Chong rightly points out that newspaper books pages are thinning out under financial pressure on old media – but that doesn’t apply any obvious institutional pressure on individual reviews. If anything, the quasi-competition from “democratic” reviews on Amazon or Goodreads will tend to inspire print critics to be more rather than less rigorous. You can still find tough reviews if you care to seek them; and cautious flannel has always been with us. We keep on keeping on. And the best still have teeth.
Throughout this worthy book, Chong is just a little bit too reasonable to be taken seriously. In the same way that she can’t quite bring herself to name back-slapping and score-settling for what they are, she skirts over the many tricks of the reviewer’s trade. There is no mention, for instance, of the plagiarism (particularly plagiarism of the dust jacket) without which the literary pages of some newspapers would barely exist. And for all Chong’s gloom and doom, the fact remains that many more people read a review of a new release than will ever read the book itself.
I may be a shallow fellow, but I’ve never worried about what Chong clumsily describes as the “lack of groupness” among reviewers. Who cares that no certificates of “accreditation” enrol us in “the institution of literary criticism” or that we “inhabit nonprofessional spaces”? I also hadn’t realised that I was supposed to function as a “market intermediary” or – with luck – as a “cultural consecrator”. And none of the eight successive Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to “enact their duties”, which would have sounded unusually bossy.