21 November 2007

Roundtable: Blogging About Books (Part III)

Blogging about Books

The Roundtable discussion about blogging about books continues below, with Emily, Imani, Litlove, Smithereens, an international panel since these four bloggers live in the US, Canada, England, and France. A full description of their blogs is in Part I. At the end our our discussion, Litlove asked her own questions. You can read those questions and the responses at the end of this post. Also, each blogger has given her recommendations for litblogs to read.

Part I, Books and Blogging is here.
Part II, Writing, Audience and Blogs is here.

Do you write exclusively about books, literature, and writing?

Imani: For the most part. Occasionally I post links to political articles, especially if I'm covering any London Review of Books issue, or something religious if it has to do with Anglicans.

Emily: No.

Litlove: Pretty much, with occasional visits to chez Litlove.

Smithereens: Yes (but some events in my life have an impact on my reading/writing habits)

Cam: Now that you mention it, I think that most people’s life events impact in some way what they choose to read and when. I’d never really considered that before, yet I think your comment must have some universality to it. This is something that I would like to explore in depth sometime. Interesting.

Imani: Ha! How true. If someone knew what types of books I like to read during up or down periods they’d be able to get a good idea of my mood by examining my book lists.

We hear 'death of' laments frequently... the death of newspapers, the death of book reviews, the death of the short story, the death of"readers".... Is blogging a cause or an effect?

Imani: I don't buy into any of the death scares. They are mediocre journalism's tired leavings, faithfully recycled every year.

Emily: My prediction is that newspapers in print form will die. Reference books in print form will die. Biographies, novels, short story collections, poetry, etc. in print form will not die. After all, radio didn't die when television came along. However, radio drama pretty much did. I think the opposite will happen with books. The drama will remain in print, but news and factual information will all be electronic. Readers, I don't think, will die. They have traditionally been a very small part of the population and probably will continue to be so, but they will have many options, I'm hoping, as to the format of the way the written word is presented to them.

Imani: I disagree about reference books dying in the print format. The fact is that no electronic format has rivaled paper in terms of length of storage and “compatibility”. There are too many unknowns with electronic means of data retention for anyone to be sure of that.

Litlove: People have been predicting the death of literature and reading, or at least its terminal decline, since Gutenberg first thought of print as a medium. So I don’t take any of that seriously. It seems to be part of the character of a certain kind of literary critic who particularly admires his (and it always is his) voice in the mode of lament. The simple existence of the extensive book blogosphere proves that reading stories and talking about them is as popular as ever.

Smithereens: I don’t believe in all these laments. French people especially lament all the time; I just don’t listen to them. Bookblogs are a proof that readers care (and exist). Book reviews are worthwhile and read when the reviewer writes it with care. Professional reviewers who, in one hand, despise bloggers for being mere amateurs, while in the other hand, despising authors and just skimming through books have only themselves to blame.

Cam: I can’t help but think that some of the despise of book bloggers is a fear of extinction. Not all agree. I think of Jerome Weeks, of book/daddy, who previously was a newspaper book review editor and now blogs. He certainly doesn’t have that arrogant attitude towards bloggers. Or Frank Wilson, also a book review editor, who blogs at Books, Inc. Their blogs differ significantly (Wilson links to blogs and online articles, Weeks writes extensive posts). Adaptation to the new media on their part. And there are other examples, too. Still, the high-profile negative comments by some print-world reviewers just astound me as they seem to be intent on alienating the very public that are their readers. It’d be like a blogger starting a post with “you’re probably too stupid to understand this, but read it anyway because I know what's good for you”.

Emily: I love the fact that Paul Krugman forced all the NY Times editorials and op-ed pieces to be provided free (used to be online readers had to pay to read them) by taking his discussions out into a blog where the Times could do nothing about it. That’s a great sign to me of the power of those who are more interesting in educating and getting the word out (“saving the world,” maybe, even) and encouraging open dialogue with their audiences than in their own egos and making money. Now, I just wish writers for The New Yorker would do the same.

Litlove: You’re so right! But it’s all the media know how to do – start an argument by making a hugely provocative statement so that people still pay attention to them. Ultimately, however, this kind of strategy will result the in the alienation of its audience. It’s a shame because papers and blogs could easily support one another.

What do you think is the role of literary blogs? Do you think that they have/will have an impact on what people read? on how publishers might market? what gets published?

Imani: I don't look at literary blogs as a monolithic structure that has a self-defined or imposed "role". Lit bloggers are just lots of folks on-line talking about books as the internet medium evolved to accommodate it and similar activity. By themselves they do not have or will have any significant impact on what people read. They do and will continue to add to that accumulative effect in which a reader first sees a book mentioned in the local newspaper, then the magazine they subscribe, then on a favourite blog in their feed -- finally she is persuaded to buy.

I know that publishers have already adjusted their marketing plans to include blogs judging by what I read on the backs of ARCs, or the fact that I and others are offered them in the first place. Dzanc books existence attests to the fact that blogs can have an impact on publishing -- but the important thing to note there is that effect is coming directly from the blogger getting into the business himself.

Litlove: No! But I’m not sure what would be. Tracking hits, I guess , would be better, as well as links.

Smithereens: I’d like to add that this is only for North America (perhaps UK?? I don’t know), but all the websites I visited who have advance readership programs never send books overseas (and I can count on conservative French publishers to be as late as possible to adopt the new trend).

Emily: Literary blogs give people who love books the chance to come together and discuss them. I definitely think they have an impact on what people read. I've been reading all kinds of things this year I never would have if it weren't for literary blogs, and those I know who read literary blogs tell me they've been affected in the same way. Publishers are still trying to figure out what this means for them (and, I'm sure, all wish they had crystal balls). It's also an exciting time for publishers, though, as things change and evolve. What gets published will also be affected. I can imagine popular lit bloggers being paid to review book proposals for major publishing companies, as well as being paid to review published books.

Cam: Being a consumer of the industry, not in the publishing industry, I never really thought about bloggers being book proposal reviewers. But, it makes sense to listen to your market, doesn’t it? Interesting though that you indicate ‘popular litbloggers’ being approached to do this.

Emily: Cam, that’s because I’m realistic enough to know that publishing companies care more about the bottom line than anything else, so they’ll go for what they think will help them sell, i.e. “popular litbloggers.”

Cam: Which leads me to another question: there is so much out there that is good, but not all of it is popular. How does one determine what is/isn’t popular? A lot of ranking systems seem to be based solely on links to/from, and not readership. Is this the best way of determining the strength of a blog?

Imani: Well there’s Alexa in which you can actually measure traffic to and from the site, rather than links which, I agree, is not an effective measure. I read quite a few more litblogs than I actually link to in my blogroll. I think the most popular method is to assess how many unique daily visitors over a particular day.

Emily: I don’t think it is, but it’s probably the only way unimaginative corporations will be able to figure out how to judge the strength of a blog. After all, I’m sure horrible blogs about stupid people get far more hits than many of the terrific blogs out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone should be paying attention to what they have to say. My guess is that publishing companies will judge by numbers of hits and then have someone who does some sort of “authority control” with justifications for using certain blogs. It’s like the print review media. Many, many fantastic books never get reviewed, because they’re written by midlist authors, and publishing companies aren’t willing to buy out the review media to “pay” for reviews of these books. Yes, I hate to disillusion you, but publishing companies do this sort of thing. That, however, is a way blogs can help midlist authors. Bloggers can review books that the publishers aren’t bothering to push as hard to the review media.

Litlove: I don’t think that they will have so much of an impact on the external publishing market because the internet becomes a form of publishing in itself. I think the community will only grow and become more diverse, and that increasingly people who write experimentally and who enjoy the less commercial forms of literature, like the essay and literary criticism, will turn to it ever more frequently. I see it more as a space in which uncommercial voices can be kept alive and nurtured, and that can only be good.

Emily: Litlove, I completely agree that this is where those coming for essay and literary criticism will be coming in the future. The animal known as the “academic monograph” has all but disappeared from those companies that used to publish them.

Smithereens: If we assign any definite role to literary blogs, it will become stifling. Other lit-blogs do have an impact on what I read, at least. I have become much more open to different books, and even got back to classics I’d never thought I’d dare try. But lit-blogs are far away from the market and I’m not sure publishers can “use” them to guess what manuscript in their pile will be a success.

Cam: I agree. They are too diffuse to be able to predict market trends. But I think that more publishers are aware of bloggers and trying to get their books in front of bloggers for reviewing. I don’t have a ‘high traffic’ blog by any accounting, so I’m surprised when I get the occasional offer of an ARC.

Smithereens: I had a small publisher commenting on a book I reviewed that was on its list, and the translator of another who visited too. I find this nice, because it’s really a dialogue between both ends of the market, something that didn’t exist before.

Is book reviewing a skill that must be mastered? Is the "opinion of the masses" (or "the democracy of idiots" as I heard one charge recently) that is part of the internet phenomena killing the idea of a 'review' or 'criticism'?

Imani: If your aim is to provide formal, professional book reviews, even if it's just on your blog, then it's worthwhile to put some effort into it. As I previously said, I see my blog as a mixture of reading journal, notebook and scrap book; I write about a book in whatever form I can manage, and I consider few of my labeled "review" posts to actually fit the term, but I admit it on my site.

I don't think that litblogging is "killing" the idea of book reviews and criticism -- this assumes that all or most litbloggers engage in the activity to do reviews/criticism. But really, the majority of book buyers and readers don't even read blogs or reviews. The smaller subset of that group who do, have the wit to assess what each entity's intentions is, be it newspaper editor, or retiree librarian on wordpress. If anything is "killing the idea of a 'review'" it is the mediocre book journalism that the major national papers in USA & Canada trot out every week.

Cam: Maybe the question that book review sections of newspapers should be asking isn’t whether it is profitable, but what book blogs offer that the newspapers don’t. I think the answers include variety in opinions and in types of books discussed.

Imani: And the potential to engage directly with them, even if the change is never taken up. It’s clear from recent articles that for many book critics the idea of interacting directly with their readership is akin to mingling with a lower caste.

Emily: One of the answers to that question, of course, is that litbloggers are posting about more than just books that are being released this season by the publishers. You can read about books written in any century.

Emily: If book reviewing is a skill that must be mastered, I don't know why so many teachers assigned so many book reviews when I was a student, unless they were training us all to be book reviewers. Many, many who are well-read and passionate about books can write good book reviews. There are only so many professional book review spots available, and (as with any other job), just because someone happens to land one of those spots, does not necessarily make him or her a better book reviewer than someone who pursues a different career path or someone who tried and was turned down for that position. I'm convinced that the internet is just like everything else in society: there are television shows that cater to the "democracy of idiots" and those that cater to people who are looking for more, just as there are books and movies that cater to the "democracy of idiots" and to those who are looking for more. I'm not at all interested in reading blogs devoted entirely to someone like Paris Hilton, so I don't read them. Mostly, I read litblogs and cooking blogs. I imagine others do the same.

Litlove: Book reviewing, like all kinds of writing, is about how well you write. Yes, it’s a skill like any other, but it’s one that anyone can do, and one for which there are no definitive rules, no matter what journalists like to claim. I’ve seen it done every which way, and the more original the voice, the more perceptive and entertaining and reasonable the opinions, the more I like it. I particularly detest the kind of review that is all about making the reviewer look clever, generally identifiable by the amount of sneering it involves. Those pages I use to line cat litter trays.

Emily: Litlove, oh yes, I really hate to read “look-how-clever-I-am” reviews. Funny (isn’t it?) how they often seem to be written by mediocre, published authors whose books are also written with a similar sort of smug pride.

Smithereens: I don’t think professional reviewers in newspapers are the appointed guardians and judges of literary quality. In France, we have a bunch of self-important journalists/reviewers who write book reviews without any “qualification”. So I find their opinion just as good as anyone else’s. I can find all kinds of reviews interesting, as long as it isn’t limited to “I like it/ it’s crap”. A review is always subjective, but when someone has an extensive knowledge of literature, I stop and listen to their personal impression. But literary criticism (in the academic sense) demands, in my opinion, a specific knowledge and can’t be done on the internet by anyone.

Emily: Smithereens, I agree that literary criticism is something different, but I disagree that it can’t be done on the internet, especially since academic publishers are beginning to disappear, and more and more academic journals are right now publishing simultaneously in print and online. I expect they will one day move online exclusively, which means they won’t have the constraints of the printing costs incurred from number of pages printed and will be able to publish more articles with each issue. Those who used to go to publishers with dissertations can now self-publish and get immediate peer review through emails and comments without the help(or hindrance, as the case may have been) of publishers. Ultimately, I’m convinced this will be good for the consumer, because there will no longer be editorial teams making decisions about what does and doesn’t need to be published (still based on the bottom line). Thus, if someone is researching some really esoteric topic that a commercial publisher would deny publication, because it wouldn’t make money, he or she will still be able to find what, thirty years ago, never would have been published, because someone else who maybe did research on it five years ago didn’t have to go to a publisher to get his/her research out there for all to access.

Imani: I would disagree. There are a number of literary academics blogging online and sharing their expertise. The Valve is the most obvious example of this. The Little Professor is another.

Smithereens: Just to clarify my point, I didn't mean that the internet wasn't a good vehicle for academic journals, but that writing literary criticism needs some specific skills that not just anyone can improvise.

Cam: I saw an interview on CSPAN recently (I wish I had made note of the critic/paper, but I didn’t). The comment was the bloggers were unqualified. I had wished that the interviewer had asked what qualifications a print journalist needs to review a book. This man was about my age and likely attended college around the same time I did. I studied English and Journalism and I don’t think that book reviewing – as it exists in the print media in the US today – was ever covered in either. In fact, the common derisive comment in J classes was that one's writing was ‘English Lit” if you wanted to write on any topic considered too ‘arty’.

Imani: I don’t adhere to it, but yes that could be classified as a blog convention. It only detracts from a review in which discussion of a spoiler isn’t necessary, but is only part of a long plot synopsis with little to no analysis. I think Litlove gave the best definition of what literary criticism is, btw.

Would you differentiate between a 'review' and 'criticism'. If so, how?

Emily: It depends what source you're reading, because I think sometimes different journals confuse the two. Criticism, however, to me, indicates something academic: thorough research and a solid knowledge of either the author (fiction) or the subject (nonfiction), as well as something that's quite lengthy, often even book-length. Reviews I think of as resources for helping readers make decisions about whether or not to buy/read a book, and I think of them as being much shorter.

Litlove: Yes, I certainly would. Literary criticism is not about making a value judgment. A literary critic might hate the book he or she has just read, but their job is to show how it creates its effects, how it explores its themes, how it fits into its genre and historical context; whether they liked it or not is irrelevant. A review is based on an individual opinion about the amount of pleasure a book gives a reader, although it might contain elements of literary criticism.

Smithereens: Criticism is, in my opinion, an academic analysis of a book in the light of theory. Review is a lighter exercise, a subjective opinion of a book.

Imani: I would, although I use these definitions for purely personal use and am a bit unsure how they would stand on their own. For me, book reviews are shorter, more conventionally written assessments of a book's merits; you keep to the book for the most part. Literary criticism is intentionally longer and more insightful, able to place the work more clearly in author's overall output, in the current state of literature. "Spoilers" may abound because it's a less promotional form of prose.

Cam: Spoilers. Sylvia at Classical Bookworm posted recently on spoilers, suggesting that revealing plots was a no-no. Like Syliva, I don’t think that I agree. Is this one of those ‘standards’ mentioned earlier: that you shouldn’t reveal plots without posting a warning message? I hadn’t realized that it was. Do you think that detracts in any way from the function of a review?

Imani: I don’t adhere to it, but yes that could be classified as a blog convention. It only detracts from a review in which discussion of a spoiler isn’t necessary, but is only part of a long plot synopsis with little to no analysis. I think Litlove gave the best definition of what literary criticism is, btw.

Smithereens: I warn before writing spoilers -- out of respect for the readers, because some like it and others don’t. I wouldn’t really intentionally keep the suspense because I’m not in the business of selling the book to others, as some journalists do.

Emily: Good question, Cam. When people warn me about a spoiler on a blog, I don’t mind at all. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary in order to really discuss what did or didn’t work in a book. However, I get so upset with book review media when they include a spoiler with no warning. I pretty much won’t read reviews of the latest books by authors I love until I’ve read the book, because I don’t want anything given away before I can read it (I was so mad with the NY Times when they revealed who’d been responsible for Own Meaney’s father’s death in their book review. To me, that was such a big part of the book and never should have been revealed for those who hadn’t read it, which I had by the time I read the review, but it still made me mad).

Litlove Poses Her Own Questions to the participants:

Litlove: Imani, forget that you are SO young! I was wondering how pressurised you felt when blogging to be clever or smart or meaningful in what you say, or whether blogging was instead the place where you could relax. I remember being a graduate student and comparing my writing relentlessly with every form of published discourse on the planet! It's where one forges a writing style whilst both admiring other critics and somehow taking them on at the same time, and I wondered how blog writing fed into that or resisted it. Of course, your experience could be completely different to mine.

Imani: Oh litlove, that's so reassuring. You've described exactly how I feel, never mind the agonizing over my inferiority. I *try* to keep my blog a venue for relaxed musings but I admit that every other time I write about a book I'm distressed that it doesn't read like the ones in Time Literary Supplement. I am rarely satisfied with the final product (but if I waited until I was I would probably blog about once a month). It is of no use to remind me that the TLS writers are twice as old with a million degrees and decades of experience. I would say that my blog feeds into and resists it at the same time. The fact is that I don't and wouldn't want to approach books in an academic fashion but I'm also working under the assumption that that's exactly what one should aspire to. In the end I try to say something *meaningful* when it's warranted; I have no flair for the sort of cleverness that other grad student blogs seem to admire, so it would be no use to try.

Litlove: Emily, I wondered to what extent you felt that you constructed a Persona when blogging. So much of what you write is personal, and yet I feel the extent to which you edit and hold back in certain circumstances (and quite fair enough). But I wondered whether you felt the Emily of the blog was a kind of idealised version of yourself. I often feel that way about Litlove!

Emily: It's a very interesting question and one I've thought about a lot. It may be something friends and family members can answer better than I can. I tend to think I have created a persona or an idealized version of myself, because the Emily of my blog is funnier than I think of myself being in real life, and she doesn't worry as much, isn't constantly concerned she might be hurting someone else's feelings (although there's a little bit of that), and seems to handle everything that comes her way with a sense of humor, which I know I don't do. I think that's why when life gets really tough for me (like during the move and while dealing with the crisis of my nieces' accident), I find it very hard to blog. It's difficult to keep up the persona. On the other hand, that may have more to do with never wanting to be too emotional with strangers than with a real change in persona. Also, I often find myself turning all kinds of things I'm saying to people in real life into blog posts without changing what I originally said much, so sometimes I think there's much, much more of me, parts of me that I just can't help being no matter what the forum, reflected in my blog than I realize (for instance, maybe I really AM that funny, even in real life). I'd be really curious to see what people think who've met me first through my blog and now know me in person (like Hobs and Dorr). People who knew me first, I think, tend to read my blog with my voice and to see the Emily they already know.

Litlove: Smithereens, do you notice a difference between European styles of book analysis and American ones? Only I think I do and I wondered if you'd agree. I find American bloggers less concerned (on the whole) with the historical context of what they are reading, and more likely (on the whole) to judge classics by modern day standards. I've read elsewhere a purported difference between French and Anglo-American critics is that the latter take the book as an object of analysis, to be taken apart, whereas the French school was more interested in following alongside the writing and producing more of an explication du texte. I just wondered what you thought about cultural differences in literary appreciation.

Smithereens: As for Litlove question, it was both difficult and interesting! Here's my answer: I do agree of your comparison between Europeans and Americans. There is obviously a difference between French reviewers and Anglo-American ones, because I don’t really like the French ones while I read the others with pleasure, but to me it’s very difficult to define this difference. My attempt: French reviewers’ tone (in newspapers, radio talk shows like Le Monde, LibĂ©ration, Les Inrocks, Le masque et la plume) is often quite aggressively judgmental and ad hominem (think Michiko Kakutani going personal…). Also the author’s intention is very important to French reviewers, even more than the result I think. The books are often viewed in the light of how innovative (on structure, form, themes) they are, compared to other recent ones, rather than judging whether readers will be moved, pleased, shocked…

Litlove: Cam, I think there was quite a measure of agreement between all our answers. Did you expect that or did you think we would disagree more? We're an international crew, but all women. I wonder if a man would answer differently?

Cam: I really didn't know what to expect with this. Even at the beginning, I didn't know whether to expect that anyone would want to participate. The similarity in answers to some of the questions doesn't surprise me at all, in retrospect. Although all of your blogs are different, I think that the general interests, tone and quality are similar and therefore it shouldn't be surprising. For example, I don't think that any of you are ever rude to readers or fellow bloggers. But, there are some bloggers who can't disagree with someone without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Do I think that a man would reply differently? I'm not at all sure. Maybe in a general sense, yes. But like the simirlities in your responses, I think that if my participants were limited to those who read my invite on my blog, all would answer similarly regardless of gender. Interestingly, I have frequently had people assume that 'Cam' is a man -- that both puzzles and amuses me. I could go on & on about that.....maybe I'll save it for a post sometime. :)


Book blogs: Good? or Bad?
Imani: Good
Emily: Very, very good.
Litlove: But good, of course!
Smithereens: Good of course!

Critical Reviews in old media: Goodbye & good riddance? or We will miss you?
Imani: The second one. Better predictable book blather than nothing at all. I would sincerely miss literary magazines.
Emily: We will miss you (but I'm not really sure they're going away).
Litlove: The more publicity for books and reading the better – there’s room in the world for us all.
Smithereens: Depend on the reviewer…

The blogging form: Here to stay? A flash-in-the-pan fad? Still evolving?
Imani: Can I choose two? Here to stay and still evolving.
Emily: Here to stay and still evolving.
Litlove: Here to stay, certainly, and still evolving.
Smithereens: I’d say "Here to stay!"

Who are some of the blogs you would recommend to a new blog reader interested in reading about literature, writing, reading.... (besides the participants in this roundtable).

It would depend on their reading tastes.

For romance readers I would suggest:
Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books
Dear Author
Paperback Reader

For the more speculative I'd send them:
The Mumpsimus
Torque Control

For those who like historicals:
A Work in Progress

For those whose tastes cover mass markets to classics:
Superfast Reader

And for those of a more "literary"/academic inclination:
The Reading Experience
The Sharp Side
The Little Professor

For book news I'd suggest:
The Literary Saloon
Laila Lalami
The Elegant Variation

Of Books and Bicycles
The Hobgoblin of Little Minds
So Many Books
A Striped Armchair
Ian’s Blog II
The Public, the Private, and Everything Inbetween
Charlotte's Web
Musings from the Sofa
The Library Ladder
Make Tea Not War
Mandarine (who doesn't write much about literature, writing, or reading but anyone interested in such things should be reading him anyway)

For intelligent debate:
The Reading Experience

For adding to one's reading list:
A Work in Progress

For a bit of everything:
So Many Books

For Community Projects:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf

Of Books and Bicycles
Eve’s Alexandria
Reading Matters

Cam: I hope you have enjoyed reading what these four bloggers have had to say. Want to continue the conversation? Please do so in the comments.


Dorothy W. said...

I was fascinated to read the thoughts about differences between American and European bloggers -- now I wonder how much I fit into the American profile! I hadn't thought about differences before (perhaps that in itself makes me a typical American in some way?).

Emily -- I see your sense of humor coming through in real life too. The blog seems more shaped, more carefully presented, but I can tell it's still Emily. I also think your curiosity about everything and your energy come through strongly both in real life and on the blog.

stefanie said...

Kudos to you Cam for moderating such a great discussion and bravo to Emily, Imani, Litlove and Smithereens for your thoughfulness and insight.

Imani, you made me snort when you said "I don't buy into any of the death scares. They are mediocre journalism's tired leavings, faithfully recycled every year."

And thank you Emily and Litlove for including me on your blogs to read lists!

mandarine said...

Cam, do tell Emily I'll be posting more on books, I will. Funny that I should be reading litblogs and so many books (mostly audio recently), and then be shy when it comes to sharing reading experiences.

Annie the Superfast Reader said...

Great discussion * thanks for the shout out, Imani!