Cranky, Cranky Post About People Who Don’t Think Before They Write

February 12th, 2008 · 8 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Way back in the day, I was all hot diggety dog (is there a correct spelling for diggety?) about defenders of traditional media dismissing the blogosphere as nothing but a bunch of noise. Since even I can hit prey when shooting fish in a barrel, the sport of exposing holes in logic grew wearisome. I get sucked back into the fray from time to time — sheer ignorance should not go unremarked — but I let most of it pass me by.

Recently I linked to an article that I retitled “On Conclusions Without Proof”. It was typical article that suggested that bloggers are simply better suited to reactionary writing. Bloggers, or maybe blogs, the distinction not quite clear in the article (and the distinction, while not critical, is something worth exploring), simply are not capable of “…lengthy reflection and slow maturation” when it comes to exploring ideas.

Lordy, you have to wonder what sort of vendetta William Skidelsky’s editors have against him — surely that is the only reason they would allow him to write such drivel without proper editorial counsel. The article, first published in ”’Prospect Magazine”’ (public service: people at Prospect, there’s something weird going on with your security certificates), ostensibly discussed the decline of literary criticism in newspapers. By decline I mean lack of column inches, not the lack of quality (though I have strong suspicions that there is a quality issue at the root of this development).

While there are many types of blogs — what started as a type of online diary has matured into an entire entity with sets and subsets — I am primarily interested in those blogs that discuss literature (in the broadest sense of the term) in the text format. Videoblogs and podcasts and photo blogs are other animals, though they provide equal service to the cause. The blogs that I am discussing range from “hey I read this book” types to long thoughtful discourse about literary issues.

A typical literary review has sections: reviews, critical analysis, short thoughts on books, short thoughts on the industry, a calendar of events, and advertising. Mix and match to create your own literary review. Some blogs also mirror this all-encompassing approach to literary information. Others focus intently on single topics, be it a genre or region or aspect of the publishing world. Still others find a type of middle ground. Given the general funding level of the average blog, it makes perfect sense that one would focus on an area that inspires passion and interest in the author. Sure, it might take several sites to achieve what is accomplished in the more compact confines of a newspaper, but that’s how life goes.

With this diversity of options comes diversity of perspective. Man, you gotta love diverse perspectives. Individual voices. Writers who don’t answer to higher corporate gods. Once upon a time, and I wildly paraphrase the discussion, author par excellence Tod Goldberg reminded me that the editor of a newspaper review section was free to impose his or her vision on the publication. While I still believe that a more populist approach would better serve the larger entity — the newspaper as a whole — I concede that editorial vision is the right of the editor (knowing, of course, that editors answer to their own masters).

This means that traditional print publications are held hostage to a set of mores that change only when leadership changes. The editor chooses the direction. The editor has final say in what is reviewed and not reviewed. In Skidelsky’s piece, he seems to revel in the decision of one publication’s assertion to author Susan Hill that

“no book either published or written by you will in future be reviewed on our literary pages.”

It is a right, of course, of the editorial staff to make this decision. These decisions are made all the time; it is a fact that far more books are published than reviewed. The effect on the literary discussion is that it is often limited — to the taste of those at the top. Whether or not these editorial choices serve the community at large is seemingly irrelevant…until that moment when pages are cut due to financial concerns. While it is all very well and good to support literary criticism at cocktail parties, publishing — all publishing — is a business. No traditional print venue, and some online entities, will continue to support a loss leader forever.

Blogs, and more particularly bloggers, are filling the wide gap between this editorial vision and the desires of the community. The New York Times famously neglected the female voice when it came to analyzing literature (they have made some significant improvement these past few years). The Los Angeles Times remains infatuated with books about old and new Hollywood with a smattering of California history for those who want to look beyond the mission. Both of these publications have limited themselves and their audiences.

It remains to be seen how long the NYTBR will exist in its current format and size. Being an industry paper — a sort of ”’Variety”’ if you will — gives it an edge, but dollars are dollars and all publications of a certain type of business model must appear before the budget committee at some point in time. If you are not financially sustainable, then you must provide a service to the community, a service they desire to the point where the financial model doesn’t matter so much (or, perhaps, where they will withdraw financial support if they lose this service).

I apologize for being so crass in discussing the economic realities at play. Publishing — books and newspapers — has not been a gentleman’s game for many decades now. The powers that be have different priorities. This isn’t a new reality. It is simply becoming increasingly apparent to those who never really paid attention in the past.

Bloggers, who often live by an entirely different financial model, are covering more fiction (I am most interested in fiction coverage, you see) than print publications can ever consider. Once it was argued to me that places like the NYTBR serve the public by exposing them to things that would fly under the traditional consumer’s radar. Uh huh. As I observed the wall-to-wall coverage of Philip Roth’s last novel, nothing was more apparent than the fact that some new authors trickle through, but there is a strong bent toward continuing coverage of the establishment.

This is fine. Just as I believe that genre fiction deserves fair critiquing — despite the belief that there are more “worthy”, more unnoticed works out there — I believe that literary lions should be read and analyzed in public. Bloggers, not held to publishing schedules and themes and the vision of others, are able to cover a wider range of interesting reading than most print publication. Blogs, not held to page limits and print runs, can take risks and explore topics to the degree the writer deems appropriate.

It is silly for defenders of old media to continue to fall back on tropes about blogging being facile or too much in the moment. The continued fighting for lost inches — they are not likely to return, at least not in the foreseeable future — by attacking people who are creating interesting, thought-provoking literary discussion is nonsensical. The repeated suggestions that bloggers are lesser critics smells like sour grapes.

There is no rule when it comes to blogging. There are writers who specialize in brief rehashes of news from other sources. There are writers who spend days or weeks composing critical analysis. There are writers who thoughtful, nuanced viewpoints. Some are prone to quick notes that lead readers to other thoughts; some are seduced by essays. Others, and I applaud them, go even deeper and further than any blog critic could fathom (get it, fathom? the coffee is kicking in)

Like it or not, the reader is moving online. The reader is online. The reader is searching blogs, particularly, for the information and analysis that traditional newspapers and other publications either could not or would not provide. What is happening should make any serious lover of reading very happy: not only are these bloggers making the conversation easy to have, but they’re also expanding the conversation. The nature of linking and community means that readers — again, they’re the one who buy the books — are discovering even more possibilities.

This is good. Very good. If you find it not good, I have to question your motivation. What bad can come from readers discovering new books and authors? But there’s more: readers are also participating in the discussion about the future of the book in ways that serve as clear markers for the industry. While there is academic about electronic books, there is also real-life, real-user discussion about this topic. Readers have spent years expressing their clear preferences for electronic media; it is time that the publishers paid attention.

I am interested in the fact that some of the best writing and thinking about the future of publishing is coming from sites that focus primarily on the romance genre. Obviously, I have a strong bent toward romance (and other genre fiction), but sites like Dear Author and the Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books are looking at the current state of fiction publishing as well as the future of fiction publishing with remarkably clear, insightful eyes. I’m not seeing that same level of analysis from other venues (though, please, enlighten me, I’m always eager to find kindred spirits). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re not looking at the whole of epublishing, to quote a sage from my youth, watch out for those trees….

Note: About 99.98% of this was written prior to the opening session at the Tools of Change conference. It’s sort of funny how closely what was being said from the stage mirrored what I’m said above. The themes throughout the day pretty much ranged from the notion of passion to the idea that it’s time to get over the past and find your place in the future. More thoughts on this topic later.
[tags]toc08, tocconf08, toc2008[/tags]

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

8 responses so far ↓

  • Diana Hunter // Feb 12, 2008 at 9:50 am

    ACK! I had a great response written and the Internet ate it! Grrrr…..take two:

    Go get ’em Kassia!

    Two points:
    First of all, I read blogs about publishing FAR more than I read print media about publishing. Blogs are more “in the moment” in that they cover the issues in a more timely manner rather than making me wait to the end of the week to read about it in the paper. Case in point: ferrets and plagarism. This was being discussed in the blogosphere for nearly two weeks before print media picked it up.

    Blogs also allow me the opportunity to talk back to the author of the article. With the comments section, an entire discussion can take place about the issue at hand. That cannot happen in traditional print media (btw, I had decided there were two types of people in the world: those who wrote blog articles and those who commented on them. I need to amend that with a third type of person: those who don’t have any understanding of what a blog is).

    One last thing:
    There is a downside to Internet blogging: I cannot use a blog post to train a puppy…

    Diana (hoping this post goes through and apologizing if the other actually did and I’ve done this twice)

  • Biting the hand that’s digging you out of a rut « // Feb 12, 2008 at 10:45 am

    […] Krozser brings up a subject that’s been troubling me, given the number of my acquaintances and friends who are so sour on […]

  • Lorra Laven // Feb 12, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Kassia – great post – I couldn’t agree more. But I can’t help wondering if blog-readers and those who prefer print only are two entirely distinct groups with the small overlap quickly disappearing.

    Also would love to know how these two groups line up demographically. Are print-only people primarily older, meaning they truly are a dying breed?

  • Kristen // Feb 12, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Thought-provoking post — thank you! As someone very new to the lit blog world, and who fell into it by accident, I really appreciate the background and context you provide. I love Diana’s comment that blogs allow you to “talk back” to the author in a very immediate sense — thus holding the authors even more accountable to their readers. In response to Lorra’s — so far I fall into both categories (reader of both blogs and paper reviews), but I am 38 so that might be why…? Great discussion!

  • Jim Murdoch // Feb 12, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    This was all very interesting, if I can add my tuppenceworth: Canongate Book recently sent me a copy of a book with the hope that I would write a review on it. I’m not sure what drew me to their attention but I suspect it was the in-depth review I wrote on ‘Naïve.Super’ which they also published. The book has been out a while but I only just discovered it and was keen to let people know about it now the original fuss has died down. The book Canongate sent me was ‘Fresh’, the winner of the Scottish FIRST Book of the Year, as opposed to A L Kennedy’s ‘Day’, the winner of the Scottish Book of the Year. I read it. I liked it. I reviewed it.

    The thing is, this is how Canongate got to know about me, they are one of my friends on Goodreads. The company has made a conscious effort to take full advantage of on-line ‘amateur’ reviewers to promote their wares. When they set up their account, one of the things they asked was who in the UK would be interested in getting books for free. And all they were looking for was a review on the Goodreads site. My blog entry was a bonus for them but, hey, I like free books. I think it is a very sensible and commendable move on their part. A L Kennedy got all the press for her win but what about poor ol’ Mark McNay?

    One of the issues that’s being battered about at the moment is concerning the blogosphere’s tendency towards positive reviews. What would I have done if I didn’t like that book? The answer is I would have done a much shorter review but on the Goodreads site only. It’s not that I’m afraid to say bad things about a book because I’m not but my site is not primarily a book review site, if my readers see me doing a review at all then that alone is a recommendation; the review that follows is substantiation of that.

  • Lee // Feb 13, 2008 at 4:11 am

    A long post with lots of good points to consider. As a corollary, I’d suggest keeping an eye on indie writers. Not just reviewing, but publishing is beginning to move online.

  • Clive Warner // Feb 13, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    “In Skidelsky’s piece, he seems to revel in the decision of one publication’s assertion to author Susan Hill that …
    ‘no book either published or written by you will in future be reviewed on our literary pages.’

    – This is so bloody typical of these “types” in the paper press. Snobs, that is what they are.
    Unless a book comes from one of the major publishers they throw it into the garbage – they are so stuck up they are absolutely sure it must be lowbrow trash without even bothering to look inside.

    Well, this small press has learnt its lesson. Never again will I bother to go the “traditional” route of producing an ARC and submitting 60 advance copies to the paper press. Hell will freeze over first.
    I have decided to submit review copies only to the specialists (that means publications dedicated to the genre of the book) and to bloggers, whom I find to be generous warmhearted folk with the ability to tell a good back from a bad book without reference to the amount of money in the publisher’s bank account.
    So, New York Times and the rest of the snob press, you can sod off. Thanks Bloggers!

  • Ruth Douillette // Feb 18, 2008 at 9:00 am

    Good post, good points. Yet, I often see the middle ground and I agree with many of Skidelsky’s points, also. (I won’t play the diplomat by pointing out the areas you perhaps could agree upon; I’d end up alienating you both.)

    I’m Associate Editor of The internet Review of Books, a fairly new entry on the review scene created by editor Carter Jefferson to fill just such gaps as you and Skidelsky cite: the shrinking space given to reviews in newspapers.

    However– and here’s where I lean away from Skidelsky’s views– we publish monthly allowing time for reading and considered thought before writing a review. Nothing is dashed off cavalierly, and shot out into cyberspace. Neither do we aim to bless a book. We allow each reviewer to respond as he or she sees fit, while still maintaining a respectful voice.

    We write for the potential readers of the books we choose to review, not the author or the publishing company, and we try to choose books that may not get to see the light of day in any other review venue.

    Still, practicality requires that we can’t be so obscure in our choices, that there are no readers who are interested enough to visit our site.

    Bottom line, a newspaper makes reviewing decisions for financial reasons. Internet reviewers don’t have that albatross, so whose reviews just might be the most honest? Hmmmm . . . your point exactly, Kassia?

    We’d love to have you visit The Internet Review of Books, and our associated blog.