Books, Venue

The unstable future of book reviews

Sometimes dealing with the fallout of the Coronavirus feels like tackling a hydra; when one issue seems to be resolved, two more grow in its place. A significant blow to the economy has seen a disastrous domino effect, wherein cuts to the most “unnecessary” sectors have been made through practical, economic reasoning. Formal book reviews don’t put food on people’s plates or generate medical breakthroughs, so, unfortunately, they have to go.

The Guardian, one of the UK’s most popular newspapers, announced on the 15th July that they planned to close their Saturday Reviews section, with Travel Saturday, Review, The Weekend, and The Guide possibly not far behind due to cuts to nearly 200 jobs at the newspaper. With so much of the future lost to the uncertainty of a pandemic-stricken world, there’s no telling when a “normal” arts and media industry will return, or if “normal” is at all possible still. On top of that; if one of the UK’s media powerhouses are ceding defeat to economic losses, what hope do smaller organisations have?

Reading is an inherently unsocial hobby, which is why book reviews are such an important factor in keeping it alive. A review can make or break a book. A four-star rating instead of a three-and-a-half-star rating can make a world of difference. As readers, we are incredibly perceptive to opinions. It’s all well and good reading the blurb of a book climbing its way up the bestsellers list, but without an enthusiastic journalist lauding it in a neatly packaged quote on the front cover, how convinced are we? We are drawn in by affirmative descriptors like “Excellent”, “Magnificent”, and “Masterpiece” – as stubborn as we are about spoilers, we do want to know what a book is about, how well it’s done, and how it will settle with us personally.

The Internet is, perhaps, our saving grace. Free databases like Goodreads hold a catalogue of over 12 million books, rated and reviewed by ordinary people with an interest in reading. Independently-run blogs dedicated to posting in-depth commentary on favourite and least-favourite books can be circulated with the click of a button. It’s never been easier to review a book however and whenever you want – it’s fast, easily shareable, and (most importantly) free. 

However, for those who aren’t well-versed in the ins and outs of the Internet (I am thinking, mostly, about aging newspaper readers), this is a difficult option. Word-of-mouth is an ancient, tried and tested alternative method. The power of small talk can be extraordinary, but when only 51% of UK adults surveyed read a book in 2018, how much can we rely on each other to keep reading afloat? Formal book reviews from trusted sources like The Guardian offer the public a stable, steady source of literature recommendations. Without that recurring stability, the reliability of book reviews could take a nosedive into messy confusion. 

The future of book reviews, wherein physical publications seem to be slowly losing grip on keeping them afloat, is undetermined. However, while there are still readers in the world, there are still thoughts to share. With an unlimited arsenal at the hands of the Internet, combined with the nation being trapped indoors for months, we could potentially see a final shift into a primarily-digital review community, upheld by people with a computer and an opinion. It isn’t stable, nor is it entirely accessible by those who prefer to feel paper under their fingers; but in the face of looming threat to a joyous community of sharing, exulting, and opening up on the impact of a book, there may be little other choice.

A petition calling to save The Guardian’s Saturday Reviews and subsequent sections can be found here: 

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Ally Fowler

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September 2021
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