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An earlier post looked at who reads scholarly book reviews, and pointed out how difficult it is to access them outside an academic institution. For John Gross, in his The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1966), this would come as no surprise; his book charts “the shaping of 19th century literary culture, and … its gradual decline”, accompanied by the rise of English studies in the university. Today, what you think about Joyce is largely determined by the university. The “decline” of literary culture is perhaps not so much a decline as a parting of the ways. The academization of literature is succinctly indicated in the difference between Google, the general search engine, and Google Scholar. The latter has been given access by most, if not all, the academic publishers to index content behind the subscription pay wall. Even though the content itself is not visible, you can, by searching on Google Scholar, get some idea of what content is available. But there is no mention of most academic reviews on the main Google platform, which most of us assume to index everything. The invisibility of academic reviews is, I think, rather disturbing.

When I searched for a review of Gross’s book on Google, I got a couple of hits for reviews in newspapers: The Independent, The New York Times, and from literary periodicals such as The New Criterion. But there were no reviews from academic journals. In contrast, a search for the same book in Google Scholar reveals several reviews available on platforms such as JSTOR, and literary periodicals such as the Victorian Review. Why don’t the academic publishers let their content be indexed on the main Google platform? It would not reveal the full text. And by not allowing it to appear, the academy, the body of institutions that make up the academic universe, is placed at one further remove from the general public. I have nothing against placing literary studies on a funded basis, for example to finance collected editions, or scholarly apparatus, but when academic content of this kind is removed from public access it casts a rather unpleasant shadow over academia. Why can these secrets not be told?  

The gulf between academic and general reviews is getting wider. Only a handful of publications attempt to bridge the gap, notably the literary periodicals, the New York Review of Books, The TLS, and the London Review of Books, for example. All of them are subscription-based, however, so their content is shielded from general view. A handful of sites and periodicals provide a fully open platform, for example the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the LSE Impact blog, which carries some reviews in the social sciences. At the same time, there is a notable decline in the number and length of the reviews in the national press; The Guardian, for example, dropped its standalone book review supplement in 2021.  Does this matter? I think there is some truth in what Peter Wilby wrote back in 2008 (in The Guardian, as it happens): the split between academic reviews and general reviews has led and continues to leave non-academic reviews moving towards a more populist standpoint (or more formally and pejoratively described as “the democratisation of opinion”. As Wilby writes,  

Newspapers may still claim an advantage in passing comment on politics, economics or foreign affairs because their writers have access to privileged information and can (sometimes) claim expertise. But anybody can read a book and say what they think of it, particularly if it’s fiction.

Let’s hope the trend towards open access means that reviews will, perhaps incidentally, become freely available. Perhaps they might also be indexed on Google. Some people might claim that nobody would notice; but I think such initiatives would provide a more genuine, and less negative, democratisation of opinion.