Sunday Salon: Writing About Books in the Internet Age

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?

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27 Responses to Sunday Salon: Writing About Books in the Internet Age

  1. drharrietd says:

    Interesting and perceptive — thanks!

  2. I agree with you that it’s easier for me to fins helpful reviews on blogs where I know the tastes and interests of the blogger. Through blogging I have been able to find many other people who share interests with me and whose reviews I trust as I know they will be similar to my own. You simply can’t do this with professional reviews, that struggle to be objective.

    • Teresa says:

      It has certainly been easier for me. I’ve read many professional reviews that I’ve enjoyed, but it’s harder to get to know professional critics’ voices and tastes.

      The objectivity thing is interesting. I don’t think complete objectivity is possible because we all have a point of view or background that affects how we read. Mostly I just want to know why critics think what they do about a book, and some critics do a better job than others at revealing those reasons. One nice thing about blogging is that we’re able to be more open about our biases.

  3. CJ says:

    This reminded me of a movie reviewer I used to read in an independent weekly in North Carolina. He was a little curmudgeonly, which was actually part of his appeal. His opinion often differed from mine, but I enjoyed his reviews and read him regularly enough that I got pretty good at predicting when I would like a movie he didn’t and vice versa. I hadn’t really connected this lack of relationship to why I’ve not gotten into the print book reviews I’ve read, but it certainly makes sense. I have a couple of reviewers on Goodreads and a couple of blogger reviewers whom I follow. I follow them not just because they give me ideas for books I’d like to read, but also because I enjoy reading the reviews themselves. And that comment/discussion is a great benefit, as you mention. Although I might be biased.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the first critics I followed regularly was a film critic–Roger Ebert. I just love his approach and the way he embraces so many kinds of film. I could always tell from his reviews if a film would be worth my time, and his writing is engaging. It may just be my mistaken perception, but it seems like film criticism has done a better job creating known voices that readers can count on.

  4. cbjamess says:

    I think that many people see reviews as a sort of “consumer reports” product. They want a review that will tell them if they should purchase a certain book or not. That’s fine, great in fact, but not really what I look for in a good review. For me a good review is a well written discussion about the book being reviewed. I admit, if I have no interested at all in the book, I probably won’t read the review, but when I read a review I’m not really interested in whether or not I should read the book, but in what the reviewer has to say about it. I like reviews that offer insight into the book itself on some level, something more than is it a book I will also enjoy.

    I used to find these reviews in the newspapers and in magazine, but I don’t anymore. I find them on-line.

    I’ve not read the Atlantic posts you mention, but it does seem typical that the author fails to look at the type of blogs we read and write when discussing on-line reviews. We’re all still under the radar.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re probably right about why most people read reviews. I do look for reading advice to some degree, but bland summaries without much to chew on isn’t even very helpful on that score.

      I’m not surprised really that the kinds of blogs we read didn’t come up in the Atlantic piece, and personally, I’m happy to stay under the radar! I was surprised, though, that the author didn’t step much beyond online versions of print publications or NPR broadcasts. That seems like a big omission.

  5. What’s really caught my eye here is the idea of creating relationships between readers and bloggers. The bloggers I follow all have distinctive voices and tastes; for the most part, they’re similar to mine, but I can appreciate their opinions even if we differ. I feel like, for the most part, I can’t do that with professional book reviewers, because there’s so little consistency. The big exception here is Laura Miller at Salon.com, whose reviews I read religiously—I know her taste, I love her style, and I love her consistency. Perhaps, as the digital age continues on, that’s the main point to take away; quality and consistency win the race.

  6. Jeanne says:

    I like what Lev Grossman said about this issue in Time Magazine recently. http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/09/confessions-of-another-book-reviewer/ I wrote about providing what I think of as “confessional” context in the course of my recent review of Ted Heller’s novel Pocket Kings.

    • Teresa says:

      That Grossman piece is great! I especially like the bit about opening up the interaction between book and reader, rather than just providing a thumbs up or thumbs down.

  7. As you saw in the piece I wrote about magazines, I actually think there is a lot of good criticism being written by critics who appear in the same place consistently enough for readers to get to know their skill, taste, etc. Way more, frankly, than anyone can read. The “getting to know” process takes, I am assuming, years. Patience, readers!

    Now, the other piece, the one that asserts that book reviewing will be saved by Nancy Pearl, Bookslut, and Michiko Kakutani, that was hilarious, just insane. How did Fay get access to an internet that only goes up to 2002?

    • Teresa says:

      Patience! That’s the trick–and what I tend to lack. How to know which critics are worth spending the time getting to know? And how can I get their words of wisdom fed to me with minimal effort on my part? I think this is where traditional media doesn’t do so well. Blogs are fed to readers in convenient RSS formats. Magazines, not so much.

      • People – mostly mail carriers – have actually brought physical copies of magazines to my house and left them for me, which is extremely convenient. No blogger has ever printed out their posts and brought them to my house.

      • Teresa says:

        Touche! Of course, the tricky bit there is finding a magazine in which the amount of content I want to read is great enough to make it worth spending my money on. That’s the barrier I have yet to get over.

  8. nymeth says:

    I was going to mention the same Lev Grossman piece as Jeanne – I particularly liked the last few paragraphs, which perfectly sum up my own approach to reviews. I appreciate recommendations as much as the next reader, but my favourite reviews are usually ones that go beyond just telling me how much the reviewer liked or disliked the book in question. And yes, quality varies widely among both professionals and amateurs – I find examples of the style I tend to favour in both. I also love your final paragraph: I agree completely that one of the greatest strengths of blogs is that they can draw attention to books that are unlikely to get mainstream attention, be they forgotten classics, back catalogue titles, offerings by small presses, literature in translation, or neglected genres.

    • Teresa says:

      Lately, I’m starting to resist recommendations–it’s not like I’m lacking for ideas of what to read. I want reviews that make me think about the book or about the ideas in the book, if I decide not to read the book itself.

    • CJ says:

      That Lev Grossman link was great, I agree. In addition, I would say that my favorite reviews are the ones that a person can enjoy even if she has no intention of reading the book. The reviewers I follow on Goodreads are those kind of reviewers. I might read the books they review, and I might not, but I sure do enjoy reading their reviews. That is (incidentally) what I attempt to do with my reviews. My blog isn’t primarily a book review blog, but I write about a lot of books there. I try to write my reviews in a “here’s my experience of reading this book” kind of way. I think this opens it up to even those who haven’t read the book. In a way, I feel a little too much responsibility if a person reads something I like because of my review. Reading preferences are SO subjective (and if they don’t like the book, I feel guilty for leading them astray).

      • Teresa says:

        I feel the same way you do when people read something–or don’t–on my recommendation! There are a few people that I feel comfortable making suggestions to, but I can’t make across-the-board suggestions. I do try to provide enough information to help someone thinking about reading a book to decide, but I like to get beyond the whole “should I read this?” question.

  9. Jenny says:

    I love CJ’s point about enjoying reviews even when you have no intention of reading the book in question. To me, this is a wonderful thing about (some) bloggers and (some) professional reviewers. There are bloggers whose posts I enjoy reading even when I know from the get-go I’m not going to read the book, and that’s true of professional reviews occasionally too. I love bloggers because there’s a massive variety of opinion, and I also do really value having professional people whose entire job it is to view new books through a critical lens. Both are useful and interesting, even though I do end up pulling most of my own book choices from bloggers.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve had the same experience of enjoying reviews about books I’m not interested in reading. Good writing is good writing, and if it comes in the form of a book review, it can still be fun to read, whatever your feelings are about a book.

  10. I do end up pulling most of my own book choices from bloggers.

    90% of the point of reading a literary magazine is to learn about books you are not going to read. I am currently reading, in The New Republic, a first-rate review of a new 950 page biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. I am not trying to decide if I should read the book.

    • Teresa says:

      I used to particularly enjoy reviews of nonfiction books in the Washington Post Book World because I could learn about the topic of the book without having to read the whole book.

  11. aartichapati says:

    Oh, I completely agree with the portion you quoted above. I follow the blogs I follow (well, the ones I follow RELIGIOUSLY, anyway) because I really know and trust the opinions of the people who write those blogs. I don’t know that I will immediately go out and read or purchase a book recommended to me by a blogger, but if it’s one I consider a friend, and that friend really thinks that I personally will love a book, then I’ll probably give it a go. I think that is something that is often missing from the conversation about bloggers- that so many of us know and interact with each other often and form deeper relationships, and so when we recommend a book to our reader base, or to friends in real-life or via email, it’s a much more personal recommendation than that of a reviewer in a newspaper or magazine who is trying to get people to purchase a new release book ASAP.

  12. amymckie says:

    Love your comments and completely agree with what you say on the piece. I love that with bloggers you get a taste of what you like from them, where you differ, and you can really come to trust them in a way. The occasional print review from a name you don’t know and who you can’t really research doesn’t foster the same trust. That being said, like the panel at BEA last year about online reviewing, most of these people seem blind to the masses of us bloggers, looking only at the ‘big names’ of magazines and etc and their online presence.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought about that session too. I think it’s unfortunate that the major media pretty much stopped paying attention to anything that came on the scene after Bookslut. There are a lot of interesting, independent voices out there who I’m sure would be willing to contribute to their sites. (It wouldn’t necessarily be something I’d want to do, but I know there are bloggers who would be.)

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