Friday, May 25, 2007

Comment: My Two Cents on Book Reviews

Though I fear it has been too long in coming and will be a bit underwhelming, I'd like to try to articulate my own thoughts on the nature and evolution of book reviews: mainstream media, blogs, print, internet, etc.

And it turns out living read girl's Lady T (who ought to have a paying gig as a cultural critic) got there first. To put it in a nutshell, she writes

It's like public school funding, the arts are the first ones to take the hit, while the football team gets their new uniforms. It's all about money to the corporations who run the newspaper/magazine industry,not quality vs. quantity.

Essentially, we (that is, bloggers and professional book reviewers, the internet and the newspaper) are not each other's enemy.

I mentioned some time ago the Wall Street Journal article which observed that publishers' allocation of advertising funds -- that is, spending money to get stacks of bestsellers front and center in chain stores, rather than on advertising in book review pages -- was linked to the demise of the book review pages. I think that factor, and its implication about the increasing consolidation of media companies, has more to do with the struggles of newspaper book review sections than does the emergence of literary blogs. Both the NBCC's campaign to save book editors and the Litblog Co-Op are reactions against the same trend. As a recent author in our store asserted (Eric Klinkenberg, author of Fighting For Air), the trend toward homogenization leads to a counter-trend of fragmentation and uber-indie underground culture. What suffers is the middle ground, the culture that you don't have to be a bourgeois zombie or a hipster of the arcane to desire and consume.

With the blame out of the way, I'd love to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of blogs and print.

I tend to think of things in terms of bookstores. Both a newspaper book review and a blog review could be said to be more browsable, or more findable, as I've described methods of shelving books. If you're a newspaper subscriber, you might find yourself reading a book review just because it's there, physically in front of you. If you're a web surfer, you might find a literary blog linked from some semi-related site, or you might search for a review of one book and find reviews of another. But you might also find a blogger whose tastes correspond to yours, and read every review they write and buy books based on their recommendations. Or you might read the New York Times or your local paper every week and set your habits by what is recommended there.

As the responses to my question seem to indicate, many (if not most) readers find their reviews of books they want to read from a variety of sources, both print and online, professional and amateur and utterly accidental. They find information about books wherever they can. If print options are available and credible, they'll go there. If a blog is speaking their language, they'll listen.

I feel unfortunately the "conflict" between bloggers and professional print reviewers has been couched in terms of Elitist Snobs versus Uninformed Masses. That seems pretty stereotypical and unlikely to be true, and I squirm uncomfortably whenever an author or a blogger makes an assertion in such terms. Though the debate may fairly be described as Amateur vs. Professional, the perspective and talent of someone talking about books can really only be accurately discussed on a case-by-case basis. Right?

I read a review of a biography of Virginia Woolf in the New York Times where the famous author cutely admitted she had never read any works by Virginia Woolf. (Okay, disclosure: I wrote my undergrad thesis on Woolf, so I'm a little sensitive.) And I've read some impeccably written but sneering blog reviews that cast aspersions on the education and intelligence of an author, their editor, and any reviewer who would dare to praise them. So the Elitist Snob thing and the Uninformed Masses thing can obviously go both ways.

There is a difference between getting paid for something and doing it for free. The difference isn't always one of quality, but it is one of filtering. As Andy Laties points out, "because the individual litbloggers don't have the institutional structure within which to operate, their resistance to co-optation by publishers will be less dependable." Having an editor, a format, and a wage makes for a level of impartiality that leads to the "credibility factor" that many authors cited for print reviews. It doesn't always work – lots of writers and reviewers are friends or enemies, of course, on account of they're people who live in the world, and no institution can or should eliminate all personal interest from a book review.

Blogs, on the other hand, have the benefits that come from no filter: their passion for or against a book, or their complex thoughts about it, are subject to no one's editing but their own. Most of the litblogs whose reviews are worth reading know more or less what they like and don't tend to write reviews hoping for another free book or a mention in the publisher's catalog. There's no reason for them to write unless they want to, and there's no reason for anyone to read them unless they like what they're writing. That can make for some crazies or duds, but it can also make for some powerful and impassioned writing and some creative ways of talking about books that can't happen in the slower-moving systems of an institution.

Finally, I want to address the assertion I've heard, even within the book industry, that people who read blogs don't read newspapers, or even that they don't read books. (I have to try to be articulate and careful, because this statement strike me as so ignorant I can start to see red.) Some people who read blogs on non-book issues perhaps do not read books or newspapers. That is because they are not particularly interested in books, and would be unlikely to read a book review section even if they found it under their plate at a restaurant. But people who read book-related blogs tend to be people who like to read in general. They are unlikely to read blogs about books and then not read books. And they are very likely to read about books wherever they are able, because that's what they care about.

If Web 2.0 means anything, it means less creation of content and more facilitating of conversation, on whatever topic one wishes. The conversation about books on the web is growing louder and more powerful and refining itself and throwing out new branches daily, and it is undeniably having an effect on the world.

The strength of newspaper, print, and magazine reviews is not that they are "better" than amateur reviews, but that they take that conversation into another portion of the world. They make the cultural dialogue about books important enough to exist alongside the news and the sports page. They give us touchstones, as the booksellers who responded can attest, that cross demographics and genres and levels of technological comfort. They give legitimacy and structure to the rich thoughts and words about literature that are happening in people's minds and mouths and on their computer screens.

Both the existence of literary blogs created by amateurs and the existence of book reviews written by professionals are necessary to a rich literary culture. To put it simplistically, blogs build audiences; print builds credibility. Both would be the poorer without the other. The more we talk about it, the harder it will be for any corporation looking to their bottom line to ignore it. It's all part of the conversation.

It may seem a bit Pollyanna-ish of me, but my wish is that reviewers of all stripes would band together like booksellers of all stripes, hanging together so that we do not hang separately. The more we snark about who is more talented or professional and who is undermining who, the more we make book reviewing a vicious and ineffectual backwater in the larger culture, and the less it becomes about the books. If we build on each other to enrich the conversation about literature, we combine grassroots and institutional foundations to create a rich and growing world.

There's lots more to say, and I hope it will get said. Feel free to share your agreement, disagreement, or expansion on these thoughts in the comments.


lady t said...

First off,thank you for your kind words there,WN regarding me and my blog(I would love to have a steady gig writing about the pop culture world we live in and hopefully someday,that may happen or the book I'm working on will sell like hotcakes-hey,a girl can dream now,can't she?).

You're not the only Pollyanna out there-I would love to see both blog and print reviewers work together to keep book talks alive and kicking. So does Sara Nelson,the editor-in-chief at PW(thank goodness they hired her!) and plenty of other people on and offline.

We just need to speak up for ourselves and try to find ways to help each other. Of course,there are folks like Time Magazine film critic Richard Schnickel who love to add fuel to the fire by writing op-ed pieces about how book reviewing should only be done by an "elite" group and not any Joe Blow with a blog. I was seeing red over that one,let me tell you!

Atleast we can all agree on one thing: we all love good books and want to do more to promote them.

bhadd said...

You read well; write well. Thank you.

2.0 has come but everyone knows what will be important. Conversations start things but noone wants talk--action is money honey!

Surely a unifying concept of promotion which you call "inclusion in grander framed worlds" will prevail and surely individuals will come about who direct it. You are nominated!

The Hood Company

FIONA said...

Those of us who love to read have the greatest opportunity in the history of civilization to find great things to read, and to discuss them with other avid readers.

The blog world has introduced me to so many great books that my TBR list is frequently reranked. I usually have a difficult time choosing which book to give as a gift because there are so many good choices that would be enjoyed by the recipient.

I still read the NYT book reviews, and get other "newspaper" book reviews online, but the blogs, and LIBRARY THING, have opened the floodgates for me.

StarStar said...

Fabulous post on the state of book reviews. As both a regular NYTBR reader (I work in a bookstore, it helps a lot) and a blog writer of books I've read & liked, I appreciate your praise for the existence of blogs as well as criticism for the attitude that comes from all points of book reviewing. All (too) true.

David de Beer said...

>If we build on each other to enrich the conversation about literature, we combine grassroots and institutional foundations to create a rich and growing world

I like that, very nicely put. Lately, there's a lot of talk about groups who believe themselves in conflict (in SF world, its gotten pretty heated around certain issues). My opinion - for the most part there is often more a perceived conflict than a genuine conflict.
Blogging is stil relatively new, in the grand scheme of things, and while it's true that blogging in general will likely decline, I actually think the literary world is the one aspect where it will continue to thrive.
So - we need as much talk and as much discussion as we can get, IMO.
And you're right about reviews being often colored because of writer/ reviewer relationships (whether print or blog), hard not to. This is where it's handy having more opinions, more options.
Very cool post this, very interesting, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thousands and thousands of books are published each year, and only a fraction of them get reviews in those newspapers that still have book review sections. Readers need filters, and bloggers that they trust are reliable filters. Each of us bloggers has his/her own voice, preferences, genre concentrations and critical background of one sort or another.

I agree with some critics that not every blogger knows what she/he is doing. But that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of good, solid reviewers and critics out there, many of whom have been published in print journals or even had a piece in a book. Time for the "war" to start, before it really begins.

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