One of my favorite things about book blogging is that it allows for a diversity of voices. If you have access to some books and the Internet, you can blog about books. I love that bloggers can discuss books that get ignored in the mainstream media, I love that bloggers can openly state their personal preferences, and I love that we can interact with each other on our blogs—that we can affirm one another’s thinking or perhaps push it a little further.
Often as a blogger, I run across posts and articles about book reviewing or writing about books. Some are helpful, some not. For example, when I started blogging, it seemed like the conventional wisdom for blogging about books was to keep things under 500 words and to liven posts up with pictures. Well, I dismissed that advice immediately. Most of my favorite blogs didn’t follow it, why should I?
But I do like to think about ways of improving my writing and—even more—my thinking about books. So I’m intrigued by discussions that challenge me to rethink and refine. (See, for example, this post on summaries from Amateur Reader or this one on bringing our own agendas to criticism from Litlove.) The key is to listen to and participate in such discussions and take on board the points that seem useful and ignore the ones that don’t, always recognizing that none of us can please everyone, and that we’re all entitled to preferences in the blogs we read and the blogs we write.
One of the most helpful (and affirming) such articles I’ve read was this interview with poetry reviewer Stephen Burt on Publisher’s Weekly’s PWxyz blog. The whole interview is worth reading, even if you aren’t into poetry, but there were a couple of points that stood out to me.
First, in answer to the question, “What function do your reviews serve? And how do you know—can you know?—if you’ve succeeded?,” Burt quotes Auden’s essay “Reading” from The Dyer’s Hand:
What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned he can do me one or more of the following services: 1. Introduce me to authors or works. 2. Convince me that I had undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough. 3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures. 4. Give a ‘reading’ of a work which increases my understanding of it. 5. Throw light upon the process of artistic ‘Making.’ 6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
I love this! It’s precisely what I enjoy most in book reviews or on book blogs and what I strive to do myself. I also love how it allows for a wide range of styles—note that he says he likes critics to do “one or more of the following,” not all of these things. I can think of bloggers who do each of these things extremely well, and my favorites excel in at least a couple of these areas, if not all of them. This description certainly doesn’t feel like a straight jacket, forcing everyone to write in the same way and about the same things in order to be a proper critic or reviewer. It fits in with my own tendency to define book reviewing broadly, so that it encompasses not just newspaper critics and academics, but also amateurs with an opinion. (I know some bloggers eschew the term review, but some of those self-same bloggers do one or more of the things Auden suggests quite well.)
But I also like that Auden’s description isn’t so loosey-goosey that I’m left with nothing to shoot for. If, for instance, I’m writing about a book that everyone has heard of by now, I’m unlikely to be introducing anyone to that work. So can I add to the literary conversation by showing how that work relates to others or how it relates to life (even if just my own life)? Or could I present a reading that increases others’ understanding or causes them to reevaluate? Perhaps. I’d certainly like to try! I enjoy being part of the literary conversation, and the best conversations don’t just repeat the same points over and over. Auden provides lots of options for advancing the conversation.
A second, more challenging quote comes in response to a question about what standards Burt might hold a poem to. This one comes from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity:
You must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good.
This, of course, requires that we try to figure out in what way a work is trying to be good, which brings on questions of authorial intent, and that’s not always easy to sort out. But I think it’s important to recognize that Deborah Harkness is probably not trying to be A.S. Byatt, even though both have written novels involving discoveries of manuscripts. This kind of thinking may be more relevant to certain kinds of writing about books than others—a personal, off-the-cuff reader response might take intent into account less than a more formal assessment would—but I do find that it’s a helpful thing to keep in mind when I’m writing. It certainly leads to more generous, but still honest, reviewing. (Litlove explains it more brilliantly than I could.)
What do you think? What kinds of writing about books do you find particularly valuable or enjoyable? If you write about books—on a blog or elsewhere—what are you trying to achieve?