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January 21st, 2013 / 6:29 pm
Behind the Scenes

Books or whatever

Orwell said, “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels’, which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology, are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” This, he says, is because novels are over hyped, due to the commercial aspects of book reviews:

On the face of it, the book-ramp is a quite simple and cynical swindle. Z writes a book which is published by Y and reviewed by X in the Weekly W. If the review is a bad one Y will remove his advertisement, so X has to hand out ‘unforgettable masterpiece’ or get the sack. Essentially that is the position, and novel reviewing has sunk to its present depth largely because every reviewer has some publisher of publishers twisting his tail by proxy.

This was 1936, before the WordPress “Publish” button, otherwise I think he would add to the equation a few other ulterior motives (which we’ve hauled out so much: writing reviews to climb the publishing ladder, writing reviews to boost our pals, to promote our own books or our reading series). Orwell does allow that there is no big conspiracy here, and the bigger problem is that people think all novels even deserve reviewing. In the essay, which is worth another look (turn on Clearly), Orwell talks a lot about blurbs, too, as part of the reason no one takes novels seriously anymore.

He overstates his case, of course, and 77 years later the novel is alive and well—at least among we literates. Set up an account at Zoosk, though, and try to find a match with an interest in books, and things are a bit different. How right was Orwell? Could his concern about reviews be extended to the surfeit of published books? More interesting question: is the recent “swarming” of that new Michael Jackson book, which haters killed with negative Amazon reviews, somehow a continuance of Orwellian fear?

In the comments, please discuss Clearly and Zoosk.

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