Thursday, July 31, 2008

book reviewing on blogs

My name is Moonrat, and I'm a blogger. [Hi, Moonrat.] Today is my [quick attempt at calulations] 635th day blogging. [Congratulations, Moonrat.]

My time blogging has been SO very educational. It has been a period of geometric brain growth as I grappled with and struggled to understand the internet (woops, that should probably be in the present tense, since the battle is hardly over).

For example, this morning I read Lissa Warren's HuffPo article about why blog reviews have, as of yet, failed to replace print book reviews. Seeing as I write about books, I wanted to think deeply about this.

A couple points Lissa makes:
1) Most blog book coverage isn't an article per se; it's a link to another article, or a review elsewhere (umm, kind of like this blog post is)
2) A lot of reviews that do appear on blogs are quick, dashed-off thoughts that focus on personal feelings about the book instead of what Lissa calls "judgments" (ie what a print book reviewer would have been forced to make)

Now I like quickly dashing off my personal feelings about books. It's kind of the reason I started blogging. But as an editor, boy do I feel the grind as "real" (that is, print) book review venues fold. And boy do I wish there were more reliable online review venues. Boy do I.

I've struggled with both these issues (personal feelings and judgments) over my time blogging here and on thebookbook. For example.

I like to read, and I like to write about what I read. That's a basic platform that's pretty personal. Also, will the people--mostly my friends, at least up until recently--who read my review care more about detached analysis of literature, or what my *personal* reactions were? I would have said the latter. But if I focus on the personal, perhaps I'm alienating all those imaginary people who might someday look up my review on google (?).

I used to review everything, negative and positive... until I started getting some significant traffic here, and then I realized I didn't want to be responsible for any meanness on the internet. The power of internet traffic scares me, and what I don't want to do is to be labled an angry or ranting blogger. But then I begin to question if even an honestly tempered account of something I read and liked and disliked is ok. What if the topic was interesting but I only liked and didn't love it? Should I mislead my blog readers by not talking about the negative aspects?

Rats, rats, rats, as they say.

I'm solidifying my own opinion here, but naturally I can't even make up my mind without some measure of approval-seeking. So, on this matter of book reviewing on blogs, what do you think? What would you rather read personally, online? Are there any online review venues you trust in particular? Do you care about reviews at all, or would you care more if they were done a certain way?


Thomas said...

I think what sort of reviews you give depend on what sort of reader you are and what sort of person you are. Likewise, I think what sort of reviews one responds to depend on what sort of reader one is and what sort of person one is.
In other words, there are bloggers who I read because they seem like people I'd probably hang out with if our social circles overlapped in reality. And from these bloggers I very much want a casual, "That scene where the guy was on the roof rocked" sort of review. Because that's what conversations with my friends are like and, frankly, conversations like that guide my next book choice far more than formal reviews. On the other hand, there are blogs I read because the author makes good points and has an eye for literary analysis, and from them I want interesting new angles brought up in things I've read or might read.
And, of course, no one fits exactly on one side or the other, so you kind of mix it up. But, to sum up, I think you should go ahead and discuss art exactly the way you enjoy discussing art the most.
That's what art is there for.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've struggled with this myself. Almost always, except once when I made an exception, I've only blogged negatively about books by authors who are no longer with us. If I've mentioned some point about a book by a living writer I've avoided giving the name. When I read a book that I like I feel free to say so, but if I don't like it I tend to just keep my mouth shut. I feel so strongly about books that I just don't think I'd make a good reviewer anyway.

Lisa said...

In book reviewing, there's a great deal of validity to the idea that some opinions hold more weight than others. When new literary fiction is published, I want to know what The Guardian and the NYTBR have to say. I assign just as much, if not more weight to litbloggers like Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation or Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading. Black Garter Belt, Bookfox, Chekov's Mistress, Critical Mass, The Reading Experience -- these are all bloggers who care deeply about literature and provide thoughtful analysis.

I think the HuffPo post was incomplete for not crediting these litbloggers properly. The complaints lodged are more appropriately for Amazon reviewers and frankly, people like myself who don't pretend to be able to render a review on a par with a professional reviewer. That kind of review is really only useful (IMHO) to those who know us, our opinions and tastes and who don't equate what we have to say with what a professional reviewer has to say.

This problem -- if it is one -- is no different from the bigger issue of where someone chooses to get his news. An in-depth article on the war in Iraq in the New Yorker does not equate to a crawl across the TV screen on the evening news. Some people are discerning enough to consider the source and some aren't.

ilyakogan said...

Don't throw rotten blogberries at me but I usually read customer reviews on Amazon before I buy a book. Kindle makes it so easy to do.

Lisa said...

To clarify, I read and write Amazon reviews too -- it's just that they are opinions and thoughts and typically not as analytical as full blown reviews and each has to be interpreted based on how much credibility the reader assigns each reviewer.

D.J. Cappella said...

As a blogger myself I use my blog as a method for talking about publishing including reviewing books in my genre - fantasy. I must say that as a reader I prefer a more emotional account when it comes to a review. The way a book draws emotions out of people - good and bad - show me how dynamic a book really is.

Sprizouse said...

Blogs are the domain of nutcases. We're not supposed to be objective NOR professional!

But seriously, the closing of reviewing venues is not a concern you should factor into your "review - not review" decision.

The new model for the world of book and movie reviews is an aggregating model anyway (a la Rotten Tomatoes or customer reviews on Amazon). "Imaginary People" in the future will probably never find your blog (mostly because they're imaginary) but a search engine might. And it will pull out your old review and aggregate it into a thousand other reviews and assign books a numbered rating based on what it finds (EXACTLY the way R.T. does for movies).

It's a quick snapshot, a glance, of what other people on the interwebs think. Sometimes those reviews invite further investigation but often they don't. However, without dissenting opinions all of the books will get 100% ratings. So it's your DUTY to be negative! And I doubt anybody will have a problem with it as long as your negative review is honestly negative (and not borne of jealousy for the author's success or personal hatred of their taste in shoes).

Finally, I would also recommend NOT writing a scathing review of something that's not popular. If only 20 people have read a given book, why waste time trashing it? I mean, if nobody's reading it why are you bothering to tell people not to read it? Keeping that in mind, I'm sure you'll be able to determine the exact level of sales an author needs to earn a disfiguring, double-fisted, Moonrat beating.

Anonymous said...

I don't do many book reviews. (I've only ever done a few.) And for the same anti-meanness reasons you mention, I only do them for ones I actually like. I will give harsher opinions on book reviews, but not so many.


Parkbench Publishing Services said...

I saw this on B2B as well this morning, and I think it's pretty typical of newspaper journalists; they, like everyone else, can only understand the broader world through their own direct experience. Thus, blogging must function like newspapers, and book blogs must function like the book sections in newspapers. I figure that blogs are like the editorial pages of papers, if anything, and so are a forum for debate, news, gossip etc. I don't review books on my blogs per se either – I like to get paid for my book reviews, hey! But nor am I afraid of the power I might wield over a book – we're all entitled to our opinions, provided we're up for a bit of argument.

I do think that it's hard for publishers and their ilk to weigh the importance of book blogging, or an author's presence on facebook etc., as it's all still an unknown quantity to so many. Like this, that appeared in B2B a while back:

JES said...

A couple thoughts:

(1) First, I like to distinguish between book (or movie, etc.) reviewers as opposed to book (...) critics. The former write more casual 2- to 3-paragraph summaries; the latter, longer "thought pieces." The tubes of the Interwebs are large and can contain multitudes -- plenty of room for people at both ends and in the middle of the spectrum, both in the writing and reading camps.

(2) Just like in writing workshops, I tend to like reviewers/critics who at least make an effort to understand what the writer (meant) to accomplish, and how well s/he did on that score, before making their comments public. For my taste, anyhow, too many "reviews" are written from a standpoint which translates something like, "If I were writing a book [on this subject/with these characters/given this premise/of this genre/etc.], this wouldn't be the book I'd write!"

(Of course there's no way to know with certainty what an author meant to accomplish; you can't even trust an author's own words on the subject, like from interviews and such. But too few reviewers/critics even make an effort.)

Just in my opinion, that last point is where many reviewers (particularly online) tend to fall off the edge from reasonableness into meanness, as you say. You can fairly question whether an author met his/her objectives (including making money :) -- it gets nastier when you start to question why the author chose his/her objectives rather than your own.

moonrat said...

thanks, guys. you make some good points.

i particularly appreciate the comment about the difference between "reviewers" and "critics." it's true, no one is paying me to do any blogging. so as long as i'm not making the world a worse place with what i write, isn't it ok to follow my own rules?

Precie said...

I agree with so many points that have been made here, most especially with jes.

It's such tricky area. I enjoy reading both published and casual reviews. Every week, I check out Entertainment Weekly's book reviews and grades. And I do look at reviews on Amazon/B&N/goodreads, etc. But I don't necessarily base my book buying on any of those reviews.

What I like about blog book reviews (and blogs like The Book Book) is that, over multiple reviews, I get a sense of each blogger's tastes and approaches to the reading experience. And whether or not I share those tastes.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Wow, I soo loved seeing that you didn't want to be responsible for any internet meanness. Today seems to be a day where everywhere the topic of reviews and bloggers is being discussed.

I like reviews. In anyway shape or form. I can enjoy an academic review or a casual review. As long as the reviewer makes me understand what the book is about. I hate nasty reviewers or bad reviews. And the internet is rife with nasty people. One never knows how a bad review affects an author's health or future career. And it's not very nice to pick on someone's hard work when you don't know that person's mental state. Why badmouth someone one doesn't know? And there are ways to talk about a bad book without slamming it.

I review books and I like being nice...but if I really have trouble liking a book I just decide to do an interview with the author. If a book is bad and I have to review it, I simply do an analysis of the story and interpret its worldview, giving some super psychological insightful commentary on the characters. In that way, I help a fellow author out but I don't have to be dishonest.

It takes a lot for me to really hate a book, though. -C

Jolie said...

Reviews in major publications by big fancy professionals can be great; I know I'll want as many as possible for my books once I get published (which I'm determined to make happen). And as a reader, the more of these reviews I see for any given book, the more likely I am to take that book seriously and consider purchasing it later.

But I've never made the final decision to buy a book or added it to my Amazon wishlist because of a "pro" review. I have added several books after reading blogger reviews, though, even very brief or simple ones if they're written by people I already know are smart and have good taste. The thing is, people like you and me aren't getting paid to write those reviews. We do it out of a pure desire to spread the word about books we think are worthwhile (or warn against those that aren't). So for me, it's a blog review that's more likely to make me seek out a book.

P.S. Speaking of reviews, I like your blog so much that I posted about it the other day as part of a series on my own quiet little blog. Thought you'd like to know; I always want to know if someone's talking about me.