Thursday, May 03, 2007

BOOKS: What Do I Know. I'm Just a Book Blogger.

I just read this article in The New York Times, which discusses the fact that the literary sections of print newspapers seem to be on the slow road out of town, what with the popularity of book blogging and all.
To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.
Well, first off, I call shenanigans on that first sentence. From where I'm sitting, literary culture looks pretty healthy. Admittedly, my only way of gauging this is via the masses of excellent-looking books sitting on my to-read pile, as well as by the fact that I get to talk with all you nice folks out there every day about nothing but books, books, books. That's got to mean something, right?

Moving on to my main point, though, I've never really thought about sites like mine out-and-out replacing traditional media. Though, come to think of it, with the exception of
The Times, I don't actually read print media as it relates to books. Why not? Well, this bit from the article pretty much sums it up:
Edward Champion, who writes about books on his blog, Return of the Reluctant (, said that literary blogs responded to the "often stodgy and pretentious tone" of traditional reviews.
Over a year ago, I said pretty much the same thing, but I used a lot more words:
Because they appear on the printed page alongside articles about world events and local news, book reviews have somehow got it in their head that they are pieces of journalism. As such, writers of book reviews dwell in sensory deprivation tanks where their analysis of each book they read can percolate in a bubble of hermetically sealed objectivity.

Now, out here in the real world where a few of us live, books are read under slightly different conditions: while standing on buses, in hurried snatches in doctors' waiting rooms, while waiting anxiously for a phone call after a job interview, on beaches with a glass of sangria wedged firmly in the sand next to your towel, blurry-eyed by the light of the nightlight while rocking a teething baby.

Books are also obtained in different circumstances that affect our emotional response to them: as gifts from beloved friends or pass-alongs from hated co-workers, as found objects in rental cabins, in the mail from the bloody book-of-the-month club you keep forgetting to cancel, in the bowels of a used bookstore after years of searching.

There are a thousand other factors that make our experience of a book highly subjective: a dislike of certain authors and genres, a tactile distaste for hardcovers or for paperbacks, an irrational prejudice against a character because they share a name with someone you loathe, and even -- yes, it's true -- a visceral reaction to a book's cover.

So why, then, the pretense of objectivity, a pretense that's all the more ironic and unnecessary given that book lovers are the first people you can rely on to appreciate and understand -- and enjoy -- the environmental and emotional factors that colour your experience with a book?

Here's another thing about so-called book reviews: why is it so damn hard for reviewers just to come out and say if the book was good or not? Really, isn't that kind of the point of a book review? I don't need to read an essay that proves how clever you are. I just want to read enough of your writing to know if you're clever enough to trust with my next reading decision, then give me a yay or nay. Is that so hard? It seems like too many book reviewers are writing for the benefit of other book reviewers, or for publishers, or for some imaginary English prof who haunts their laptop. Somehow, the actual readers get lost in the crowd.
I still stand by all that, but it's not surprising that some folks in the literary community aren't thrilled about the rise of book blogging and the dearth of "real" criticism:
Coming as it does at a time when newspaper book reviews are endangered, many writers, publishers and critics worry that the spread of literary blogs will be seen as compensation for more traditional coverage. “We have a lot of opinions in our world,” said John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle. "What we need is more mediation and reflection, which is why newspapers and literary journals are so important."
Sure, maybe. Though it's interesting to me that, in a community where credentials are hazy and experts seem largely to be self-appointed (in both the print and online worlds), it doesn't seem to have occurred to critics of book blogs that book bloggers might also be capable of "mediation and reflection."

I'm not dancing on the grave of mainstream media. It seems like there are opportunities here... opportunities for newspapers and journals to look to the online literary community and see what makes it so dynamic and satisfying, and then apply these qualities to their own publishing. Like, would it be too horribly demeaning to write in a colloquial, reader-friendly way? Would it be so absolutely awful to publish reviews online and, gasp, allow readers to comment on them? Would it be utterly pointless to let reviewers write about books that aren't current releases?

The internet allows for so many things that print does not: immediacy, interactivity, hyperlinking. I think it's possible for a forward-looking journal publisher to take advantage of all these qualities and still retain its editorial integrity. But what do I know. I'm just a book blogger.


Rustybelle said...

Funnily enough Colleen over at has been talking about this as well.

Whilst I enjoy reading print reviews I find them terribly pompous sometimes. However, part of the enjoyment of the reviews is the manner in which I read them. Sunday paper in a beer garden with a packet of cigarettes. It's all part of a visceral experience.

Never has a print review convinced me to read a book or genre that I have written off. Online reviews have.

Why this here blog that you have encouraged me to reread some books I disliked, to see them in the light you and your commentors see them. It's made me a better, more thoughtful reader.

While all tastes aren't the same literary bloggers always infuse their posts with the basic love of books. Print reviews are written like it's their job (which I know it is but if I got paid to write about books I'd be the happiest ginger in the world).

Sorry for the essay.

Jennifer Goodland said...

I ultimately disagree with this statement:

Here's another thing about so-called book reviews: why is it so damn hard for reviewers just to come out and say if the book was good or not?

And my answer would be no.

The best book reviewers recognize that taste is subjective. A book so thoroughly awful it has no redeeming qualities would probably not be reviewed at all; a book so perfect it has no flaws whatsoever hasn't yet been written. So the reviewer has been tasked with saying what the author did well, what s/he feels readers will relate to, comment on the book's theme and connections to other works, and other things that help readers determine if they would like the book.

Taking, say, a Jungian exploration of love among the Amish and leaving all that out for simply "This book is good, go buy it" misleads the reader into buying a good book, then discovering s/he hates it because s/he hates Jungian themes. Had the reviewer said, as they do, "This is an effective Jungian exploration of love among the Amish; Freudians might balk at the lack of significance given to butter churns," that would be a quality review. Reviews that say "this is good" without giving detailed reasons why are even passed over on Amazon's user review system because they are devoid of significance.

That's also why we still have a thriving literary culture: people by and large know what it means to recommend specific portions of a book, and why you need justification to like what you like if you want anyone to mimic your taste.

Sassmaster said...

“We have a lot of opinions in our world,” said John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle. "What we need is more mediation and reflection, which is why newspapers and literary journals are so important."

I work as a magazine editor, and I have to tell you, it's not like there's some long vetting process for the people who write for them. They get hired the way most people do: a modicum of talent and because they know somebody. This arbitrary assignment of authority to print outlets is disingenuous.

However, I agree with AltoidsAddict. I enjoy reading book reviews that delve into the text and try to provide a context and give me some support of their opinion. I think reviews can be good reading in themselves, regardless of whether it leads you to a book. But I do like me some "stodgy and pretentious" sometimes.

This just sounds like more Internet-killed-the-newspaper-star hand wringing and that whole "what do the people on the Internet know?" bugaboo. Turns out we know a lot, so they should stop being so patronizing.

Hazel Stone said...

Well, if that is how you feel you should check out the book reviews at the Nation. Usually the books they review are academic and political, but every one I've ever read is anything but "hermetically sealed."

They talk about other books and influences on the author, why the subject is or is not relevant now politically -- all sorts of things.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that there is a boring and mistaken generalization that the internet as a whole, lacks criticality.
Now this is not specific to the book reviewing community - I had a similar conversation with the head of a top Canadian art college about this very thing - I said "wow, isn't it amazing that some of the most-viewed videos on you-tube have millions of views, as opposed to an 'official' cultural institution like the (insert name of your city here) museum of modern art, or even some of the top galleries around the world, who get excited about audience numbers in the very low thousands", and the head of the art college said that he finds that you-tube lacks criticality ...
but then i've just realised fairly recently that being intelligent doesn't just mean being critical ... and then there is the opposing view that blogging is all about citizens becoming active contributors to media as opposed to passive consumers of media

Jayney said...

I much prefer sites like yours when I'm trying to find the next great thing to read (or more often, when I'm not trying, since I already have a monstrous to-be-read pile), but I do like the sometimes greater depth and context that a lengthy printed review provides.

For that reason I continue to read the Globe's "Books" section, despite the fact I always forget to note which books sound good before recycling the paper (another benefit of online reviews, I guess!).

landismom said...

Great post, DG. I generally like book reviews that make it sound like the reviewer was at least as interested in reading the book as s/he was in sounding smart in the review. So the Times reviews hardly ever do it for me:)

Bybee said...

I love a good book review, but the beauty part of blogs is that people aren't always talking about the latest. They'll talk about anything and everything.

Jennifer Goodland said...

They talk about other books and influences on the author, why the subject is or is not relevant now politically -- all sorts of things.

And blogs have the same potential - look how many English graduates have them. *g* What blogs have in terms of potential that one usually does not see in print reviews is the trust of a person's taste. I read this blog regularly, so I have the ability to know (roughly) how the writer's tastes are. I know we disagree on some things, I know she has tastes I do not. She can establish a continuum of interest. In that way, blogging has the potential to develop an even bigger departure from simplistic "is it good or not" absolutism - it's rare that we like a review so much that we see what else that reviewer liked and get to know implied tastes as well as explicit review statements, but with blogs we do it all the time.

Poodlerat said...

After reading your post, it occurs to me that the one set of print reviews I bother with actually reads a lot like a book blog. The U of T's Bookstore Review is fabulous: it reviews regular and genre fiction, and tells you both the author's opinion of the book and enough about the plot to know if you'd want to read it yourself. It doesn't even confine itself to new releases. And I can pick it up on campus for free.

Basically, I like a print review that can do what book blogs do: interest me in trying something new.

Anonymous said...

Another POV on the issue. In case you're interested :)