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.