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!

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