“Gatekeeper”: Still Not a Dirty Word

One of my first gigs as a freelance writer was covering concerts for the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly in Berkeley, California. Mostly I attended folk shows or enormo-dome concerts nobody else wanted to write about, but every so often I’d get assigned to go to 924 Gilman, the warehouse space at the center of the East Bay punk scene that spawned Green Day and the like. I had fun at the shows and got a lot out of the music, but I was still there more as a reporter than a fan. So I took it a little personally when I showed up one evening and noticed that somebody had spray-painted something on the wall behind the stage:


The message definitely wasn’t meant for me and my 450-word squibs in the back of the Express arts pages; it’s just that it was 1996, 1997, and the scene was still sensitive at how it had been commodified. (And somebody was probably mad at Gina Arnold, the paper’s lead rock critic at the time; back then, somebody always seemed to be.) Still, I was sensitive to the accusation, so I brought the graffiti up with a friend, voicing some youthful anxiety about being an interloper, cultural appropriation, etc. She cut me off: “Punk rock is a medium.”

In other words, the bands at 924 Gilman were trying to make a coherent statement about the world as much my newspaper was. We could debate whose worldview was more informed and legitimate, but one didn’t automatically earn the high ground over the other. That sentence popped into my head reading a post by Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, describing a recent panel about the future of book reviewing that included Stothard, Michael Dirda, Jessa Crispin, Steve Wasserman, and Sam Tanenhaus. At some point the conversation turned to the role that Web sites, blogs, and/or newspapers have as gatekeepers:

Another issue was whether we should we be ‘gate-keepers’ for the literary culture that we like, letting in what we considered of quality and worth and excluding what we did not? Jessa Crispin does not want Bookslut to be a gatekeeper or anyone else to be one either. It seemed desirable to me that another word for the principle of gate-keeping might be desirable for the rest of the afternoon.

The question baffles me a little, because whether Crispin, Stothard, or anybody else wants to be a gatekeeper or not, it’s the gig they’ve signed up for: Bookslut, like any book publication, online or otherwise, is in the business of picking and choosing what stories it feels are most important to the audience it would most like to cultivate. To behave otherwise is madness—letting any old thing in and deeming it worthy of attention. When people get mad at the word “gatekeeper,” I suspect it’s because they imagine a cranky troll minding a very narrow gate. Or the troll is easily paid off by some minion of the publishing industry. In an essay published on the Washington Post‘s Web site last year, Crispin dismissed newspaper book reviews as echo chambers, talking about the same damn five or six big books every week: “But most of the reviews are dead weight anyway, creating nationwide echo effect: ‘That Junot Diaz book sure is good, don’t you think so?’ ‘Oh yes, certainly.’ ‘And I absolutely think the world needs more superhero-derivative adolescent-boy sagas, alongside the occasional magical realism written by white male Ivy League graduates, don’t you?’ ‘Oh yes, yes. Quite right.'”

Note the prissy, tea-at-two tone of the conversation that Crispin imagines: Her complaint isn’t so much about “gatekeeping” but with thoughtless cultural elitism and a reflexive embrace of what’s new and popular. Those are reasonable complaints to have about literary culture and book reviews, but framing the discussion around the word “gatekeeper” doesn’t get a debate started about those issues. The bookers at 924 Gilman did just as much selective picking and choosing as the booking agents for those enormo-dome shows; they just took a smaller fee, if they took a fee at all. And Bookslut does just as much gatekeeping as the Washington Post, which is what Bookslut’s readers prize about it. Stothard writes that he’s looking for a different word than “gatekeeper” to define the issue, but even if he landed on one that’s more polite and agreeable (“curator”?), it wouldn’t address the bigger issues that Crispin addresses.

The Way of the Litblog

This week, literary bloggers D.G. Myers and Patrick Kurp are hosting an online symposium called “The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time.” (I suspect “Is What We’re Doing at All Useful?” might’ve come off as a little glum.) After I received the questions, I’d intended to dash off a few quick answers and be done with it, but it turned out that the questions had a way of keeping me typing—my answers are below. I don’t imagine that many people are willing to swim through 3,000 words on what I think about blogging, but if it helps direct attention to the work that Myers and Kurp do on their own blogs, I’m all for it.

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Funny: The first thing that popped into my head after I read this question was “the society column.” That’s unfair and inaccurate and diminishes what blog bloggers do, but it probably came to mind because book blogs a) occasionally speak to a small, somewhat esoteric group that shares many of the same opinions and social graces and b) because they play a largely supplemental role in the media landscape, and even within the book-reviewing landscape.

In the days before blogging, I worked as a reporter and critic at an alternative weekly that had a couple of popular “items columns”—slots for stories that were brief, perhaps good for a laugh or food for thought, but didn’t rise to the level of a full-fledged news story or feature. Plenty of newspapers have, or had, similar columns, or have recast them as blogs—think of the “news and notes” sidebars in the sports section next to the official gamers, or the “reporter’s notebook” pieces from whoever covered city hall or the statehouse. (My former employer, Washington City Paper, has transformed its news and notes column, City Desk, into a blog called City Desk—which in turn has fed the print version of the column.)

These columns are largely surplus information—interesting tidbits, but really only intended for the true aficionado of the particular subject. Book blogs often behave in a similar way. (Sorry, but I’ll be using “often” and “largely” and other self-insulating modifiers a lot in my responses. You’re asking questions about all book blogs, but that’s a big category, and they don’t all behave the same way.) Even ones that produce a lot of original content spend at least some time being responsive to stories and trends in the literary world that have been covered by the larger media outlets. If you’re dedicating yourself full-time to providing original literary content, you’re no longer running a book blog—you’re running an online literary magazine, which is a different creature.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Before I started my own book blog in January 2008, I read a lot of what I’d suppose you might call the usual suspects: The Elegant Variation, Maud Newton, the Millions, Blog of a Bookslut, the New York TimesPaper Cuts. But in terms of them being inspirations and models, I largely looked at them as models for what not to do. Not because I disliked them, but because I figured that they had already claimed their particular patches of turf, forcing me to avoid their most common habits. (No knee-jerk whining about the contents of the New York Times Book Review, I told myself; no dutiful mentions of the death of a Syrian poet I’d never read and never heard of until the obit popped up in my RSS feed.)

As I blog more, I inevitably read more blogs—partly because I learn of the bloggers who are reading me—and I’ve seen book blogs roughly break down into two types. There are those that are concerned with books as a consumer good (ie., blogs about the publishing industry, or publishing trends), and those that are concerned with books as literature, or that discuss particular books, or actually engage in criticism of them. I read and respect both, but my ambitions lean toward the latter. I got into this racket because I want to become a better reader, not because I want to better understand the publishing biz. (I got burned out on covering pop music in part because I was spending too much time learning how the sausage got made.) Though I don’t mind being aware of what’s happening with e-books and the upcoming Dan Brown novel, I really don’t have the energy or expertise to speculate on “why it matters.”

But to answer your question directly: I have a ton of admiration for Sarah Weinman, who can successfully navigate both worlds and is a sharp journalist besides. Otherwise, I tend to gravitate to the blogs that are going to teach me something I don’t know, and are engaged in thoughtful readings about books—Blographia Literaria, Conversational Reading, and A Commonplace Blog. (If that sounds obsequious, all I can say is that I wouldn’t spend time writing lengthy answers to questions from a blogger I didn’t admire.) And I still have plenty of admiration for what Sarvas, Newton, et al do as well.

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

I don’t wind up reading a lot of book reviews on book blogs, mainly because I don’t wind up coming across too many of them. (In saying this, I’m making a distinction between Blog of a Bookslut and Bookslut proper, which includes reviews and interviews; and between Conversational Reading and its associated review site The Quarterly Conversation. For what it’s worth, I find the review sites interesting, and they often introduce me to books that aren’t getting covered otherwise, but they can be frustratingly erratic in terms of quality.) I think there’s a lot of thoughtful engagement with books on blogs—a lot of quick-hit riffing and expressions of enthusiasm, and I participate in some of that myself. That has its place—I wouldn’t do it if I think it didn’t—but it isn’t a replacement for the kind of considered reviewing that appears in newspapers, magazines, and the better-financed online publications. I still believe that, overall, more interesting writing about books is in the pages of Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books than in any one blog. But there’s writing about books on blogs that’s much more clever, engaged, and surprising than what you might find in a mediocre daily newspaper or most alternative weeklies. That’s why the print-versus-blog debate is frustrating and often silly; who “wins” depends entirely on the perspective from which you approach them.

Regardless, I think it’s true that blogs are filling in gaps that those mainstream publications won’t dedicate space to. I appreciate that a lot of book blogs concentrate on areas the more established publications ignore—romance, small-press books, works in translation, etc. My only complaint is that I could do with less of the keening on those sites about how the NYT or whoever isn’t dedicating enough space and attention to your particular enthusiasm. If you know you’re doing a good thing, bellyaching about how other people aren’t doing it either just makes you look unconfident.

Blogs are also much, much better at stoking conversations about books than print reviews, even the ones that appear on comment-enabled Web sites. To perhaps overgeneralize, book reviews are declarative statements; blog posts are questions. The former puts forth a line of argument; the latter invites others to help formulate lines of argument. Or at least the better blogs do that, leaving the door open for additional commentary. Both have their place, though—there’s something to be said for reading somebody who has produced a thoughtful interpretation on something, and it can be entertaining to read somebody trying to work it out as well.

How do you respond to this statement? “Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.”

I’d say it’s just as true as this statement: “Book reviewing is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.” If we define “hobby” as an avocation pursued more out of passion than out of a need for money, book reviewing is a hobby for the overwhelming majority of people who do it. I can only imagine what would happen to the membership of an organization like the National Book Critics Circle if it included only those who make a living reviewing books. I work a day job unrelated to the book world or book reviewing, so I can’t get too outraged at this supposedly provocative statement; I’m a hobbyist myself.

Others are welcome to judge if that means I’m therefore unfit to review books. But I think the question buried underneath here is more like, “Do you feel diminished when somebody says blogging is just a hobby?” Nah. I’ve gotten lots of edification out of blogging and even a little bit of work; I feel more engaged with books, and feel better equipped to write and talk about about them. I feel it’s improved how I’ve written about books, and pointed me to ones I otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. I certainly know more about the things I don’t know. When I started doing this, I nursed a slight concern that it would peg me as “just a blogger.” Perhaps that’s the case—after all, the New Yorker still hasn’t rung me up. But I don’t think it’s lessened me in the eyes of the publications I do write for, and I’ve met more smart people than I would have if I’d never started my blog.

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

One thing blogging does is remind you that you have an audience—people will read what you have to say, comment on it, and call you on your errors, flaws in logic, etc. That’s a great improvement from years back, when a book review in a paper may have had more authority than a blog, but you didn’t get much of a sense of what readers were thinking. So blogging keeps me on my toes—I write now being much more mindful of the fact that there will be people scrutinizing it with a mind for logical gaps, cliches, and just plain bad writing. I’ve worked as a reporter and editor, so I had a lot of that beaten into me anyhow, but it never hurts to have a little extra downward pressure.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?–the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

Occasional viciousness is true of online conversation in general—I don’t think it’s limited to book blogs, or blogging in general. After all, in the early 90s we got Godwin’s Law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (It may speak to the level of our current national conversation about politics that Godwin’s Law has moved offline and into in-person conversations, where people apparently believe that putting brush mustaches on pictures of the president equates to thought and argument.) Something about online discussions just happen to spark this stuff—the stakes are low and the environment of one-upmanship is high.

Arguments happen; smart people can choose to engage or disengage as they see fit. Hopefully, those same smart people can detect when somebody is trying to launch a discussion (perhaps through “harsh disagreement”) or just pushing a finger in somebody’s chest. Ultimately, there are only two ways a conversation can go—either people can find some common ground and room for compromise, or they can keep barking about the points on which they disagree. Both of which are fine (though the latter seems silly after a while). It only gets annoying when things degrade into taking-my-toys-and-going-home behavior: removing somebody’s blog from a blogroll, unfollowing them from Twitter, huffy posts about how you shall never speak of [Blogger X] again. A good rule of thumb regarding arguments, both online and in everyday life, is to ask yourself, “Will this matter six months from now?” I’d suggest that more than 90 percent of the time it won’t.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

No. At least, I don’t agree with the logic of the argument put forward by this “some.” Who said that the end goal of blogging is fame? And how might a book blogger become famous, anyhow? People magazine has a circulation of 3.7 million; the New York Review of Books has a circulation of only 130,000. Is the NYRB thus a failure? Conversations about books are esoteric in the larger world; within the Web world, we all might as well be in a cult.

I suspect that when somebody says that blogging had a “golden age,” the person means that there was a time (circa 2002) when it felt new and exciting, and the media wanted to do stories about it, and some people got a lot of attention really quickly (book deals! movie options!), and everybody got to have lively discussions and post pictures of puppies or argue about string theory, and it was a thrill because we all had a brand-new toy to play with and we knew who was reading us and we were finally, finally, getting some interesting e-mail. That moment has passed, so it’s easy for media folk to say blogging is old hat and move on to the new. But blogging remains a valid form, and Twitter is no replacement for it. (Twitter is more a supplemental form, I think—a supplement to a supplement.) What other online format besides blogging allows people to write at various lengths, distribute to a wide audience, and spark conversations? I suppose Facebook might qualify, but it’s a poor vehicle for lengthy, considered thought, and its system is designed to push your ideas only to your closest friends. If blogging is over, nobody’s created a suitable replacement for what blogging does.

(Aside: For the record, there are non-online formats that allow people to write at various lengths, distribute to a wide audience, and spark conversations. They’re called newspapers and magazines. Nobody’s invented a suitable real-world replacement for those, which is why I’m not in the hurry that some are to declare them dead.)

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have “earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not,” because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers “to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better.” Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

I’ll start by addressing the second question, which strikes me as presumptive—or, at least, doesn’t define its terms precisely. The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, is among the top 3,000 blogs around, according to Technorati; so is Whatever, a blog by science fiction author John Scalzi, who often discusses books and prompts plenty of lively discussion about them. The number one site on Technorati is run by an author, Arianna Huffington, who has provided a platform for dozens of authors to express their opinions. So who’s a “book blogger”? And what’s a “huge audience”? We are not starving for discussions of books online, and there are a few of those places that are attracting a sizable (perhaps even “huge”!) audience.

I imagine the second question is designed to prompt me to wring my hands about the matter addressed by the first question—that perhaps book bloggers are not being trustworthy enough, or entertaining enough, or reflect our collective consciousness enough, and therefore aren’t huge enough. To that, the only appropriate response I can think of is: Screw it. Even setting aside that all litbloggers, regardless of quality, are playing small-ball in an online space dominated by sex, politics, celebrity, and technology, building trust and regularly producing quality has never been a recipe for success. Newspapers, after all, have traded on their authority, quality, and ability to connect with readers for decades, and it hasn’t done a thing to help their rapidly diminishing circulation.

(Please indulge me a brief rant on this point. That same Malone article perpetuates the canard that newspapers are dying “because they violated readers’ trust that they would deliver timely, accurate and unbiased news.” Newspapers are dying because the advertising market collapsed and because in the past ten years people have been introduced to many more ways to receive information, all lobbying for the rapidly evaporating pool of advertising dollars that remain. Bias didn’t kill newspapers any more than poorly written reviews of Dan Brown novels killed newspaper book sections [though they certainly didn’t help]. “Newspapers are dying because they betrayed our trust!” is a lie that partisan types tell themselves when the New York Times doesn’t splash their hobby horse on A-1. I wish all the people who keep telling me that the papers are full of bias would follow through and cancel their subscriptions. Then I could get through the morning paper without reading letters to the editor about media bias.)

If the real question here is, “How can we create better book blogs, and how can we get more attention drawn to them?” I’m not sure that can be done in any organized fashion. I certainly wouldn’t want to be charged with trying to make it happen. Book bloggers already exist in a competitive environment for their audiences: To get attention, they have to do things that other blogs aren’t doing, find their points of differentiation and run with with them. Sometimes you can get attention by stuffing your blog with linkbait like a top-ten list or a passing mention of a celebrity. But ultimately a blog’s success is going to have to be defined by how often you provide interesting commentary about books, without gimmicks. The online advertising landscape is so screwy at the moment that it’ll be some time before book bloggers enjoy any real financial rewards for their efforts. I do believe that moment will arrive, and I’m still a firm believer in the notion that the good stuff finds its audience. But as far as “huge audiences” go, I’m reminded of Daniel Clowes’ comment that being praised as the greatest living comic artist is a little like being called the world’s best badminton player. No matter how good you are, there’s only going to be a limited pool of people who care.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Bloggers are always wise to speak out on what they’re passionate about. This was perhaps the hardest hurdle for old-school newspaper journalists to clear when it came to blogging—they’re trained not to write in the first person, or to register political opinions, and their initial stuffy attitude toward the first-person led to all those accusations that newspapers don’t get it when it comes to online commentary. Online readers want to know who they’re dealing with, and they want some sense that person blogging is somebody with a life and relationships and enthusiasms. But book bloggers who post about their politics are a little like political bloggers who post pictures of their cats—-it’s not illegal, I suppose, and it won’t make me remove you from my RSS feed, but it does often feel ungainly and irritating.

On a personal note, I imagine that part of my aversion to deep political readings about books has to do with the fact that I was an English major at the University of Chicago in the early 90s, during the height of the PC wars in academia. Back then, my efforts to be a dutiful student were unsettled by the squabbling among cultural studies theorists who would pre-dismiss any thought in my head as a tool of oppression, by virtue of the fact that I’m a white middle-class male. That squabbling started for some good reasons, I know, but it’s made me averse to divisive, overstated political readings of books ever since. (It also put me off going to the graduate school in the humanities, which I’m confident was a good thing; I imagine it’s no fun spending a whole career feeling weaponized.)

All that said, not all political commentaries on blogs are created equal. Posts on the order of, “We Interrupt This Litblog For a Very Special Announcement of My Thoughts about Health-Care Reform” won’t do much for me. But though I’m not much of a socialist, I like reading Scott McLemee’s writings from that perspective on his (too rarely updated) blog, Quick Study. I just want to be convinced that politics are relevant to the argument. As we know from various books on online communities (Infotopia by Cass Sunstein [lefty!] being one of the better ones), political commentaries online tend to resolve into echo chambers. If you feel like finding fans who will applaud you for sharing the same political leanings you have, go for it. If you’re hoping to convince people with different leanings to agree with you, you’ve assigned yourself a hopeless task.


Yesterday Karen Templer announced that she was shutting down Readerville, her long-running site dedicated to books, writers, and readers. This saddened a lot of people, including me—I liked the site, and, more selfishly, Templer was one of the first people to approvingly take notice of what I was doing. But Readerville’s closure didn’t spawn any grim handwringing over where we might all go to talk about books now. Templer herself notes that today the field is wide open for that:

I’m thrilled at the vast assortment of tools for people to connect online—from blogs to Facebook and Twitter, to the many social book cataloging sites, and beyond. Readers have resources nobody could have imagined nine years ago, and it’s a joy to see books being talked about in every corner of the Internet.

Those conversations go in a million directions, but last week Yen Cheong, assistant director of publicity at Viking and Penguin Books, considered whether the kinds of people hosting those conversations roughly split into two camps. Working from some thoughts by Sarah Weinman, Cheong notes that there’s a distinction between “first wave” litbloggers like Weinman, Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, and others, and “second wave” book bloggers running sites like Booking Mama and Beth Fish Reads, and others I would never have known about had Cheong not written her post.

My ignorance of the second-wavers is one of the things that helps peg me as a first-wave litblogger, as Weinman suggested. I won’t bother parsing figuring out who belongs in what wave, which strikes me as the dullest insider-baseball conversation imaginable. But the comments on Cheong’s post brought up what I thought was a very interesting conversation about engaging with commenters, and how they relate to perhaps more “journalistic” bloggers. I was particularly struck by a comment by Trish of Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin?:

The first wave is talking at the reader and sticks with a journalistic style of writing. The second wave is in it for the conversation. I don’t know any book bloggers (as opposed to lit bloggers) who have comments disabled.

I’m not saying the first wave is wrong, though it’s certainly not my preference to shut down conversation by turning off comments, so I obviously prefer the second wave. However, it just seems silly to not have conversation on a blog about books when reading is such a solitary hobby anyway. Readers tend to want to talk about what they’re reading, want to talk about books and authors and their book club.

So while I really admire what the lit bloggers did to start up what I would call book blogging, I think they continued a style that newspapers are finding unsustainable.

The “unsustainable” argument doesn’t wash for me. Book blogs, first-wave or otherwise, don’t operate under the same profit motives that newspapers do—a blog’s sustainability is attached to little more than the willingness of the blogger to get up in the morning and make time to write, and you can’t declare bankruptcy if you’re making nothing. But Trish’s overall point about how litbloggers relate to readers is well-taken. I’ve bounced around a few newsrooms and known plenty of journalists, and the relationship between writers and readers has long been awkward. Journalists often have a defensive posture toward readers because we are often literally asked to defend ourselves. Before blogging became essential parts of newspaper sites, people didn’t usually reply to articles and reviews by sending letters and e-mails saying “FIRST!” or “Nice post!”—they wrote to let you know what an idiot you were for holding a particular opinion, they wrote to call out your errors, they wrote to threaten lawsuit, they wrote to wonder out loud about the sanity of the people who ran the paper because, after all, they hired your sorry ass. People who wrote in with praise, let alone an eagerness to start a conversation, were a little suspect. Publications have a thick skin when it comes to negative feedback—the Washington Post runs a lively weekly page, Free for All, dedicated to nothing but readers calling shenanigans on Post journalists. But its very existence bears out the difficulty of the relationship—readers were people around whom you had to have a thick skin, people you had to make room for. No Post staffer who values the respect of his or her colleagues would suggest the paper run a weekly page of letters full of praise.

So by the time journalists waded into blogging, plenty of them didn’t do it very well—interaction was a relatively foreign concept, and it positive feedback was going to be rare except for star writers and columnists who’d acquired large fan bases. I recall a number of staff-meeting conversations in which Web folks would train editorial staffers about how to directly engage with commenters, which led to a lot of posts that clumsily closed with some iteration of “So, what do you think?” Insincerity was built into the process, because it was presented less as something that we might enjoy doing or that might improve our work and more as something that might help the publication make money someday. The argument was that (imagine Al Pacino in Scarface talking here) first you got the comments, then you got the page views, and then you got the money. I’ve always been cynical about that line of thinking—heaven knows that online ad revenue is nothing to bank on right now—and that feeling that only got bolstered when the comments on a post would, as it often did, melt down into a cavalcade of jackassery. “I’ll care about the commenters,” my stock line went, “when I have proof that one of these fuckers is gonna buy a futon.”

Now that I run a blog with no ambition to sell you a futon (or even a book), my attitude towards commenters has eased up. And plenty of journalists have gotten a lot better at building relationships with readers. Me, I still do a poor job on that front—my interest in presenting and thinking about information still trumps my interest in starting conversations. But I hope I get better in time, and this may all just be evidence that people who blog about books are settling into some familiar roles with new shapes; the litbloggers are doing what many daily newspapers played before they were forced to cut or eliminate their coverage (though hopefully with more awareness of and engagement with readers), and the bookbloggers get to supplement, if not replace, the traditional in-person book club. And there’s one other change, which wasn’t much discussed in Cheong’s post or its comments: the increasing role of bloggers with a more academic bent. Relatively new sites like Andrew Seal‘s and D.G. Myers‘, along with new efforts like Dan Green’s Critical Distance project, suggest to me that even very high-end critical outlets like the New York Review of Books and Harper’s will have their authority challenged as well. I don’t think we’ll see the imminent collapse of for-profit enterprises dedicated to paying smart people good money to write criticism, nor are English departments going away anytime soon. But access to serious and sustained critical thought has never been easier, which bodes well for everybody.

So, what do you think?

Why Book Bloggers Won’t (Often) Review Books

Lissa Warren, writing in the Huffington Post, has it right:

I’ll tell you what does make my jaw drop: the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs…. I read them often for news on new titles (and older ones I missed) and Q&As with authors. Many of them are also good for stories on publishing trends, which as a book publicist and editor I appreciate a great deal. But, for the most part, these blogs don’t actually review books. Instead, they cover the business of books, book culture, and the world of the author. Yes, they often link to reviews–but, ironically, they’re usually of the dead tree variety.

This is an aspect of litblogs I used to grumble about: It’s hard to argue that blogs are supplanting book coverage in newspapers when blogs rely so often on those very papers for something to write about. Want to crow about how you’re erasing the necessity and utility of a weekly book review? Take the reviews offline for a while and see how much you have to work with. (I know about the most notable exceptions, such as Bookslut and the Quarterly Conversation.) Now that I run a blog myself—now that I’m part of the same parasitic culture I used to take issue with—I understand the issues a little better, and I respect the different but vital roles each play. Reviewing, when you care, takes time; writing that takes time is still best suited for print, or at least a Web publication that has an editorial team structured much like a print publication. Blogging is often an off-the-cuff sort of thing, and I’m still less interested in hearing somebody spitballing an opinion about a book in a blog post (or in an Amazon review) than reading something that went through some sort of vetting process.

So Warren’s request that bloggers review books more often is well taken, but likely not something to happen for a while—at least with me. Because registering an opinion is something that anybody can do easily, without too much effort. Reviewing is labor, and I’m old-fashioned enough to still believe that labor ought to be paid for. (So is Scott Esposito, apparently, who, bless him, is figuring out a way to kick some cash to his contributors.) Find a way to get more money into the hands of more bloggers, and it won’t be hard to find more quality reviews.

The Glamorous Life

Scott Esposito gets a little testy after reading Joe Queenan‘s recent piece in the New York Times about book-discussion questions. Doing side work, Esposito writes, has its downside:

This kinda gets at one big problem I see with current “professional” reviewing–namely that the critics are freelancers who need to do stuff like write supplementary questions to earn a living.

Not that there’s anything wrong with freelance writing assignments. But when a critic is scrambling around for income, I have to believe that this impingement on her time and resources begins to detract from the quality of her reviews.

OK, hands up: Who of you out there gets to review books full-time without other duties impinging on your time and resources? Congratulations, you’re lucky. Or you rob banks. (But not if it’s gonna take you away from the new Jhumpa Lahiri!) Or the Bank of Mom & Dad cuts you a check every so often. Or, perhaps, you’re a full-time freelance book reviewer, which likely makes you part the very problem that Esposito speaks to: Because book reviews pay so poorly, you write so many of them and plow through books so quickly that you yourself are hardly worth reading.

I’d love to review books full-time. But I just took a look at my monthly mortgage bill and added up the amount of freelance money I made reviewing books last year, and, gosh, it’s practically a 1:1 ratio. So, I work a day job, read when I can, write when I can, do all of it as responsibly as I can, and have some awareness of when I’ve taken on too much. (This is my best argument for being a professional, and I refuse to put the word into scare quotes like Esposito does.) The notion that the best-case scenario is to subsist exclusively on reading books and writing reviews of them–no editing work, no Q&A writing, etc–is nice, but so is the notion of world peace. Like Esposito, I’m all for “broadening the field”–though I never thought of it as especially narrow one, especially now that anybody with a blog and some enthusiasm can get cracking. But to say that we need to “give more critics the opportunity to spend an adequate amount of time with a book under review” is to register a complaint about a problem that isn’t going to go away. Everybody works under time pressure; if Esposito is waiting for reviewers who have ample time to read books and review them, he may quickly learn how difficult “broadening the field” is going to be.