Vulpes Libris

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.

Feature: Fox in the City

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?

3foxes1.jpg

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.

urbanfox.jpgI 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!

But what of these claims? Do you have to be a ‘professional’ in order to write informed criticism? Susan Hill – author, blogger and publisher of Long Barn Books – thinks so:

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?

Emma Darwin, author of The Mathematics of Love (published by mainstream publisher, Headline Review) and also a book fox and blogger, would suggest it can:

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?

Unpaid Cheerleaders?

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…

With thanks to all of the contributors, and to Chauffeur and Sea Turtle of Flickr for the fabulous fox photos.

To read our full interview with Susan Hill, click here.

More about Lisa A.K.A Sequinonsea here and here.

More about RosyB A.K.A The Editor here and here.

More about Leena A.K.A The Sub-Editor here.

55 comments on “Feature: Fox in the City

  1. Anne Brooke
    February 7, 2008

    Great article, Lisa – fascinating and informative (look, I can do long words!). Thanks for putting it all together – much food for thought there indeed!

    Hugs

    A
    xxx

  2. John Self
    February 7, 2008

    Excellent piece. I think Susan Hill makes some good points but if subs always edit the nastiness out of negative reviews, then I dread to think what the Observer’s subs cut out of Philip Hensher’s infamous review of James Thackara’s The Book of Kings, which began “Everyone has a novel inside them. Unfortunately, James Thackara’s escaped,” and ended “On the evidence of this, he could not write BUM on a wall.” Adam Mars-Jones is also regularly waspish, such as in his review of Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir, for the same paper: “There is more depth in Calvin Klein’s Obsession than in Paulo Coelho’s Zahir.” Such hatchet jobs, it must be said, are tremendous fun to read.

    I think I have become more kind in my reviews since I began blogging. This might be because I’m aware that authors sometimes see my reviews, and in particular with ones who aren’t well known and have struggled for years to write the book I’ve taken a few days to read, my thinking tends to be: Why kick a chap when he’s down? I am also reminded of Martin Amis’s comments in the introduction to his collection of criticism The War Against Cliché, where he reflects that

    you realise how hard people try, how much they care and how long they remember.

    The other side is that publishers and authors expect bad reviews from time to time and there’s no point in putting your work out there unless you are prepared for (sometimes brutal) honesty. One publisher who sends me review copies made it clear that “it is entirely your prerogative to write or not write just what you want about what you want.” Perhaps because there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Tell that to James Thackara…

  3. RosyB
    February 7, 2008

    Just wanted to clarify my jokey aside about editing.

    I have never reviewed books for newspapers, and it strikes me that many book reviews are more involved or whatever than theatre reviews – which is what I did for newspapers. But when I used to review for both a respected paper and a website (not a blog at the time, a while ago) I have to say I was really proud of all my work, but in particular I was proud of my internet pieces. The reviews were able to be more indepth because there wasn’t such a pressure on space and I was able to develop the ideas further because there wasn’t such a pressure on time. Of course, some papers, and particularly journals, that devote themselves to literature and books can do this. But surely this can’t be the case for all reviews in the mainstream papers? Not with short, standard reviews. It is very true though that reviewing for papers is different in terms of whether you are allowed to acknowledge subjectivity. I think there are pros and cons to this.

    But I suspect what Susan is saying about editing is that you can’t be over the top and extreme in your vitriol because you will be stopped. And I can see that point. But on a blog collective (such as Vulpes) this pretty well holds too. It is not really a personal site and we owe responsibility to each other not to be offensive or abusive. And, indeed, some of us run our pieces past each other or even work on them closely or edit them for each other.

    But stopping nastiness is a very different kettle of fish to not allowing negative reviews. I cannot agree with that. I also can’t see it doing anyone any favours to have only positive reviews or else all of them will start to fade out after a while and have no effect.

    What I am saying is, I believe you can get good and bad criticism anywhere, but by having an aim or even an expectation that criticism on the net could be as valuable and as important and well-done as criticism in the mainstream press is surely the only way to get good criticism on the web.

    The internet may have a slightly different language and even slightly different goal-posts but, as a theatre reviewer I would have to review a tragedy or a comedy, agit-prop or physical theatre – engaging with the particular form and not expecting different styles to be or do exactly the same things. As Leena said recently we should aim for high standards in all genres. I also think we can aim for high standards in internet reviewing. But this debate, perhaps, helps define what those standards could and should be.

  4. rosyb
    February 7, 2008

    Errr….Lise – can I just add a huge LOL to your little addition of “The Editor”!! You are ridiculous. I am swanning about here now with a vizor on my head, striking things through willy-nilly with my red biro. And you realise that by linking to Dwarves and Elves you’ve completely undermined my respectability – who’s going to take me seriously now?

    I think John Self makes a good point about the vitriol that “gets through” the editors. But they are fun to read, that’s the problem.

  5. sequinonsea
    February 7, 2008

    Yes, yes, I know, but I couldn’t resist! 🙂

    Some hatchet jobs are fun to read, I agree, but I’ve seen others that have left a bad taste in my mouth.

    Negative reviews need not be hatchets, though, as you pointed out.

  6. Jim Murdoch
    February 7, 2008

    McCrum’s comments are interesting and realistic. As for the qualifications required to write an objective book review, I don’t recall there being an O-Level in Book Reviewing when I was at school and most reviewers that I know of are simply reasonably well-read people. A lot of them are authors themselves as if writing a book gives you some special insight. The bottom line is that a book review is an opinion. It might an informed opinion written by an educated individual but it’s still only an opinion.

    As for whether blogs veer towards the positive, they probably do to be fair but there has to be something there to praise. I only do positive reviews on my blog because my reason for doing them is to recommend them to my readers and they know if I have gone to the trouble of writing about a book then it’s worth taking a look at. If I read a book I can’t recommend I’ll post a much smaller review at Goodreads. It’s not that I’m afraid to say why I didn’t care for a book but I am well aware that it is only my opinion and while I’m more than happy to promote someone who I think has done a good job. Not making a fuss about a book I didn’t care for is as far as I care to go.

    Probably the simple answer is going to have to be for the professional reviewers to move on-line; it’s where their audience is moving to so they’d better follow or us amateurs are going to take over. That said I’ll always take a review, albeit badly written and rambling, by someone who obviously cares about a book over someone who is doing it because it’s his or her job. I bought a book two days ago for example based solely on a single enthusiastic review by a girl I barely know purely because of her passion and the fact that the topic is something I might read anyway. But I would never have known about the book without her. I might not like it but then I’ve just given up on a novel by an author I’ve loved for over thirty years; it’s always a gamble.

  7. dovegreyreader
    February 7, 2008

    Excellent and balanced piece Lisa and I think also relevant is that many bloggers have day jobs that bear no relation to the world of litcrit which is why my requested contribution to this piece remains unwritten,sorry, blame the NHS, everyone else does!
    It is the day job too that I think gives my reading a particular perspective and probably the same for many others, so I think we have something very useful to add to the mix of bookish dialogue. If that then assists Boyd Tonkin’s battle to get more people reading challenging fiction, then all to the good and we are all on the same side. But I’m also on the side of people reading per se and wouldn’t want to define what they should or shouldn’t read or what equals challenging or not.Everyone has the bar set at their own height there and I respect that as their own reading experience which I have no right to judge or dismiss as lesser in any way.
    I agree with John about negative book reviewing. I’d need to be paid a lot of money to go there, life’s too full of angst as it is without me adding to it. I like Sandra at Bookworld’s suggestion that it is possible to be the wrong reader for a book and would hate to put others off a great read just because it didn’t suit me. I’m also not even pretending to be a book reviewer, I share my thoughts on books I’ve honestly enjoyed reading and want to pass that pleasure onto others. Isn’t the pleasure of reading what we’re all trying to offer after all?

  8. Simon Thomas
    February 8, 2008

    How nice to see a balanced presentation of this debate! And balanced, as in room for all opinions, rather than being a bland sitting-on-the-fence. I wrote about it a while ago, but was rather more fence-sitting and merely pointed out that blogs provide what I want from a review, which literary sections in newspapers rarely, if ever, do: i.e. whether or not I’ll want to buy the book…

  9. Mark
    February 8, 2008

    Great piece, but I’m astonished that we need it (we do, mind, so I really am glad of the article!)

    Saying “Blogs/bloggers are worthless” is as crass, reductive, stupid as saying “journals/journalists are worthless” — true for many, not true for some. Simple as that. There are 60 million blogs out there — very many are very poor, many are so idiosyncratic that they will only appeal to the blogger’s family and friends, and some are absolutely great. Same goes for newspaper, jounals, magazines, books …

  10. sequinonsea
    February 8, 2008

    Just wanted to say welcome to all the commenters. Lovely to have you here.

    Thanks Anne. I really appreciate your input in the article.

    John, ““On the evidence of this, he could not write BUM on a wall.” That gave me such a chuckle. If a reviewer had written that about my book, I don’t think I would ever stop laughing. In fact, I would probably get it made into a brooch and pin it on my coat lapel.

    Jim, “the simple answer is going to have to be for the professional reviewers to move on-line.” That’s a good point. I must admit that when I read the literary review pages it is almost always online. Probably because I am too lazy to go out to buy a newspaper, and too poor to have it delivered each week.

    DGR, “It is the day job too that I think gives my reading a particular perspective and probably the same for many others, so I think we have something very useful to add to the mix of bookish dialogue.” That’s very true. Glad you came to Vulpes to make that point. I also think readers are interested in the person reviewing too. I read DGR every day and I am as much interested in the Rocky posts, as in the book reviews! Perhaps personality is something that is necessarily absent from newspaper reviews. Personality & subjectivity being two halves of the same coin, perhaps.

    Simon, I was so pleased to have so many contributors involved – it was helpful to have people put their own views, rather than me trying to paraphrase their position. But P.S I am a natural fence-sitter too. 🙂

    Mark, 60 million blogs puts it into perspective, doesn’t it? SIXTY MILLION BLOGS. Can’t even get my head around that number.

  11. adele geras
    February 8, 2008

    Lovely to find a link to this article and to discover this blog! I love this debate…
    I review books for children for the Guardian and choose what I want to write about. My view is: there are SO FEW proper reviews of children’s books in the press that it’s a waste of time and words to guide people AWAY from the bad ones. Far better to point out some they may not know of and would enjoy. I’ve on occasion started to read something, hated it and pulled out of reviewing it. There’s always some other book waiting….and the book I didn’t like can be sent to another person who might like it. This has happened quite a few times. I write on my website newsletter about books I’ve enjoyed, once every couple of months.

  12. Emily
    February 8, 2008

    What a fascinating article, and lovely to see all the comments, which make for very interesting reading, too. I’m very new to book reviewing, so it’s easy for me to do the sums and say that 50% of my reviews have been positively glowing with unfettered enthusiasm (!), and 50% have expressed a bit of disappointment and briefly explored where, for me, the book fell short. It hadn’t occurred to me not to review those books at all, but as an editor I (hopefully) learned how to bring out the good while still highlighting the less-good, so while I’m not into doing hatchet jobs I would still flag something that didn’t work for me. I’d always stress ‘for me’ and that’s very different to a ‘proper’ newspaper reviewer, as has been mentioned. I’m not here to put people off books, but if I’m here to give my opinion I think it’s reasonable for me to give negative ones as well as positive. That said, I recently read a book that I’d been asked to review but I disliked it so profoundly that I thought it best not to review it after all. It would have been hard / a lie not to make it very harsh. So that’s where I draw my line, I guess.

  13. Elaine
    February 8, 2008

    Fascinating debate. As a blogger who took personal affront at Nicola Beaumann’s attitude last year and had correspondence with her about it, I do think we all have something to offer. I am astonished and humble to have publishers sending me their books to read and review and it is a responsibility I take very seriously indeed. I agree with DGR that there is no point in rubbishing a book if you did not like it. We all have different reading tastes and it is not my place to say if I thought a book was utterly boring and trite if another person will love it. A reviewer, employed and paid, is the best person to do this. Yes, we are subjective and yes, we are unedited, but I for one try to do my best by a book and treat it fairly. It is also highly unlikely that the likes of Ian McEwan et al are going to send me a book to review, it is usually books from smaller, independent publishers who send me copies. I am therefore aware that it behoves me to take as positive a take on their books as possible as they will be getting less publicity than the aforementioned Mr M. If I loathe a book I will not say so. If I have for and against feelings about a book, then I will put that on my blog as I think that is being balanced but I would never rubbish a book. After all, I write my blog because I love books and love reading, I could not write a novel to save my life, so it is not for me to denigrate those who do.

    In the end, I think that reviewers and bloggers can live together without sniping at each other. We are all here because we love books and want to let other readers know how we feel. Simple, surely?

  14. rosyb
    February 8, 2008

    It’s brilliant to see all the discussion on this topic. Thank you for commenting everyone.

    Elaine “but I would never rubbish a book”.

    Does a negative review have to be this, though? I suppose this is all about scale in the end, isn’t it? There are some vicious pieces floating around in the blogosphere.

    “I for one try to do my best by a book and treat it fairly”

    I think this is the thing, isn’t it?

    I think that blogs will naturally tend towards the positive anyway because, as unpaid, people are unlikely to read or finish books they don’t like, or even aren’t that fussed about. But, whilst I see the points being made, I can’t help but question the general argument that it is always best to say nothing or pass onto someone who will like – surely this skews the whole system the other way and is that really good for anyone in the end, including the writers?

    I mean there is an assumption that no publicity is better than bad – but is that the case? I’ve heard one writer say the ultimate is to have a rave and a hatchet on the same book. And then everyone discusses the thing for ages and wants to buy it to know what all the fuss is about. 😉

    It also depends how you use the net. Yes, if you read a blog regularly and are in tune with the taste of the blogger you can just want them to recommend things to you. But if you are googling for reviews of something you are wondering whether is worth your while ordering and there is nothing but good reviews (either through the fact everyone loves it or through omission so only the paid for promotional ones or the positive ones are there) I am not sure this is particularly helpful for readers. It frustrates me that it can be so hard to tell anything sometimes. It’s all about reading between the lines. Also, if negative reviews are only left to the really extreme end of the internet, rather than those who might explain themselves and present the case fairly and reasonably, that is also disconcerting and unhelpful. It is interesting all these different takes, though and it is also fair enough for people to say I don’t want to waste time and space on something I don’t think is worth it. Perhaps each person just has to arrive at a decision they are comfortable with about how they are going to approach it.

  15. Luisa
    February 8, 2008

    Fascinating article with equally fascinating comments. I’m not sure I have a lot to add to them, except perhaps: thanks for having this debate.

    Oh, I will add a little. I also tend to give positive reviews. In fact, we give marks out of 5 on our site (another collaborative site) and I don’t think we have ever given a book 1 out of 5. I think it’s exactly as Rosy said – as unpaid reviewers, we probably wouldn’t finish a book if we hated it. Or if we did finish it, we wouldn’t feel like writing about it.

  16. Ariadne
    February 8, 2008

    Well, makes me realise how long I have been away from the site – I have missed all this debate! However, this resulting piece is fascinating, honest, and as good as anything I’ve seen published in a broadsheet. It makes me proud to be a bookfox. Long live this group.

  17. daphne sayed
    February 8, 2008

    I was really interested in this debate. I’m a very new blogger with lots to say and also a new reviewer and I can’t thank Ellie at Hesperus for giving me a chance. i hope eventually I’ll become known and receive more books.
    The main thing about the small presses besides the books they choose etc is the beauty of their production.many bigger paperback publishers use such awful paper the books have gone brown in a couple of months sometimes before I’ve read them.
    I read two major book sections every sat. and one not so good on Sunday and very often I can’t fathom how the books reviewed have been chosen. I find that , especially fiction I’m alerted by a blog or online group to an author’s latest work. Trawling the library by subject is often the only way to find History etc.Mary Beard has written a marvellous book on the Roman Triumph but I saw one review. I’m half way through and shall blog about it I want it known.

  18. dovegreyreader
    February 8, 2008

    Rosyb, great thoughts and I’m sure of one thing, there will never be any shortage of both good and bad reviews of just about every book out there somewhere. Constructive criticism entirely possible and I go there occasionally, but when I do the Booker it’s gloves off, I allow myself that indulgence once a year. But it all makes me feel wretched, utterly miserable to spoil a writer’s day and so I’m afraid most of the time I just have to leave it to someone else:-)

  19. Jackie
    February 9, 2008

    This was a great post, thoughtful, honest, entertaining, with cute photos.It did a great job of exploring the question from all angles, very objective. Some of the quotes are quite revealing. Could it be that newspaper reviewers are feeling insecure by the bloggers nipping at their heels? I think there is room for both approaches in the modern world. It reminds me a bit of what happened when photography appeared as an art form, some people thought it ahd less validity than painting & traditional arts.
    I don’t think negative reviews must be nasty, as long as the criticism is based on quotes, facts and conclusions drawn from the book, it is valid and it would be dishonest to ignore or gloss over those points in a review, no matter the medium.

  20. Eve Harvey
    February 9, 2008

    What a brilliant post, very thoroughly done Ms Lisa! And those foxes aahhhhh!

    I review for Write Away as well as Vulpes Libris and I approach the two very, very differently. On Write Away I am sent the books, I have no choice in what I am reviewing. And the remit is very different. We review primarily for teachers and librarians in order that they can get an insight into the book and its place within the curriculum. Also in order that they can recommend them to children. Obviously they’ll be reading the book first, but it might well be on the basis of my review that they pick the book up. I therefore have to be as honest as I possibly can, and not skirt over any flaws and I can’t give the book back if I hate it. Certainly it is so very subjective and only my opinion, such as it is, but if I feel the book just doesn’t work I feel a duty to say so.

    For me Vulpes is a very different experience. I feel I want to use this to share with the world the way a book makes me feel. I want to be able to shout from the rooftops when a story gets to me so much that I want everyone to know about it. And in my reading for pleasure I won’t continue long enough with a book that I hate to be able to give it a review anyway. It’s normally become lodged down the back of the piece of furniture I threw it at! 🙂

  21. Angela Young
    February 9, 2008

    What a wonderul, balanced, interesting, thought-provoking post. Thank you. (I found you at dovegreayreader scribbles.)

    I agree with Emma Darwin about the honesty and subjectivity of the book bloggers’ reviews. And of course in such an unrestricted, unedited, public forum those reviews can descend into undiscerning praise or undiscerning vitriol. But I am extremely grateful to the blogging reviewers. My first novel was published by an independent press – Beautiful Books – in March last year. It netted zero literary page reviews for the reasons McCrum discusses. But it was reviewed on several literary blogs and that began to spread the word … and now, much thanks to those blog reviews particularly at Stuck in a Book, Speaking of Love recently made the shortlist for the Spread the Word / World Book Day award which relies solely on word of mouth (where a couple of slicks of vitriol appear on the puddles of praise – but that’s all to the good, I think. It provokes debate.)

    Now Beautiful Books are sending the paperback out for broadsheet literary page reviews and we’ll see what happens.

    Good books do, I passionately believe, make their way out into the world, eventually. But if they are not reviewed anywhere at all, either in actual- or in cyber-space, readers can’t begin the conversations that will spread the word about them in the first place. I thank the blogging reviewers from the bottom of my heart for beginning those conversations.

  22. Dorothy W.
    February 9, 2008

    “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.”

    I’m sorry — I have such a bad reaction to this! I don’t need anyone to give me authority to do whatever I want to on my blog, and I do have the authority to say whatever I want publicly and I don’t have to be careful! For me, blogs are all about the freedom to say exactly what I like — their beauty is that there is no one in charge, no one granting authority. I can’t stand it when people try to put limits on blogs (a futile effort, really) and say what they should be or should do. They are what they are and no one can do anything about it. And I love them for that. The thing to do is to read the blogs you like and ignore the ones you don’t.

    That said, I myself tend to write in a careful, measured way. If I don’t like a book I’ll say so, but I do try hard to be thoughtful and fair. But I don’t do so because anyone tells me to — I do it because that’s what I want to do. I believe in being honest in discussions about books, both the good and the bad, and that the conversation that ensues (on one blog through comments or across a number of blogs) is more important than the feelings of an author who might not like what is said.

  23. kimbofo
    February 9, 2008

    Very interesting post and debate.

    I’m especially intrigued by the concept that you shouldn’t review a book negatively. That’s like trying to tell a newspaper to not cover bad news!

    The important thing, I feel, is that anyone who reviews a book — whether it be in the mainstream press or on a blog — is to be BALANCED and, wherever possible, to be OBJECTIVE.

    Whenever I review a book I try to keep in the back of my mind that someone has poured their life and soul into writing the thing, so it should be treated with respect. But if I feel it’s lacking in some way — say the plot doesn’t hold together or the characters are one-dimensional — I’m not going to hold back because I might hurt the author’s feelings. If you write a book and release it into the public domain then you’re offering it up to criticism. If you only want to hear good things about it, then you’re not living in the real world.

    I think one of the most interesting things to come out of blogging — and which I’ve not heard discussed elsewhere — is the sudden removal of the barrier between the reader/reviewer and the author. I often find the actual author of a book I’ve reviewed will leave a comment on my blog or send me an email about it or write about it on their own blogs. In many ways, this has made my reviews more measured, because I know there’s a real, living, breathing human at the other end who’s going to take my words to heart. But that’s not to say that if I find failings with a book I won’t mention it on my blog.

  24. sequinonsea
    February 9, 2008

    Adele, welcome! I totally take this point: “Far better to point out some they may not know of and would enjoy,” and I think DGR is of the same opinion.

    Emily, I think I’ve done this too: “expressed a bit of disappointment and briefly explored where, for me, the book fell short.”

    This is also interesting, I thought: “It hadn’t occurred to me not to review those books at all, but as an editor I (hopefully) learned how to bring out the good while still highlighting the less-good.” I don’t think I could review a book if I had nothing good to say about it. For one thing, and as Eve and Luisa say, I probably wouldn’t have even finished it.

    Elaine, “I for one try to do my best by a book and treat it fairly”. Agree with this. I think, as RosyB says, we’re generally looking to say something good about the books we’re blogging about.

    And this is a good point, and something that we’ve also found at Vulpes: “It is also highly unlikely that the likes of Ian McEwan et al are going to send me a book to review, it is usually books from smaller, independent publishers who send me copies.” I think almost all of the books we have been sent have been from small publishers. It’s been brilliant to discover how good these books are. Before I became a writer I tended to only buy the books that caught my eye in bookshops, and those were generally in big displays and published by the larger houses. Small publisher books have been a revelation, I must say.

    Daphne Sayed, “The main thing about the small presses besides the books they choose etc is the beauty of their production,” this is so true. I have been sent some absolutely stunning books from small presses. Beautiful paper and covers, although often their price reflects increased production costs, I’ve noticed.

    I think for me, it’s like DGR says “there will never be any shortage of both good and bad reviews of just about every book out there somewhere,” and that’s a good thing – all adds to the mix!

    And thanks Ariadne, much appreciated 😉

  25. sequinonsea
    February 9, 2008

    Oh and welcome to all the new visitors, I meant to say!

    Agree with this, Jackie: “I don’t think negative reviews must be nasty.” I think I am always looking for something to like in a book. If I’ve been sent it, I’m looking for the positives, and if I’ve bought it, I’m looking to justify my purchase! But if there is something I dislike, I try to say it honestly, but without being nasty about it.

    Welcome, Angela! And good luck with Speaking of Love, which I am reading right now!

    Dorothy, “I believe in being honest in discussions about books, both the good and the bad, and that the conversation that ensues (on one blog through comments or across a number of blogs) is more important than the feelings of an author who might not like what is said,” this is something which Book Fox RosyB and I have talked about lots of late, not so much about the feelings of the author, but more about the importance of the conversation. I do think dialogue about a book is important, and it’s fascinating, as both a reader and a writer, to hear people’s different takes on a novel. I’ve been amazed at how many people have expressed wildly different takes on my own novel (a few have contacted me through my website) and how the bits which one reader loves, will annoy another reader. I mean, it would be a bit depressing if everyone hated all of it, but the dialogue about it is thrilling and interesting.

    Kimbofo, I hope you didn’t mind us linking to you. You’re right about the barrier between author and reviewer when it comes to blogs. On the one hand, it can be quite disconcerting (especially if you’ve said something a bit negative) but on the other hand, it does feel nice to connect with the author of a book you’ve read. I suppose if an author came on being nasty about a review, that would shake me up a bit, but tbh, I think most authors are thrilled at getting any review!

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  27. Ted Burke
    February 10, 2008

    One ought not accuse others of the sins one so conspicuously consumed by;all criticism, whether from print and imbued with some subjectively determined criteria of “quality”, or from the Internet blogs, raucous and unruly they sometimes are, amount to “yammering”, fan boy gripes or celebrations, overheated declarations. Paid or no, reviewing is an ancillary
    activity largely parasitic to the principle work of the book author–I don’t agree with Derrida’s assertion that criticism has an equal footing as primary literary text and maintain that criticism is subservient to the novel, the poem, the play–and the reviewers themselves, paychecks or no, are involved in a make work project, scribbling furiously in the hope that readers will think what they write is actually important. The rise of blog reviewers lets a good amount of the air from the tires print critics have been riding on for decades, and the recent dust up seems an attempt to shore up their sagging reputations and preserve their influence. Good luck with that.

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  29. Litlove
    February 11, 2008

    This is my first visit here but I like your style very much indeed. These debates about book blogs are very irritating because they tend to lump what is a collective of extreme variety under headings like ‘book bloggers are amateurs’. I’m a professional literary critic working at Cambridge University and I love to book blog. I think newspaper reviews spend far too much of their time on vitriol and opinion, and when I checked out five mainstream reviews of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, I found that three contained serious factual errors about the novel. I’ve never come across such shoddiness in other bloggers posts, although they might well give only a brief review or an ‘uneducated’ one. I also think that they spend insufficient time on what I would consider to be trained literary analysis. So it makes me laugh to hear these self-styled ‘professionals’ boasting about their expertise at bloggers’ expense. I have infinite respect for writers such as Claire Tomalin and A. S. Byatt, but they are not simply journalists, either.

    At the end of the day you can find whatever you are looking for in the blog world – informed comment, rantings, cheerleader praise. It’s up to the person clicking the mouse what they want to read, but taking responsibility for one’s own desires as a reader seems to be in very short supply out there.

  30. Mhairi
    February 11, 2008

    That’s an interesting comment about the inaccuracies, Litlove … because I’ve not infrequently seen professional reviews of a book I’ve read myself, and spotted mistakes of fact … leading me to suspect that the reviewer didn’t actually read the book properly … only skimmed it.

    Do bloggers – having perhaps the luxury of more time and choice – usually read the books carefully and completely?

  31. litlove
    February 11, 2008

    Yes, I think you’re right. I think bloggers read out of love and interest, not for deadlines and assignments and that makes for more careful reading. It’s not the fault of journalists that they are up against a ticking clock, but it has its own consequences.

  32. Jackie
    February 12, 2008

    I just found an inaccuracy in a review printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer this past Sunday. They were discussing Peter Carey’s latest and referred to something in his earlier masterpiece “Oscar and Lucinda” which was incorrect. Well, you can imagine my reaction…..

  33. Leena
    February 12, 2008

    So many comments here! I tried to add something earlier, but inevitably my browser froze – let’s see if I can remember what I meant to say…

    Rosy, I agree 100% that ‘having an aim or even an expectation that criticism on the net could be as valuable and as important and well-done as criticism in the mainstream press is surely the only way to get good criticism on the web’. I think a lot of the people who are vehemently anti-blog have a wrong-headed idea of what litblogs are like and what they can be at their best… Say ‘blog’ to any random person in the street and they won’t think of your typical literary/culture blog but either a flashy gossip blog or a personal diary written entirely in txt spk. Say ‘book review blog’ and they’ll think of ‘Harry Potter suxx lol’. Most people don’t think of the unlimited space there is for analysis and debate online; they only think of the fragmentation and the limited attention span.

    That said, I’m not entirely pro-blog myself, which may be an odd stance for a book blogger, but that’s probably just my general Luddism showing through… However, I like Jim Murdoch’s point that the professional reviewers will probably have to move online. And perhaps that really is the answer, whether it happens online or elsewhere – the ‘professional’ and the ‘unprofessional’ interacting and building high standards together, for both literary works *and* the criticism thereof. That’s the way it should be, at least, shouldn’t it? Experts shouldn’t have a different set of standards from the public they’re writing for – they have the expertise, and the expertise may bring higher, more refined standards, but they should be able to explain and convince their public why they think something is good (or bad). ‘Because I say so and I’m the expert’ just isn’t enough. There needs to be some agreement, some common aims.

    Also, what I’d said earlier and what Rosy referred to, about having high standards (and thus more respect) for genre fiction – I think blogs can help to achieve this. Obviously mainstream publications have a certain set of standards that go well for a certain sort of books, but leave out everything else. How can we expect quality and originality from genre fiction if it’s never critically engaged with? If it’s lazily dismissed as ‘entertaining but undoubtedly badly written and unintelligent’ even before it has been read?

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  35. Tania Hershman/The ShortReview
    February 15, 2008

    This is a fascinating blog post and very relevant to what we are trying to do at The Short Review , where we review short story collections and anthologies. We are neither a blog nor a printed journal, we fall somewhere between, perhaps. I have 30 or so reviewers, and, since the site’s inception in November, have published 40 reviews, not just of new books but also of older books and classics. One of my reviewers recently pointed out to me that the reviews are almost universally positive. I then sent an email to all the reviewers giving them “permission”, had they felt the need for it, to express negative views freely in their reviews, to be critical. (I should point out that I don’t edit their reviews for anything but spelling and punctuation.) I haven’t yet had reviews submitted since I made this statement, so we will see if it made any difference.

    One point is that when a reviewer has suggested a book for review themselves, it is either a book they own already and love, or one they have heard of and think they will like, so it is less likely that there will be anything negative in their reviews – this is a similar self-selection to the blogger/ reviewer. Perhaps I should assign more “challenging” books to particular reviewers to stimulate more “balanced” reviews? Is this is a question any publication publishing reviews should think about? I don’t want The Short Review to become a place authors and publishers send books to receive only praise. That’s not reviewing, that’s PR.

  36. Mhairi
    February 15, 2008

    That sounds very familiar, Tania …. in fact in places it’s almost a word-for-word replay of the spirited (I think that’s the word …) behind-the-scenes discussion the VL contributors were having that triggered this post in the first place!

  37. rosyb
    February 15, 2008

    LOL, yes Mhairi!

    “That’s not reviewing, that’s PR.” I agree with this. Thanks so much for that honest and interesting contribution Tania. It is a bit of a problem, as you say. It may start off that way because people contribute their favourite books in the first place but can so easily snowball into expectation from those sending stuff in.

    It’s hard because unless you can pay people you can’t expect them to finish something they aren’t enjoying. Hence the weighting is always towards the positive. This, maybe, IS the crucial difference between the professional and the amateur. There is the odd stubborn soul who will plough through to the end of a book they don’t like, and maybe your changed policy will affect them, but most don’t want to spend their free time, for free, reading something that isn’t very good.

    In the main, though, this debate is possibly more about pointing out the negative aspects properly and plainly, rather than the humdingerly awful review. People can be afeared of mixed reviews and might leave out any negative element or questionmark – yet they can often be the most interesting of all.

  38. Tania Hershman/The ShortReview
    February 15, 2008

    Very interesting that you mention payment, RosyB. That hadn’t crossed my mind, that if a reviewer was paid to review, he or she would feel obliged to finish a book they aren’t enjoying. Hmm. I can’t afford to pay right now – if ever! – I can only offer my reviewers free review copies. I guess this is something I – and all of you here – have to discuss periodically and try and formulate a plan.

    Since my last post, I received an email this morning from one of my reviewers who is reviewing an anthology of prize-winning stories. She didn’t think much at all of the story that won 2nd prize but was worried that if she expressed that in the review, as a short story writer herself this might somehow affect her chances at some point… or perhaps that the prize administrator wouldn’t send us any more review copies. I told her to be honest, but that there were ways of expressing negative aspects, not just saying, ” That story is awful, what were the judges thinking”, and that when she submitted her review we could discuss it. Tricky situation!

  39. Elizabeth Baines
    February 15, 2008

    Hi everyone, very interesting debate! Unaware of it, I posted my own comment on positive reviewing, basically saying that as a writer I’d much prefer a negative review to none at all. That way my book at least doesn’t sink into silence, and anyway, I’d like it to be part of the literary debate, which like Rosy I think is so important. I do know how hard it is to write less-than-positive reviews – like spearing a writer through the heart – but I think a climate of healthy debate and a thrashing of the issues is ultimately more important than that. And again as a writer, I really want to know what EVERYONE thinks of my books – this helps me to think about my writing and to shape it. When you think of it like that, reviewers can be a much more creative and dynamic force in our culture if they’re not simply responding to those things they like.

    And a final point: I’m not meaning to be rude, but isn’t there a certain patronization, as well as naivity, in assuming that one’s readers will take whatever you’ve said as gospel (and be put off or switched onto a book as a result? I know I’m often spurred to read a book by a bad review, and often put off by gushing ones. The reviews which really turn me onto books are those which are thoughtful, and imho, very few books can withstand thoughful scrutiny without at least some flaws being exposed.

  40. sequinonsea
    February 15, 2008

    Welcome Ted, Litlove, Tania and Elizabeth! Nice to see you here at Vulpes!

    Elizabeth, really agree. And on negative reviews, I must admit to buying books purely on the basis of hideous reviews. The Sea by Banville and Saturday by McEwan, for instance. And in fact, it turned out that I loved both of them (*ducks*) 🙂

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  42. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

    As one of the two unpaid cheerleaders behind the JustOneMoreBook! Children’s Book Podcast, I’m always shocked when a reader stumbles across our podcast and takes the time to send us an email (or leave us a comment) informing us, with much outrage, that we have no right to express our views about children’s books because this particular reader has many degrees in literary subjects and — they assume — we do not. We don’t have degrees in literary subjects but we clearly present our show as “a podcast about the children’s books we love and why we love them” and that’s exactly what our book chats are: casual, unscripted, rambling conversations over coffee about the children’s books we love and why we love them.

    We’re just sharing our enthusiasm for something we love — and we’re enjoying every minute of it. I always wonder why that would that bother anyone.

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  48. marygm
    April 3, 2008

    Very interesting debate with lots of good points to chew over.

    On the point of being qualified or not to review, I don’t think there is such a thing as being qualified, any more than there is a qualification to write a book. Anyone can do either but of course that’s not to say that all books or reviews will be of the same quality or standard. But I think that readers of both are very perceptive and can quickly judge who they can trust for ‘a good read’ or a ‘reliable opinion’ and the choices won’t be the same for everyone.

    As for negative reviews, my own position is that I won’t say anything that I wouldn’t be prepared to say to the author to his or her face. I would hate to be rude but I have absolutely no problem with being direct. Also I feel more comfortable with being critical of a novel by an established writer with a strong fanbase than a debut writer who is making their way. Not that this would influence my opinion but it would influence the terms chosen to express it.

    Finally I totally agree with the person who said that the reviewer is not at all on the same level as the writer of the book. The writer has created something from nothing whereas the reviewer is simply reacting to what is already there. The talent and skill is not the same. On the other hand when a writer puts something out into the public domain they must accept that they expose themselves and have to take the good with the bad.

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  51. SamRuddock
    March 5, 2010

    What a fantastic piece, Lisa. It has made me think hard about my approach to book blogging and what I want my reviews and blog to be. It is important to know something of the culture and ethos of book blogging and much of what you have written is new to me. I think it will make me a more considerate blogger and that has to be a good thing.

    It should be compulsory reading for all those considering starting a book blog.

  52. Lisa
    March 6, 2010

    So glad you enjoyed the piece, Sam. It seems like forever ago that I worked on this. I joined VL primarily because my friend and VL founder, Leena, invited me to do so, but it soon became clear that book blogging was more complicated than it at first seemed, especially when we started to get regular visitors, and when review copies flooded in from publishers and authors, and when other book blogs and newspaper websites linked to us. Suddenly we felt rather more visible and what had been a light-hearted hobby felt quite, dare I say it, important. It’s been a brilliant two years, however, and I’m so glad that I accepted Leena’s kind invitation to join Vulpes Libris. We’ve had our ups and downs (after all, we’re all pretty strong-minded and, er, rich in opinions, let’s say!) but it’s always been an interesting and thought-provoking endeavour. Long may Vulpes Libris continue on its way. 🙂

  53. Hilary
    October 2, 2010

    Likewise, Lisa – following Kirsty’s link today has made me read this post again after a fairly long time, and well into as opposed to at the start of my Bookfox career. It’s a brilliant survey of the scene. It has given me a lot to think about in my approach to reviewing here in the future – and I think it will make me go back over some of the stuff I’ve written to see how it stacks up. I have to say though – my stance is generally to come up with something in the spirit of ‘Look what I’ve found! See if you love it too’ – which may mean I am playing safe most of the time. A good idea to rethink that position, perhaps.

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Special Features and tagged , , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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