A Week in Books: Critics still matter

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The Independent Culture

During the sudden deluge of sarcastic media commentary prompted by Bill Clinton's memoirs last week, the words of Marx sprang to mind. Groucho, of course: "From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it."

The publishing PR machine, which in Clinton's case went into reckless overdrive, tempts instant experts into the quick shot, and the cheap shot. Several hair-trigger reactions to the book seemed to stem entirely from the former President's interview with Time magazine. Other front-line respondents had, at least, explored the final section of his doorstopper. So here's some advice for public figures who would like their books to be read on publication, rather than just toted and cited. Remember to forget a proper index. Future scholars and students will curse you, with good reason. But your central arguments will run a lower risk of being drowned out by the sound of a legion of page-riffling pundits as they look up - let us say - "Lewinsky, Monica", and take it from there. My Life, by the way, contains a truly magnificent index: 38 exemplary pages, with all the major topics minutely subdivided as well.

Behind all the brouhaha lies a serious work that deserves a serious response. Yet the entire business of launching an "event" book such as Clinton's now conspires against informed criticism, and in favour of a rapid barrage of soundbites. You have the denial of review copies to virtually all media prior to publication. You have the selective advance release of the book to a single outlet, either to support a costly serialisation deal or - as in Clinton's case - as a sort of political favour by the publishers, Random House. You have Blitzkrieg publicity that aims to swamp intelligent critique with a wave of softer and sloppier coverage.

No wonder that the commentators at the sharp end of these tactics often react with glib one-liners. If you sell books like chewing-gum, expect to see them worked over and spat out in a similar style. At least, with My Life, we were spared the absurdity of the "embargo letter": a pseudo-legal document that threatens editors with fire and brimstone if they dare run an early review of a work the publisher wishes to keep under wraps.

Across the arts, corporate producers now work harder than ever to stifle any independent judgement. Film studios bypass the preview-screening process. Theatre impresarios aim to keep reviewers out of new productions. And, from this autumn, publishers and retailers promise to police the release of high-profile books more tightly - ie, more restrictively - than before.

The traditional discipline of reviewing - of impartial appraisal by well-informed critics who enjoy fair access - offends today's entertainment industries. They can't always stop it. They can't buy it (though they try). They can endeavour to make it look irrelevant, by exploiting the media hunger for news and so re-framing their prize properties as happenings, not as mere artefacts.

With the most shameless celebrity tomes, even the "author" will not have read the book. In many other cases, the PR people won't have read it. The media interviewers won't have read it. The commentators on the interviews won't have read it. If the circus does its job, hordes of people will still acquire it - increasingly, as an impulse buy at a hefty discount from a supermarket rack. But many of those won't read it. In this Platonic ideal of publicity, a book may pass along a chain of hype from producer to consumer without anyone ever having to consider if it might be worth your money and your time. Critics have the power to break that chain. That's why they still matter.