A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
To be fair, I suspect that neither myself nor Stuart Kelly (Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday) were quite as polarised in our opinions as we appeared at last week’s event on blogging at MacDonald Road Library in Edinburgh. Advertised as a debate about the merits of print versus online reviews, this was followed by a general discussion between Stuart, Vulpes Libris’ own Eve and myself about how blogging is changing the literary scene.
First, we had to define the terms of our argument. In recent years, the lines between print and online have not just blurred – but the most newspapers are now also online, so what exactly is the difference? Book reviews on the web have also exploded – offering everything from ezines, literary online magazines to book group one line reviews that state simply a star-rating. So, what do we even mean by a review? What are their purpose and why do we read them?
These were the questions that Vulpes Libris’ own Eve Harvey, in the chair, asked to open the event.
What are reviews? Are they personal opinion, the online equivalent of “word of mouth”? Or are they contextualised examinations – judgements in relation to other works, history, genre and as pieces of “literature”? What is the difference between online book reviews and print reviews at the end of the day?
Stuart kicked off with an eloquent defence of the professional newspaper print review. He listed several factors that defined professional print reviews: expertise, professional independence, the fact that reviews are edited and also pointed out the general appalingness of some online book reviews. He also outlined how papers need to consider its demographic, the balance of different types of work and the books it “has” to cover.
I, then, launched into a rather less eloquent but…ahem…spirited defence of the online book review. Yes, it is true, there are many appaling online reviews out there, yes it is true there are anonymous reviews by friends, relations, proud mothers, jealous uncles, vengeful exes, or even the author themselves. Worse, there have been cases of attacks on other authors by competitors…But online offers huge range, is far more likely to cover genre and niche, can introduce us to books of the past as well as the present and creates a conversation. Where do I go when I’m thinking of buying a book: online. Why? Because it is easier to examine the taste of the reviewer and work out if you might LIKE a book., not just whether it is good for the soul.
(Besides, is the print review really such a bastion of independence when you can turn to the book pages of the Observer and find Julie Burchill reviewing the book of her ex husband?)
Couldn’t you argue that the only truly independent voice is that of the completely disinterested and unconnected “common reader” who has no vested interest whatsoever in the world of authors (that’s Vulpes out then), booksellers and publishing with no connection with the literary scene?
The internet is a big place. Just as there are excesses and devious goings-ons out there, there are also sites that struggle with questions of how the online world can keep its integrity. These questions are similar to the questions of the print reviewers – but perhaps slightly different in emphasis. Take this article by Kimbofo of Reading Matters written as long ago as 2005 on the question of receiving free books – a question that I don’t believe newspapers worry much about one way or the other.
Kimbofo was concerned about:
the industry’s deliberate manipulation of bloggers to promote books that might otherwise not receive the same level of attention from the mainstream media, and the apparent willingness of many book bloggers to be used in such a manner.
The article goes on to use an interesting example of bloggers being asked to promote a book in order to be entered into a sweepstake. It quotes an email:
“Tell YOUR readers about the sweepstakes, so they can have a chance to win. They just need to give us the name of your blog when they enter, and the blogger who drives the most entries will win.”
Kimbofo identifies the receipt of free books as a real problem when it comes to the possible objectivity and independence of bloggers. In the past I have not necessarily agreed with this. Can someone really buy a decent review off someone (costing them hours of their time in terms of reading, assessing, writing, formatting) for £7.99 worth of book that they might not want in the first place?
However, it is undeniable that as soon as a website starts to receive free books, rather than reviewing whatever it is they happen to be reading, there is a subtle shift. Firstly, there is personal contact, however brief and workmanlike, with the publisher, author or pr person. Secondly, there is the pressure of expectation – if you agree to take a free book, are you then bound to review it come what may? Does the receipt of free books create a feeling of beholdenness to the sender? Thirdly, there is the simple question of the cost of the book – does this offer a motivation for reviewing things more kindly in the hope of receiving more?
It may seem to be a small issue, but there are ramifications. You are much more likely to receive blanket mailings of free books from very large publishers with bigger marketing budgets. If this question isn’t examined, then your blog is more likely to reflect this, consciously or not. You may move away from your chosen hobby reading…before you know it you are being treated like a “professional” -with deadlines, pressures and books you might not have chosen yourself - but without getting paid. In other words, you have to become very aware of this question if you want to keep control and represent a wider range.
The point for me is that some of these issues are simply unavoidable and it is not the fact of the issues themselves, but how the bookblogs deal with these questions that makes the difference. (I would also take issue with the idea that print reviewers are exempt from this particular problem. They routinely receive free books: whether they like it or not those connections are made and even if they never impact, the influence of big marketing spend and what the publishers chose to focus on will have some influence on what appears in the pages.)
The question of free books is a particular bookblogger worry that touches, however faintly, on the whole question of objectivity and subjectivity in reviewing. I agree with Stuart: it IS important to try and keep some good and independent criticism in our culture. (Note. I don’t believe that all criticism from friends, family or acquaintances lacks value as long as it’s honest and declares its interest- but it isn’t independent criticism.) But this brings us back to the question of what reviewing is actually for – is it about judgement, taste, emotional response, or even about upholding some standards of criticism for its own sake? Is it about sales?
Recently, Sam Ruddock, started an experiment in writing reviews in short story form.
She jogs home through crisply deserted streets. Stars visible in the clear autumn sky, cars keeping watch over the deserted urban landscape. Her head buzzes from too much elderflower cider and socialising. She cannot wait to be alone with that book in her hands…
Days later, she wonders why she started this. She should be more discerning, more circumspect. She should take other people’s advice and test the water first: read a page or two first, see whether the plot synopsis draws her in. Had she done so it would never have come to this…Had she only read page 100 she would have found this passage, so convoluted it sums up everything she comes to dislike about the book, and never read any further…But that is not her way. She is all or nothing. A book is a projection of who she might be rather than who she is. She is interested in the story of why she has picked up a book perhaps more than the book itself. And so she finds herself in situations like this: stretched out in bed in the company of three aging men who neither excite, make her laugh, or even elicit sympathy.
What I find fascinating about these semi-autobiographical pieces is how Sam grapples with the whole problem of subjectivity in a review – not just in relation to the usual questions of whether the writer might know a writer personally, or that of subjectivity in terms of the personal taste of an individual …but in relation to expectations and personal nature of the reading experience itself.
It is as though the online world has opened reviews up to this possibility. All over the net there are reader reviews from people where reading forms a part of their lives. These kinds of reviews, it seems to me, have a different kind of function – perhaps a different pleasure – to those on professional print reviewers. Many are avid readers who simply set up a blog to share their thoughts. In a sense, this is what we did on Vulpes Libris. The idea of being “reviewers” or “critics” is something that comes later, when people start reading you and taking you seriously and giving you that title whether you like it or not.
I come from a print background myself (I used to review theatre for newspapers and magazines) and it is still slightly strange to me to read about a reviewer trying to get through a book whilst eating their cornflakes, or the way a book might accompany a reviewer through certain times of their lives – or the difficulty of getting into a book when reading it on train and tube. This mixture of leisurely reviewing and day-to-day living is very characteristic of the net. And I have to say, it often forms part of the reviews I enjoy the most, like VL’s own, Anne – for example – whose reviews have constantly pushed reviewing boundaries for me, but always make me question those boundaries – making them all the more interesting. I have to admit, I find Anne’s reviews addictive reading. They are not the same as a formal newspaper review. They are highly personal, yet full of insight and spark and wit and, like Sam’s experment, her pieces seem to question the reading experience as much as the book itself (often with a good dollop of humour thrown in).
Perhaps it is because of this gap in terms of looking at the place of reading and the examination of how books and reading fits with our moods and lives – that bookblogs and online reviews have risen so dramatically. Reading, after all, is an experience that impacts on our lives and vice versa – a book does not really exist separately in our mind to the reading experience itself. And, as Sam’s piece points out, prize-winning tomes are particularly susceptible to the expectations we place upon them, what they mean to us in terms of what they say about us as readers.
In keeping with this personal theme, I realise that this piece has become far more musing and meditative than I intended, reflecting nothing of the mood of the MacDonald Road library event, where I did a lot of blustering and yelling and took a far more one-sided approach to the whole debate. I meant to talk here about the meaning of experts, about whether amateurs can be as expert as professionals, about genre, about the over-representation of literary fiction in our broadsheet pages, about specialised niches and audiences, the detailed knowledge (and questionable judgement) of the “fan” and the ability to review out of print works, self-published works and works published years ago. I was going to talk about how the online medium allows an opportunity for greater creativity. About the luxury of having space to explore.
I was also going to talk about the importance of book reviews in newspapers – the importance of that focussed demographic. Because, however popular a bookblog is, they tend to be preaching to the converted. A newspaper still has a far wider reach and readership. That is a powerful thing and something we shouldn’t let go of lightly if we value our cultural life. A newspaper review still carries great weight and that is a big responsibility and one we need to pay for. Online reviews are not replacements but creative conversations that twirl around the main trunks of “established opinion”. Could they survive and would they be meaningful alone?
What are reviews? Why do we need reviews? What are they for?
I don’t know. But I think the internet has identified a need – many needs - that the papers, for so long, didn’t know about or acknowledge and blogs have filled that gap. The online medium is flawed and very open to abuse. But I think that it’s only by continually grappling with these questions that interesting, creative and truthful work is produced. And that goes for reviews both in print and online.
For a rather more focussed sum-up of the event, visit My Writing Life