Fat Books & Thin Women

The State and Future of Book Blogging
May 25, 2011, 10:21 am
Filed under: On Blogging | Tags: , ,

The Reading Ape is wrapping up his fantastic series of post on book blogging with a call to bloggers to give their thoughts on book blogging and its future. Here are my answers to his questionnaire.

1. What does book blogging do best?
Express the sheer love of reading. When I first found that people wrote book blogs – that I wasn’t the only person wanting to devote my free time to writing reviews or reflections on books – it seemed odd and miraculous to me. It still does.

2. If you write a book blog, why do you?
I started my book blog because I don’t have anyone around me I can talk to about books. This is the first time in my life I haven’t been able to talk to my friends or family about what I’m reading, and after about a year of reading in a vacuum I started this blog so I could make the internet listen to my thoughts on my reading.

3. What do you think the future of book blogging is?
I suspect that the current trend of publishers providing review copies to any and all willing book bloggers (including myself) won’t last long. Publishers and bloggers alike are trying to envision what book blogs might become in terms of influencing opinion, and I like that publishers are taking a leap and testing this idea that book blogs are a viable review market. The number of book blogs taking review copies seems unsustainable to me, though, and I suspect that some book blogs will veer off in a more professional direction and some, most, will remain the realm of hobbyists. Given how often I’ve been posting lately, you can guess which camp I see this blog falling into, though my aspirations may be for the other.

4. What do your favorite book bloggers do?
My favorite bloggers are the ones who write honestly and fully about what they’re reading, who may include personal anecdotes but keep the focus on reviews. I understand and respect the argument that things like weekly memes promote community (hell, I occasionally do them), but my favorite bloggers are the ones who have built their “communities” around quality reviews and discussion of those reviews.

5. If you could tell all book bloggers one thing, what would it be?
Be friendly, don’t take things personally. I find it unnerving that some people responded to The Reading Ape’s series as defensively as they did; that over the past couple weeks I’ve been stumbling across comments like, “Maybe they say they don’t like memes, but they’re really just jealous of how many more hits we get than them.” Posts like those over at The Reading Ape were never an attack on any blogs or styles of blogging; they were a starting point for a conversation that has ended up feeling very one-sided to me because some people opted to attack rather than participate.

6. If you could change one thing about book blogging, what would it be?
I’d like to see more honest reviewing. Many people seem unwilling to express negative opinions on books, especially when those books are review copies; but reviews that include phrases like, “I didn’t like this book so much but it’s probably because I’m too young/a woman/am from New Jersey, and other people will definitely like it” – that’s not illuminating, that’s not helpful to readers, and that’s not being honest. If you like a book, tell us why you like it. If you don’t like a book, tell us why you don’t like it. Just tell us what you really think.

7. How do you think book blogging fits into the reading landscape?
Book blogging is almost always the home of people who are really, truly, nuts for reading – the people who as kids would lay inside all day with a pile of Nancy Drew books rather than going outside and doing, well, whatever other kids did. Book blogs give a voice to the average reader, and I view them as a sort of answer to the major publications doing book reviews; they’re a chance for readers to tell other readers what they should read, and that’s empowering.

8. What about your own book blogging would you like to do better/differently?
Some of my goals are conflicting, which may suggest that I don’t really know what I want to do with my blog. Still, I’d like to bring the focus of my blog around some to reading the classics that I’ve missed out on. I’d like to bring more attention to authors who aren’t receiving notice from people who are more important than me. And although I’d like to keep some of my personal anecdotes around here (who am I kidding, if I think that I’m not going to write a post about my first visit to a bookstore [in two years] when I travel to America this summer), I want my focus to remain on reviews.

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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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Why book blogs matter

I just finished rereading Kelly Link’s second collection of stories, and when I was thinking of how to write a review of it (I will, soon) it was just gushing, all gushing, and nothing on the real level of a review. I don’t love all of Kelly Link’s stories, but the bulk of them I do – and when she gets it right she really gets it right. Her stories are weird and perfectly formed in a way that no one else’s are.

The thing I like about writing this blog is that it’s cool if I write a “review” that is really just me quoting, for a full post, from Charles Portis’s True Grit, or writing about a book from the view of my own split view of the attractions of “adventure” a la Alexander Supertramp. If I want to write in my review of Link’s stories that one of the reasons I am in love with her stories is that I found her small press when I was a teenager and it inspired me to start my own small press and publish a lit zine and that she helped me realize not all stories have to be written out of the MFA factory, whatever: I can write all those things because they influence my reading in ways that are important to me.

I mean, it’s also pretty cool (I am killing this word today) that people actually show up and read my reviews sometimes, but everything I write on here is for my own personal benefit – I “review” books so that, a few months or years in the future, I can remember exactly what it is I liked or disliked about a certain book, so I can remember more clearly why I underlined certain passages or, in other cases, felt like I was going to die before I reached the end of a novel.

I am a few weeks behind on this, but still: lately there’s been all this talk and debate about book blogs and what sort of influence they have on readers and how they’re going to play into the future of the publishing industry, which is going to have to change in response to the internet and ebooks and self-publishing, more than by limiting the number of times a library can loan an ebook or by tying the prices of paperbacks and ebooks together or by placing DRM restrictions on ebooks. The vast majority of book blogs, like mine, aren’t professional or commercial; we don’t have ads, we aren’t amazon affiliates, we’re writing these blogs simply because it’s sort of fun to write book reviews that may be of interest to a few people or maybe just to our future selves.

Out of all this debate over “what book blogs mean in the reviewing business,” and thinking about my own reviewing style (which I guess you could say veers pretty dramatically from “extremely grumpy” to “talking about the Peace Corps” to “gushing” to “quoting instead of even bothering writing a review”), and watching an episode of Gilmore Girls that had me googling Dawn Powell because Rory mentions her in the same breath as Dorothy Parker, all I can think is that this is the best thing about book blogs: that it’s personal. The ten or so book blogs that I read really regularly, I read because I like the review style, but mostly because I feel like I know enough about the writers to trust their taste and to have a sense of how their reading lines up with my own. (Kind of like me and Rory Gilmore.) Of the many things offered by the increasingly slim book review sections of major newspapers, one of them isn’t an insight into the reviewer’s reading habits and preferences and how they happened to end up with a book in their hands, and those are exactly the sorts of things I like to read about.

I mean, I know that “real” book reviewers end up with the books they’re reviewing because the publishers sent review copies to their paper – but that is what I’m getting at, because I want to read about how people who find books the way I do found the books they’re reading. Knowing that someone found a book for a dollar at a library sale somehow adds something to a review, because (a) I miss library sales, (b) I’ve found a lot of good books at library sales, and (c) it reminds me of the joy of finding a book so unexpectedly.

There are some things about book blogs that I find occasionally weird, like trying to read 200 books in a year (something that is constantly referenced, as in “all these book bloggers read 200+ novels a year, but I can’t manage that”, but that I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen), but what I love is when all that is thrown aside and you are left with nothing but the joy of reading, of finding and reading and loving a book that you hadn’t even heard of a week ago, of being able to share that with someone else and shove the books into their hands, or as close as can be managed, electronically-speaking. It is so cool (again!) and promising that so many people write about the books they’re reading or want to read, or why they read the books they read, and I think a promising sign that whatever happens to the publishing industry and the review industry over the next few years, this one essential thing, the love of reading, isn’t going to go anywhere.

As dedicated a reader of the New York Times Book Review as I was when I lived in the states, I never got this feeling from reading it. It is better, in so many ways, to be reading the reviews of someone who is my age (or not), who shares my general reading interests (or doesn’t), who is taking her own time to write about the books she is currently loving or hating or feeling somewhere in the middle about. I don’t know how influential book blogs are, or are going to be, but I do know that I love that the average reader feels empowered enough to share her thoughts on reading with several or dozens or hundreds or thousands of readers. Or just herself, a few years down the road.

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