Thursday, June 21, 2007

Beware of Book Bloggers

Apparently some professional book reviewers don't like book bloggers, and every now and then one of them will write a polemic about how awful we are. There's been a lot of talk about one specific article by Adam Kirsch, writing in the New York Sun, over at the Book Chase blog. I won’t repeat Kirsch’s nasty comments here; you can read them at Book Chase. Suffice to say that the blogging community has responded with derision, though I don't know what the other professional book reviewers are saying about Kirsch's article.

Another source of complaints has been Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. Only bona fide book reviewers and authors are allowed to talk about books on their blog, and they have used their blog to alert people to the dangers of blogs run by amateurs. I wrote about these folks once before, here. I guess, if you are an organization that represents professional book critics, you have to protect your turf. But they could be more polite about it.

On the other hand, Frank Wilson, book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, links to book bloggers all day long, and has a list of book blogs on his sidebar. He has been nothing but supportive of the book blogging community. Several bloggers that I know also write book reviews professionally (Maxine at Petrona) and some blog-free reviewers (Susan Balee) frequently leave comments here and on other blogs. These folks seem to enjoy the back and forth that happens on blogs, and have no complaints, as far as I’ve seen.

While he pays lip service to the idea that "the democratization of discourse" is good, Kirsch can't hide his hostility. Here's what he says about book bloggers: "Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised." Really? How does he know this? This doesn't describe any bloggers that I know. The bloggers that I know are librarians and writers and editors, people with long experience of reading and thinking and talking about books. Instead of being isolated, they belong to wide-ranging communities of readers through their work, their book clubs, and their on-line activities. And none of them, that I know of, longs for print publication in the kind of journal that Kirsch writes for.

He goes on: "As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog." Oh, I see. We're only bloggers because we can't get better gigs in real publications. Does he actually know any book bloggers? It doesn’t sound like it to me. I think, by taking such cheap shots at bloggers, Kirsch weakens his own arguments. If you are such a serious journalist Adam, why do you feel it necessary to be so insulting? Why didn't you interview any book bloggers about why they blog, and where they think they fit in the book-discussion arena?

High-level literary analysis, the kind Kirsch engages in when he writes for the New Republic, and Nextbook, has nothing to fear from book bloggers. I feel like Kirsch has confused the two kinds of talk. I don’t know any book bloggers who are trying to get their views published in peer-reviewed literary journals. Book bloggers are just readers who like to talk about books. I don’t get why Kirsch feels he has to marginalize any kind of discussion except the most serious.

I think that some critics fear that all the Internet chatter about books will drown out their more serious discourse, as if ignorant Web surfers can’t tell the difference between a blog and an online literary journal. Give us some credit, please. I can distinguish between the two, and I consider the source when I think about the opinions and analysis offered by each one.

Something that no one has brought up in this controversy is the role that bloggers play in focusing attention on older titles that have dropped off the professional critic’s radar. Sam Houston, at Book Chase also points out that book bloggers often write about new titles that are too obscure to get the attention of a professional reviewer. I have discovered lots of older books and small press books from reading other people's blogs, and I often write about books that are at least 10 years or more past their publication date. I can't depend on professional reviewers or literary magazines for this kind of information.

I got so incensed at Kirsch's article that I left a flaming comment on Book Chase. The next day I regretted my words, and I asked Sam Houston if he would take my comment down, which he kindly did, though his response to my comment is still up. I wonder if Kirsch regrets his words. I'm sure not. As far as I know, he hasn’t retracted them, and I don’t expect he will.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I'm not a blogger myself but I regularly read half a dozen or so of my favourite book blogs (this being one of them) as well as the literary reviews in my chosen newspaper. To me, both are valid sources of reading recommendations. What I get from the blogs is that they convey the true pleasure of reading which you often don't get from literary reviews. When I took my English degree we'd study a book, say, Wuthering Heights and then have to examine it from a feminist perspective, a Marxist perspective, a Freudian perspective blah, blah, blah, but no lecturer ever said, 'Did you enjoy reading the book?.' The best blogs convey the deep peace and pleasure that comes from reading a great book.

Becky Holmes said...

Nicola, so well said. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Nicola. The good book blogs -- yours, Becky; Random Jottings; Petrona; Dovegrey Reader; and others -- are the equal of any book review section of a major paper.

However, there are other, less savory bloggers out there. Dogmatic axe-grinding nutcases wielding their prejudices against the published world. I've been flamed by a couple from those realms in threads discussing books. On their own blogs, of course, they can say whatever they want and whomever wishes may go there and commune with them. But when they show up in other places, on more sophisticated sites like this blog or the "official" blogs Kirsch is citing, then they're often like party crashers. They lower the level of discourse and start slinging ad hominem attacks at people who don't agree with them.

Still, Adam K. sounds pretty uptight from your report on his comments. My guess would be that's he's smarting from a flaming by some of these nutzoid bloggers. I smarted for a while when I got burned and because the Internet is forever, if you google my name you'll find one of the blogs pretty quickly -- the guy put up our argument on his blog (I've never bothered to read it, but he was such a crazy ranter, I have no doubt he shaped my words -- or left 'em out -- to fit his agenda).

These are the kinds of people, the kinds of people, the publishing world and successful writers abhor. Not the great book blogs, like this one.

Sorry to go on for so long, I'm just trying to interpret some of those articles -- Richard Schickel wrote another -- bashing bloggers. They're talking about some uncouth folk so far removed from blogs like this that you don't recognize 'em. And they're not naming names because, doubtless, they don't want to get flamed (again).

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, I really appreciate the information you provide. To be honest, I was unaware that these kinds of crazies existed, as I've never come across them. I can imagine how frustrating it must be to cross paths with one of these guys. You have my sympathy. If these are the folks Adam is talking about, then it sounds like he has a right to complain (though I do hate being lumped in with the nutjobs). Thanks for your comments, and good luck avoiding trouble in the future!

Ted said...

Nice post on the healthy discussion I got involved in myself! I appreciated your even analysis (and your blog, in general).

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, I just found the discussion (if you could call it that) that you were referring to, on Books, Inq. Is that the one? Wow, you are right about the loonies.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Becky. Yup, that was it. The two who felt so offended that they needed to resort to the nuclear weapons both have their own blogs. And I don't believe visitors can leave comments on either (obviously they don't want anyone playing their own game with them).

I'm pretty sure they're of the ilk that Schickel, Kirsch, et al, are referring to. But, who knows? If these writers trying to hang onto the superiority of their published reviews don't read blogs or encounter real bloggers, then they've just used the term to create a strawman argument. If that's the case, I'll be very disappointed in them.

Kathleen said...

I don't get what their problem is. Why wouldn't they want books reviewed and talked about? Wouldn't that get them more exposure?

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