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Will Blogs Save Books?

I’m pretty sure I’d heard of this article before I read about it on Kim’s blog, but Kim made me sit up and take notice. The article I’m referencing is the column on The Huffington Post by Lissa Warren entitled Will Blogs Save Books? I take issue with quite a few things she states and would like to rebutt them here, as comments are closed on her article.

As there are SO MANY things I disagree with, I will paste her column here and add in my comments.

Major market newspapers have been downsizing their book review sections for awhile now, so I don’t think it came as a total shock to anyone when the Los Angeles Times announced last week that it’s laying off two of its books editors and folding its stand-alone Sunday books section into its Calendar section — presumably reducing the space for book reviews in the process. And, despite her being an excellent book review editor, I doubt that anyone felt blindsided when Connecticut’s Hartford Courant laid off Carole Goldberg around the same time. The writing about writing was on the wall.

But I’ll tell you what does make my jaw drop: the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs. To be sure, there are some excellent book blogs out there: Mark Sarvas’s The Elegant Variation. The National Book Critics Circle’s Critical Mass. MediaBistro’s Galley Cat. Jessa Crispin’s Bookslut. The Boston Globe‘s Off the Shelf. And, of course, the New York Times‘ Paper Cuts. They’re all bookmarked on my computer. I read them often for news on new titles (and older ones I missed) and Q&As with authors. Many of them are also good for stories on publishing trends, which as a book publicist and editor I appreciate a great deal. But, for the most part, these blogs don’t actually review books. Instead, they cover the business of books, book culture, and the world of the author. Yes, they often link to reviews–but, ironically, they’re usually of the dead tree variety. The book bloggers ferret out the most interesting reviews for us and sometimes provide incredibly cogent commentary on them–but they consistently rely on print book review sections to get the conversation going. Why? And, more broadly, why don’t we as readers give book reviews on blogs as much respect as book reviews in major market papers?

First of all, Ms. Warren mentions some book bloggers but then goes on to admit that these very book bloggers “don’t actually review books.” Then she complains that “book bloggers ferret out the most interesting reviews for us and sometimes provide incredibly cogent commentary on them–but they consistently rely on print book review sections to get the conversations going.” Um, okay. So show me the bloggers who do this. BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW ANY.

Besides the fact, the blogs you mention are not any I would read. They’re boring and dry and don’t show hardly any personality (I checked out a few of her “excellent book blogs” myself). That’s exactly the kind of blog I want to read. NOT.

“…why don’t we as readers give book reviews on blogs as much respect as book reviews in major market papers?” If that’s true, then why are book reviews in major market papers going the way of the dinosaur and us book bloggers can’t seem to slow the tide of ARCs coming our way for reviews?

I’m tempted to say it’s an issue of format. Blogs are, by nature, brief. They give the appearance of having been dashed off even though many bloggers (though I’d argue not enough) spend a good deal of time crafting their posts. For that reason, we tend not to assign them the same “weight” as the reviews we see in the San Francisco Chronicle or the Washington Post. But to judge a review by length alone would be a mistake. Look at the “Briefly Noted” reviews that can be found in The New Yorker each week. They typically run 125-150 words. Masters of economy, those folks — but they’re generally spot-on in terms of their assessment.

So if it isn’t just a “size” thing, what is it? Well, I think book reviews on blogs — particularly those of the Blogspot variety — tend to be self-indulgent. Book reviewing bloggers need to move away from opinion in favor of judgment. How does the book compare to — and fit in with — the author’s previous work? What’s the book’s place in the genre? The canon? Does the writer succeed in doing what he or she set out to do — meaning, is it the book they meant it to be? Whether it’s the book the blogger wanted it to be is of much less importance to me, frankly.

Perhaps the reason some bloggers’ reviews look “dashed off” is because blogging is inherently informal. If I have to write my posts like I’m writing an essay in English class, then forget it. But if I can start my sentences with conjunctions and leave run-on sentences as they are and write like I’m chatting with a friend, then I’ll keep it up. If you don’t like that style, then I suggest you stick with the blogs you’ve already mentioned, because they’re stuffy as hell.

“Book reviewing bloggers need to move away from opinion in favor of judgement.” What is the point of blogging if not to be effing self-indulgent. Blogging is the place that I can say, I can do what I want when I want to and I can make it look however I want. If I want to say like or alls or dude or WHATEVER, I can. More importantly, the reason I read bloggers’ book reviews is because I don’t want some pompous ass talking about things like What’s the book’s place in the canon. WTF? Canon? Really? If you’re recommending a book to a friend, do you really talk about the canon? HELL NO. You talk about whether the book was good or not. That’s what I want from my book bloggers, just like I want from my friends. Was the book good. I don’t care if the writer succeeded in doing what he or she set out to do. The only place I care about that is in the classroom and sometimes in my book group. Otherwise, I don’t give a shit.

I’d also advise that book reviewing bloggers jettison the use of personal pronouns (yes, I’ve used a slew of them here; you can nail me in the comments). And for goodness sake, I wish they’d stop telling me what their father and their girlfriend — or their father’s girlfriend — thought of the book. Also, I don’t need to know how they came to possess the book — how they borrowed it from the library, or bought it at B&N, or snagged a galley at The Strand, or got the publisher to send them a copy even though they average four hits a day. The banal back-story is of little interest.

Again, these are details your friend would tell you about a book, but not a professional reviewer. I’ll take my *friends’* reviews over a professional reviewer anyday. Besides, it’s the professional folk who decided that shit like Crime and Punishment and Ulysses are actually classics. I don’t have ONE FRIEND who would seriously recommend I read those books, yet they show up on professional lists all the time.

The book, however, is. And, for that reason, a little plot summary to help me navigate, and a brief introduction to the book’s main characters can go a very long way. It’s book reviewing 101–not rocket science, I’ll grant you–but it’s important not to let the informality of the venue serve as an excuse for forgetting the basics.

I realize the intrinsic irony. If people spent less time reading (and writing) blogs, they’d have more time to read books. So, yes, it feels a little funny to be asking bloggers to review more books — and to take more care when doing so. But I can’t ignore the power of blogs to stoke the public interest, any more than I can ignore the fact that the traditional book review outlets are drying up and no one has yet determined how to save them. No, I don’t believe blogs will save books — not in their current format. But I can envision a day when blogs do for books what books have done for people: challenged us, made us think in ways we never would have.

I’ll open it up to the floor now. What book blogs do you read, do they review and, if so, are the reviews as good as the ones in your daily paper?

All the blogs I read do give a little plot summary a brief introduction to the book’s main characters. I don’t know what book blogs Ms. Warren reads but it’s not ANY in MY Google Reader.

What do you think, my fellow book blogging friends? What do you think, those of you who read my posts or any other book bloggers’ posts? Do you agree with Ms. Warren? Should we make our reviews more professional? If you want a more professional review, then I’ll need to figure out how I can use the word canon in my next review.

| Tags: , , 42 comments »

42 Responses to “Will Blogs Save Books?”

  1. Wendy

    Excellent response, Trish! I agree – who the hell speaks of “canon” when talking to their friends about books. I also blogged on Ms. Warren’s ridiculous comments on my August 3rd Sunday Salon. But you were much better at saying exactly what I was thinking!

    [Reply]

  2. Christine

    Well, you could read something abysmal and go with “This book is so bad I’d like to shoot it out of a canon…”

    I prefer the informality of blog recommendations, and I enjoy the banal backstory. I know that when I score a load of books from the secondhand place I like to share that — and I’m always interested in how other people get their books as well. Did someone have a drawing? Did it come free through a ShelfAwareness ad? Is it a LibraryThing ER book? How a reader comes across a book definitely influences how they read it.

    I do think that she’s largely missed the point. I don’t think that many book bloggers aspire to become professional reviewers — I know that I don’t. To me, the book blogging community is more like a giant circle of friends all chit-chatting about books they’ve loved and hated. I do enjoy reading professionally published reviews, but am also certain that there’s room for both to exist. After all, professional and amateur reviewers serve different niches… I don’t see them as in competition with each other at all.

    [Reply]

  3. Jena

    I saw this article on another blog a little while ago, and I was as equally offended by her clearly unresearched article then as I am now.

    I very clearly express MY opinion of the books I review. I usually try not to read reviews of books on my TBR list because I don’t want to be reading and find myself thinking about what other people thought. But mostly I try to pepper my reviews with thoughtful opinions (and occasional bits of literary analysis, ’cause I have an MA in English and I can’t help it).

    And no, I don’t tend to read professional reviews–except for the last paragraph or two to see if the reviewer actually has an opinion of the book they’re supposed to be reviewing, instead of a running commentary on the writer’s whole career.

    [Reply]

  4. Planet Books

    I think that Ms. Warren is just worried about the things she perfers going away. I blogged about this same topic on my blog but then expanded on it a bit for an article on A ‘n; E Vibe.com

    http://www.anevibe.com/my-articles/view-110.html

    XO-K

    [Reply]

  5. Jeane

    Hear hear! I agree with EVERYTHING you said. What an abysmal article. Book bloggers are great because they are friendly, informal, and tell you what you want to know about a book: the opinion of someone you trust. Reading analysis of style, etc. is boring and makes me feel like I’m back in school. That’s not why I read. (Or write). I can’t imagine what the comments look like on the original article. Off to see now!

    [Reply]

  6. Chris@bookarama

    Amen!

    [Reply]

  7. Becca

    The beauty of the whole concept of blogging is that it’s personal- that individuals are able to create their own forum to express their views and opinions about books (or snowboarding or knitting or cigars or whatever they’re passionate about.)

    Certainly there are those who like the stuffy, technical, erudite literary approach to book reviews, and I’m glad to know there are book review blogs for those kinds of readers.

    But I bet the vast majority of the reading public, the ones who are keeping these massive book store chains and bookbuying websites in existence, prefers to read a pithy commentary, complete with personal opinions, from a reader who approaches the book in much the same way they would.

    So why do we need to dictate the way it should be done?

    Great post! You did a fine job taking on this issue ๐Ÿ™‚ Good for you!

    [Reply]

  8. Michele

    How many of us started our book blogs because friends were always asking for recommendations? Or because we wanted a place to ‘log’ our thoughts on books so we could reference them ourselves later? And it evolved to sharing our thoughts on the book? I don’t have ANY visions of being a professional reviewer. Heck, I don’t even know what canon is! LOL But I do know what books I like, what I don’t and have been working on explaining the why’s of both. And I love hearing that from others, especially people who I get to ‘know’ through their choices and reactions to books I read. That way I can get to know whether I will like another book that they liked or not.

    To be honest, I never read the professional reviews (nor do I read the professional movie reviews). But I thoroughly enjoy reading what bloggers think of books because it’s more like I think and talk.

    Good response! Thanks for the discussion.

    [Reply]

  9. Meghan

    I completely agree with you – I saw this on another blog a few weeks ago and she had pretty much the same reaction. This woman clearly isn’t reading our blogs. I prefer the personal, chatty type atmosphere; I’ve come to think of a lot of my fellow book bloggers as friends, and I trust a friends’ recommendation way more than someone in a newspaper who attempts to “place” the book in a literary canon and evaluate whether the book is what the author meant it to be. I was an English major – I’ve had enough of that in school! I read blogs to find good books, not to tear them to shreds.

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  10. softdrink

    Great response!

    I prefer your canon of blog posts (and everyone else’s canons, too) just they way they are. I want to know what readers like me think, not some hoity-toity reviewer. And I much prefer off the cuff blog posts over articles written with the help of a thesaurus.

    Double bonus points if you can use canon and cogent in your next blog post…but only i you can do it without sounding like a pompous ass.

    [Reply]

  11. Kim L

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Pompous much?

    [Reply]

  12. Melody

    Excellent post, Trish!
    I agree with your points. Enough said. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    [Reply]

  13. Florinda

    Did any of us know books were in trouble and needed saving? That’s news to me!

    Most of the book-related blogs she mentioned are tied to mainstream-media or book-industry outlets, and I don’t think that’s what most of us think of as “book blogs.”

    I don’t aspire to review books professionally, but I try to post reviews that are both informative about the book’s content and expressive of my opinion, which of course is going to be personal. And since many of us are reviewing books we receive for free – from early-reviewer programs, publicists, and authors – I think it’s important to mention that.

    Great response, Trish!

    [Reply]

  14. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    Oh my gosh, this was hilarious. I was much too serious in my response when I blogged about this!

    But you articulated beautifully the nature of blogging and the nature of book blogging.

    Book bloggers love books..and that passion shows up in things like talking about why we picked up the book and whether or not this that or the other element worked for us.

    A professionally written review is a fine thing, but I never read them.

    BUT I’d like to say that a blog takes a lot of time…and I get offended by these dashed off comments. Sure maybe you can write an essay if you have a week to write it, but if you’re trying to keep an active blog it’s not so easy.

    Well there you have it. The article that birthed Book Blogger appreciation week! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    [Reply]

  15. Jessica

    Hear hear! I think the main problem with the article was that the author was clearly uninformed about the beautiful book blog world.

    [Reply]

  16. Jen Forbus

    Bravo Trish! First I have to say I totally agree about Ulysses. I’m dumbfounded every time I see that blasted book on another “best” list. I HATED it…that’s my opinion, I guess, but my opinion is what keeps me from ever considering picking the book up again. The only reason I did to begin with is because it was required reading.

    Opinion is important. And the best bloggers explain why/how they came to their opinions. Most people choose books based on their likes/dislikes; reading and what constitutes a good book is very subjective. This isn’t a black and white area.

    If Ms. Warren wants to explain how a book fits into a canon, maybe she should be writing for literary journals…

    [Reply]

  17. webster12

    that was mean!

    hmmn…Ms. Warren those book bloggers you were referring to were talking about they’re experience in having the book and reading it. As for me it’s better than reading reviews from magazines and newspaper…those bloggers are the real deal! like friends whom you can ask..is the book good or bad? that’s all we want to know, right?

    [Reply]

  18. Ladytink_534

    โ€œTheyโ€™re boring and dry and donโ€™t show hardly any personalityโ€<— I totally agree! I too checked out one or two of these and *yawn*! If I wanted a โ€œprofessional (read: slightly boring) review then there are plenty of places to look. I read blogs for opinions mainly and I write blogs to help me remember later down the road what a book is about, what I thought of it at the time, and share those books too.

    [Reply]

  19. Lezlie

    I’ll take blog reviews over the “pros” any day, any time.
    Lezlie

    [Reply]

  20. Susan B. Evans

    I think people enjoy our reviews because we write informally, as if talking to a friend. If I want to read a professional – dry as toast – review, I’ll check out some of the blogs mentioned in the article. But mostly, I want someone to “tell it like it is” – a real person’s review, not some cardboard, English lit. class stuff.

    [Reply]

  21. Rebecca

    I was contemplating writing a rebuttal to that article myself, but I think you’ve said it all, Trish! I wholeheartedly agree that she missed the mark and must have not done very good research if she thinks the blogs she listed are representative of what happens in the real book blogging world.

    The beauty of blogs is that they are written by amateurs–we don’t use fancy essay formats; we don’t talk about the canon (although I do love Crime and Punishment and think it deserves its place there); and we don’t put much stock in what professional reviewers have to say. Many of us, however, would be entirely qualified to do those things if we wanted to (I minored in English and graduated from a fancy private college with a 3.98 gpa, so I’m pretty sure my critical essay could kick ass). But we choose not to because really, isn’t it more satisfying to share a passionate but casual conversation about something you love than to get into a dry academic discussion?

    If the professional reviewers had much skill in writing about books in a way that educated everyday people could appreciate and understand, we wouldn’t be doing this….but instead, we come to book blogs to read reviews written by people with similar lives, similar interests, and similar reading habits. And we trust what they have to say.

    I’d like to suggest to Ms. Warren that she take an afternoon to check out what’s really happening on book blogs, then update her blogroll, and get her head out of her arse.

    [Reply]

  22. bookroomreviews

    Bravo! and ditto to above about her head.

    [Reply]

  23. chartroose

    Oh good God! Will they ever shut up about this? “Professional” book reviewers have a niche, and so do book bloggers. One does not detract from the other and one is not better than the other…they’re just different, that’s all. If the pros are losing their jobs, it’s not our fault–it’s the fault of the corporations they’re working for.

    One trend I have noticed is that more and more authors and agents are gettiing in touch with me. I’m turning down from 5 to 10 books a week. I think this, more than anything else, shows the real future of “professional” reviewing. Don’t you?

    [Reply]

  24. Blogs saving books? A conversation, part 1 « Word Lily

    […] the other: Quite a few book […]

  25. Will Entrekin

    This was an absolutely excellent post with great commentary, Trish. I’m familiar with most of the blogs Warren noted (Elegant Variation, BookSlut, et al.), but you’re very much right about their execution. In fact, I used to frequent those until I found you and Chartroose and Sam over at BookChase and Books I Done Read and several other just terrific blogs.

    I think the great thing is that we’re seeing a democratization of publishing and books, much like we’ve seen with music. The sorta snooty idea that one needs a degree in literature to appreciate fine art might well be on its way to becoming a thing of the past, replaced by the much better idea that we as readers know what we like, and that’s what counts.

    I find all this commentary funny, in fact, because all these “critically” responsible posts pondering the future of books in an online world seem to miss the point spectacularly: the only thing that will save books is not better marketing or new blogs or etc., but rather good books, of which there are entirely too few.

    [Reply]

  26. mellymel

    i think what us “common” readers love about book blogging (the real people ones, not the “pros”) is that we don’t need to go by any rules or feel pressure that we’re using the correct literary terms. not my job and not want i want to read. i want to know if you liked it and why or why not. that’s all. the fact that you’re funny & have fabulous taste is a bonus ๐Ÿ˜‰

    [Reply]

  27. Matt’s Bookosphere 8/22/08 « Enter the Octopus

    […] Will blogs save books after all? […]

  28. Suey

    Perfect perfect! I love all your comebacks.

    [Reply]

  29. Sarah

    I really like your reviews. I keep a list of books that you’ve reviewed that peak my interest so I can either get them from the library or the bookshop.

    [Reply]

  30. Debbie

    My father, my girlfriend, my father’s girlfriend, and I all love your blog, and a handful of others very similar to yours, for all of the reasons you point out. I love blogs about books, even blogspot ones, because they are like asking a good friend, “What have you read lately?” I would never read any of those stale, dry, impersonal ones she reads for numerous reasons, but mostly because I can’t tell what their motivation is for the review. Your blog is great and I am sorry you were deeply offended by her. Keep up the good work.

    [Reply]

  31. CB James

    I’m with you on this one. Another reporter who doesn’t really know what she’s talking about.

    But then what do I know? My blogs a blogspot blog.

    [Reply]

  32. literaryfeline

    You always know just the thing to say, Trish! I agree with you full-heartedly! Except the part about Crime and Punishment. It’s one of my favorites. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    [Reply]

  33. Nithin

    Great article! I think you summed up the opinions of all book bloggers there. ๐Ÿ™‚

    [Reply]

  34. Jessi

    Canon schmanon! =) I agree with your comments. I put a lot more stock in the opinions of book bloggers than stuffy judgement of formal reviewers (whose pieces are generally a snore). I like the informality and conversational style of blogging.

    [Reply]

  35. Jeane

    As long as there are readers, there will be books! I don’t think any of us need to worry about books needing to be “saved”.

    [Reply]

  36. Ruth

    In my other life, I used to write book reviews for academic journals and I hated them. Unless it’s absolutely required reading, I never read professional book reviews, because never has one convinced me that I should actually go out and buy the book in question. Book bloggers, on the other hand, are singularly responsible for the increase in my TBR pile this summer. I’ve found so many great books, like The Pink Forest by Dana Dorfman, for example, just by reading the recommendations on other peoples’ blogs.

    [Reply]

  37. Jill

    Dear Lissa,

    Your article is pretentious.

    Love,
    All Book Bloggers

    ps: I secretly think your name is Lisa and you were one of those girls in middle school who added an extra “s” because you thought it made you more interesting. Like all the Kelly’s who became Keli in 1991.

    [Reply]

  38. Dawn

    Hi, Trish,
    I’m a first-time visitor to your blog, but will be back! Interesting perspective and I believe that blog reviews fill a completely different niche than, say NY Times reviews. Both are valid in their own way.

    The blogosphere is so ginormous it’s hard to generalize, but yes, some blogs (even book review blogs) are so poorly written, I really wonder if the bloggers have any right to criticize *other* people’s books!

    However, if you know where to look, and spend some time weeding them out at the start, there are a number of fantastic book review blogs out there.

    I don’t think any of them will “save books,” primarily because I don’t think books are in need of saving. I don’t think they’re going away. And, book review blogs to encourage reading are kind of “preaching to the choir,” anyway…. those inclined to visit book review blogs are already readers, presumably, looking for the next enjoyable find.

    One thing book review blogs ARE doing successfully–in much the same way downloaded music is shifting support from big record labels to independent musicians–is making it easier for first-time authors or authors published with smaller houses to make a name for themselves, get some great publicity and hopefully increase sales.

    One blog I know of that is doing that is Mary Lewis Blog Stop Book Tours. (Sorry for the shameless plug, as I’m a reviewer on her tour, but you DID ask for good review blogs. LOL ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) www.http://blogstopbooktours.wordpress.com/

    Since I’m shamelessly plugging anyway, you can check out my latest review on her tour here. http://allcotmedia.blogspot.com/2008/08/book-review-smart-one.html

    [Reply]

  39. Heather Johnson

    I already had this post marked (as well as lots of others by other bloggers) as reference material for the panel I’ll be on. Thanks for reminding me. ๐Ÿ™‚

    [Reply]

  40. pumpupyourbookpromotion

    Fantastic rebuttal. I hate to take a stand on this but they are dry. I don’t want to call them boring…I would just say they are for people who like that sort of thing…I prefer a fun blog, less dry. As a matter of fact, your blog is one I do admire, so keep up the good work. I will visit often!

    [Reply]

  41. Anna

    Amen! I don’t give a squat about the canon, and as an English major, I had to endure many conversations about it. I prefer book blogs over professional reviews because they are down to earth. I prefer when someone says “I liked the book because…” Include all the personal pronouns you like if it makes me feel like I know you. And what I really want to know is why does she think her opinion about book blogs is important? I see a lot of “I’m tempted to say” and “I’ll tell you” in her article…what happened to leaving out the personal?? I think the fact that we’re bombarded with ARCs and have authors emailing us to ask if we’d review their books is proof enough that us book bloggers are important!

    [Reply]

  42. Michelle Zink

    Great, great post.

    This kind of thinking smacks of the same eliticism that make literary fiction seem unapproachable to the “average” (i.e. most of us) reader.

    As a writer who frequently communes with review bloggers and sees them as integral to reaching as many readers a possible, I find it offensive and distasteful. It is short-sighted in the extreme to dismiss en masse a group of people who spend their hard earned time and money thoughtfully reading and reviewing books simply because they aren’t part of the traditional establishment.

    Times they are achangin’…

    Let’s judge each reviewer individually and on the merit of their work without slapping an “irrelevant” label on them right from the get-go, shall we?

    [Reply]

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