Orwell here talks authoritatively about the novel-reviewing business, and how in mid-30's England it had become so relativized, disingenuous and commercial that the novel as a form of expression suffered. He gets as close to identifying relativism as one can get without actually saying it. On page 57: "Novels are being shot at you at a rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing." Genius. This is similar to our current culture's compulsion to give every little kid a trophy no matter how they performed on the team. In both scenarios, how will the scale of quality be determined?
He gets down to business by isolating the business behind the faux-novel reviewing, which is strikingly similar to current tactics. In a nutshell, it's marketing. The reviewer gives a bombastic review of the book making the publisher happy, who in turn allows the newspaper (et. al) to advertise on their book sleeves. Bad reviews cause ad space to get pulled. Coerce, much? The big problem here is that the focus is drawn away from the art form and toward commerce, lumping experienced writers and their rich, intelligent content, in with new and poor writers with little or no substance, respectively.
Page 58: "For even if there were no questions of bribery, direct or indirect, there can be no such thing as good novel-criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing." This quote is the beginning of his resolution. I must append, though, that not every novel is worth reviewing in a public forum. New and poor writers will no less improve through seeking review on a private level. How do you think good writers (or good anything, for that), develop? Orwell's critique is two-fold: 1) Not every novel is worth reviewing, and 2) The good ones are certainly worth reviewing, but we're so deadened by literary relativism that we can't recognize the good ones anymore, nor do we demand they are produced.
When's the last time a big campaign was launched that insisted on the production of better writers, reviewers, and illustrators, for that matter? Mind you, when LeBron's shooting percentage from the field drops, pundits emerge from all places to chat and produce diagrams to free up his game. The minds are out there.
Orwell accuses the faux-reviewers of not reading the books they're reviewing--basically skimming--despite their job entailing them to write about what the book is about, and provide an opinion. I agree with him that the latter is more destructive, because unfounded opinions are cheap and hollow, yet people reading them may not necessarily know this. In a way they're thieving from the authors. Leading people to believe something disingenuous is genuine is thus a crime of the arts. What was intended to be an authoritative perspective of intellectual material becomes commercial fluff.
Orwell's next step toward solving this problem is focusing on amateurs. Page 62: "A man who is not a practised writer but has just read a book which has deeply impressed him is more likely to tell you what it is about than a competent but bored professional. That is why American reviews, for all their stupidity, are better than English ones; they are more amateurish, that is to say, more serious." It's hard to believe that someone has to state outright that good reviewing entails talking about what the book is about, but apparently the mid-30's reviews was so bad, it required statement. He calls for a raising of standards, rather than an obscuring of them, to restore the novel to prestige and "induce some of the best literary brains to return to it."
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