29 October 2007

Is it about the medium?

There is an interesting discussion on art blogs in the November issue of Art in America. "Report from the Blogosphere" is a roundtable discussion of five bloggers across the country who blog about art. (Sorry, no online link). While these are blogs of professional art dealers and critics, I found several parallels in the discussion of art blogs to the vociferous and ongoing debate about book blogs and traditional print review and criticism. Like in the world of book blogs, there is, apparently, some concern and controversy over the role, potential influence and quality of artblogs.

One interesting quote from art critics Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof: "As populists, we see our blog as art activism. Writing the blog is a political act -- an end run around the print powers that be".

This can apply to blogs on any subject, but especially when reviewing or critiquing something of cultural value or significance, whether it is visual art, movies, music or books. I think this quote is spot-on: it is the populist nature of blogs that sometimes causes concern and fosters dismissive attitudes among some in the established media. There is a lot of junk on the Internet but the fact that not all of it is poor quality is what can concern the traditional media. It isn't that there are many bloggers out there spouting off about their own concerns, it that there are some bloggers -- some well-written and frequently read -- that may be putting forth ideas contrary to the mainstream or contrary to the economic interests of a publisher. Perhaps the headline should be Upstart Bloggers Cause Kneejerk Reactions, but the root cause of that reaction is a discomfort with a new populist means for disseminating information, for spreading ideas and commentary, for making recommendations and ultimately shaping opinion -- even if only in a very minor way to a limited audience.

By its nature, blogging is more casual. It can also be more immediate. Since in most cases it is just the blogger and her comments, there isn't someone to review or copy edit a piece and to prevent you from publishing something incredibly stupid. There aren't standards to specify length, or reading level or to enforce restrictions on certain subjects. So, in some respects, it is about the medium: a short blog post should not be compared either to a diary or to a newspaper or magazine article as it is neither. But, it isn't all about the medium. Sometimes it is the content that is the chief importance. To dismiss all book blogs because some do not provide critical reviews, is like saying that you won't read any magazines because you don't like the celebrity-focused, gossipy nature of People or the look of the glossy paper it is printed on. To think that because there is a multitude of readers willing to write about books means that they will cause the obsolescence of print reviewers is just as short-sighted.
What a discerning reader should easily differentiate is what the writer/blogger's goals are. Is it meant to be a review? a recommendation? a chatty conversation with friends? a finished piece of criticism? Blogs can be any of those. Only when it is framed by what it is intended to be, can you judge its quality and value.

I am interested in book bloggers responses to questions similar to those in the Art in America roundtable. If you are interested in participating in a similar discussion regarding blogging in general, and blogging about books in particular, please leave a comment. I'll compile a list of questions to email to those willing to respond, and then post the 'roundtable' discussion here in a few weeks.


Smithereens said...

You really made interesting points.
"What a discerning reader should easily differentiate is what the writer/blogger's goals are" : I think even to me my goals are unclear, so I'm not sure what a reader of my blog would take out of it. I don't pretend to write serious reviews, but I still want to be serious (fair) to the books I read, yet sometimes I'm not so fair when I make fun of a bad book that angered me.
I think the "roundtable" would be interesting, let me know.

Cam said...

Good point, Smithereens. But, I think there is a difference between the overall goals of blog and what the goal of a particular post is. Writing on a blog can be a mix, but that which is chatty book talk is rarely undistinguishable from that which is a critical review. Your comment about fairness to a book is interesting, and one that I may comment on at length at a later time. There is a lot of snarkiness out and about on the web. Much of that may seem unfair, but I don't know that it is any more biased than reviews that are less sarcastic and acerbic. But I think I understand what you mean. I've written some caustic things about books I didn't like -- sometimes with glee -- but have found that overall I don't like that writing persona for myself. It doesn't fit well. The more I blog, the less likely I am to write about books that I hate, although I realize that the outgrowth of that can be only mean being a cheerleader for my own tastes. That doesn't feel like the right fit either.

Thanks for volunteering for my roundtable experiment. I'll be in touch.

Emily Barton said...

Please count me in. I'd love to be a part of your roundtable.

litlove said...

I'm interested in participating, health willing!

Cam said...

Litlove & Emily -- I'm glad you want to participate. Thanks! I'll be contacting you soon.

I'm looking for 2 - 3 more people to participate. It's not too late to sign up!