The comfort of strangers

December 2006 / Prospect

There is something far too conventional about the way books are reviewed and discussed in our newspapers and cultural magazines. In spite of the power and reach of the internet, including online superstores like Amazon, the process by which books are selected for review and then evaluated remains largely unchanged from 40 years ago. It is extremely unusual for a new book not published in Britain to be sent out for review, even those American titles that are already so much part of the wider political discourse. Instead, we have to wait for the domestic publishing dates to come around, which can mean a very long wait indeed.

With the exception of Michel Houellebecq, whose novels are published in France before they are in Britain or the US, I cannot recall many recent examples of a foreign-language writer being reviewed here in Britain on first publication abroad. (The review in last month’s Prospect of Günter Grass’s memoir Beim Haüten der Zwiebel-Peeling the Onion-is an honourable exception.) As for being kept informed of what is going on in the world of books in other EU countries, let alone the rest of the world, the best place to start is not the established print media, but the blogosphere.

Much has been written about the revolutionary potential of our new age of blogging; about how, as the American journalist Trevor Butterworth put it in the Financial Times, power is “shifting from the gatekeepers of the traditional media to a more open, fluid information society.” The blogosphere is part of that new fluidity. It is estimated that there are as many as 28m bloggers, chattering away, I would guess, largely to themselves. They even have their own search engine, dedicated to finding out who is blogging about what - www.technorati.com. Too many blogs are simply works of narcissism, as boring to read as they must be to write-think of all those words, all that unpaid labour. It used to be said that everyone has at least one book in them; nowadays, it can seem as if everyone has a blog to write, and blogging at its worst is scarcely different from vanity publishing: listen to me, I need to be heard! To adapt the old Warhol maxim, it seems as if everyone can indeed be famous for 15 “friends” on the internet, where social networking is so cherished.

Yet for all the unedited excess and superfluity of the blogosphere-the banal commentaries, the instant opinions, the unreliable gossip-there are some fascinating blogs to be found. My favourites are, inevitably, the book blogs, the best of which can offer a powerful alternative to what you find in the weekly newspaper cultural supplements, with their static conventions and resolute parochialism.

Most mornings, before I read a newspaper, I switch on my computer and, after checking the BBC website, which is my homepage, I visit the weblog of the Complete Review. This is the most international of all the book blogs, offering daily links to articles of interest published anywhere in the world, dispatches on which authors are winning which prize and where, as well as pithy and often sarcastic commentaries on all the main issues. It’s a terrific site, and also offers a listing of other blogs to visit. Indeed, one of the notable features of the book bloggers is how supportive they are of each other; there does not seem to be much rivalry at all. They link to each other’s sites as often as possible, and comment on each other’s comments. So at moorishgirl.com, Laila Lalami (a US-based Moroccan novelist and journalist) will write about something she has read on Maud Newton’s blog, maudnewton.com (based in New York, Newton is one of the most prolific and influential of the literary bloggers), who in turn will mention something she’s seen on a third site. And so it goes on. There is, undoubtedly, something self-referential and parasitic about the whole scene: a terror, perhaps, of writing into a vacuum, of not being read. At least if you link to a fellow blogger, there’s a fair chance that he or she will link back to you, and then a conversation of sorts can begin. It could be called the comfort of strangers.

Gordimer’s traumas

One February day in 1997, I spent some time with Nadine Gordimer when she was in London to promote her novel, The House Gun. As it turned out, she did not seem particularly interested in talking about the new book. What animated her most was the politics of the country she had refused to leave even during the apartheid years. A close friend of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Gordimer is a long-standing member of the ANC, and that day she was robust in its defence, praising the policy of affirmative action. She even spoke well of Robert Mugabe. I asked about her most despairing novel, July’s People (1981), which is set in a dystopian South Africa ravaged by civil war, the smart suburbs of Johannesburg reduced to rubble and in flames. “I was more pessimistic then,” she said, briskly moving on.

Gordimer, who is 83, was recently attacked and robbed at her home in the Johannesburg suburb of Parktown. Recalling our conversation, I was not surprised when, rather than condemn either her attackers or the country’s terrifying crime problem, she preferred to reflect on the political traumas of the recent past and the legacy of apartheid-an ANC loyalist to the last.