Fat Books & Thin Women

What I want out of book blogs – or at least, out of my book blog
May 19, 2011, 12:11 pm
Filed under: On Blogging, Ways of Reading, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

The Reading Ape has been doing this fantastic post series on book blogging and styles of reviewing*, spurred by his observation that some book bloggers don’t review so much as they react to the books they’re reading. I did a post a while back about why book blogs matter, and mentioned that one of the things I like about book blogs is that the bloggers provide a more personal look at books than do professional reviewers. The Ape raises some good questions about the types of personal reflection and critical reviewing we do on our blogs, though, and if we’re thinking of book blogs as responses to the increasingly slim book pages of our newspapers there’s good reason to aim for a type of review that doesn’t focus so much on the “I” as on the “why.” That is, to write not, “I thought this book was awesome, go read it,” but to focus on what it is about the book that makes you like it so much.

When I started this blog in September, the other book blogs I came across were overwhelmingly focused on the social aspects of book blogging. I saw far more posts on what was showing up in the bloggers’ mailboxes, what they’d checked out at the library, who their ten most hated characters between the ages of 13 and 18 were, than posts actually reviewing books. It wasn’t until I started finding blogs like The Reading Ape, Sasha & the Silverfish, The New Dork Review of Books, that I figured out that there were bloggers out there doing what I was interested in doing, which was – well, reviewing books.

The Ape mentions this briefly in his most recent post, but I also noticed a divide between bloggers who were striving to write about books fully and in sometimes thought-provoking ways, and those who actively resisted this sort of writing. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at any blogs like this, but I also remember reading a lot of disgusted talk about “English majors” and the ways that “academic writing” ruin reading. Like the Ape, though, I see a splash of that sort of academic writing as adding value to the discussion we have on our book blogs. My blog is here to track what I’m reading, but it’s also here so I can develop my thoughts on my reading in a way I haven’t been able to since college, and to take part in discussions that often change how I view the novels I’m reading. My review of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, for example, was pretty negative; reading The Picky Girl’s more positive review hasn’t changed my views, but it has helped to develop them and get me thinking about ways the novel could have been better structured than it was. A more self-reflective, less review-y post wouldn’t give me as much to think about.

We all engage with our reading in different ways, of course. There are some bloggers who write fantastic posts that are as much reflection as review, and I’ve done a lot of posts that are as much about why I’m reading a certain book as what I think of that book. All these posts The Reading Ape is doing, though, have started me thinking more about why I started this blog and what I’m trying to get out of it. Part of my interest in book blogging, as I write on my “about me” page, is in the community; I don’t have people around me I can discuss books with, and having this blog has at times felt like a lifeline. It’s made me feel, in some way, a part of a literary culture again, and after two years of living on the linguistic level of a child (a child with bad grammar, no less) I feel like I’ve recovered a part of myself through writing about books. More than that, though, it’s an attempt to write and think about books critically again. I don’t like the feeling of putting a book down, deciding whether I liked or disliked it, and then tossing it in my book bag to return it to the Peace Corps library. I don’t like the feeling of not actively engaging with a book, or of thinking about it but not in much more depth than to decide, “I didn’t like this scene, I liked this character, I didn’t like the last fifty pages.”

Thinking about book blogging, what we’re trying to get out of it, what types of reviewing we usually find on blogs, has gotten me to reassess what I’m doing at this blog. When I started going through old posts I was sometimes disappointed in what I found: not a lot of critical thinking, but more meditations on how I’d been sick/running spelling bees/missed America, then thoughts on how what I was reading at the time tied into this. There’s some value in this, sure, but it’s a largely personal one in that those posts allow me to look back on the past few months and remember where I was. They’re not posts that I see as being of particular interest of other people, or as adding much value to the bookish conversations going on online. What I want to do, what I wanted to do when I started this blog, is to wake my brain back up from its “I don’t have to speak English” stupor, to review in a semi-professional manner (that is, in a manner that will help a lot of high school students as they’re trying to plagiarize their essays on Native Son), and to be part of this book blogger community through actual critical discussions of the books we’re reading rather than by posting a meme a day.

The Ape deserves a good slap on the back for all the posts he’s been doing lately. This may be a discussion for another day, but if book bloggers are to continue receiving review copies from publishers, if they’re going to be a bigger part of the literary conversation, it’s going to have to be on the terms the Ape proposes – to write more analytical reviews without the “I,” to find some place between the professional reviewer in the Times and the “I found this book on a park bench while I was walking my dog who recently ripped off his dewclaw, but it was so good I couldn’t put it down to change his bandages…”-style reflections.

* The Ape’s posts: “The ‘I”s Have It” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Redux” / “An Offshoot of the Buzz” / “The Tyranny of Pleasure” / “Whom Do You Review For?” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Once More With Feeling”

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I think that a book blog can be many things at the same time, and it can change at any time to serve the blogger’s needs.

We read for different things at different times. I have in mind a Donald Hall metaphor used by children’s book author Avi in his 2003 Newbery Award acceptance speech: Hall says that a writer tries to create the letter O, but instead creates the letter C. If the gap in the letter C is neither too small nor too large, the reader closes it with self to complete the circle.

That “self” changes with time and circumstance, which is why one might reread the same book or story several times and respond to it in different ways every time.

I suspect that right now you would find it difficult to separate your reading – the way you close the “C” to make an “O” – from the current phase of your Peace Corps assignment. Your response to any book you read will be colored by your frustration with your limited ability to speak and read Serbo-Croatian, possibly the things that you’re homesick for, and even the rats running through your kitchen and thumbing their whiskery pink noses at you.

The fact that your response to a book is inevitably colored by your life experiences doesn’t mean that you should excuse yourself from the responsibility of reading in the deepest, fullest, most critical and analytical way that you’re capable of when the rats are doing the tango in your sink. We are never more alive than when we exercise our faculties to the fullest. If we choose to shut down our critical and analytical faculties, to be sloppy or thoughtless or careless, perhaps we are less alive. (Or perhaps it is more important at any given moment to live fully in some other sphere of life than we’re able to in reading and responding to fiction. Sometimes you’ve just gotta deal with the rats.)

Comment by Jerri Bell

woo, lots to think about here – thanks for commenting! You’re right that what we try to do in our blogs shifts over time, and that’s only natural; and where I’m at now is probably a bit of a backlash against my vision of Earlier Me, writing “book reviews” that weren’t honestly book reviews. One of my favorite parts of reading, though, is when I’m on a reread seeing the notes and mark-ups I made on earlier reads of a novel, and this blog can offer something similar to me, a sense of how where I was was influencing my reading at the time. I’ve noticed, for instance, a lot more “comfort reading” in the last year than is normal for me, and that is – like you write – the direct result of me living in a different country, having to communicate in two foreign languages, and for the first time in my life not being surrounded by friends and family. And one of the interesting things I’ve started to notice since starting this blog is that I am reacting in very different ways to books than I did before. A writer like Edith Wharton is suddenly heading up my unspoken list of favorite authors, but until this year she wasn’t a writer I ever “got.” And that, for sure, is the result of where I was as a reader and where my interests lay and why I was reading her books (being forced to by a high school teacher, or by choice).

I love that image from Avi/Hall. Thanks for including that.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I can’t express how pleased I am that my thinking got your thinking, well, thinking. My own reasons and outcomes for blogging are very much in flux and this series of posts is as much about helping me sort through these issues as anything.

I really like your point that book blogging might be the last man standing when it comes to mainstream literary discourse and that position comes with opportunity. Will the rise of book blogging in publishing and readership ultimately be a good thing for engaged reading or a bad thing?

I also want to build on Jerri’s point about how thought enriches experience. There seem to be some that have reacted to my post with the idea that analysis and thinking dessicates the experiences of reading. My experience is quite the opposite—thinking deeply and rigorously exposes layers and possibilities of a reading experience that were hidden. Part of my exhortation comes from a sadness that people are missing out on this.

Comment by The Reading Ape

right, i’m always been a little offended when i hear someone going on about how analysis or thinking too deeply about a book ruins the reading experience. i find the whole idea that it’s “literary analysis” vs “reading for pleasure” – that there’s no overlap between the two, that there’s no way careful consideration of a book can increase the pleasures of reading – upsetting, and I’m never quite sure how to react when I run across such ideas on someone’s blog. (Other than to not return to the blog.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I find those attitudes upsetting too … and don’t quite know how to respond. I think the thing is that these views are often presented as fact – analysis spoils the pleasure – rather than as a recognition that it’s a personal thing. Some of us love to think about what makes the book work, why does it appeal to us, how has the author managed (or not managed) to nail character, is the language exciting or prosaic, how does it fit into the literary tradition, etc.

Comment by whisperinggums

So much to say here! This is a great post, and I’ve brought up the same thing on my own blog. I personally want thoughtful, fair reviews, taking into consideration the work and thought an author puts into a book. I want quality, in other words, something to sink my teeth into. I believe in being honest and mixing the bad with the good, if there is bad. Analytical but not academic, if the reviews are on a blog. I believe that while the NYT has a high standard and certain type of academic review and I enjoy those too, I think blogging is completely different. Blog readers want to read more personal experiences, such as you and I already give, but with substance as well—actually discuss the book, its elements, style, and so on, rather than simply summarize and then rate it. I don’t want only personal opinion: I want reasons.

Comment by Steph

By “I don’t want personal opinion” I mean, I don’t want just, I thought it was great, or, it sucked. I want to know why you thought it was great or not so great.

Comment by Steph

Right, exactly how I feel. Some bloggers do a great job fitting their personalities into their reviews, but I’m not interested in reviews that don’t explore the reasons they liked or disliked a book.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great comments Ellen … I agree with a lot of what you say. I do like the social aspect of blogging when it involves engaging in discussion about books but like you I’m not interested in “in my mailbox”, “library loot” etc type posts. Some are, and that’s great because there’s space for all of us here, but it’s tricky to find people who like to write about WHAT they like about a book and WHY with some analysis and as the Ape says “evidence”. You don’t have to use dry academic language or fancy literary theory terms to provide evidence for what you like the characterisation, the language, that structure etc. I like the personal to be there in preference for a dry treatise but there are bloggers who do that … who introduce their reviews with some background as to why, for example, they chose that book, how it fits into their reading likes/dislikes and so on. It’s a balancing act but it can be done well can’t it?

Comment by whisperinggums

right, right, i think some people do it very well, but sometimes i feel exhausted by those meme-ish posts. certain ones, when i see them pop up on my feeder – i just delete the blog because i hate clearing the same fluff posts out of my feeder each week.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great post. I think that we all bring our backgrounds to our blogs, and what I’m attracted to and try to emulate at my blog is what I see in the blogs you mention. You can see in my “About Me” section that I also started blogging for the community, and to remember what I read. I don’t have any problem remembering whether I liked something, but I can’t remember for the life of me why, unless I write it down. And I also bring my academic background to my writing. I don’t see myself as a reviewer as much as I see myself as a literary critic, which is why I title my posts, “My Thoughts on” instead of a “Review of.” However, I think the different formats work for different readers, and some buyers just want to see a star rating. That isn’t what I do, but I have done it while I was playing with my format. I think that there is room for all these types of blogs.

Comment by Laura

right, there’s room for all of them…i guess what i’m admitting is mostly that there isn’t room for all these types of book blogs for me. i don’t like star ratings, “reviews” that are little more than a summary grabbed off another website or the back of a book, page after page of meme and giveaway. at the same time, i know there are plenty of people who have no interest in the types of posts i write, and that’s fine. while i’m occasionally interested in more personal posts, that depends heavily on the blog’s author – i mostly want to read reviews from that standpoint of literary criticism.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

This is a great post and you (and Reading Ape) have raised a lot of important issues. I’ve been thinking about these things myself as my blog hits its one-year mark. Over the last year I’ve actually worked to include more personal reflection in my reviews, because otherwise I felt my reviews were too academic. For me, it’s the blend of personal and intellectual that makes bloggers’ reviews interesting. But I totally agree about the memes and lack of real reviews. Sometimes I feel like a slave to the memes just to get reviewers. And then someone tries a meme that is really thoughtful, like Poetry Sunday, and no one responds. The real question then becomes, am I writing for myself or am I writing for the response of the readers?

I also try to blend literary and non-literary on my blog, so every review is not going to be academic. Different kinds of books need to be written about in different ways.

Comment by curlygeek04

yeah, when i occasionally do one of the memes it’s usually for the reader response – i don’t find them that satisfying or interesting in most cases. and then there are a few, like the literary blog hop, that i found initially interesting that that pretty quickly dropped off into the same hell that all other weekly memes seem to reside in, of running out of thought-provoking topics and simply recycling the same format week after week.

you’re right that different books call for different kinds of writing. my reviews of “A” is for Alibi and Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, if I ever get around to writing them, can’t look the same because the aims of the books are so different.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I wandered over here from The Reading Ape, and am glad I did. You have expressed many of my own frustrations. Solidarity! I have been trimming my blog reading more than expanding it, for just the reasons you say, which is a little sad. I want book blogs to be endlessly exciting and surprising, which is not entirely realistic, is it? But killing off those mailbox posts wouldn’t hurt!

Anyway, it’s a pleasure to make the acquaintance of your blog.

Comment by Amateur Reader

I really appreciated this post. I’ve had my other blogs longer than my reading one, and since I already post reviews in GoodReads, I feel pressured to say something incredibly insightful to have a reason to post. Then I post less…. I’m trying to get over it!

Comment by Jenny

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