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Book reviews: Readability and Accessibility vs Literary Pretentiousness

Trolling the internet for interesting book news I have come across a disturbing trend in mainstream book review media. More and more the book reviewers seem to choose titles that are extremely highbrow and literary and in many cases inaccessible for most of the people on the street.


The Guardian in the UK released a list of ‘The Best Books of 2011‘ on Friday 25 November. Being the booky person I am, I pounced on the list and quickly found myself confused. Who reads these things? From obscure historical novels about Tudor Britain to extremely literary novels very few people have ever heard of.


Now this is not to say that these titles don’t have literary merit, but we have to factor in readability and accessibility when it comes to choosing ‘The Best Books’. The judges in this year’s Man Booker Prize did just that and immediately the “literary critics” and “book reviewers” got on their hobby horses and spewed criticism all over the internet.  The public however, gave a completely different opinion:

Accusations of “dumbing down” were levelled at this year’s Man Booker shortlist when the judges aimed for “readability” above all, but it turns out readability was exactly what the public were looking for after the six novels competing for this year’s prize became the most popular Booker line-up since records began.


At the end of the day this boils down to a discussion on the purpose of literature. Is the job of the author to dazzle with literary prowess or to entertain? Or is it to find a balance between the two? Looking at the books published in the last year, and best seller reports it is clear that the man on the street prefers entertainment over highbrow writing. Even though some of the books that stand out as bestsellers barely scrape through on the definition of literature it is heartening to see that the balance between substance and entertainment holds true for most of the books making waves in the world.


In a time where the future of the printed word is heavily discussed in both mainstream and academic circles, is it appropriate for reviewers and literary critics to make reading into an activity shrouded in clouds of literary pretentiousness that is exclusive to the intellectuals and the academics? Or should reviewers be introducing people to the joys of reading?


One thing that can be said, is that many of the South African reviewers do just that. Very few of them engage in literary pretentiousness, opting to rather maintaining a fine balance between entertaining titles and literary titles. A quick look through the titles reviewed by TimesLIVE, Women24 and book-maven Jenny Crwys-Williams showed a greater propensity to the accessible without compromising on quality. Should this not be what all reviewers should strive for? Bringing well-written and readable books to the reading public?


Keep an eye on the blog later this week, when I’ll share with you my top five reads for 2011.


What do you think? Is there a place for pretentious book reviews, or should book reviews speak to the majority of the book-buying population?

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