Truth or hype: good books or bad reviews?

8 November 2013 | Letter from the Editors

The Bibliophile's Desk: L. Block (1848–1901). Wikipedia

‘The Bibliophile’s Desk’: L. Block (1848–1901). Wikipedia

More and more new Finnish fiction is seeing the light of day. Does quantity equal quality?

Fewer and fewer critical evaluations of those fiction books are published in the traditional print media. Is criticism needed any more?

At the Helsinki Book Fair in late October the latest issue of the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti was removed from the stand of its publisher, Otavamedia, by the chief executive officer of Otava Publishing Company Ltd. Both belong to the same Otava Group.

The cover featured a drawing of a book in the form of a toilet roll, referring to an article entitled ‘The ailing novel’, by Riitta Kylänpää, in which new Finnish fiction and literary life were discussed, with a critical tone at places. CEO Pasi Vainio said he made the decision out of respect for the work of Finnish authors.

His action was consequently assessed by the author Elina Hirvonen who, in her column in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, criticised the decision. ‘The attempt to conceal the article was incomprehensible. Authors are not children. The Finnish novel is not doing so badly that it collapses if somebody criticises it. Even a rambling reflection is better for literature than the same old articles about the same old writers’ personal lives.’

‘The ailing novel’ takes a look at new Finnish fiction and at the decline of literary criticism in the media – where there seems to be little space for ‘unfavourable’ criticism. (Why indeed annoy readers, authors and publishers with derogatory comments? Besides, an ‘unfavourable’ critical judgment always requires lots of words, more print space, in order to be balanced and well-validated.)

But isn’t it the duty of the news media to present the readers with, well, news about what is happening in the world? This includes works of art that appear in public, and shouldn’t newspaper arts page be dealing with both their quantity and their quality, and not just those that are assumed to please the readers?

In his blog Turmio ja perikato (‘Downfall and ruin’; in Finnish), Putte Wilhelmsson, writer and critic, analyses the attempts of the Finnish newspapers to attract more readers to their cultural pages, as it is the quantity of consumers that matters to publishers: the contents have begun to be aimed at those readers who don’t read the cultural pages. ‘This results in segmented reviewing directed at the focus groups used in market research,’ he says. ‘The economic management of the newspapers guides editorial work either from above or by forcing the producers of the cultural pages to be part of the economic decision making process in a way that was unknown a couple of decades ago.’

The number of fiction titles published in Finland has recently grown rapidly, the number of publishers’ editors has not. The status of an author is considered very media sexy, and the media are more than willing to feature new writers – making no separations between their work and their personal lives.

It seems things are no better in the neighbouring Sweden either. The critic Åsa Beckman complained in an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (30 October) that the talk about literary value of works – language, tone, form, conceptualisation, dialogue, narrative – is very much avoided in contemporary literary life. However, literary criticism which is able to assess the aesthetic and formal quality is absolutely vital.

Writer and blogger Tommi Melender quotes Beckman in a blog post (in Finnish) entitled ‘The slow death of newspaper criticism?’. He argues that writing in novels often resembles scripts for television: short scenes, limited surroundings, lack of the wider perspective. Novels are critically discussed on the level of subject and theme only: authors are seen as specialists on any subject they have been writing about – burnout, various relationships, alcoholism etc. – so they become people who are able to generate potential public interest and thus help fill newspaper pages and broadcast schedules.

The fact is that a small country just cannot produce a great number of masterpieces. When the number of books published grows, this will result in a greater number of less carefully and skilfully edited, mediocre works.

Bad criticism, for its part, shrinks to short summaries of plots and themes – of books that the cultural editors think might be ‘good’ enough to be reviewed, because it is not economic to publish reviews of books that either are (in advance) considered ‘bad’ or ‘uninteresting’ or too ‘difficult’ for the ‘average’ reader.

’Average’ novels, for ‘average’ readers? Never. Literature is an art, and there are no limitations to what art can do. Criticism, for its part, is able to rise above the average when it is not limited. Literature and criticism are like Siamese twins, as Åsa Beckman puts it; they share a common bloodstream.

Readers need books, books need reviews – and of course debate is needed by both. Good writing happens all the time, despite doubts and debates.And so does good reading.

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