Kevin Eagan is one of a team of editors at Blogcritics Magazine and founder of There There Kid, a blog focusing on cultural and literary criticism. He also writes a weekly feature for Blogcritics called The Early Word, where he talks about some of the latest fiction books being released by both big and small publishers. In this interview, Eagan talks about Blogcritics, his blog, and he offers his critical insight into the slippery slope of book reviewing.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kevin. How and when did Blogcritics Magazine get started and how long have you been an editor here?
Blogcritics has been around since 2002, but I've been involved with the site as a writer since October 2007 and as an editor since March of this year. I haven't been here nearly as long as some of the other editors – some have been here since the site launched – but I've certainly experienced a lot of different opportunities and challenges since I started working here. The BC Books section is especially interesting because of our diverse group of writers, and being an editor here has introduced me to new books and critical approaches I may not have found otherwise. We certainly cover nearly every approach to book reviewing you can find out there.
On average, how many books does BC review a month?
The number of books we review in a given month varies, but we do cover most of the major releases coming out each month. Because of our large and varied collection of writers, we cover everything from the latest bestsellers to the most obscure indie novels, so readers will find plenty of ways to discover new books. We have a very sizable Graphic Novel/Comic Book section plus several reoccurring features that focus on specific genres. We also run a weekly feature called The Early Word (fiction and non-fiction) that fellow BC Books Editor Gordon Hauptfleisch and I update weekly to give readers an idea of new books coming out each week.
I'm sure many readers who are also writers are wondering, “How do I write for Blogcritics?” Could you offer some tips?
Well, other than reading our submission guidelines which are linked at the bottom of our front page, writers should definitely come into the whole process with an open mind and a willingness to dive in deep and really understand what they are reviewing. Often, new writers come in treating their Blogcritics Magazine experience as an extension to their own blog, when it is really a separate and completely different experience. Blogcritics functions as a fully fledged online magazine and our articles appear in Google News and Yahoo! News, so we have pretty high standards in terms of content. However, Blogcritics Magazine is a good place for both new and established writers to expand their talents and gain new exposure.
For our Books section, we are interested in reviewers who write more than just bland plot summary or tip-of-the-iceberg analysis. The best reviews are the ones that dig deep and take on new approaches, and even though every review should give the reader a sense of what the book is like, it should also reveal new and profound insights into how the book influenced the reviewer. In my opinion, most people who read book reviews want to know more than just what happens in the book; they want to know how it all connects personally and culturally.
You also keep a blog, There There Kid. Tell us about it.
There There Kid is a new experiment of mine that I've enjoyed putting together over the past few months. I call it a "weblog of mixed media plus cultural criticism with a literary bent" because I believe that book reviewing (and art in general) doesn't happen within a bubble – it is one way in which we try to connect the seemingly random and absurd aspects of human nature into some form of coherence. There There Kid's essays try to find connections between works of art, such as a book and a CD, that have similarities in theme. It's basically a blog that takes the cultural studies approach to literary criticism and doesn't try to partition art into different categories, which is how I've always approached my own book reviewing.
At the same time, we do regular features and reviews each month, and I have a couple of writers who help out in this way. Since I started the site a couple months ago, I've had a decent response from outside readers and am looking to expand the number of articles on the site because I realized I can't do it all on my own. So I'm still looking for new writers and have posted submission guidelines on the site.
Do you think there's a lot of "facile praise" among online review sites?
I often find book reviewing sites that read more like some type of fanboy forum than a respectable form of literary criticism. While I don't expect every review I read to be a well-informed scholarly exposé, I do expect the reviews to read better than a press release. The Internet is a great place to find some excellent review sites, but it's also rife with gushy fan forums that hold no weight.
I feel that "facile praise," as you put it, happens when a reviewer has not done their research – and yes, researching the author, book, and topics expanded upon in the review is incredibly important. Book reviews that hold weight have to go beyond the personal opinion of the reviewer (although personal opinion is very valid in a review, there should be plenty of evidence to back it up). Using examples from the book or taking a particular critical viewpoint can help avoid the cliched praise of books found in some reviews.
There are some writers out there who have acquired fame as tough reviewers because of their harsh, nasty, mean reviews. What, in your opinion, is behind their philosophy?
I think some reviewers want to stand out from the crowd by offering a contrasting opinion, but some are just too mean. Whenever I write a review about something that I really didn't like, I always try to say something good about it. After all, it's never all bad, and there has to be something valuable to offer the reader.
Mean reviews can be as bad as overly gushy reviews, and it can make the reviewer look ignorant, especially if their critical opinion is so off the wall that it just doesn't make sense. So maybe those who write snarky reviews are just trying to get attention, I don't really know.
If a book is terrible, do you think a reviewer should write and publish the review, or should she decline to write it?
It depends on how bad it is. I've reviewed books that I thought were terrible, but I still wrote the review and took a little extra time to explain why I thought it was terrible (it's easier to write reviews on stuff you enjoy, by the way). When I send the review to the promotional person who took the time to send me the advanced review copy, I usually get a response thanking me for the honest opinion, even if it might not be the opinion they'd like to read. Also, I've had authors write me back respectfully disagreeing, creating an intriguing and thoughtful dialogue about the book. It's opened up new insights into my approaches as a reader as well. So far, I haven't had an author write back with a nasty comment, and I always approach my negative reviews with civility and respect because I see it as the beginning of a debate, not as a chance to destroy a writer's career.
If a book was so bad that it wasn't readable, I'd send it back. But that's another issue.
In your opinion, how influential are reviews on the consumer?
I personally think back cover blurbs are more influential in terms of actual book purchasing, at least for me. I do read reviews to discover new books, but I usually read the reviews after reading the book because I like to discover someone else's opinions of the book; it helps solidify and confirm my own opinions.
What do you look for in a book review?
I look for the ability to see the book as part of a culture, not just as part of an author's bibliography or as part of a "market." The review has to go beyond plot summary, and has to have some type of critical argument that's clearly expressed throughout the whole review. I'm more interested in hearing an original, though-provoking perspective on the book than I am about finding out the plot details of the book.
Do you think the average reviewer can review a friend's book and still be objective?
That's a tough question. I personally would not review a friend's book unless he or she knew I was going to be as critical of the book as I would any other book. However, I'd probably save my "review" for drinks and conversations at the bar and help my writer friend improve, if I thought it was necessary. Then I'd buy a round of drinks.
Do you think a review written by a reader has less value than one written by a professional reviewer? What defines a true “reviewer”?
All reviewers are readers first, critics second. That's how it should be, at least, so I think a reader's review should hold just as much influence as a professional reviewer as long as it is written well and does not fall into the traps that a lot of beginner reviewers fall into (the "facile praise" or overly negative stuff we mentioned earlier, for example).
In fact, I'd rather read a "reader" review than a professional review, and I have found that sites like Blogcritics, PopMatters, and Bookslut all hold their own against the established publications such as The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Every reader should take a close look at all of these publications when looking for good book reviews.
Do you think a reviewer or site that receives payment for a review from the
author or publisher can be honest and objective?
I find that to be very unethical. It's one thing if the publisher sends the reviewer a free copy of the book in return for an honest review of the book, but paying someone for positive publicity is flat out wrong. There's no possibility for being honest or objective when money has been handed out.
New reviewers should be careful of publishers who do this type of thing. I personally don't know of any specific examples, but I'm sure it happens, and a new reviewer should realize that this is not the common practice.
Do you keep the author's feelings in mind when you review?
Only to the extent that I want the author to know my opinion of the book. I don't worry about whether or not my review will hurt their feelings, but I do want the author to read my review. After all, if I took the time to read and then thoughtfully analyze an author's book, I want them to know about it. Like I said before, my reviews have elicited responses (and ensuing debates) from authors, so I definitely enjoy that.
Amazon and many other online retailers and review sites rate their books. Do you think this is a good thing? Is rating books fair? What should people keep in mind when looking at these ratings?
Amazon's rating system is more in line with giving the consumer choices in their purchases, so it's a little different than a star rating in a book review. Some sites choose to do a star rating system, and I'm neutral on the subject. I personally think the review should be written clearly enough to figure out what that reviewer has rated the book, and I don't seek out a rating system when I read reviews. However, it's nice to see one at the end, especially when the reviewer is not as clear about how the book is written.
Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
If you feel compelled and have something to say, consider writing book reviews. Books are slowly becoming a dying medium, so keeping literary criticism alive and interesting is more important now than ever before. Whether you join a site like Blogcritics or There There Kid or decide to start your own blog, remember that there are other people out there who are interested in what you have to say if you have something truly interesting to say.
Thanks for your time and for such insightful answers, Kevin!