Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Writer Impossible: Blogosphere Book Reviews

Another late night. Time to peruse book reviews written by bloggers. I've found a mixed bag. Mostly what I've seen are people confusing a critique, an opinion (usually a recommendation), and a report. I know, I'm quibbling. But there is a difference. Especially since everything on the blogosphere is seen as a review.

Most of the books covered by bloggers are recommendations. Someone likes a book so they pass it along. They aren't critical, indeed have no reason to be --but they are enthusiastic and they want you to know about the book. Since people spend more time on blogs than they do reading newspaper book review sections (which are a dying species), and since printed literary journals are fighting for their existence, what bloggers do to promote reading can't be underestimated. I think new writers who don't become conversant in blogging are missing out.

There are a lot of bloggers who confuse a review with a book report. They break down the plot, beginning middle and end. In other words, they give it away. They're less successful identifying themes or conveying what the author was trying to do, and point out how he was or wasn't successful. In these I've found the one thing lacking is clarity of prose. The review goes on and on. They have a difficult time identifying what they're responding to and why. To them I say, go with the old art school critique:

"I'm responding to this piece because..." or "I identified with this because..."

You don't have to tell us the answers verbatim, but it helps if you know the source of your opinion.

Interestingly, I found more positive notices than negative. It seems that bloggers are less comfortable writing about what they're indifferent to, which can put a blogger in an awkward spot if they've hounded the author for an ARC. I've heard more stories from authors when a blogger befriends an author and requests one. The blogger announces to the blogosphere they've gotten it. They read it and say absolutely nothing. The author is waiting, their blogger buddies are waiting. Sensing a breach in blogosphere friendliness, the blogger offers something terse: "A noble first effort. The author really had a good time writing this."
To these bloggers I say, heed John Updike's advice:

"Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like."
And then there are a very rare breed of bloggers who feel they are standard bearers. The world must be held to their view of how things should work. Dutifully, they will break apart the book, tell you every single perceived fault, then pull out the bully club and give it one final swat by saying something like, "by the way, I found out that only a handful turned out for his reading in Sparta GA." Perhaps they're not answering the question posed above: "I'm responding this way because...."

I consider my articles about books to be recommendations (opinions). I write about what I like. I put in the url so that you can look it up and order it. That it's commercial can't be denied. Believe me, I read many books that I don't care for, but I don't write about those. Writing about something you hate and doing it intelligently is far more difficult that espousing the virtues of an author or book. True criticism is a lot more than whether or not you like something. To those pros who can do this, my hat is off to them. Maybe someday, when I can control my inner snark, I'll toss my critical words into the Mixmaster as well.

Anyway, the blogosphere has changed everything. Recently I submitted a recommendation. When it came time for me to categorize it, I chose "opinion." The editor wrote me back... "your piece was a review." I responded, "No, it was a recommendation." Same cat, different breed. I guess I'll have to learn to meow better.

The above article was first published on