March 19, 2010
On Reviewing, and Reviews
The latest Quill & Quire (probably the best issue in years, and worth a read if you can find one) features an essay from Richard Bachmann, recently retired bookseller, in which he says the following:
“The other…concern is the disappearance of avenues to tell people about books. Superficially, it might seem that the new media have made available more channels of information than ever before. I don’t believe this is an advantage. Having a multitude of un-vetted book blogs is not quite the same thing as real discourse.”
He is lamenting, as most of us are, the death of newspaper book sections in particular, but more central, “legitimate” literary reviews in general. I agree with his sentiment and maybe even his statement.
There are a lot of book blogs out there. Even in the small sub-category of Canadian Book Blogs By Readers there are seemingly endless choices. It’s easy and fun to read and review books and most of us do it. But how does this add to the literary or publishing ecosystem? I am absolutely guilty of talking more than I listen – I write reviews as if anyone might care, but I actually tend not to read blogs which simply review books. Maybe this reflects my own interest, but I tend more towards blogs which provide “original content” in the form of essays and analysis rather than reviews or links elsewhere. Where I do read reviews, shamefully, it tends to be to compare that reader’s thoughts to my own on books I have already read, rather than to evaluate a book for potential future purchase.
It isn’t that I don’t read reviews elsewhere either. I am a fanatic reader of the TLS and frequently order books I have seen covered there. Why should a book blog review be any different?
But it is different. Bachmann is quite right – though a few comments to a blog post might constitute a very limited dialogue, this is nothing compared to the edifying and influential exchanges that occur through the TLS’s (or NYRB‘s) letters pages. There’s a certain feeling of witnessing cultural formation before your eyes that you get from a “legitimate” source that feels lacking in blogs. The conversation is too, to use Bachmann’s word, “diffuse”. While this allows for wider coverage, it also pulls the conversation apart into disparate, self-selecting pieces. Do writers Google themselves to see which blogs have reviewed them? Do they care? Would they respond to criticism? Will anyone defend or contradict them?
What do we provide here? I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are either book bloggers themselves, or else publicists. We’re people on the production, rather than purchasing, end. Are we capable of reaching a wider public? Do we help? Publicists are certainly betting that we will – there’s a real upswing in promo copies going out to bloggers I’d reckon. Whether this is speculation on the publishers’ part or if they have data to confirm that our special form of word-of-mouth actually translates into sales, I don’t know.
A suspect there’s a benefit to our coverage of small releases, based on my own limited data. Publicists – take note! My review of Frank Newfeld’s Drawing on Type is one of my most-viewed reviews, and certainly one of the most searched reviews. That is to say, people search for “Frank Newfeld” or “Drawing on Type” and find my review. On the other hand, my review of Val Ross’s Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic has been viewed three times as many times, but almost never because someone was actually searching for “Val Ross”, “Robertson Davies” or anything that might actually suggest this book. So my review of Drawing on Type was probably more effective, from a publicity standpoint, than was my review of Robertson Davies. This is probably because very few “big” reviews were out there, and my limited contribution was all that could be found.
This does not, however, suggest that small press publishing benefits from the bloggosphere. We’re still talking about tiny numbers, and no conversation. My review, after all, was not especially flattering. Where’s the rebuttal? I have been debateably harmful to Porcupine’s Quills’s sales. This is not a healthy literary ecosystem.
But these are my limited numbers. Perhaps some of you have had different experiences? Do you read reviews online? Do they make a difference to you? Do we render a valuable service or a poor replacement?