As someone who writes about books online, I am of course drawn to articles about writing about books online. Sarah Fay of The Atlantic has posted a couple of pieces recently that caught my eye, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The first “Book Reviews: A Tortured History,” is a meandering history of what critics and writers have said about literary criticism over the years. The plethora of remarks from the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Zadie Smith and many more mostly illustrates the fact that opinions about literary criticism are as wide-ranging and varied as opinions about the books being criticized.
I am not one of those bloggers who thinks that amateur bloggers are better reviewers than the pros. I find that the quality of reviews among professionals varies widely, just as it does among amateurs. I’ve read marvelous reviews in newspapers, magazines, and professional sites. I’ve also read horrible ones. Good reviews and bad reviews abound among professionals and amateurs.
But Fay makes a point near the end of the piece that gets at why it’s sometimes easier for me to find the good stuff among bloggers:
Too few newspapers and magazines employ regular book columnists and reviewers. This is done in the spirit of egalitarianism, but in the digital age, where anonymous, poorly written “customer reviews” sway readers, we need to establish relationships with our literary critics. We need to trust them as “experts” hired and trained by the publications that employ them or self-educated and trained as book bloggers or “amateur” reviewers with websites of their own. In either case, we can get to know the reviewer’s tastes and tics and make a more informed decision about the book under review. In the present, mosh-pit of book reviewing, it’s nearly impossible to know where the freelance literary critic you’re reading is coming from. Including, perhaps, this one.
Many professional publications employ a range of critics, with varying degrees of skill at reviewing. When skimming through titles of reviews on a newspaper website, in their newsletters, or on their RSS feeds (which rarely offer the full text). I don’t see many familiar trusted names. There are some–Michael Dirda and Ron Charles are two Washington Post critics whose reviews I enjoy–but most are book authors or freelance critics whose taste and reviewing skill are unknown to me.
When I visit a blog, I usually have a sense of the reviewing style and sensibilities of the writer, or if the blog is new to me, I merely have to explore a bit to see if I want to become a regular reader. Establishing the relationship that Fay describes is easy. I also appreciate that Fay seems to realize that self-educated and trained book bloggers can in fact be trust-worthy critics. The reader/reviewer relationship is key, and this is where blogs excel.
Although Fay seems to acknowledge the value of self-trained independent bloggers, her more recent piece, “Can the Internet Save Book Reviewing?” makes me wonder how many independent, non-professional blogs she’s actually read. This piece focuses almost entirely on reviews from the online versions of print publications and online literary journals and magazines. She lists several podcasts, most of which appear to be defunct, and seems annoyed that those podcasts offer interviews rather than reviews. (I’d rather listen to an interview and read a review, but not everyone will feel the same.)
Her view of the landscape of online book reviewing struck me as limited and focused almost entirely on “the establishment,” for lack of a better word. I have nothing against the establishment, but if you’re trying to write about what’s new, it helps to look beyond the same old voices.
When I think about how the Internet has changed book reviewing, I think about how it has opened doors for anyone to write about books for an audience. Now, some books that never would have gotten reviewed in the past are subject to intense analysis and deep conversation. I think especially of the proliferation of blogs related to genres often ignored by the mainstream media. Also, some readers who would never get the chance to share their thoughts in print are able to do so online. The low bar for entry into blogging means that you don’t need to know the right people or write in someone else’s style to get your views out there. A low bar for entry naturally means that some reviews will be terrible, but that potential downside is trivial when compared to the rewards that come from opening the doors to more voices. There are also more opportunities for readers to engage with each other. On many blogs, the comments are the most exciting thing to read, as commenters expand upon and react to the original review. The online world of book reviewing is so much more than just posting traditional reviews of literary books online. And that’s a good thing.
Any thoughts on those Atlantic pieces? How do you think the Internet has transformed book reviewing? What are the up-sides and down-sides of these changes?