Enough people can’t be talking about this years Man Booker Prize, which is the only reason I can think of as to why Sir Peter Stothard has said:

“Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition,” the former editor of The Times says. “It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”

The bionic book worm

I think this comment by Becca Allen sums it up:

Stothard’s quote “Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same” smacks of “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, doesn’t it?


To me it seems that Stothard is basically bemoaning that the people who he considers to be ‘critics’ aren’t getting the outside validation that he thinks they should instead that authority is shifting.

“Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”

I wonder which readers he’s standing up for? Oh I see, readers who like their reading to bore them to tears:

“Yet, If the English novel does nothing to renew the English language, then it really doesn’t do anything. The great works of art have to renew the language in which they’re written. They have to offer a degree of resistance.”

I’d say Hilary Mantel’s odds of winning the Booker just decreased then.

There are so many ways to counter his argument but I’ll just chuck in a couple:

Weird Council: an International Conference on the Writing of China Miéville

After reading Mieville’s writing for several years I can see how and why China would be worthy of a conference critiquing his work. I wonder if Stothard would judge him worthy? Not that it matters if he does because Mieville’s work is being considered in a serious and academic way something that would be unlikely to have happened without a widening of literary exploration.

The Mookse and the Gripes Forum – Man Booker Prize Thread

Last year the Man Booker Official site had a forum and this year it doesn’t but again there are corners of the internet where engaged and intelligent readers gather to discuss this years long and short lists. Is this somewhere Stothard would consider hanging out?

By Stothard lumping all the people who use blogs to talk about books together ultimately he shows that he really is an outsider to the new and exciting conversation that is going on between so many readers who meet and diverge over completely unexpected books.

But that’s his loss; it really is.

8 Thoughts on “Man Booker: Back to Elitism Then

  1. So everyone’s opinion is worth exactly the same?

    • Gav Reads on 25 September, 2012 at 8:39 pm said:

      I just think he’s missing out on conversations that he could otherwise enjoy.

      • Fair enough (and I bet he does actually read and enjoy blog posts) but that is an unrelated issue. “Some animals are more equal than others” is a satire on the way rigid dogmas can warped noble intentions; it has nothing to do with the common sense observation that “not everyone’s opinion is worth the same”. So it seems strange to pull that quote out as summing up the issue since Allen is unwittingly proving Stothard’s point that some readers are better than others.

        • Gav Reads on 25 September, 2012 at 9:42 pm said:

          You’re completely right. Allen does. And they are. I do say ‘authority is shifting’ not that everyone is equal. For me he’s standing up for the his image of ‘a reader’ who share his view of the written word. I’m just having problems imaging those sort of readers.

  2. Not everyone’s opinion carries the same weight with me personally. Mr Stothard’s carries none for me, I wasn’t really aware of him until yesterday and now he has lost all hope of ever recommending a book to me. The opinion I value are of readers who I have folloowed over time and got to know what they like or don’t like and if we have similar tastes. There are some people who have the complete opposite taste to me that I still pay attention to because it will steer me in the right direction.

    It’s not the opinion or criticism parts I really have a problem with. It’s his accusation that we’re ruining literature, I don’t think he can apologise enough for that.

  3. Great to see you blogging about this! I’ve written about this over at my own blog, and largely share your thoughts. Stothard’s strange binary that separates ‘criticism’ from ‘opinion’ (as if literary goodness is some objective quality that only critics are specially placed and privileged to recognise) is just shockingly, disgustingly wrong. His argument isn’t so much concerned with insight, critical faculty or theoretical learned-ness as much as it is with supercilious pretensions to intellectual privilege.

    The fact that so many people are turning to blogs to find their book reviews/recommendations demonstrates how culturally significant blogging has become.

  4. I both agree with you and disagree with you.

    My issue is how do you parse where good criticism begins and the dreck ends. If you hunt around the interweb you’ll likely drown in a sea of enthusiastic praise for really sub-standard books.

    There are reasons why I appreciate Michiko Kakutani, Northrup Frye, or even Harold Bloom. These are (or were) people who spent their lives looking at books in a hyper-critical manner, while developing extremely thorough methodologies regarding their likes and dislikes. They might be snobbish. They might be elitist. But they are opinions worth having.

    I suspect that, at heart, the issue that you are struggling with is that criticism comes in different forms, with inherently distinct purposes.

    – There is criticism that is fake and exists purely a shill to sell something.
    – There is the kind of bumbling amateur criticism that exists on Amazon
    – Criticism from someone knowledgeable which exists to a) share the good stuff they’ve found, and b) pan the bad stuff they’ve suffered
    – Critical examinations of artistic expression based on rigid politicized thought (Marxist, Capitalist, Gender, etc…)
    – Criticism looking at purely formalist qualities. The ideas, the writing, etc…

    The thing I keep in mind is that all criticism is purely someone’s opinion. That there are famous cases of really well known critics getting “it” completely wrong. And that even if someone sets themselves up as being a snooty formalist know-it-all, that doesn’t mean they actually are any good at it. Or know anything. Or even if they are and do, that I have to respect what they say.

    P.S. I only stopped by your blog to say that I wrote a response (well it isn’t exactly since I was responding to a hell of a lot of other comments and blogs at the same time) to your semi-viral rant about self-publishing. http://bit.ly/SpMKS8

  5. Stothard’s comments made me so angry. Yes, there are different “types” of book reviews, but to suggest that only one type is worth having is monstrously snobbish, not to mention egotistical. I think book blogging is wonderful for publishers because newspapers and literary journals tend to be very limited in what books they review, both in number and in genre/style. Having other avenues out there for book reviews allows many many more books to be talked about/critiqued.

    I think it’s also worth saying that while there are some “traditional” sources that I find useful, there are plenty more that I find completely useless. Those two-sentence plot summaries some newspapers have as an excuse for a short review? That’s not a review! And there are plenty of book bloggers out there with literature degrees who can critique the hell out of a book. Seeing as half of the print reviews I see are actually written by authors who are trying to increase their own visibility and don’t have any background in literary criticism, really their only advantage is that a major media player gave them legitimacy.

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