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Treading The Waters Of Blogosphere Reviews

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Another late night. Time to peruse book reviews written by bloggers. I've found a mixed bag. Mostly what I've seen are people confusing a critique, an opinion (usually a recommendation), and a report. I know, I'm quibbling here. But there is a difference and how the blogosphere has changed things is that everything now is considered a review.

Most of the books covered by bloggers are recommendations. Someone likes a book so they pass it along. They aren't critical, indeed have no reason to be –but they are enthusiastic and they want you to know about the book. Since people spend more time on blogs than they do reading newspaper book review sections (which are a dying species), and since printed literary journals are fighting for their existence, what bloggers do to promote reading can't be underestimated. I think new writers who don't become conversant in blogging are missing out. 

I've come across a lot of bloggers who confuse a review with a book report. They break down the plot: beginning, middle and end. In other words, they give it away. They're less successful identifying themes or conveying what the author was trying to do, and point out how he was or wasn't successful. In these I've found the one thing lacking is clarity of prose. The review goes drifts. They have a difficult time identifying what they're responding to and why. To them I say, go with the old art school critique:  "I'm responding to this piece because…" or "I identified with this because…"

You don't have to tell us the answers, but it helps if you know the source of your opinion.

Interestingly, I found more positive notices than negative. It seems that bloggers are less comfortable writing about what they're indifferent to, which can put a blogger in an awkward spot if they've hounded the author for an ARC and for whatever reason, end up not liking the book. I've heard stories from authors when a blogger befriends an author and requests one. The blogger announces to the blogosphere they've gotten it, and they're going to review it. They read it and say absolutely nothing. The author is waiting, their blogger buddies are waiting. Sensing a breach in blogosphere friendliness, the blogger offers something terse: "Well, it's a good first effort. I feel the writer had a very good time writing this."

To these bloggers I say, heed John Updike's advice: "Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like."

And then there are a very rare breed of bloggers who feel they are standard bearers. The world must be held to their view of how things should work. Dutifully, they will break apart the book, tell you every single perceived fault, then pull out the bully club and give it one final swat by saying something like, "by the way, I found out that only a handful turned out for his reading in Sparta GA." Perhaps they're not answering the question posed above: "I'm responding this way because…."

I consider my articles about books to be recommendations (opinions) and not critiques. I write about what I like.  I put in the url so that you can look it up and order it. That it's commercial can't be denied. Believe me, I read many books that I don't care for, but I don't write about those. Writing about something you hate and doing it intelligently is far more difficult that espousing the virtues of an author or book. True criticism is a lot more than whether or not you like something. To those pros like Janet Maslin, Richard Schickel, Michiko Kakutani and countless others who can do this, my hat is off to them. Maybe someday,  I'll toss my critical words into the cattery as well.

Anyway, the blogosphere has changed everything. Recently I submitted a recommendation. When it came time for me to categorize it, I chose "opinion." The editor wrote me back… "your piece was a review." I responded, "No, it was a recommendation." Same cat, different breed. I guess I'll have to learn to meow better.

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About Kanani

  • Whether it’s a review, an article or an opinion piece, I’m more inclined to seek out a writer’s work if it’s well written. Which is why I’ll be looking out for more from you in future.

  • this is so weird. i get home. i read the paper. i read this review of the book The Death Of The Critic…and then i stumble on your article.

    syncronicity…or something.

  • Mark, The Death of The Critic sounds like an excellent book. And Kanani, thanks for the thoughtful analysis on the state of blog reviewers. I also find bloggers to be a mixed bag in terms of content, not just in reviews, but in other forms of commentary. For my part, I try to put the book or album in a social context when I write my reviews, and let the analysis fall in place. In a few years, I think we’re going to see a lot more social commentary & scholarly analysis on the role of the blogger, and I love to read articles like this that start to set the tone.

  • as i’ve said before, part of the reason i took up writing was because i was really sick of “the jaded reviewer”, where the writer has seen and heard it all and never, ever…has anything good to say.

    worse yet is the reviewer who has always disliked the “target” of the review and spends several paragraph coming up with clever ways to put the material down.

    sure, there are some poorly written things out on the blogger side of the net, but the ‘legit’ writer world isn’t immune either.

  • “The editor wrote me back… “your piece was a review.” I responded, “No, it was a recommendation.” Same cat, different breed. I guess I’ll have to learn to meow better.”

    Kind of odd to end a good article with a rumination on a rather clear-cut Blogcritics house style.

  • Dear Everyone, Thank you for your comments.
    Actually, I ended it with three links. Two are embedded in the article, the third is a reference to Christine Thomas of Literary Lotus blog, who writes excellent blurbs and reviews as well.

    I think for a lot of people, reviewing books is a way of sharing –not necessarily showing how much they know. Sometimes they take info right off the book jacket! But by and large, they’re very excited and want you to know. Publishers love this, especially since the amount of money for PR is negligible (especially with first time authors), and few can go to someone a firm like Goldberg McDuffie. So bloggers now fill that role.

    I agree, there’s a lot to be desired even in mainstream magazine and newspaper review sections. With the downsizing of newspapers and editorial departments are going some very good writers, and the sections just get smaller.

  • and do look at the National Book Critics blog, Critical Mass. There’s a post about John Updike on the Safety of Criticism.