Chasing the novel in Jaipur
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The other, more revolutionary migration afoot globally, and it's catching up in India too, is from physical books to e-readers. It threatens not just brick-and-mortar book spaces but also publishers by removing the need for an intermediary to get the physical book published and distributed.
Publishers are bracing themselves to stand up to the bulldozing might of Amazon to set price benchmarks, with the first sign of the reconfiguration evident last year when Penguin and Random House merged. But the larger uncertainty is this: when publishers lose what is said to be their "core proposition" of getting a book physically to the shop floor, what value will be retained by their imprint as a sign of the editorial filter it implies? While much is made of the odd high-selling self-published book sent by a writer direct to an e-book retailer, with editorial and design elements presumably obtained from freelancers, it is not quite a flood yet.
Yet. Because were it to be so, and were publishers with the editorial and graphic expertise the best of them nurture to be made redundant or financially untenable, how would we go around judging books by their covers? By their reviews perhaps?
It is in this context that it is worthwhile to recap a debate that broke out in book-reviewing circles in the United States a few months ago over the utility of negative reviews. Two submissions online, by writer-critics Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker and by Laura Miller in Salon, together illumine the larger questions assailing the book trade and readers today.
Reacting to a widely iterated irritation that book reviews these days are becoming increasingly cloying, that critics are too "yes-saying", that literature urgently needs revival of the negative review, Miller submits that perhaps the era of harsh book reviews may be past. She argues that books and their reviews no longer play the central role they once did. The time is past, she writes, "of magisterial critics who decreed which new books mattered according to their own beautifully articulated criteria, and who slapped down presumptuous pretenders". Even their clashes, she notes, were anchored in a conviction that they were collectively determining the books the cultivated reader should read.