A friend emails me the link to an interview in the Catalan e-newspaper, Núvol: El Digital de Cultura, founded in 2012 by Bernat Puigtobella, whose existence I totally ignored… Likewise, I did not know who Ricard Ruiz Garzón, the person interviewed (by Montse Barderi) is. I know now that he is a relevant university teacher, writer, editor and book reviewer who has now decided to abandon cultural journalism after twenty years in the profession. This happens all the time–I am less and less aware of who the relevant people are… The interview, which you may read here http://www.nuvol.com/entrevistes/ricard-ruiz-garzon-deixo-el-periodisme-cultural-abans-dodiar-lo/, deals with a few juicy issues, so here we go.
Ruiz Garzón, always a free-lance reviewer, is abandoning cultural journalism because he cannot make a living out of it. The fee for a review (in Spanish and Catalan main media) is 100 euros, and he gets at the end of the month for all his hard work about 1,000. Many journalists publish articles and interviews on books they have never read, he says, but he takes things far more seriously and not only reads the book under review but, if necessary, any others by the same author. Actually, the point he makes is that good reviewing used to consist of that and now he is abandoning cultural journalism because current conditions only allow him to produce shallow reviews. This is, I think, very honest. Ruiz Garzón distinguishes carefully between the criticism that need not sell (academia work, though impact indexes have become our own sales target) and book reviewing, which he sees as “a service” like, he adds, the weather forecast. With, he notes, 200 new books every month, readers need guidance. No doubt.
The interview has a great segment on the five virtues of a good writer (honesty, willingness to assume risks, a good command of the language, being in touch with tradition, and sound technical skills). I’ll focus, though, on the five main defects of current book reviewing which Ruiz Garzón highlights (my translation):
1. “writing a review so well written that it does not give you the information needed to guide you about whether the book is good or not”
This is a particularly insidious problem, endemic to Spanish and Catalan reviewing but, I find, less common in Anglophone media. The reviewer feels a strange urge to show off and may very well mention, in a language as abstruse as possible, many other obscure works only he (for this is usually a ‘he’) knows perfectly well. Never mind whether these works have anything to do with the work under review, what matters is impressing the reader with the reviewer’s superior knowledge. I stopped reading Fotogramas, tired precisely of the ‘cinéfilos’ who never managed to express a clear opinion and that would have made Derrida proud in their convoluted use of prose.
2. “objectivity: the issue of friends and enemies, the friend I praise; the enemy, I badmouth”
To a certain extent, this is inevitable. There are two ways out of this conundrum: a) reviewers declare their friendships and enmities, as spoilers are declared in Amazon, GoodReads, IMDB or b) reviewers specialise in totally alien fields where they have no friends, neither enemies. Blind peer reviewing is supposed to prevent ‘amiguismo’ from playing a part in academic life but, then, networking is often built on the basis of personal friendship. We’re all human.
3. “the synergies between media and publishing groups” (example: if you work in El País, you put your job on the line if you criticize a book published by Alfaguara, etc.)
See my solution for point 2. Again: the problem is deceiving the reader into thinking that this is honest cultural journalism. The problem, by the way, extends beyond proper journalism. Recently, I searched for reviews of Rosario Raro’s novel Volver a Canfranc and, since opinions at Amazon.es and Casa del Libro are so few and so unreliable, I read a couple of blog posts. To my irritation, they were both shameless ads endorsing the novel; one even had the cheek to thank Planeta for having forwarded a copy.
4. “poor research, failing to read the complete works by an author and, therefore, producing amateur reviews”; that is, a good review must be able to place novelties in the context of the author’s whole career.
This, to be honest, is ideal but also shows that perhaps Ruiz Garzón entertains too high expectations about book reviewing. Or, alternatively, this means that there should be among the cultural journalists specialists in particular authors, as there are in academia. Logically, this only makes sense if all reviewers were free-lance, though I assume that the usual practice is that one reviewer in the newspaper’s payroll gets to review all kinds of books. Yet, it is also often the case that writers overproduce. I wonder who can produce a quality review of each new novel by Stephen King…
5. “we have an uneducated, untrained readership. They prefer the headline or the slogan over nuance”
Um, perhaps this is partly the fault of the navel-gazing reviewers guilty of fault no. 1 (see above). Also, our general lack of time. Personally, I don’t look for nuance in reviews, but for insight–that is to say, the ability to point out what is fundamentally right or wrong with a book. I very often read reviews in the middle of reading a book to check whether others share my impression. And I must point out that many readers, like myself, are fast going past the slogans and checking first the number of stars or the ratings. As I have noted here, everyone knows that a film rating below 7 in IMDB hardly ever is worth watching.
A sixth problem is highlighted in connection with point 5: “there is little criticism of popular authors, but when it is produced it has no effect whatsoever”. He mentions very negative reviews of Xavier Bosch and Albert Espinosa which did not affect at all their top Sant Jordi sales. Obviously. In general, few book buyers read reviews; they feel frequently lost among the many books on offer and just want to get the book everyone else is reading. They navigate the book market by positive advertising, not negative reviewing.
The phrase ‘crític de referència’ crops up several times in the interview with Ruiz Garzón. This is hard to translate into English but if I write Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-1913), you possibly know what I mean: a literary critic whose opinions are respected by both readers and authors, and who shapes with his/her reviewing the very state of Literature. In SF we have John Clute. And I recall from my childhood the peculiar figure and nasal voice of a truly great film critic working on TV, Alfonso Sánchez Martínez, a man so popular that many humorists did him the honour of impersonating him. Who do we have now that we can call ‘crítico de referencia’?
To finish, I wonder whether the case of Ruiz Garzón is symptomatic of a much larger malaise, which is the slow death of (cultural) journalism as we know it. My good friend Víctor Sampedro, who teaches sociology and communication, writes argues in his recent book El cuarto poder en red: Por un periodismo (de código libre) that journalism as we have known it in the 20th century is over for good, as proven by the complex Wikileaks case. He calls for a far more open journalism which is born of the collaboration between the general public and the professional journalist.
As I read the book, I thought that the key issue is where the money will be found to pay for the wages of the professionals in this new open source context. The 100 euros per review that Ruiz Garzón mentions and his own inability to make ends meet suggest that this is it: in a context in which everyone feels entitled to expressing an opinion on what they read on the net and in social networks, the economic value of professional opinion is sharply diminished. 100 euros may be a nice extra but not the basis of a full-time dedication to reading.
And so is culture diminished into an amateurism from which it may never recover.
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