Kathleen Hale’s recent Guardian article has generated a lot of commentary, most of it judgments of whether or not Hale was right to take the actions she chronicles. Somewhat overlooked in the general backlash, however, is a claim that a number of Guardian commenters (who seem to be neither bloggers nor people who utilize sites like Goodreads) are making: that in order to preserve the “integrity” of book reviews, only “qualified” people should be able to voice their opinions. None of these commenters, as far as I can tell from browsing, gave a workable definition of what people have legitimate “literary authority” (beyond implying that professional reviewers who work for places like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly do). If we work through the question, however, it becomes apparent that there really cannot be people who can judge books “correctly” and people who cannot.
Am I qualified to share my opinions on books?
If we accept for the moment that there is a hierarchy of literary authority, I want to point out right now that I am pretty high up it, so I can reassure anyone doubting the “validity” of my opinion that the rest of this post is worth reading. I have a BA in English literature, I am currently pursuing a PhD in English literature, I have experience interning in the book publishing industry (3 internships), and I have about three years of experience running this blog. If anyone is higher than me on this imaginary hierarchy, it must be people who have already earned PhDs in literature and people with many years of experience in book publishing.
I have not worked reviewing professionally, but I have met people who have. At the time, they had BAs in English literature and potentially some internships in the publishing world. The bar, then, to have a “professional” opinion is not unsurmountable. Basically, one needs to have studied literature at the undergraduate level. I think a lot of bloggers have passed that test.
But how would publishers even know who is “qualified”?
If we continue with this thought experiment and say, yes, that makes sense, publishers should have “standards” that need to be met before they send readers review copies, we still run into problems.
First, a lot of Guardian commenters are proposing a very basic solution: bloggers need to provide publishers with their real names and addresses. Well…I think many do. Generally speaking, you need to be a real person to receive mail. But knowing someone’s name and address, someone’s REAL IDENTITY! does not actually tell the publisher anything about that person.
So is this a proposal that publishers also run background checks on bloggers? Or that they issue applications where bloggers state their “literary qualifications” and then conduct in-person interviews to make sure they are not creeps? Because no publishing company is going to waste time and money doing that. Besides, anyone who has ever had a job can attest sometimes seemingly unqualified people get through the hiring process anyway.
Also: Publishers already vet bloggers.
Most require a blogger to have been blogging X many months, to have Y many followers, and to write reasonably intelligent reviews before they send them review copies. There are industry standards for this type of thing, which said Guardian commenters appear to be unaware of.
But no standard if ever going to eliminate “unqualified” reviewers.
It is possible to run a book blog reviewing only books that are purchased or borrowed from the library. Many bloggers do this. Krysta and I did this for years before beginning to request a limited number of e-ARCS. Even if publishers become more discerning about whom they send ARCs, they can never fully control who gets to review their books, either before or after publication.
And that is perfectly fine because of a right most countries today recognize: free speech.
Most importantly, however: Books are written for everyone.
“Amateur” reviewers have valid opinions of books. Fiction in general is not directed towards people with doctorates in literature or towards industry professionals; their audience is the masses. If people are talking about Kathleen Hale’s book in particular, it is important to remember her book is classified as young adult. AKA it is marketed to teens. AKA people with a high school level education. They are supposed to have an opinion of the book, which means everyone else is allowed to, as well.
If anyone prefers to read professional review of book instead of “amateur” ones, they have every right to do so. We all have some standard of quality we like to see in reviews. But “quality” is subjective, and making the blanket assumption that professional reviewers are more intelligent or more qualified than amateur ones is naïve. (Also, who decides who gets to be a professional reviewer? And why should I blindly trust the opinion of this anonymous person who hires them?) Saying that amateur reviewers should not review, that their opinions should not be allowed space for expression, is a blatant affront to respect and free speech. If someone can read, they have the right, the authority, the qualifications to form an opinion on a book and share it.