I remember asking a few years ago a well-published Spanish writer –I was going to say ‘professional’ but she actually works as a lecturer– whether she ran a blog of her own. Elia Barceló, that was the author in question, answered she’d rather not write without getting paid (though I see she relented, at least for a while).

I often think of her words. When I wonder whether what I do by writing this blog is professional or personal (both, I think) and when I wonder how much spare time people have, seeing they offer countless reviews online… for free. I keep this blog, to be honest, for reasons of mental hygiene –I’m not enrolled in any gym (I did practice yoga for four years but this seems to be over), yet I have turned out to be quite disciplined when it comes to forcing my neurones to take periodical exercise. Every four days ideally, at least once a week. Um, sounds like something else!!

Writing is always a pleasure but, as happens with any kind of sport, it is also a chore. I recall my Spanish Literature teacher in the last year at secondary school, the wonderful and demanding Sara Freijido, claiming that intellectual work is also physically tiring, something that for me, a blue-collar worker’s daughter, was short of anathema… (imagine for my father!) So, like people who run marathons, I love writing but I have to force myself to do it. In a way the blog also exists to discipline me into curbing down the temptation to procrastinate (I find that I write faster but it still takes me forever to start academic articles). I recommend it…

All this comes from two main nagging ideas. One is my students’ class presentations and comments on fan fiction; the other is my having read a very good review on Amazon.com (of Richard Morgan’s SF novel Altered Carbon). Both ideas share this basic wonder or curiosity: how come people use their spare time for writing and for reviewing… just for the sake of it?

Possibly, this is because I don’t understand very well the idea of free time. My main hobby has always been reading and, thus, whenever I have free time you’ll find me with a book in my hands –which often becomes part of my professional pursuits. I use my ‘real’ free time for other matters such as seeing friends, going to exhibitions, theatre, concerts, etc… Yet, I don’t do activities in my spare time that result in ‘products’, from, I don’t know, a dress to… fan fiction or a review (this is why I think the blog is work, not leisure). It baffles me absolutely when I see people ‘produce’ something in their spare time, from muffins to… fan fiction or a review. It’s so… Victorian!!

I read very often IMDB and Amazon reviews written by people with time in their hands and a wish to enlighten the world. I keep a list of films watched on IMDB, and in this way I force myself to go through the titles I have seen more or less every month. It’s good to fix their imprint or lack thereof in my memory. IMDB offers the possibility of rating each film and also of writing reviews –I rate all the films I see but I never write reviews, particularly when I see hundreds of people have already contributed. If I write at all, it’s only about very little known Spanish and Catalan films that deserve much more attention (or documentaries). I must have written about 6 reviews in total, out of a list recording more than 3,000 films watched.

I find that reviews should be limited to a couple of paragraphs, as people tend to write overlong pieces –yet, this ads to my bafflement about why they use so much energy in reviewing. Is it a didactic instinct or is it narcissism? I know that there are lists of ‘top reviewers’, people who have written literally hundreds of reviews, or more… Same with Amazon. Whenever I read a book, I check the most valuable negative review (I never find the most positive ones really trustworthy) and I marvel at how widespread the ability to offer good criticism is. Reviewing is a very hard exercise and when I read a good piece over 500 words long I know that the author has possibly employed a couple of hours of his/her time for my benefit and anyone else’s. That’s, well, very nice.

I wonder what’s happened to professional critics since the mid 1990s when everyone started publishing opinions online. I’m well aware that may have managed to retain their authority since cultural consumers still make a distinction between the professional with a unique individual voice, and the amateur on the social network –who remembers their names? I’m also well aware that the reviewing realms I visit are heavily biased: to begin with, they’re in English; second, there’s always the suspicion that the enthusiastic reviewers that push totally forgettable books and films to the heights of hype are on someone’s payroll. Still, they’re there, making and breaking reputations.

Perhaps this works not so much because we want guidance, or sharing opinion, but because we’re lazy. I had already read Altered Carbon years ago and dismissed it to the point that I gave the copy away. A variety of circumstances led me to think I had undervalued, perhaps, this novel, so I returned to it. Once I decided I wasn’t going to include it in the course on SF I’m planning for 2015-16, I just got too lazy to think it through and pin down the reasons for my dislike. So, I checked that Amazon review and, well, that guy got it so right… His effort freed me to employ my neurones in writing this post. Some irony there.

One thing I can tell for sure: hardly any film with less than a 7 on IMDB is worth watching… This would be 3’5 stars for books on Amazon. And in a world with so much to read and see this is very valuable information. Isn’t it wonderful that this comes out of so many people, so much free time?

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