Where the conversation has been: money
The conversation about blogging and print book reviews has been pretty nasty and pretty limited until recently. It’s also been largely about money. But money is really somewhat lazy shorthand for the broader problem of interest. In short, we hope that a book reviewer is intellectually interested in the book she reviews but we expect that she has no financial interest in the book’s success. But there is no one channel that guarantees ethical writerly behavior.
There’s a long history to this: English aristocrats once argued that only they could write freely for they did not need the profits that publication might bring; in the eighteenth-century, women--often widows or abandoned and abused wives with children to support--began writing best-sellers and their financial success led some men to link writing with prostitution. When Virginia Woolf began publishing, a century ago, anonymous reviewing was thought to be the best guarantee of a disinterested review. So, even though her lead reviews for the TLS were paid double the usual fee (she was the only contributor with this privilege), they were all anonymous publications. At the same time, her real greatness as a novelist began when she left the publishing house run by her half-brother and, with her husband, started her own press. Yet no one would call Woolf an amateur or Mrs. Dalloway a vanity publication.
No reviewer--salaried, freelance, or unpaid--is immune from the accusation that her opinion has been swayed. Each writer’s position--salaried, freelance, or unpaid--is subject to influence. Each responsible one of us works in our own way to guard against unethical reviewing. That means that, in the Times and The New Yorker, notices of books by staff members are treated differently from notices of books by others. And most of us note how a book came to our attention when we blog about it. But that does not mean that there is a level playing field. It helps to be a staff writer at The New Yorker or to be the good friend of an influential blogger. It should help. Don’t get me wrong: I like it when I earn money from my writing. I am not averse to money. And I think that we should try to find ways to make money from what we love to do. This, for me, is partly a feminist issue: as Woolf said, “money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”
Still, I’d like to shift the conversation from money, interest, and ethics to something else: what can blogging do that is different from other media?
I have a list of six things that I think blogging is particularly well-suited for:
- Bloggers can cultivate a niche audience in a way that a newspaper cannot and should not. We can disparage, ignore, or boom whole segments of the book market at will.
- Passionate readers are always in search of new voices. There is a very high bar to publishing a book; there is no bar at all to setting up a blog. The bar to journalism lies somewhere in between. Blogging brings us immediate access to new voices before they have to work their way through the fraught path to publication. And blogging can even help persuade a skittish publisher that an unfamiliar voice is, in fact, one that people want to hear.
- Blogging adds to the tipping point effect. Partly because the blogs I like have such distinctive voices, a recommendation from a favorite blog carries the weight of a recommendation from a friend. Furthermore, blogging is a new channel for this kind of information. A book that’s been blogged about, reviewed in a paper, noted in a magazine, featured on NPR, and then has a little hand-written tag hanging off it in my local bookstore is one that I just might remember and buy.
- Overcoming the problem of time: This is something blogging has not entirely solved. Nonetheless, blogs can return to a novel, can write about something that was published years or centuries ago, and can group novels together. In short, bloggers are not bound by journalistic definitions of news.
Finally, I’ll mention the two things that blogging most does for me:
- Blogs work as notebooks with feedback. As I think about what my next book will be, I use my blog to test out miniature versions of my ideas. Unlike a notebook, where the ideas might remain inchoate for years, blogging forces me to cast notions for an audience from the beginning. Plus, I can judge, by the comments I get--or don’t get--something of what the reaction of future readers might be.
- Blogging builds community. I started blogging when I moved to New York three years ago. I’d often regretted not coming to New York and doing the publishing thing in my twenties; I’d often regretted never having lived in New York. Suddenly, in my late-thirties, my husband and I had two jobs in Manhattan. We also had a big dog and a small child. My life, commuting to Columbus Circle from a dingy apartment in Jersey City, just didn’t have that glamour that I had dreamed about. But, somehow, writing a couple entries a week on my blog and trying to include there some notes on the literary world I was in made up for that. Then, too, Projects like 400 Windmills--in which Bud gathered a small group of us to read Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote--or The LitBlog Co-op, have brought me into conversation with dozens of other bloggers and common readers.
Book reviewing and talk about books is not a zero-sum game: I want more of it even as I cannot keep up with what I already know about, have bookmarked, and subscribe to. Bud is the visionary on this issue and you should really ask him for more of his thoughts. Where I want the conversation to go is this: What else might blogging do? How can blogs and newspapers work together to make our talk about books richer and more exciting?