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I was talking with a friend recently about the overwhelming number of books (not to mention digital books) on offer, and the impossibility of keeping on top of what is out there, and what, from the huge pile, one might actually want to read.

I know this is not in any way an original thought, but there are times when the choice between 100 brands of breakfast cereal, (or 100 equally garishly packaged books all brandishing equally gushing by-lines to their excellence and life-changing quality) is just too much.

Sometimes it would be rather restful to be able to identify that what you really want is a wholesome packet of perfectly ordinary oats, unenhanced, doing what you expect oats to do, not claiming to change your life, be better than any other oats, or, even worse, claiming to be box of diamonds, rather than the oats they so obviously are

I’ve been burned too many times now, particularly by hyped marketing, often from ‘quality’ papers on how this or that book is the beautifully written heaven of my dreams, life will never be the same without reading it, and how it rivals (insert name of excellently written book on particular subject matter, genre or setting) and (insert name of second highly lauded book on aforementioned particular subject matter, genre or setting) in its particular splendour.

Excitedly I embark upon the new golden wonder book – only to find that what lies within will, if I’m lucky, be average or competent – but may equally well be toe-curlingly BAD.

New GrubThe Victorian writer George Gissing identified an ‘I’ll say good things about your book if you say good things about mine’ clique in professional reviewing well over a hundred years ago. i don’t suppose things have improved much

It strikes me that the factory production line of books cannot be kept up with by any professional reader with a life to live, not to mention their own novel to write. What goes on must surely be skimming and the turning out of adulatory phrases in a ‘hope for kind payback’ kind of way.

And that’s just the books that succeed in getting a publisher.

Having recently struggled with reading an ARC of a book which shall remain nameless in terms of the appalling crimes it committed against sense, veracities of time, place, plot and characterisation – not to mention coherent language and dialogue, I feel heartily disinclined to want to read those who are self-publishing. The rationale being ‘if a book THAT bad got a publisher, what does it say about the one’s which DON’T’ (Apologies to those who deserve to get the publisher they cannot, as yet, find)

Lest this all sound like resentful sour grapes from an unpublished writer – I state my interest:

I do NOT have a burning desire to be a writer (if I wrote, it would be about a particular area of expertise/skill which I have some knowledge of – i.e. it would not be fiction)

I do not have a novel/play/book of poetry languishing in my cupboard waiting to be polished up and sent to editors, agents and publishers. Such a thing does not even exist in my head.

I am, though, a lifelong, excited, enthusiastic, thoughtful, immersive appreciator of literature and in awe of good writing and good writers – of pretty well all sorts.

Time was when I could browse the bookshop, or read the broadsheets arts pages, and generally  know that if a book was described as having the qualities I was looking for, there would be truth in the claims.

That time is long gone. Moonshine made of potato peelings gets put in a shiny bottle and sold as champagne. Gallons of the stuff

I stopped relying on professional reviewers a long while ago (other than certain writers I value, if THEY say good things about another writer, I’m half-inclined to listen)

I began to trust ‘ordinary reviewers’  like me, on Amazon, liking some of the same stuff and disliking some of the same stuff for similar reasons.

However, the moving in big time of shill reviewers who only review one book – the particular potato peeling variety which is released and instantly gets a handful of 5 star rave reviews – often poorly written, plus the various shenanigans and jostlings and foulings which go on in Amazon’s ‘Top Reviewers’ ranking battles, means I trust that avenue less and less. If a reviewer gets appreciative of their own ranking, they know that to give something a negative review is to court the attentions of the shillers, so it seems to me honesty is declining fast in that area.

IS there light at the end of the tunnel? – well, I must say I HAVE started to look very Equilateralcarefully at what bloggers, not selling anything, might be reading, and finding books which people are carefully reviewing, judiciously saying why they do or do not like the book, and following particular readers and their recommendations.

Fallen LandBut having (by just such a route) been steered towards a couple of properly brilliant writers, new to me, I’m sad that the trumpeting publicity and promotion machine seems to not be serving those particular writers well. They languish unread and un-bought.

Meanwhile, I continue to shake my head in disbelief to see writing commended as beautiful when it would not pass muster in a high school essay.

I’m (almost) becoming afraid of taking a chance on new writers. It may be time to revisit writers long turned to dust, who understood the craft