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.
FOX IN THE CITY – LITERARY CUB, LISA GLASS, TALKS TO SOME ELDERS AND BETTERS
Book Bloggers: The Saviour of Small Publishers? The End of Decent Criticism? Or Unpaid Cheerleaders?
As this article goes to press, the fox den is in crisis. What kind of blog are we? Are we merely promotional cheerleaders? Are we writers supporting other writers? Are we readers supporting small publishers? Or are we professionally-minded reviewers, outlining our thoughts as we see fit? And how should we be reviewing anyway? Are we allowed to be negative? Ever?
Several days of debate sees the Vulpes Libris chat forum in shreds and a number of reviewers on the verge of seeking new blogs and new web civilisations. Leaving the den to boldly go where no Book Fox has gone before. Thankfully time has brought some healing and we are nearly all on friendly terms again…but the battle was fierce. And so I continue…
Book Bloggers: The Saviour of Small Publishers?
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a small publisher in possession of good books must struggle to get print reviews.’ Or is it?
You might say I have a personal interest: I am a blogger and an author with a small publisher. (Okay, hand held up to potential bias.) The blogosphere has been very good to me as a writer, as nearly all of my own novel’s reviews were in the major book blogs, excepting one in The Guardian and one in Good Housekeeping. Starved for publicity, small publishers and their writers are only too happy to send freebie copies to bloggers, and the latter are generally pleased to accept them – though this naturally has its own pitfalls.
Newspapers are sent up to a thousand books a week and they can review or refer to as little as two dozen titles in their literary review pages. Writers with small publishers need bloggers. Small publishers need bloggers. Bloggers like Dove Grey Reader, John Self, Scott Pack, Stuck in a Book and Random Jottings have championed many small publisher books and brought quotes to the back covers of future editions. All hail the internet and its many miracles.
‘I really do believe that small publishers are a vital way of preserving literary quality in this country, since the larger guys went down the primrose path of commerce,’ says Anne Brooke – publisher, blogger, and the author of A Dangerous Man (published by Flame Books). ‘I do worry that the big publishers work towards quashing writers’ voices so that everyone fits into a mould…’
Good reviews are good for small publishers, as it brings them to a wider notice – which is vital for the quality and life of books. Bloggers are the way forward for finding out what’s really going on – what’s hot and what’s not, and what’s worth reading and what isn’t. In terms of books, you get a much more honest and direct response from a blog than you may do from other forms of review.
Is this true that the bloggers are so important, so much part of the zeitgeist?
Now, I have always viewed book bloggers and print reviewers as brothers and sisters, i.e., of the same family but natural enemies. However, being of a somewhat cheeky disposition I fire off an email to Boyd Tonkin of The Independent, as I notice he sometimes reviews titles from small publishers. To my great excitement a reply pings into my inbox a few minutes later.
‘I don’t believe that indie automatically equals good and corporate bad,’ he says. ‘As an editor I try to look as widely as possible for original new fiction, and of course to treat the corporate hype with a sack of salt, but that doesn’t mean having an a priori prejudice in favour of small/indie publishers and against large ones.’
Ultimately it’s the quality of the book that counts, whatever its source. No publication should aim to be a cheerleader for any one sector of the business as opposed to a champion of good work. That said, a lot of the most innovative British writing does come from smaller houses and always has done. …You can find saints in the most soulless corporations and incompetent timewasters in purer-than-pure independents.
I am further cheered when my email to Robert McCrum of The Observer results in a reply asking me to ring him. After several minutes of panic (‘My mind’s gone totally blank,’ I tell the dog) I pick up the phone.
McCrum tells me that The Observer has six pages devoted to books and three or four of those pages are comprised of books they must review: the big hitters like the new Martin Amis or Kate Mosse. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for the independent publishers.
‘There are more small publishers now than ever,’ he says, ‘so it’s hard to represent them all. There’s been a boom in books.’
Then he tells me something quite staggering: that this is a transitional time, that we are moving from one reviewing medium to another. That book bloggers are flourishing and that they will continue to do so.
We book bloggers say such things all the time but I did not expect to hear it from McCrum. I expected at least some anti-blog sentiment, a teeny waft of prejudice, but no. He mentions Orwell, and the fact that in Orwell’s day there were a small number of reviewers with much more power, and that they could make or break a book, but not any more.
Could there come a time when blogs are so powerful? With the vast number of blogs out there, it seems unlikely. However McCrum does see blogs as having a very distinct power. They are like ‘amplified word of mouth. Like megaphones’.
Word of mouth! That holy grail of the book industry, lusted after by publishers everywhere! Amplified word of mouth generated by bloggers? It would seem then that when it comes to blogs, readers are indeed listening.
The Rise of the Blog: The End of Decent Criticism As We Know It?
Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books infamously remarked in a letter dated 30th May 2007:
Only the professional critics – Anthony Lane, Alex Ross, James Wood, AS Byatt, Claire Tomalin – know what they are talking about; bloggers are merely expressing an opinion.
She concluded: ‘Hurrah for blogs, we say – but only if they are never mistaken for anything but yammering.’
This caused uproar amongst the bloggers last summer, so much so that Beauman has since retracted her last statement.
A recent article by William Skidelsky in Prospect seems to agree:
While blogs make a great deal of fuss about being where the action is, they contain little decent criticism … blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.
However, he says:
The authority of critics is being undermined by a raucous blogging culture and an increasingly commercial publishing industry. Literary journalism needs to get better if it is to survive.
Yammering indeed. Long live the raucous blogging culture!
Some bloggers see themselves as the same as book reviewers in the papers but they are not. You are unedited. You are uncut. You write about what you want not what they ask you to; you are writing in a more relaxed way. You do not stick to publication dates etc. or only new books. The main thing is that you are unedited and many book bloggers have never BEEN so they have no discipline. Many ramble on for yards relating the plot which any good sub would excise; others just tell you books are ‘simply wonderful’ and they ‘adore’ them. Which is sloppy. You can say and do what you like on your blog but you should not expect to be taken as seriously as if you were writing in a national newspaper. The standard is lower.
It is not so much whether a book blog should be personal and subjective as that a professional review in a newspaper should definitely NOT be. Though of course in the end all reviews other than the purely academic are subjective to an extent.
But, if that is the case, surely it is more honest to own up to your subjectivity? Indeed, can subjectivity and opinion ever take a respectable place in decent criticism?
I do think it’s a reviewer’s job to read the book properly, review what the author was actually trying to do rather than scolding them for failing to do something completely different, and acknowledge their own subjectivity as well as their own expertise.
I like the celebratory side of internet book blogging and reviewing, and the way it’s honestly personal and subjective (whereas print reviews can be too self-consciously ‘authoritative’), though that can descend into undiscerning praise, or equally undiscerning vitriol.
Undiscerning praise, eh?
So, what of this undiscerning praise?
There has been much debate amongst the bloggers themselves about whether blogs have the right to be negative, with some like Dove Grey Reader and Stuck in a Book reluctant to post negative reviews.
Susan Hill is of the opinion that bloggers should remain positive and blogged recently about this.
In an interview with Vulpes Libris, she says:
This is something I do feel strongly about. You do not have a remit from anyone to be negative. If you are paid for a paper review you have to be honest. But on a blog you are not being paid and it is far far better to say nothing. It comes down, again, to being unedited.* If you say something nasty or unpleasant in a paper your sub will tone it down – or they should. No one will do that on your blog and there is enough negativity and nastiness around the internet.
* My Vulpes Libris editor, RosyB, has advised me to include a note here acknowledging her work on this piece… Furthermore, she wonders if it might be worth pointing out that it is different with a collective blog because we often edit our pieces together, and much more extensively and thoughtfully than she has ever been edited by a sub-editor on a newspaper who, in her experience, tend to just chop off the end – whether it is balanced or not, forcing everyone to cram all they can into the opening paragraph.
Also, by being invited by a literary editor and to do a review in a newspaper you are being given a certain credibility – it is assumed you have an authority to write what you are writing or you would not be asked. Your blog has no such given authority – you give it to yourself, so you have to be even more careful. People have spent many weeks and months writing books and if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully. So better stay schtumm. In the middle of an enthusiastic and positive review you can say ‘though perhaps the descriptions are rather long and slow down the narrative’, say….
Stewart from the Booklit blog, does not see it quite the same way:
I don’t fully agree with Susan Hill on this issue. I think that may be because I am coming at it from a different angle than she is. I read and review books as a hobby, whereas she is, as Susan Hill, an author and, as Long Barn Books, a publisher – both of whose sales and careers can be drastically affected by negative reviews. Probably not Susan herself, but others starting out. However, there are books out there that receive so much hype and turn out to be poorly written plod-a-longs that bloggers, cheated of their money, should rightly be posting negative reviews, provided the angle they are coming from is reasoned and not just blatant pot shots.
It was interesting to find that on this issue, the strongest proponent of the rights of the blogger to write negative reviews, turns out to be not a blogger but the literary editor of a national newspaper.
When I put it to Robert McCrum that I thought it was fine to point out the more negative elements in a review, he replies, ‘It’s not just fine to point out the more negative elements, we’re obliged to.’
Though he adds, ‘Bloggers generally tend to be more enthusiastic, either for or against, whereas printed reviews are more measured.’
Back to that old subjectivity chestnut again. Well, since I’m not overly fond of measuring and tend towards unfettered enthusiasm, I agree with him. And since it is my article and a blog post at that, I feel obliged to admit I am glad that we, the great unwashed of the blogosphere, get to say what we want about the books we read, in whatever terms or measures we fancy.
I’ll leave the last point to Boyd Tonkin, who says:
The real battle is to persuade more people to read challenging fiction and to make sure that they can find it without too much of a battle.
Perhaps bloggers and print reviewers are on the same wavelength, after all. Although what constitutes ‘challenging fiction’ is another debate altogether…
To read our full interview with Susan Hill, click here.
More about Leena A.K.A The Sub-Editor here.