Many years ago (it was 23rd April 2007), someone masquerading as me wrote an article for The Guardian which, aside from the first paragraph – which has always seemed to me a trifle awkward (I have long since banned the use of italics, as the desperation of an incompetent stylist) – actually is not too embarrassingly written (I wonder where I got the phrase “Bergsonian sensitivity to the intricacies of individual consciousness” from?).
The point of the article was that I’ve always found newspaper reviews for books to be written from the point of view of someone with no literary discrimination whatever, and therefore useless and misleading for a boy in the process of discovering literature; that indeed my own discovery of literature has been almost entirely based on wholly ignoring newspaper reviews. One thing that perhaps I didn’t get across sufficiently was how the internet has aided this discovery: in particular how it’s led me to so many authors, famous in their countries (and often South American), whom I’d never heard of before and who, I’m prepared to hazard, have never been mentioned in newspapers in this country in my lifetime.
Amazon – I must confess – has been a great help in this. But not perhaps in the dichotomic way that newspapers like to believe.
A few of us have been reading articles recently which comment on the threat posed to newspaper reviews by the internet (which is, of course, merely a small grain of sand in the greater debate on the threat posed to newspapers by the internet), and we may have noticed this dichotomy (it has, after all, been repeated in every single newspaper article on the subject in the last five years): that there are professionally written newspapers reviews, and then there’s people’s opinions of books stuck up on Amazon: – and perhaps we’d felt a little bit aggrieved; because for all our own efforts – for all this time each of us has wasted here – there’s seemingly nothing else.
This was where I intended to put my reference to Kang and Kodos, and where I find myself piping up – as I often do – as the man who declares, “I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate” – and who for his folly is roundly laughed at by all.
As someone who’s never taken “professional” book reviews seriously, why would I turn instead to the “amateur” reviews on Amazon? As so often in the contemporary world of literary talk, I see no difference where people are trying to stake a claim for there being every difference. It is all useless to my purpose. No, where Amazon has come in useful in my discovery of literature, is that I can actually obtain these books by writers no one’s heard of – which were published probably back in the 60s and 70s, perhaps by the presses of American Universities – for surprisingly little cost.
But I have to note too that Amazon (and its recent subsidiary, Goodreads) do not constitute the whole of the literary internet. There is a world outside either newspapers reviews and the webpages of Amazon, a world full of the most startling variety, a flourishing of literary opinion on a scale never before seen. It is true, like newspapers and Amazon, most of it is not to our taste: but where it differs is, that some of it is – and that some is all we need. We may been startled to come across that curious thing we’d never met before (not outside the real world of literature, at least): people whose opinions and tastes and ideas we find ourselves inclined to agree with, or at least to be not wholly and immediately contemptible. And if enough of these people congregate, a little world is formed, in which people can feel a fair degree of confidence in one another and guide one another towards the worthwhile – a world which, in its collective nature, can filter out the noise from the literary world, which is perhaps a hard if not impossible task for the individual – a world which, dare I say it, needs neither newspaper reviews nor Amazon. In my utopian vision, literary joy will in the future be passed along such tangled webs, like the fibre optics of the internet itself, pursuing in its course an endless winding trail of similar tastes and disbursing only happiness and gratification (in discrete packets) along with the occasional moment when we decide that other people’s tastes are, after all, sometimes completely unaccountable, all at the same time shielding us from the trauma of being misled about the worth of what is mediocre and absent of talent. Either that, or some corporate-dominated machine-written dystopia. Or some third thing which is neither of the other two.