Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Symposium: The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time

Newspaper book-review pages are going the way of the sestina and the villanelle. Is it utopian to hope that book bloggers, an unregulated bunch, can fill the cultural void? Skeptics claim blogs long ago lost their luster, back in the good old days, even though the word blog turned an impish ten years old just a few months ago.

Anecdotal Evidence and A Commonplace Blog asked a number of book bloggers to speculate about the past, present, and future of this youngest of literary genres. Their replies will be posted to Anecdotal Evidence and A Commonplace Blog over the next several days and (in most cases) cross-posted to the contributor’s own blog.

The symposiasts were asked nine questions to nudge them into reflection:

• What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

• Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

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

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

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

• 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.

• 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?

• 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?

• Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

At the end of the symposium, D.G. Myers and I will offer our own reflections on the subject, summarizing, synthesizing, and perhaps even drawing up a manifesto for bloggers–think of it as a sestina or maybe a villanelle—who wish to join us in storming the gates of literary culture.

We hope our readers will join the conversation by adding their comments, criticisms, gripes, insults, congratulations, proposals, propositions, rejections, and giggles. And we hope you look forward as much as we do to reading and discussing our symposiasts’ ideas on The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time. The first contribution, from Walter Aske of Elberry’s Ghost will be posted at Anecdotal Evidence later this morning.


Jim Murdoch said...

I don't really have the time to try and answer all the questions set here but I'd like to respond to one. For many blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey. There are, I would imagine, many amateur philatelists and hockey enthusiasts who are every bit as dedicated to their subject as the professionals are. One might argue that since they are not doing it for profit that their efforts might be regarded as purer.

No one is standing at my back when I write a book review. Yes, I get free copies sent to me by publishers but that in no way compensates me for the time I spend working on any review. Nor do I feel obliged to butter them up in order to get more free books. I treat the whole project with a degree of professionalism even though it's not my profession.

Many of the reviews I have done recently have been for others but I am also free to do any book, old or new, that takes my fancy. I have done several reviews where a book is out of print simply because books don't go off and there are plenty out there that deserve to be read and maybe just didn't get the right kind of exposure the first time round.

As for the effectiveness of book blogging, most book blogs I look at have Alexa rankings in the millions; they're being read by a handful of people. Even my blog only gets 100 visitors a day but there is a permanence to what I do, up to a point at least. Newspaper reviews are gone in a day. If you missed the paper that day then you've missed the review. As long as Blogger keeps going then my blogs will be there and if I do find out that it's going under I can always shift them to my website for archiving which I may well do anyway some day.

On the quality of the reviews, many are no better than what you get in the newspapers, a few hundred words at best, presumably pandering to the supposed limited attention spans of our readers. Others, like my own, take their time and produce thoughtful and detailed critiques. Granted these are more than some people want to read but there are those who, once their interest is piqued, do want to know more than how many stars I give it.

Much of the problem comes from the use of the word 'blog'. I don’t like it myself. I use a blogging platform because it's a convenient way of disseminating my articles but I treat what I write as a bi-weekly column in a literary journal. That publishers are sending people like me books on a regular basis does indicate an awareness of us. How many actual book sales our combined efforts generate is another matter. That I would like to know.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a copy of Black Spring to review.

Art Durkee said...

Considering how passionate folks in my part of the USA can get about hockey, I never think of anything as "just a hobby." People bring a lot to what they care passionately about; they bring all of themselves, all their life and experience, even if they can't always articulate it as cleanly or purely as many pro writers and/or academics would like them to.