Sunday Salon: The Language of Book Reviews

sundaysalonOne of my favorite things about the online book community is the way it allows us readers to chat about books in the way we prefer. Anyone with a computer and a basic facility with writing can share his or her views on a book with the world and, with a little luck, find some like-minded (or even not so like-minded) readers who will enjoy reading what they have to say. We book bloggers (and book vloggers, book tweeters, book podcasters, and book tumblers) don’t have to get the approval of an editor or an academy to say what we think. We need only answer to our own good judgment.

In a world where just about anyone can talk about books in the way they choose, some will choose a way that others find grating. In Salon this week, Laura Miller wrote a great piece about how online reviewers are using GIFs (short, animated images) and other expressive tools. She treats these innovations as one of many tools that a reviewer might use, and some will use them better than others, just as some traditional critics use the written language better than others. She writes,

Reaction GIFs can seem canned (particularly if they’ve been used by many people, like a clip of Orson Welles clapping in “Citizen Kane”), but then so do certain shopworn reviewer’s words like “compelling” and “poignant.”

I don’t use GIFs, but I’ve used plenty of those shopworn words. Not having to answer to an editor and having limited time to craft posts means I often don’t bother searching for some new way of saying what I mean. I’d rather use my time to search for a good example of what makes a book compelling than try to find a better word than compelling. I’m guessing that the folks who use and reuse that clapping GIF feel the same way.

As for GIFs and other innovations, I’m not a particular fan of them. Although I’ve seen people use them well, I tend to avoid blogs that use them all the time, not because I think using them necessarily constitutes poor thought but because I simply have trouble looking at a page with lots of different types of moving objects on it. I get a little seasick and headachy if there are more than two on my screen at once. But that is a personal preference issue. I’m sure people come to this blog and see what looks like a great wall of text and do this:

(gif) nope, smashes computer, gets in rocket and slies into sun photo nope_zpsbcc14df0.gif

And that’s just fine. I like my long, text-heavy posts, so that’s what I write. So far, enough other people seem to enjoy them that I’ve no lack of people to exchange ideas with.

In this great, wide world of online book talk, there are so many different languages and styles. The fact that a review is online doesn’t make it, by definition, less insightful and interesting than a print review. So, too, the use of GIFs and such doesn’t make a review a less valuable contribution to the conversation. It’s the ideas in the review that matter … and come to think of it, even if the ideas don’t seem original and interesting to me, that doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful to someone. The diversity of styles is part of what makes the online book world so wonderful. Not every style is for me or for you, but that’s perfectly OK.

There’s also been some chatter about GIFs on LibraryThing.

In Other News

The official announcement for the TBR Triple Dog Dare is up. If you’ve got a lot of unread books around the house, sign up and get (a tiny bit, but not really) caught up.

The TBR Triple Dog Dare pairs nicely with Long-Awaited Reads Month in January, organized by Ana and Iris.

There’s one more week until Aarti’s More Diverse Universe Event, celebrating people of color who write speculative fiction.

Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness wraps up the results of the Book Blogger survey conducted by Kim, Shannon (River City Reading), and Jennifer (Literate Housewife).

Chris at Chrisbookarama ponders the slow down in comments a lot of bloggers are experiencing. (We’ve had more of a leveling off than a slow-down.)

Alex at Thinking in Fragments alerts readers to a MOOC about Hamlet, starting in January.

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28 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Language of Book Reviews

  1. Jeanne says:

    I love gifs on Tumblr, but, like you, I use WordPress mostly for words, although I do like to put some photos I’ve taken in every once in a while.
    Gifs can be like a mental picture–they say “this is what I thought of when I saw this thing.” I like the way they make communicating like talking with Mrs. Who from A Wrinkle in Time–she’s the one who talked entirely in quotations. I kind of aspire to that.

    • Teresa says:

      I gave up on Tumblr a while back, partly because of the GIFs and the way all the motion makes me queasy.

      I like the Mrs Who comparison. And yes, they can be extremely effective at quickly evoking a feeling or thought–they can be a sort of shorthand.

  2. Lisa says:

    Interesting, I haven’t run across gifs on reviews sights. I have the same issue with moving objects on my screen. My email provider has these small flash ads with constant movement that drive me crazy.

    I’m so glad James decided to do the Triple Dog Dare!

    • Teresa says:

      I see them a lot on Goodreads. If you look up any recent popular YA novel there, you’re bound to see lots of them. And there are a few bloggers I’ve come across who use lots of them. Raych at Books I Done Read and Amanda at Dead White Guys come to mind as bloggers who use them well.

  3. marcia lengnick says:

    I’m sorry.. but there are some of us who read.. and enjoy.. your blog that have not a clue..nada.. about what a GIF is…explain, please..some kind of illustration but more than that I cannot decipher.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh so sorry about that! When a term is just starting to become popular, It can be easy to forget that it’s still new to some people. GIFs are basically short animations, like the one I used in my post. I’ll add a short definition to the post :)

  4. Liz Mc2 says:

    I love gif reviews (which I see mostly at Goodreads) because they are a very reliable guide that a book is Not For Me. But I really enjoyed Miller’s piece, which made me rethink the value of gifs. I liked her reflections on the changing nature of criticism, and how for many amateur reviewers, especially in certain genres, emotional reactions and evaluations are at least as important as aesthetic ones, and sometimes all that matters.

    I guess the horror I feel at the thought of the TBR Triple Dog Dare is a sure sign I should participate. I gave up book buying for Lent last year and found it very freeing to explore my TBR (though I should also have given up library requests).

    • Teresa says:

      Heh. It’s true that if a book is mostly getting GIF reviews on GR, it’s less likely to be in my wheelhouse and I should at least wait until some of my reliable recommendation sources have read it, which is what I mostly do anyway. Miller did make some excellent points about how different responses matter to people and how all of them are valid. Different people are looking for different things, and that’s OK.

      I’ve only managed to complete the TBR Dare once, but I’ve left my bookcase get filled to overflowing again, so I really ought to read from it for a while.

  5. cbjames says:

    Thanks for the TBR Triple Dog Dare plug. I think we’re going to need more publicity this year.

    I like how people come up with different ways to blog, though i tend to read only more text heavy blogs. Years ago, when I was a judge for BBAW, I reviewed a bunch of new blogs including one called Books Are My Boyfriends. The blogger who kept this blog took pictures of herself with the books she was reviewing as though they were a boyfriend whom she’d had a dating relationship with. The book at the movies, then at the beach, stuff like that. I loved it. Not only was it a clever, original idea, she did it so well–you could get a review of the book and an entertaining story about her ‘relationship’ with the book.

    While I did not become a regular reader, note preference for text heavy less gimmicky blogs, I did vote for her to win BBAW that year, and she did.

    • Teresa says:

      I know the blog you’re talking about. I met Kit (the blogger behind it) at BEA a couple of years ago. I agree that it’s a clever concept, well executed, too. There’s another one called Reading and Reviewing where the blogger took a picture of herself reading the book, costumed and made up in a way to match the book. It’s fun to see people try something different, even if my general preference is for the more essay-like format.

  6. The odd thing is that many GIFs are text-heavy. Not just images, but images with long captions.

    I assume GIFs represent the future not just of literary criticism but more generally of art, culture, and human existence in general. Argument and evidence will be replaced with allusions to Harry Potter and TV shows I do not recognize.

    • Teresa says:

      Most of the ones I see just have a line or two of text–although I do see GIF sets that seem almost like video transcripts of interviews.

      I’m not convinced that GIFs are replacing anything so much as they’re adding new voices. I don’t think many of the people who use GIFs extensively were previously writing lengthy analytical arguments.

    • Your last line – are you ever right about that. Except I would remove the word “lengthy.”

  7. gaskella says:

    GIFs aren’t for me either. I do like a picture or two when available to break things up a little – else – give me text! I do use Youtube clips occasionally – but always at the end of a post, and you do have to press play.

    I’ll be doing the Triple Dog Dare – I’ll post about it too as usual to help publicise.

  8. Jeane says:

    I only regularly read one blog that uses gifs in its reviews (and a lot of them!) but honestly I don’t often get cultural the reference. It probably doesn’t matter if I’ve never seen the movie or tv show the clip came from, but for some reason it always bugs me that I haven’t.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t get a lot of the references in the GIFs I see either. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem to matter as far as getting the meaning, but I’m sure knowing the reference makes it more resonant and makes a viewer feel like less of an outsider. But, now that I think about it, that’s a problem that’s been around for a long time, with any literary or cultural allusion.

  9. JaneGS says:

    I tend to think of my book blog as a diary–which is really what a blog is, a web log–and so I don’t craft my posts all that carefully. I dash them off and post them, although sometimes I have to go back and correct typos and insert missing words.

    I think the lack of editor is very liberating.

    Not sure how I feel about gifs, actually. I tend to not like long posts (except for yours!), because I don’t have loads of time to read them, but I do like to get concise insights and observations and reactions.

    • Teresa says:

      I think of my blog as more of a journal than a place for polished prose too. It’s where I work out my thoughts, and although I do try to take some care with my words, I don’t spend heaps of time looking for the perfect phrase. And I’m terrible at proofing my own stuff for typos, partly, I think, because I do a lot of that sort of reading for my job and don’t want to bother with it on my down time.

  10. Christy says:

    There are a number of blogs in my feedly that use GIFs a lot. I once did a readalong where almost all the other blogs were heavy users of GIFs – I felt the odd one out actually. The writing style of these particular blogs often tends to be very expressive, willing to use ALL-CAPS at times, and of course the GIFs. I enjoy them and find them entertaining because the GIFs are often just dressing, and the content is still there.

    It’s on Goodreads that I’ve found some reviews that use GIFs as a substitute for actual discussion, e.g. “I heard this book was about X and I was like [reaction.gif]. But then this plot point happened! [reaction.gif, reaction.gif].” I don’t care for those.

    But I also enjoy reading blogs that are primarily text.

    For myself, I have used GIFs twice, and thought of using them more since I do find them entertaining on other blogs, but have concluded it’s just not my style to regularly incorporate them.

    • Teresa says:

      That was the Harry Potter one, right? The ones that I’ve seen use GIFs effectively are the ones that use them as punctuation, which I think is the same kind of thing you’re talking about. They might offer a bit of analysis or posit an idea and then use a GIF to show how they felt about the idea. But I feel like the ones that are all reaction only make sense for people who’ve read the book or who care only about the reviewer’s opinion with no thought for why they felt as they did. I don’t get that.

  11. Stefanie says:

    Nice use of a GIF! I am not a GIF person and when Iand on a website that has a lot of them I leave ASAP because they give me a headache. So know that as long as you keep writing lengthy test-heavy posts, at least one person will be around still reading them :)

    • Teresa says:

      I hear you on the headaches. I’m fine if there’s not more than two on a page, which means there’s probably some text to read in between them. I think my eyes just need resting spots.

  12. Alex says:

    I’m with Stefanie, GIFs really irritate me and I’m likely to leave immediately without even considering the book involved. But then, it would be a queer old world if we all appreciated the same things, wouldn’t it?

    • Teresa says:

      Indeed it would. I’m not likely to make a habit of reading reviews with lots of GIFs, but I’m glad for those who do enjoy them. It’s not like I’m lacking in more text-based reviews to read.

  13. I like both — GIF-heavy reviews and all-text reviews. It’s mainly the blogger’s voice that I’m reading for, and GIF reviews are more about the interstitial text, really, than they are about the GIFs themselves.

    • Teresa says:

      It is the interstitial text that matters. The presence or lack of GIFs doesn’t keep the text from being good or bad. If lots of GIFs didn’t make me headachey, I probably wouldn’t mind them at all.

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