Sunday Salon: Writing About Books

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?

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33 Responses to Sunday Salon: Writing About Books

  1. Harriet says:

    This is a great post — really helpful and thought-provoking — thanks. I must admit I rarely think about what I’m doing when I review books on my blog, but Auden’s definition says it all, really and I guess it is my aim to do at least one of these things in my reviews. And you are so right about why we enjoy reading blogs — all this is really helpful to me as this is something I am thinking about a lot at the moment.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Harriet. I go back and forth on how much thought I give to these things when I write posts. I figure that if, overall, I’m doing a few of the things Auden suggests, I’m doing ok.

  2. gaskella says:

    You’ve got me thinking Teresa, a great post. Auden’s definition seems great – but by necessity it doesn’t give room for personal opinion. This is where bloggers come into their own for me – by telling us why we like or dislike books, and once I get to ‘know’ a particular blogger, I tend to value their opinions more than dry critical ones.

    One area I do struggle with is summarising books. I like to often chose reading matter that is not so widely read, or off-beat and quirky. So I feel I have to give more of a flavour of the book than can be achieved in one clause – I don’t think I’ve ever managed that! I try though to concentrate on outlining the first part of a book in some detail, and then give scant info on the rest as appropriate, but never spoiling major plot turns, twists etc – although it is fair enough to hint of their existence sometimes.

    I’m sure though, that blogging has improved both my writing and critical thinking no end – which can only be good. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I actually think that Auden’s definition does give some room for personal opinion, especially points 1, 2, and 4; but you’re probably right that it’s not an emphasis. What I like is that his definition pushes toward something more than “I liked it because it was good,” which is only helpful with bloggers I’ve gotten to know–and to be honest, I probably won’t take the time to get to know bloggers whose posts never go past that.

      I find summarizing a struggle too. The Wuthering Expectations post I linked to was helpful for getting me thinking, but it’s hard. People have such differing opinions about how much information is too much. I think you do well giving a flavor of a book. That’s what I strive to do too, but with varying degrees of success

      • gaskella says:

        You’ve convinced me. Reading Auden’s definition again, I’m with you on those points and agree one should always explain why you think something is good/bad.

  3. litlove says:

    Thank you for linking to me! That’s so nice. And i love the definition you quote from Auden. I think basically I’m looking to read and to write reviews that open the book up, rather than close it down. That sounds a bit abstract, but I mean writing about books that draws my attention to all their richness and the things I haven’t noticed for myself, or new ways of thinking about what I read. When I find that, I experience a palpable excitement, a thrill. It makes reading a very special activity.

    • Teresa says:

      I really loved that post, and it was so timely because I had been tinkering with this one throughout the week! Like you, I love reading reviews that help me see a book in a new way.

  4. I think you pose some interesting questions, especially the last one..

    “If you write about books—on a blog or elsewhere—what are you trying to achieve? ”

    If I were to say what I am trying to achieve would be several things really by writing on the blog I am telling the world about a book someone may have never heard of giving that author the chance for spotlight. By reading books and critiquing them I decide what I do or do not want to do with my own stories and hope that my own opinion does not make a writer stop from working his/her life work because of my critique. I don’t want people to take my word for what I do or do not like therefore I want them to maybe read the book and decide for themselves what they think. That is why when I try to write a review I try not to spoil to much but hint at what is going on in a story…

    You have definitely made me think…I may not always fully understand what I read or be able to critique to the highest abilities as some, but I feel I still have my own voice and I feel it needs to be heard.

    • Teresa says:

      Your goals are definitely good ones! I agree that every reader’s voice has a place in the conversation and I too like to encourage people to read for themselves and decide.

  5. I love that quote! You make a great point that it gives flexibility in reviewing — what are you trying to achieve with writing about the book, depending on the context of the book (very popular, unknown, genre, etc.). I hadn’t noticed that the quote doesn’t leave room for personal opinion until I read gaskella’s comment, which is an interesting point to consider too.

    • Teresa says:

      Great point that not every book can be approached in the same way. It’s not just a matter of each reviewer having a different emphasis (which is what I mostly had in mind), but the same reviewer might view different books through different lenses.

  6. cbjames says:

    I think Auden sums up my own intent. Typically I’m trying to do #1, #2 and #4 most often. Beyond that book blogging provides me a platform, sometimes a discussion forum that I don’t normally have. Unfortunately, I do not physically know many people interested in reading all of the material I read. My blog gives me a way to talk about a book after I’ve read it that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    That does bring personal opinion into the mix which separates what we do as book bloggers from what Auden wants a good critic to do. If you forced me to choose, I’m more interested in Auden’s form a criticism than I am in personal opinion. I just don’t think we can go very far with “why I liked it” or “why I didn’t like it.” We just end up stating our feelings without having anything more to say. Auden’s other points can all lead to discussion, to debate, to greater understanding of the book and its place in the world of books.

    As for my own posts, I decided not to feel obligated to the plot anymore. I’ll provide a summary if I have to, and if I don’t really have anything else to say, but I’m trying to come up with something interesting to add to an on-going discussion or to lead people to an author or book they might not otherwise read. The plot is not only not the best way to do this, it can sometimes hinder me.

    • Teresa says:

      I definitely see 1, 2, and 4 in your reviews.

      And great point about getting beyond personal opinion. I appreciate knowing whether people enjoyed a book or not, but I also want to know why and how. It’s hard, though, to really discuss likes and dislikes. And if discussion is what we’re after, we need to offer some meat to chew on.

      I’m still struggling with the plot question. Someone over at Wuthering Expectations offered the rule of thumb to only summarize what we intend to use in our reviews, which is helpful, but I know I don’t always stick to that.

  7. Becky says:

    When it comes to reading reviews of books I haven’t read, I am mainly trying to see if a book is for me or not for me. I’m looking for a good mix of what the book is about, the flavor or style of a book, and personal opinion or personal reaction. If a reviewer can convey why they liked or didn’t like a book, what made them so upset or frustrated or what made them so happy and satisfied, then that’s a job well done in my opinion. Someone could write a negative review of a book in such a way that I’d want to pick up the book and read it for myself. Or a person could write a positive review of a book in such a way and I’d know it wasn’t quite for me. So I find both positive and negative reviews to be of value :)

    When it comes to reading reviews of books I’ve read, I look to see if I agree or disagree. Did they read it “the same way” I did? Did they notice things I missed? How did they feel about my favorite characters? my favorite scenes? Did they share any quotes? Did reading the review make me want to reread the book?! I see these reviews as more of a place where discussion could develop. And, I’m not saying that it’s only the reviews that I agree with that I enjoy reading. Sometimes it’s the reviews that had a different reaction, a different viewpoint, that I find the most challenging, the most thought-provoking.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve often read negative reviews that led me to read the book. A well-done negative review, one that grapples with the book, can get me curious in a way just “I LURVED it” cannot. And I too have read fabulous reviews that I disgreed with but still found interesting. Sometimes they change my mind, sometimes they don’t, but I like that they got me thinking.

  8. Frances says:

    Also appreciate the Auden quote for a number of reasons especially #4. Not that I am capable of shedding light on points that others might have missed but I am always conscious of the fact that I do not want to say the same things that everyone else has said. This sometimes means that I am short on summary and long on focus of small portions that I felt distinguished the work. I love that we all are reading the same books sometimes. I do not love when those reviews posted at the same time say almost exactly the same thing. Especially the copied and pasted publisher summaries. The posts that draw my interest are those where I hear something really authentic from the blogger. Where did you really connect to this work either on an intellectual or personal level? Otherwise all the post becomes is something akin to the throwaway comment we all decry. Does that sound harsh?

    • Teresa says:

      Well, it may sound harsh to some, but I agree with you :). I’m especially not a fan of using publisher summaries. Their purpose is to sell the book, and so they may leave out the most interesting stuff or emphasize the most salable points. Plus, it’s boring to see the same thing again and again–I’d rather know what the reviewer thought was worth mentioning.

  9. The entire Burt interview is outstanding – its clarity is remarkable.

    Auden is also admirably clear, too. I wish I were better – something besides useless – at #6. litlove spends good part of her time working that ground, as does, for example, Anecdotal Evidence, or see Pykk’s complexly winding post from earlier today.

    I am puzzled by the call for “personal opinion.” Auden’s essay, like those of any great critic, are full of his personal opinions, forthrightly stated. They are also full of his personality, his style. Who are gaskella’s dry critics? Who are the wet ones? Auden, in my opinion, is anything but dry, in everything but his wit.

    Empson’s quote does not, I would suggest, point us toward authorial intent. He is anthopomorphizing – the text has its own intent. The author is an auxiliary figure. The author may fail at what he intended, while his text succeeds brilliantly in ways he never guessed. Consider any anonymous text – we infer the intent of, say, the author of Job by reading the text.

    I want to answer your questions at the end – what kind of writing about books do I find particularly valuable? Great writing about books, regardless of subject. What am I trying to achieve in my own criticism, really? To write well.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel like taking the whole interview and taping it to the wall next to my computer, except that I work on a laptop, so no wall.

      I hope Annabel will weigh in on what she means by personal opinion. I suspect that she’s talking about whether the reviewer liked the book. Auden’s suggestions don’t emphasize that, but they leave room for it—and certainly discussing some of the things he suggests requires personal opinion. (I am interested in whether people like a book, but I’m more interested in what the book made them think about.)

      And that’s a good point about the Burt quote. I probably exposed my own bias there, because I’m interested in what the author set out to do, even an anonymous author. But certainly a text can express ideas the author never intended and ferreting those ideas out can be interesting, too.

      • Oh. Really? That’s it?

        “As for his [D. H. Lawrence’s] poetry, when I first tried to read it, I did not like it; despite my admiration for him, it offended my notions of what poetry should be. Today my notions of what poetry should be are still, in all essentials, what they were then and hostile to his, yet there are a number of his poems which I have come to admire enormously… what fascinates me about the poems of Lawrence’s which I like is that I must admit he could never have written them had he held the kind of views about poetry of which I approve.” (The Dyer’s Hand, p. 278)

        Lots of room. Endless room.

  10. DrGranma says:

    Oh, that quote from Auden! Amazing. It also, I hope, will let the reader approach their reading in a new way as well. I like to write about books in my blog (not really reviews) and am member of two book groups. I am sure considering this quote will make writing about and discussing books more meaningful.

    Thanks again.

  11. Jeanne says:

    I’m always trying to give a reading of a book, as if other people are interested in what I think. All of this gives me lots more to think about…

  12. Jenny says:

    Excellent post! :) I particularly love it when a review does number 2 — there are many authors and many books that I’ve given up as a bad job, and then bloggers’ enthusiasm about them made me reconsider. Even if I don’t end up loving the books, I rarely regret giving them the second try.

  13. Lu says:

    My posts are always so long! Every once in a while I think to myself, I’m going to make this post under 500 words. Then I laugh to myself when it gets closer to 800… 900… 1200. Oh, well. I never promised anyone I would write short reviews! I do always like to have a picture in mine, though :). Thanks for that link about critiquing poetry, I’m excited to read it and I also love that quote. That’s what I truly try to do with my book reviews too.

    • Teresa says:

      It became evident to me very quickly when I started blogging that I could hardly ever say what I want in under 500 words, so I don’t even try. It’s a “rule” that’s made to be broken, as far as I’m concerned!

  14. Pingback: Tuesday Miscellany & Links » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  15. rebeccareid says:

    I like Auden’s definition but I don’t WORRY so much as I’m writing a post for my blog about those things. I try to for some books, but others just don’t illicite that level of response from me, and I write on a more reactionary level. I don’t think there should be rules in book blogging and I love how everyone approaches book blogging a little differently.

    • rebeccareid says:

      I wasn’t done.

      I wanted to say my goals in blogging are to see how literature touches me at this point in my life. I like looking back upon reread at my initial reactions.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t tend to think too deliberately about whether I’m doing those things when writing a specific post—as you say, different books draw out different reactions. Also, I can be lazy and not feel like saying much of substance, LOL. But if I noticed that over time, I wasn’t doing any of the things Auden suggests, I’d want to step it up.

      And I agree that there shouldn’t be rules in book blogging. Everyone should blog in a way that suits them and read the blogs they enjoy!

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