I’ve been hanging fire starting a blog for what amounts to years now and what has finally prompted me to take the plunge is an ongoing infuriation and frustration that some people think they know how clever other people are, and this it seems they think gives them a right to dictate what those people can and can’t read, do, think, basically conflicting pretty much every human right and standard of living that so-called western free society has fought over centuries to defend. This may all sound a bit pompous and melodramatic, and I’m not saying that one little instant leads to another, but I do think that even with the increased access to information, to literature, to facts that we now enjoy, particularly through the internet, there’s also a parallel tendency of allowing someone’s opinion to be substituted for their knowledge, and putting forward an informed viewpoint.
If such a tendency does exist and we do allow a minority to dictate what the majority should be exposed to, have access to, through a privileged position in the media, filtering facts through a veil of their opinion (and it is a veil, an up their own bottom, bloody, blinkered veil), then we have a catch-22 situation here: information is dumbed down, people are less able to process information, information has to be dumbed down. What a huge cost to autonomy and freedom of thought.
My thoughts along these lines all started when my oldest daughter asked if the Complete Works of Shakespeare were too old for her (she is 8 years old). I said, “No, you might not get too much out of it, from the first reading, but you’ll get something. If you just take your time, and enjoy the words, and let them flow over you. Even if you can’t pronounce some of them, and you certainly won’t know the meaning of a lot, it’s still the joy of reading, and you may return to it, and each time you’ll get something more.“
My message to anyone is that engaging with something is important.
Now, the reason she asked about the works of Shakespeare is because she asked about Hamlet, and I mentioned that it was indeed written by William Shakespeare, and that it alluded to a statue that our family knows very well, it is the Affe mit Schädel by Hugo Rheinhold (also known as the Darwin Monkey), and that means the statue acted as a prompt for her to pose questions about the scene referred to by the statue.
We find motivations to explore knowledge through a myriad of cues.
So when my book Darwin in Scotland received a review that ended, “Not accessible enough for the general reader” I was bemused and bemuddled that anyone should think they can dictate what others may read. What “highbrow” ignorance. I stood there frozen, my lips only able to mouth “WTF!” over and over again.
I can only conclude that basically whosoever uses that term to categorise a piece of literature is saying, some of you may read this and some of you just won’t be able to cope with it. How bloody patronising! “Don’t worry little reader, I am a reviewer and I am more intelligent than you so I am able to assess that you will not be able to handle reading this book.” Oh, and by definition, “The author is more intelligent than you too!”
Other than the blatant insult, it’s essentially also a form of censorship and we have a long history in our society of fighting against censorship, so why do we welcome opinion-based news and reviews.
Why are we happy to be spoon-fed our politics, literature, all manner of culture, through an inherently negative process of filtration? That’s not to say all criticism is bad. Reviews can be helpful on the whole. Without them we would undoubtedly be faced with a mass of opportunity that would be overburdening and panic inducing just through the sheer volume of things that we could engage with on a daily basis, to appreciate, to experience. But, to say outright, “This is crap”, or “Don’t go there”, or “Don’t bother with this” is ostensibly insulting to the human intelligence. In fact, it’s “obscenely insulting to human intelligence”, to coin one of Stephen Fry‘s phrases.
So reviewers and critics, let other people decide the value of something. In denying someone that, you are worse than a teacher or parent or any other authority figure telling a child that they are worthless.
By definition, all art forms, whether they be performed arts or written arts, graphic art, are subjective. They pamper to a personal side of us all. They are not purely evidence-based, nor fact checklists, even non-fiction. There is some thing more, an emergent quality which speaks deeply to each of our psyches, and because it’s personal, no-one has the right to delve into that innermost treasure chest that makes you, you.
Reviewers should offer a guiding hand by all means, but not hold one up in your face. That’s just plane rude.
Hurray, a blog! May (the fictional) God bless her, and all who sail in her.
“Hear, all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speaker has to say!” Hear, hear. Well put, and well received from this sensitive artist’s perspective.
My take on the mainstream book world is that it is essentially run by self-appointed amateurs. Not that I am against amateurs but some kind of apprenticeship is needed, to learn about the difference between fact and opinion, and that the aim of the literary agent/publisher/reviewer could be to recognise a powerful voice, not just to satisfy a narrow formula that spells commercial. It’s amazing – these agents, these publishers, these reviewers – they just hang up a sign, like pimps.
Enjoyed what you had to say and perfectly get your point. It’s he curse of the writer (and others) to be subjected to the art(fulness) of the reviewer. The fact is that few who have reviewed have published – there are exceptions – and therefore they do not ‘get it’. However, the only consoling thing is that there is less and less space given over to reviewers in newspapers, as the internet has taken over. The downside is that some people, with even less knowledge, review and rate stuff on line with little or no thought going into the whole thing (at times there are other factors that drive their review).
In response to Martyn’s point I would say the problem with publishing is the exact opposite. There are too many ‘professionals’ (so called) involved in it. They are all able to tell writers exactly what is wrong with their book, while at the same time they are telling their share holders how right they are.
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Censorship!? It’s no more censorship than your telling reviewers what they should and should not write is censorship.
As for the “insult to human intelligence”, you don’t seem to have a very high opinion of your potential readers yourself if you believe they are incapable of reading a review critically, understanding that it’s just someone’s subjective opinion, and deciding for themselves what they want to take away from it.
I’d agree that the sentence you object to is a silly one and that it raises some interesting questions about the role of the reviewer, but you’ve overstated your case to the point of comedy. I mean… “you are worse than a teacher or parent or any other authority figure telling a child that they are worthless.”
I am not saying don’t write on the subject, just don’t inhibit others from reading. Such superciliousness seems to be founded in snobbery and delusions of superiority, but it also involves criticising people on the basis of assumed intelligence, prior to their being able to educate themselves. That is why it is tantamount to belittling a child.
How do you know the motivations of the reviewer? I’d say it’s just as likely that he/she considers him/herself a general reader and didn’t find the book terribly accessible. Or maybe you know that the reviewer is an expert in the field? You don’t say, like you don’t say where the review was published. Was it aimed at adults or children? If the former, then I’d suggest that you are infantilizing adults by comparing them to belittled children. To repeat, I think you are guilty of exactly what you accuse the reviewer of – assuming that your would-be readers are incapable of making their own minds up about a piece of writing.
I am willing to give the reader the benefit of the doubt, whereas the reviewer clearly is not. If the reviewer really does consider themselves a general reader, and yet they claim the book is inaccessible, then they just disqualified themselves from being able to assess it. That is being hypocritical, not hypercritical.
I am not at liberty to identify the individual as this is an attack not on them but their attitude, and besides, it is one I recognise in others. But, as it is an “adult book”, you can safely assume the review was for adults, and addressing them to deny their potential, as if adolescent, is infantilisation.
My point stands.
The issue of “accessibility” is one that comes up again and again in the poetry world, to the point where warring factions spring up in online forums and Facebook comment threads, arguing over whether a writer should have to compromise their artistic vision or not just because the majority of the great unwashed don’t have the wit to dig it, etc. Personally, I think the whole idea is utterly ridiculous — poetry that is “accessible” may get more readers, but poetry that is less so seems to be doing OK, thank you very much, so why argue about it? Horses for courses, and all that.
Personally, I’d take issue with you reviewer because of his [sorry, I assumed] use of the term “the general reader.” There is no such thing. If the reviewer found the text accessible but felt that others would not, the statement is arrogant and patronising. If the issue was just that he personally found it inaccessible, the statement is cowardly. But no matter how you look at it, it’s a mass generalisation. There is no such thing as a general reader — in the very first lecture of the very first year of my undergraduate lit degree, the very first thing we were all taught was that every reader brings their own intepretation of the text with them; that there is no ‘one reading’ of any text, literary or otherwise. The reviewer might find your book inaccessible, and the person sitting next to him on the bus to work might well agree. But they’re just as likely to love it, or to find it accessible enough but boring, or to have absolutely no feelings about it at all. My suggestion is that the reviewer read some Roland Barthes before attempting any more literary criticism.
“If the reviewer really does consider themselves a general reader, and yet they claim the book is inaccessible, then they just disqualified themselves from being able to assess it.”
No, they are in the perfect position to judge whether they – as a general reader – found it accessible or not – ie, to offer an opinion on the matter. Would you be happier if they’d written “Not, in my opinion, accessible enough for the general reader”? Because I think any adult reader of the review would take that as implicit. It’s a shame you can’t tell us where the review was published, or what the rest of it said, because that would help a lot. (And let’s be clear, an attack on what you imagine to be someone’s attitudes based on the evidence of a single sentence of seven words plus attitudes you “recognise in others” is a personal attack.) Are you saying that all reviewers must be experts in the field? Or to turn it round, how would an expert know if something was pitched well for a non-expert readership? Or do you think that authors should not be trying to make their work accessible? In which case, why not just bind together all your primary sources with some explanatory notes and get people to read that. (For what it’s worth, I think you’re confusing “accessibility” with “dumbing down” – they’re not the same thing.) As for “you can safely assume the review was for adults, but addressing them to deny their potential, as if adolescent, is infantilisation”, it is striking that you don’t credit the very adults you would like to read your book with the nous to make their own minds up about a silly comment at the end of a review. You are reading far too much into seven little words.
To answer one specific point, if your previous premise is correct, then I would have preferred the reviewer to have written, “Not, in my opinion (which I admit is an inadequately informed one and therefore too ignorant in order to make a just assessment), accessible enough for the general reader (therefore please ignore this terminating sentence and feel free to make up your own minds about this book, and I am sorry for ever having passed judgement on the capacity of your intelligence)”.
Other than that you are not progressing your argument from your very first comment, to wit, I have already answered each of your points.
Subsequent to that, I feel that you are wasting time, and glibly so, when you don’t even put your name to your views. Plus, as far as “those seven little words” go, you have absolutely no right to tell me what I think is important, and that is the basis of the original post.
Full circle + QED.
Oonops here doesn’t seem to take any issue with the term “general reader”, either. To summarize my previous point, what the reviewer should really have said was “I personally didn’t find it accessible enough.” That’s totally acceptable and neither obnoxious nor cowardly. Cowardly like, you know, assuming a pseudonym in order to avoid the repercussions of being a blog troll.
“you have absolutely no right to tell me what I think is important”
Where have I done that? I was telling you what I think about what you’d written – you did ask. And what do rights have to do with it? Especially when you are happy with your right to speculate wildly about the psychology and motivations of your reviewer. You can’t really be surprised to be picked up on that, surely.
“You are not progressing your argument”
? Everything I wrote in the last post responded to your previous one. The penultimate sentence is repetition because I felt you had made the same mistake again.
Something tells me this isn’t going to be very productive.
mm… the software doesn’t seem to allow me to reply directly to Claire A.
She said: “To summarize my previous point, what the reviewer should really have said was “I personally didn’t find it accessible enough.””
I had previously said: “Would you be happier if they’d written “Not, in my opinion, accessible enough for the general reader”? Because I think any adult reader of the review would take that as implicit.”
So we would seem to agree on the main point at least, even if Claire A doesn’t think the “opinion” bit is implicit.
Meanwhile, JFDerry has edited his previous post to say: “To answer one specific point, if your previous premise is correct, then I would have preferred the reviewer to have written, “Not, in my opinion (which I admit is an inadequately informed one and therefore too ignorant in order to make a just assessment), accessible enough for the general reader (therefore please ignore this terminating sentence and feel free to make up your own minds about this book, and I am sorry for ever having passed judgement on the capacity of your intelligence)”.”
So he too would seem to agree to an extent. Our differences lie in whether we credit the audience with the ability to spot a subjective opinion when they see one. JFDerry can, Claire A can, I can. So why can’t other adults?
As for the name… I had cruel parents.
In response to “dumbing down” and accessibility a friend and I recently had a discussion about the movies connected to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The movies are in Swedish with English subtitles and contain a large part of the raw and sometimes disturbing content of the books. We both found the rawness and the Swedish perspective of these movies enjoyable. The discussion was around my friends’ annoyance of a Hollywood film being in production. Why do we need a Hollywood version of an already existing movie, especially one that is starring the current James Bond. The answer us “dumbing down” and accessibility to the general American public. Sadly, many of the megaplex attendees won’t go to a movie with subtitles. Hollywood will doubtless need to ramp up the action scenes as well as make the storyline easier to follow just so it will make it onto the megaplex screens.
Having lived in the US for many years I can attest to the general “dumbing down” of most pubic information in order to appeal to the general public. I find it insulting, unfair and a form of control. Like your reviewer trying to control other people’s access to your book via their opinion.
Monica and Claire have eruditely extended my original context to include the film industry and poetry (and literature at wide). Thank you both for your comments.
Sorry about the typos and grammar above, hastily written on the iPhone on the bus (now there’s something that dumbs me down!).
Knowing nowt about the book itself, nor the source of the review, and being only in a General Readerish way interested in the subject, I’d Devil’s Advocate slightly here on behalf of reviewers, having been one for many many years, and having only recently had my own review-text ‘subbed’ so that it did not render as subtly and gently as I’d intended the impression I had about a book I didn’t much like.
A further point I’d make relates to the view that those who review are not often not writers themselves (or not ones you’d have heard of other than as noisy reviewing machines) – there is definitely the opportunity for reviewers to loft their opinions and lob sweeping dismissals, to soothe envy or mete ‘justice’ as they see it, but that’s more often done by journalists than freelance reviewers. Journalists have thicker hides and can adopt seventeen different positions a day. Those who know the difficulties of the publishing world from their own time in the trenches tend to be a bit more careful about crushing the oeuvres of another author, in my experience.
However, every single letter of an unfavourable review hurts like a razor-cut, and it’s understandable that there is a fine tradition of authors pursuing critics and assaulting them with words, threatening them with violence, etc. Ant there’s the difference, again. The author has written his book with passion and conviction, and at the cost of his reputation; the reviewer is covering paper which will soon be fish-wrappings (okay, archaic, but you take my point?) and paying his rent. To give it any more value than that is probably not worth your energy, passion, etc
I’ve lately come round to the view that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ because I see it in action.
and sorry about the typos!
Don’t you just hate it when people leave comments on a website but hide behind anonymity? Kind of hard to take anyone overly serious when that happens…
The site is looking good, my friend. Keep the voice! 🙂
Yay you have a blog!
I’m glad your daughter is reading Shakespeare, I think she will get something out of it. I read some of the plays as a kid and found that I got quite a lot of the meaning without really knowing how. Context I guess. It helped when I came to study them later, I got really into them.
If it’s any consolation, there are a lot of people (myself included) who’d see something like what that reviewer wrote as a challenge, making me want to read the book all the more, just to see. I’d say it’s only inaccessible if you aren’t interested in the subject. Surely if you have an interest you will put the effort in.
I bet I look like an idiot here compared to your other commenters, I didn’t read the big argument as it scared me. But I wanted to contribute anyway. 😀
Oonops, my issue with the reviewer’s comment — and yours — is the use of the term “the general reader”. I agree with JFD that the phrase the reviewer used was both pompous and misguided, but I was more concerned by the reviewer’s mass generalisation than by his actual issue with the text. I also agree with you, that had he stated that this was simply his opinion, his review would have been totally acceptable. But by saying “Not, in my opinion, accessible enough for the general reader”, as you suggest, the reviewer is still a) claiming that there is such a thing as ‘a general reader’ (what, do we think, are the characteristics of this mysterious ‘general reader’?), which is ridiculous and b) using that generalisation in an attempt to add weight to what is actually just a statement of opinion. The reviewer is essentially saying “this book was too hard for me to understand.” My issue with the review is: have the balls to just say that, instead of pretending you have a spectral host of ‘general readers’ at your back, all agreeing with you!
Sorry, but this is a bit silly.
By ‘general reader’ I assume the mysterious reviewer (to whose review no link has been provided, which seems a little unfair), simply meant ‘someone who doesn’t already know very much about Darwin’s life/Darwin’s works/biology in general/history in general/the creationist movement/whatever’. Such people do exist, you know, and the reviewer was merely saying that they might have to look at other sources to fill in gaps in the story told in your book.
Now, I haven’t read your book, so I don’t know if this ‘accessibility’ comment is correct or not. I don’t know if these gaps in the story do, in actual fact, exist. But it’s rational to address the argument as made, not to get so terribly personally offended by someone offering constructive criticism.
I can’t stand reviewers who assume the “general reader” and the layman won’t be able to understand a book. Surely if you understood everything in the (science) book there wouldn’t be much point in reading it?
I will have to keep an eye out for Darwin in Scotland. I hadn’t actually hear of it until now…
No, you have the wrong end of the stick. My problem is when a review clearly recommends not bothering to engage with the material in a book. They are not saying supplement your reading, just don’t bother, and that is prescriptive and wrong. It is far from constructive and as a widespread trend, is predictably destructive.
Or put another way, what is wrong with a book asking the reader to think/engage? Feel free to click the sidebar links to find a copy of the book. Thank you.
Nothing, surely. If they don’t want to, they should stick to fiction!
That was my only issue with Dawkin’s “The Blind Watchmaker”, I felt like he assumed you knew absolutely nothing and built up from there, so I found the beginning of each chapter very dull.
My amateur review can be found http://irishwishesarespecial.blogspot.com/2010/08/blind-watchmaker-by-richard-dawkins.html
Fair enough, you don’t like the phrase “general reader”. I’m not too bothered by it, and agree with Stuart Ritchie below that it can be interpreted pretty straightforwardly.
Meanwhile, I’d still be interested to know why you – and JFDerry – think the reading public need it spelling out to them that the sentence in question is the reviewer’s subjective opinion when it is apparently perfectly clear to us here.
Very glad to see you blogging , JFD!
First can I say thank you, on behalf of your daughter, for being such an open-minded father regarding reading. You are doing her an enormous and enabling service – it reminds me of my father who encouraged us to read widely from a very young age. An early exposure to words (beyond the prescribed reading age or not) fired my early passion for story. I remember not understanding words (specifically ‘soporific’ in a Beatrix Potter story) but finding them mesmerising. Words are my natural medium but not all kids are alike, of course, as I discovered when I tried the same tactic with my daughter (she has a visual imagination and prefers her words in audio form). Two of my nephews do have that facility for the written word, however. I send them books regularly (most of them well beyond their ‘reading age’) so well done you and I hope she enjoys Hamlet and Midsummer Nights Dream and Romeo and Juliet (ooh the heady delights of first reading Shakespeare…)
Regarding this thoughtless reviewer – firstly, readers have a brilliant sense of the subtext. Much review copy is simply opinion these days (the days of erudite reviewers being mostly long gone) and readers know that. I follow two film critics and watch out for films they particularly hate because I know my opinion is generally exactly the opposite (those are the movies I choose to see in the cinema, rather than on DVD – it’s that reliable a method).
Secondly, the truth is a bad review does the same important job as a good review – it draws people’s attention to your book so they can investigate further if they are interested. Never in our history have people been able to undertake that investigation more easily (with everything available at our fingertips) I had a stinker once and in the national press – subsequent to the appalling and at the time hurtful comments, we sold a pile of copies.
On a wider note, I think reviewers (like publishers, in many ways) are in a difficult position. Technology has thrown open what were hallowed portals to the Masses. These people are less and less the ‘gatekeepers’ of our culture – and a good thing too, in my view. It’s simply their opinion (to which they are entitled). But I think many are struggling to come to terms with that.
You’ve written an interesting, intelligent book – if this person doubts the public’s interest in the material, it is very telling of him (or her) – not of you or what you’ve written. In fact, your response, if anything demonstrates how much you respect your readers.
Now – that’s quite enough of MY opinions, I think!
Can you link to the review, please?
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… initially, I had chosen not to post the review because the rest of it was blandly matter-of-fact, and did not seem to relate to the terminating sentence. Looking at it again, I now see that [it] clearly indicates how inaccurate the reviewer was in their assessment. Here is the post: Reviewing the Situation
Greatly enjoyed reading the arguments, sorry discussions above and thought I’d bore you with my tuppence worth. I am happy to be described as a general reader, in that I am not a scientist or a member of the god squad but that I do enjoy reading new material on any number of subjects and hopefully picking up a bit of knowledge along the way, however if I do read a review of a book in advance (which I’ll grant you is rare) then I could be put off by blatantly academic material as I would be unlikely to get anything out of it. However having read Darwin in Scotland anyway I find it difficult to see what the reviewer is driving at as I found it an engaging and enjoyable read..
Sorry, but I’ve always thought “accessibility” was fundamentally bollocks. I don’t really know what that means. I don’t believe it means the same thing to two people on the trot. I suspect it’s lazy reviewer speak; easier than describing with insight and accuracy what a book is about, what audience it appears to be pitched at, how well it is written, how true it is… any of the stuff that might actually be useful. If it’s for sale in a mainstream outlet it’s accessible for heaven’s sake.
OK: because it would have made the reviewer seem like less of a dick. But not-seeming-like-a-dick is obviously not something you’ve ever really thought about, so I can see why you’re finding this difficult.
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Very interesting comments. I would agree this is a typically poor review, which follows the standardised strategy I have noticed traditional mainstream reviewers usually keep to:
– A little background about the writer
– a little background about the reviewer (usually an author)
– why reviewer really, really liked the book
– the small issues the reviewer had with the book that exonerates them from being too positive
– summing up with an ambiguous call to purchase.
In your case, the reviewer has finished the review with an ambiguous call to purchase that has annoyed you because it will put off the “general reader”. I can only assume what he meant was that the book focuses on a particular aspect of Darwin’s life, and anyone looking for a more “general” overview of Darwin should read something else. The review shouldn’t put off Darwin enthusiasts but it may put off everyone else. A shame – I can imagine Darwin’s time at university is interesting and informative to the mark of the man. If only this reviewer hadn’t been so ambiguous.
Click Jungla if you want to read short, impartial book reviews – it’s a new concept for book reviews and we don’t make money from it through retail links or advertising. It would be great to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for your comment Patrick. My major gripe is not that the review will put off the “general reader”, but more that it suggests 1) there is a class of person that matches the description and 2) they do not have the capacity to engage with the subject.
Jungla looks like an exciting idea – perhaps a necessary tradeoff between review length and the diversity of literature covered. Good luck with it.
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“So reviewers and critics, let other people decide the value of something.”
In other words, a so-called right that you want people to have is something you would keep from those charged with doing so?
Hi Paul F Cockburn,
“charged”? Is this a divine right bestowed up critics? No. Commissioning editors and publicists hire reviewers; rarely is there a direct link between producer and critic. Case in point: your reviews for The Skinny.
Reviewing is a responsibility because it provides a cultural filter, and while that in itself should never been taken lightly, the vital continuum that should always be inherent to all reviewing, is to assess the material independent of audience. That is, do not judge the reader, and most definitely never, ever, tell people what they can or cannot read.
THAT was the point of this blog post.
I meant “charged” as “entrusted”; usually, in my case, by a book/literary editor on behalf of a magazine or newspaper.
I take the responsibility of reviewing books very seriously, if only because I understand the tremendous work involved. That said, my principle responsibility is to whoever commissioned me to write the review; as a freelance journalist, it’s literally my job to provide copy which is (i) coherent, (ii) matches the publication’s house-style, (iii) is the commissioned length, and (iv) delivered by the agreed deadline.
My second responsibility is to the readers of the review; it’s my job to give, as honestly as possible, my judgement on whether a book is worth their time. And their money. To do that I will, to a degree, consider the publication’s readership; I guess that is a judgement of a kind, but it’s part of my job, after all, to provide the kind of material that an editor assumes their readers want to read.
Ultimately, of course, no matter how ‘objective’ I try to be, a review is still just an expression of my opinion, and I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t read. But I have no hesitation in expressing an opinion on whether something is good, bad or indifferent — of making a value judgement that, in the line I quoted, you quite clearly suggest I (as a professional reviewer) shouldn’t.
(Thanks for responding, though; I find this kind of discussion really stimulating!)
Good answer Paul. I think you have identified the interface between content provision and content consumption, that likely generates the friction. Editors want opinion as it sells copy, and are usually quite relaxed about being patronising. Readers want opinion, because it’s more interesting, without being lectured to. The fine balance for the reviewer is pleasing both parties.
I still believe the most honest course is to present the strengths and weaknesses of the material, without assumptions about readership.
In my experience, readers want either opinions that match their own or are at least sympathetic or constructively oppositional. That’s why all magazines and newspapers, could be said to pander to their beliefs and prejudices; that’s part and parcel of attracting and keeping the kind of readership that is of value to revenue-providing advertisers. Whether that business model continues in the online environment is, of course, much debated. So far, I’ve only once reviewed the same book for two quite different publications; while my ultimate opinion on the book was the same, the ‘angle’ from which I approached the book was quite deliberately different.
Great to have your insights here Paul. Thank you. I think we are broadly in agreement, which is nice.