On the Print/Blog Review Issue

So recently there has been a big to-do over newspaper book reviews. Evidently they aren’t profitable enough to keep printing, so there is serious talk of this being the end of them. Somehow, this is all getting blamed on litblogs. The connection there is more than a little fuzzy to me, since all the litbloggers I know read all those print reviews and most of the people that come into my store asking for things they read about in the paper and hadn’t even heard about before have no idea what a “blog” even is.

I really don’t see any sort of conflict here. I read both. My local paper doesn’t provide much in the way of book coverage, but I read it anyway because it does cover books of local interest that I’m not likely to encounter elsewhere and often sound vaguely interesting. Once I read about an interesting book in the paper, I go look for more information about it elsewhere. But I get that it’s interesting and worth my time to look for from the actual ink stained newspaper that comes to my front door! I do the same thing with books I read about on blogs, in print magazines and on non-blog websites! I even do it with books I hear about on the radio. The source doesn’t really matter, since I’m already choosing my sources pretty carefully and only actually buying the book if further research suggests it’s worth the money. One review doesn’t equal a purchase. The only time I buy a book based on a single source is for a book club, and that’s slightly different, since I originally chose to join the book club carefully.

So I guess I just don’t understand the whole “it’s because of blogs that print journalism about books is being destroyed” thing. It seems just as logical to blame Oprah. Maybe people aren’t reading the NYT Book section because they now only buy what Oprah tells them too (a freakish number of people do that, you know). I know that my local paper regularly hates her book choices, but they fly off the shelves even though we post that review in the store and not Oprah’s. People buy what they want for their own reasons, not because of what some critic in the Times says is good.

I also don’t understand all the sniping at bloggers. Granted, I’m a blogger and I’m a well-educated blogger who generally thinks about books in a fairly academic way, but still… Comments like this have become all to common lately:

I believe the dangers of this indiscriminate reporting on books is that people who have no knowledge of literature can air their views as though they were of value and may influence readers. Critics may not always be right, of course, but at least they have read and studied literature, the great books, and have some outside knowledge to refer to when critiquing our work.

Ok, there are two major problems here. Let’s just ignore the basic issue where this is the internet and you have no idea who a blogger is in real life, so you have no right to pass snap judgments on them assuming you know who they are because it’s been covered a million times before and covered better than I can do it here. Moving on… The first part says that people shouldn’t have the right to simply share their opinion about a book because it might influence someone else. People share opinions all the time about everything and other people are free to ignore them. Bloggers don’t claim to be the absolute authorities on their subjects, even when they are experts. Roger Sutton regularly shares opinions about books and he is certainly someone who could claim to be an expert, but it’s clear that they are his opinions. In fact, they don’t always even match the reviews that come out in the Horn Book! Bloggers have as much right as anyone else to share opinions, even if they really are just some guy. If a computer programmer who has never studied books, has no kids and doesn’t even like kids, but enjoys children’s books decided to start a kidlit blog to share her thoughts on children’s books, she’d be perfectly free do that! We’d all keep that in mind when reading her reviews, but we keep in mind that Fuse #8 is written by a librarian and that Chicken Spaghetti is written by a mom too!

The second part of that quote basically states that no one who writes a blog is qualified to critique and share opinions about books. As evidenced by the fact that Roger Sutton writes and excellent blog and is the editor of the Horn Book at the same time, this is most definitely untrue. Besides that, there are any number of lit bloggers who are graduate students, writers, academics of various standings and generally extremely well-educated people doing all manner of things (from raising kids to running businesses). The fact that one chooses to keep a blog has nothing to do with one’s knowledge of literature or literary criticism. I have absolutely no doubt that there are any number of people out there that have multiple PhDs and are writing blogs just because they want to! Education and knowledge don’t mean you can’t write a blog!

We have no more assurance that the people writing reviews in the newspaper are educated in the ways of literary criticism than we do that the people writing the blogs we read are (less perhaps, since blogs often come with brief blurbs about the writer). I know nothing about the credentials of the reviewers in my local paper and I wouldn’t call anything I’ve read in there or in the NYT book review section a critique as opposed to a review (which is a distinction often given to print reviews over blog reviews). In fact, blog reviews are often longer and more in depth purely because they lack the space constraints of the printed newspapers. This is as often a downside as a benefit, but brevity is certainly not something I look for in a critique. It is something I look for in a review.

My point is, neither format is any better than the other and the attacks are stupid. Bloggers are some of the people most supportive of print book reviews so attacking them when you’re trying to save your medium seems really counter-productive. I’d love to help save print reviews, but I’m not sure how to do it since no concrete solutions have been proposed. All I hear is yelling!

For a much better post on this with actual quotes and such (the quote above, which originally came from Critical Mass was found here) check out Colleen’s wonderful post about this at Chasing Ray!

4 Comments

  1. Eva said,

    May 24, 2007 at 11:02 am

    Yea, that quote mostly sounds like, “OMG, you got public opinion in my sandbox! I am not an exclusive provider of content any more! Waaah!”

    I am curious though, how did book reviews in print newspapers actually make money for the papers? Did they get kickbacks or incentives from some one involved in the industry? (If so, how would that someone ever know the reviews were good marketing anyway?) Was this somehow related to advertising revenue (I can’t see how it could be)?

    I guess I’m just not clear on how a paper could make money on book reviews in the first place… I mean books that collect reviews, sure they make money, but I can’t see those selling much worse, since they still are a good source of related subject matter and fast answers (and don’t need to be checked so heavily for credibility of author).

  2. Eva said,

    May 24, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Followed your link to Colleen’s post (quite insightful) and dug around to find the original of the interview post you quoted. Wow. That author is confused about the meaning of publicity and how the younger generation deals with information. She also said:

    “I’m appalled that the review pages are being cut. It means that books are no longer to be taken seriously. What will happen to our children and our children’s children without this essential means of getting to know others and themselves?”
    (the original interview is here:
    http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2007/05/conversation-with-sheila-kohler-on-book.html#links
    )

    I find this hilarious (in a dark way) since she just said she didn’t think we should be reviewing things on the internet. So basically she thinks we should all read papers or be condemed to never reading new books. Because we certainly won’t find authors or books through (non-review related) research or inter-personal suggestions. Jeez, if book reviews in the paper are the only way to get to reading and good books I should by all rights be illiterate by now…

  3. Katie said,

    May 24, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    I don’t think inter-personal suggestions are fair game either. That’s the same as my suggesting a book on a blog. She’s largely saying people shouldn’t share uninformed opinions. And all opinions not published in a newspaper or a book are uninformed, by her standards.

  4. Kristin said,

    May 25, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Hmmm… bloggers with intelligence? How dare you suggest such a thing!

    I think fundamentally what it comes down to for the whiners is that they’ll label anything as “bad” that disagrees with them. And if the majority of voices who happen to also be bloggers don’t like your book, well, then bloggers must be “bad” so that she can validate her dislike for their opinions.

    Personally, I prefer the many opinions I read on blogs over the single voice of the paper – now if they agree, great. If not, I’m probably going to trust the many voices over the few or the one. And if everybody disagrees with everybody else… that just seems normal.

    Besides, clearly if we don’t become professional book critics, we can have nothing valid whatsoever to say about books. Nothing.

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