or is important to you, couldn’t you? Feel free to post a comment sharing which book, and why…
*I’ll post the review in the next week or so.