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The new literary tastemakers: can they be trusted?

22 August 2019

From The Bookseller:

Last week, Barack Obama released his annual summer reading list, receiving 250,000 Facebook reactions and 26,000 comments. The ex-president is certainly not the first public personality to tout their literary nous; everyone from Emma Watson to Kim Kardashian West has opened their bookshelves to the world. But how are these celebrity tastemakers transforming what we read, and what does it mean for professional literary criticism?

To answer this, we need to understand why these public personalities choose to share what they’re reading. While all profess some form of altruistic mission, epitomised by Oprah Winfrey’s desire to “get the whole country reading again”, there are secondary benefits to having a successful book club.

1. Pubic perception

PewDiePie, a highly-popular YouTube creator who got his start over-reacting to scary video games, has since tried to distance himself from his past. By posting book reviews to his YouTube channel, he is attempting to adjust his public persona from immature, loud-mouthed gamer to intelligent and thoughtful cultural commentator. And it seems to be working:

This Youtuber who I used to watch because he screamed at barrels just lectured me on philosophy for 50 minutes.
– Top voted comment on PewDiePie’s latest book-related video

Nonetheless, this kind of identity shift can be hard for audiences to swallow, especially for entrenched celebrity identities. Kim Kardashian West launched her book club in 2017, and received both support from fans (“Love that idea”), and derision from others (“You can read?”). Stevie Marsden speculates (in her 2018 study ‘I didn’t know you could read’, Logos, 29(2-3), pp.64–79) that Kardashian West’s book club was “part of her redemptive re-emergence into the public spotlight following the Paris attack [where Kim Kardashian was held hostage at gun point].” However the venture didn’t get past the second book, and Marsden goes on to surmise that “few felt [Kardashian] had the relevant credentials or expertise to be a literary intermediary.” It takes a lot more than a book club to shift public perception apparently.

. . . .

3. Business opportunities

Starting as a curiosity, Reese Witherspoon’s book club now reaches over 18 million Instagram followers every month, and is used in-part to feature books in which Witherspoon owns film rights. Thus she creates “the audience for her own movies before she even starts filming”. While making possible films featuring strong female leads (WildGone Girl), this business incentive undeniably influences the books Witherspoon chooses to feature.

With secondary motives underlying the stories promoted by these emerging literary intermediaries, what has happened to the art of objective literary critique, which demands “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument”? Is book culture being undermined?

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG points out that many “professional literary critics” are book reviewers whose principal qualification is that someone hired them to review books.

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11 Comments to “The new literary tastemakers: can they be trusted?”

  1. Title is a question, so no.

    Any phrase stronger than “You may like” is an outright lie because no one out there knows what actually will or won’t be liked by whom, or really even why.

  2. It’s been a while, so:

    Title be a question, answer be *no*.
    In this case: Hail no!!

  3. Title is a question, so the answer is no.

    Not that I give a hoot what they think.

  4. The whole question is irrelevant. No one has to trust them, it’s not like they are the captains and we are the sailors and we have to follow their commands and trust they know what they are doing. They are reviewing books, saying what they like, and people can either take or leave their opinions, and then decide about the book themselves if they so choose.

    That these people have as many followers as they do clearly shows that there are people who find value in their opinions, or at least find value in listening to them share their opinions, but that doesn’t have anything to do with trust.

  5. what has happened to the art of objective literary critique, which demands “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument”?

    And who do we trust to objectively make the determination that any particular reviewer has these qualifications?

  6. Short version: No.

    Longer version: Why should it matter? Who decides what “taste” is and who will like or dislike what? Especially for those not active on influence sites such as Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat? As Anonymouse said above, culture is not a ship and they are not captains.

    My personal tastes are rather late 19th Century, notably in dress and comportment. Music? All over the place, from Early Music to Epic Music to Black Metal. Books? Lots of different genres and topics. I wouldn’t attempt to induce people to copy me or to follow my recommendations, because I’m pretty certain that 99% of the population is interested in other things.

  7. PG, you may want to correct the spelling of “public” in the OP’s Point 1. 🙂 Everyone’s spellchecker should flag that spelling, I think …

    Moving on — people do bookclubs? I have seen the Reese Witherspoon sticker on dead-tree books. I remember wondering if it was a different Reese Witherspoon. Okay. But, using a bookclub to promote movies she owns the rights to, is pretty clever. During the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal, I’d wondered why more actresses didn’t go the Drew Barrymore route, of starting their own production companies, so as not to deal with Weinstein and his ilk. Good on Witherspoon.

    The only time I paid attention to an Oprah pick, was when she flagged a well-reviewed Russian translation team for “Anna Karenina” — Pevear & Volokhonsky. Still haven’t bought the book, but I remember the team.

    Otherwise, nope, don’t care.

  8. what has happened to the art of objective literary critique, which demands “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument”?

    Nothing has happened to the art. Few cared about it in the past, and few care about it today.

    That situation has just become more obvious. Now people laugh at the folks who think they have “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument.”

    Show of hands… Who here has these gifts?

  9. If celebrities want to have a book club, let them. If their fans enjoy it, good.

    • I know, right?

      This whole thing looks like an, “Oh, no! These people whose lives in no way affect mine are doing something I have no interest in being a part of! And other people enjoy it! Woe is me! What is the world coming to?!” It’s so ridiculous.

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