I thought after the recent "maggot" entry at the Critical Mass blog, there would be no more need for discussion of the lit blogs vs newspaper reviewers conflict. I mean really, did we need to go any lower than this:
Seriously, though, blogs are kind of like parasitic microorganisms which feed off of a primary host. For the sake of this discussion, the host is clearly print media. Some are the good bacteria and some are transient and viral. Or maybe I can upgrade blogs to the status of some sort of interstitial or synovial fluid, buffering the vital organs of the media (newspaper, television, radio, the Internet)? But, c'mon, if newspapers are dying, then blogs are the maggots come to feast upon their corpses.
I was both annoyed and puzzled over why the NBCC would post something like that. But then the comments started rolling in where several people asked just why such an inflammatory post was allowed and this is what Rebecca Skloot, Critical Mass webmistress, had to say:
The NBCC actually doesn't invite anyone to post here. Several posts are sent unsolicited. Many are invited by one individual blogger or another, but the rest of the blogging committee generally doesn't know who's posting what until we read it on the blog like everyone else. Regardless of who posts, what they say, or who invited them, there truly is no connection between any statements on this blog and the NBCC as an organization (or even all the bloggers who post here).
I understand it's easy to make the assumption that posts here somehow represent the NBCC or all Critical Mass bloggers, but that's simply not the case (which is why I'm constantly posting comments reminding people otherwise).
There is a disclaimer posted on the site to this effect (a standard "the posts don't reflect NBCC blah blah blah") but really - I was just floored by this. On a site that proudly bills itself as "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors", includes a button for donations to the NBCC and is pretty much the center point for the whole NBCC launched "Campaign to Save Book Reviewing", what we find out is that really - any post from anyone can show up here.
This makes no sense to me.
I'm not associated with any industry organization that carries the level of prestige that the NBCC does in the publishing world, and yet I don't let anyone send in an unsolicited post to my little site and blindly post it without any concern for its content. And yes, I understand that Critical Mass is a group blog, but I don't see why that makes a difference. In fact to me that just means that the group should be more careful about what their standards and mission are before they let posts go out the door. It seems very irresponsible and dangerously close to high school to say that yes, we are all members of the NBCC, we created this blog to post about "...literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related," but we have no control over what shows up here and if somebody decides to refer to other folks as maggots, well, really -
Shit happens. (Oh - I was corrected in the comments at CM that Shannon Byrne who wrote that lovely post didn't refer to anyone as a maggot. That's right, she referred to blogs as maggots. I guess bloggers are...mothers of maggots?)
For the record, it was Jane Ciabattari who is listed as the person who posted Byrne's rant. She is VP of Membership for the NBCC. I don't know if it should bother me more that she read Byrne's post and put it up anyway or posted it without reading. Either way, it seems that by posting there has to be some level of NBCC approval for Byrne's thoughts, and to suggest otherwise is really a bit silly at this point.
In an attempt to clear the air, Rebecca Skloot posted on Friday just how Critical Mass works:
To clarify some confusion. I get many angry emails from readers about some post or another on the blog. Those emails and many comments on the blog make it clear, people believe things posted here represent the views of the NBCC, and every blogger who posts here. That's simply not true. As it says on the left margin of the blog (and as I've posted in many comments), all opinions posted here belong to each individual post's author. They're not those of the NBCC or the Critical Mass bloggers as a whole.
Readers often assume that each poster has been chosen and vetted by the NBCC or its board to represent its views. Not true: The NBCC doesn't invite anyone to post here. Some posts are unsolicited. Many are invited by one individual blogger or another, but the rest of the blogging committee (myself included) often doesn't know who's posting what until we read it on the blog like everyone else.
The NBCC is a large organization with lots of opinions. This blog is simply a venue for many of those opinions, and the opinions of others in the industry.
So there you go. Anyone can post at Critical Mass, as long as they know someone who knows someone. And the NBCC takes no responsibility for what shows up. But that just isn't good enough for me - and it doesn't explain the many other posts and interviews that have shown up at Critical Mass that always seem to drag the competition between newspaper book reviews and lit blogs into the conversation. To wit:
In the Q&A with fiction writer Sheila Kohler we have this lovely exchange:
Q. Does your work get reviewed/discussed much on literary blogs? If so, how do those reviews compare with print reviews of your books?
A.Occasionally someone may mention my books in a blog. I believe the dangers of this indiscriminate reporting on books is that people who have no knowledge of literature can air their views as though they were of value and may influence readers. Critics may not always be right, of course, but at least they have read and studied literature, the great books, and have some outside knowledge to refer to when critiquing our work.
We also have Howard Zinn being asked about newspapers pointing to the web for reviews, Adam Hothschild saying young reviewers need newspapers to break into the business (as opposed to "Personal blogs, unedited Wikipedia entries and MySpace pages..."), Gayle Brandeis explaining that online reviews make her read books less (?) and book editor Karen Long saying that "...a number of bloggers are borderline gleeful..." over the demise of newspapers and helpfully pointing out that the Book Babes "will never be in a position to tell you, as Kathy Englehart did two weeks ago, which children's books to read with your kids before visiting the Monet exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art.â€�
Gee Karen, thanks for that tip. I'm sure the Book Babes are where I would have started for recommendations on just that subject.
What's missing in all these nicely written, artfully composed messages about the romance of ink stained fingers, breakfast with the book review section of the paper and the lure of reading newspaper reviews in the tub (and yes - that's all to be found at Critical Mass) is any decent, inciteful, meaningful discussion on the many many many other ways in which discussions about books are taking place in America.
I mean really - you don't need a computer to get a subscription to Tin House. Why isn't anybody asking these authors about reviews in places other than the internet?
There was a good post at Critical Mass on this subject last week - the first post I have seen there on literary magazines (or other non newspaper but still print reviews). Subscriptions to literary magazines are not expensive and in fact much cheaper than the newspaper (if you want to make that comparison). And there are literary magazines for all kinds of people - people who love sports, people looking for regional work, people more interested in interviews then fiction, and on and on. The one thing they pretty much all have in common is enormously healthy and well written book review sections.
And lots of people do read them - even people who don't have MFAs.
Beyond the lit mags though, there are a ton of general interest magazines that review books and they haven't entered into the big discussion on reviewing at all. You have Outside, Vanity Fair, O (of course), Smithsonian, The New Yorker and on and on. Even Vogue and Elle include book reviews and please - don't anyone get on their high horse about what kind of books are included in certain magazines. Do they tailor to their readership? Yes- of course. But honestly, you would be hard pressed to find the kind of nonfiction converage for adventure and exploration titles that Outside does over at the NYT. And both Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm (which were huge bestsellers) originated at that magazine as articles (just to name a few).
In other words - you don't have to get ink on your fingers to find great book discussions.
All of these publications are writing about books because they are generating ad revenue that allows them to cover reviews and literary discussions. They have found a financial plan that includes book reviewing. Clearly, newspapers are struggling with this. I just don't understand why instead of signing petitions (which sound good but I don't think are all that powerful) and running endless repetitive posts from authors saying that book reviews matter (at this point it's almost like writing "puppies are cute" - who are the anti book review people?), why doesn't the NBCC, in its position as the professional group so deeply affected by newspaper cutbacks, organize some roundtable discussions between newspapers, publishers, industry insiders, etc and try to come up with a model that would allow the book review sections to generate some more income? Movie reviews run because movie ads pay for them. Why not look into some concrete ways to get book reviews paying for themselves? Has there been any real discussion on this subject - any attempt to recognize the financial truth behind the decisions to reduce or cancel the book sections?
Has it all just been the yelling?
If the thing that matters is increasing literacy in America then why isn't everyone trying to come up ways to deal with that issue instead of wasting time ticking off the very people who are out there reading their hearts out (that would be the lit bloggers). Why, for example, would a newspaper reviewer like Richard Schickel take up his valuable space at the LA Times (and the Times even run this) by railing against lit bloggers? Does this sort of thing help anyone? Here's Mr. Schickel's thoughts on lit bloggers:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism â€” and its humble cousin, reviewing â€” is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object).
(I also like the part later where he compares blogging to finger-painting. Boy that was mature.)
Do the newspaper book reviewers and book editors in this country really want to keep books as an important part of American culture? If so then shut up about about those of us who write about books on the internet and get to work. Find a way to make reviewing last in your medium and do it without bashing anyone else. And while you're at - take some responsibility for the mess that has already been created in this strange little war that everyone says they didn't start, but can't seem to find any way to stop. If you don't like what a lit blog reviewer has to say, then single that person out by name and quote them - that's what the lit bloggers do if they don't agree with a newspaper review. Don't blanket every single person who writes online in the same sad stupid generalized statements. Don't let mysterious people sneak onto your blog and write nasty rants you claim you can't control. Don't keep making it a direct comparison between newspapers and the internet, as if one group is purposely pushing the other aside. And don't keep pointing to the computer as the bad "what if" possibility. It's not just the internet or newspapers that keep discussion of books alive - not by a long shot. Get over yourselves folks, and see the big picture. Some of us out here are trying to promote reading and books everyday - in whatever capacity we can. And for the record, most of us in the lit blogosphere are not just online - we are all writing about books in print as well.
Can you imagine?
Do the work people, and please stop wasting time on saying/writing/implying you're better. That's not what literacy discussions should ever be about, and it really needs to end now.