25 Comments
Feb 28·edited Feb 28Liked by Grace Pengelly

"The practice of giving ‘blurbs’ on books doesn’t help. Sure, publishers will include favourable quotes from traditional outlets on a book jacket, but if your author is friends with someone who has name recognition, then that blurb will often get ditched or downgraded in the pecking order. " THIS! I've always been puzzled by how cluttered UK book covers are with tons of useless one-liners that often are distracting and don't add anything to why someone should read a book. For me the effect is the opposite, actually, as I may ban a book that I thought was interesting if I see an author I don't like is saying it's "necessary and compulsory reading". Why? The UK is perhaps the only country where I see this practice on books (fiction and non-fiction) and it's obviously aimed at guiding potential readers towards works in an Amazon-style fashion (other writers you may like have said this about this book). Personally, I find it's very detrimental and biased as there's little space for honest critique and reviews and like you rightly point out, it puts potential reviewers on the spot and forces them to say something positive for fear of not being offered future promotional opportunities for their own work. The ideal scenario would be to let the reader judge for themselves and get rid of blurbs altogether. Besides, they totally ruin any art on the cover. Some independent publishers like Fiztcarraldo or Daunt Books, and I believe Pushkin Press as well, are doing a great job in that regard and letting the quality of the books speak for themselves. And then, if in doubt, one can always read a proper review, not another vague "his/her best work yet"

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I feel this in a lot of ways. I’m a critical person and I want to be able to criticize art, even art I love but I know that might have consequences. People have always taken this sort of thing personally. But I also have a lot of disdain for people who declare that someone whom thousands or millions of people like to listen to “can’t sing.” Like, she’s doing something with her voice to music that people like - what do you want to call that if not singing? I mean I don’t care, I’m happy to use another word. If you hold the minority opinion that only long notes and a big vocal range are interesting to listen to that’s fine - but when you say that Taylor Swift can’t sing I just think that you’re stupid and unpleasantly arrogant. I don’t like high notes - so I don’t like most violin music or sopranos in opera etc. but I don’t try to declare it’s not music or not good just because it makes me want to clap my hands over my ears.

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I was a bookseller for four years and there was definitely this unwritten, unspoken sense that you couldn't trash a book publicly. I don't know if we feared getting on the wrong side of a publisher or publicity team that might affect other opportunities for us, or that it looked like unsupportive poor form, but we would always keep quiet and not promote rather than say why. Being someone that doesn't do well with conflict, being critical feels like it can be combative when not handled well, so I would happily shy away from it, but internally wonder at the damage being done if everyone becomes too fearful of saying something negative. Thank you for writing this, I found it so interesting and an important subject.

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The Arts Council Announcement really got my back up. Thanks for this piece, it’s excellent. I’m ashamed to say I have no good examples of decent criticism and it is only in reading this that I feel the lack of it so keenly. Heading off to research now ...

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this is a super interesting take on criticism! I've been really fascinated recently by Jessa Crispin's criticism, which I don't always agree with, but I appreciate that she's willing to take bold, carefully reasoned stances: https://theculturewedeserve.substack.com/

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Yes yes yes and yes! The criticism culture is so interesting right now. It’s moved to such an interesting place - where no one wants to say a bad word about anything. It’s depressing. I wonder if it’s rooted in fear of being cancelled that’s so huge nowadays? Or whether the internet trail that now exists makes people overly cautious about what they say bc it can exist forever in a way it didn’t before?

I felt so sorry for Ayo. Do you know if she was told to apologise??? I really don’t think she should have but what do I know I guess she’s really up and coming (bc she’s amazing) and maybe she was heavily advised too bc criticism might hurt her brand!!!!!

The Arts Council England new guidelines are such an ick.

Agree w everything - thanks for being critical about the lack of criticism. I always see so many people in the book review / criticism space say that they won’t do negative reviews and it always baffles me. Isn’t that the entire point of choosing to discuss a specific media? To talk about the good AND the bad? I could comment about this forever lmao. Do we not deserve accurate and honest criticism anymore?!

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Love this, and I also think the cliqueyness becomes its own, subtler, more insidious form of critique, whereby those who aren't in 'the club' are sort of left outside in the cold but no intellectually rigorous reason is given as to why. So if something doesn't have the Elizabeth Day/Pandora Sykes stamp of approval (for eg.) there must be something wrong with it, because Elizabeth Day and Pandora Sykes are just soooooo nice and sooooo generous and they are best friends with everybody. It's got a very high school disapproval-by-omission vibe.

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Feb 16Liked by Grace Pengelly

So brilliantly put! I think this is one of the reasons I find myself drawn to YouTube video essayists on culture rather than reading reviews from more established places. It feels less agendary somehow. I also feel that arts council statement is so chilling.

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Feb 15Liked by Grace Pengelly

You have presented this so intelligently, clearly and courageously.

The culture of entertainment, instead of valuing our authenticity and honest critique, sedates us, and prevents us from seeing things as they are, and then uniting to challenge them.

There is a difference between being genuinely blind to an ‘emperors new clothes’ culture, and systematically being cautioned against calling it out when we see it.

How do we keep being brave and authentic?

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It is harder than I could ever put into words to be directly entrenched in all this as a writer and reviewer. Either way it’s like Bart Simpson once said! X

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Feb 15Liked by Grace Pengelly

Absolutely brilliant. Loved this and TOTALLY agree with everything you've said here x

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