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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.�

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 — and its humble cousin, reviewing — 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.

comments

A few random comments:

I agree with you 100 percent.

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd say that nonbloggers are using Critical Mass to prove by example what is "wrong" with blogging -- look what happens when anyone can post! look what happens without editorial control! And somewhere, someone who thinks themselves very smart is laughing as they say, "I guess the bloggers don't like it when it's used against them; this is exactly why we say blogs are no good, don't you get it now?"

What surprises me is any business model based soley on "blast the competition." Especially when (at least for the majority of bloggers I know) "the competition" is actually the customer; in other words, bloggers read and enjoy and want print reviews (and longer critical essays of the books they like).

Chris

Richard Schickel's article is why I dislike most literary critics. It is pretentious without the necessary evaluation of the merit of other media; I very much doubt that he's read any literary blogs. None of the ones I read are dashed off with no regard to the holistic nature of literature. There is a great deal of intelligent dialogue and discussion created: they're called comments.

Schickel's ideas for what reviewing ought be exist all over the internet. Why is it necessary to have an MFA to be taken seriously as a critic? Why is the quality control manager mocked (without citation) for producing 95 reviews in a year?

I also find it interesting that he used Orwell as an example of how to critique as Schickel claims that reviewing is the last bastion of the elite but Orwell was very much an every man. He cared very much about the power of the written word and how words shaped thoughts but I have a feeling that had they lived in the same era Mr Schickel would have looked down upon Orwell's humble roots.

"And all three wrote for intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind. We do not — maybe I ought to make that "should not" — read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity."

Apparently writing to confirm one's own prejudices and stupidity is ok.

I guess that makes us flies, or something peskier/pestier... mosquitos?

xoLaurel Snyder
http://kidliterary.blogspot.com/

Colleen, I don't get the whole "maggots"/NBCC/ooh-those-aren't-our-opinions thing, either. It doesn't make sense.

I can't help thinking that many of the blog bad-mouthers are just not that familiar with blogs. Look at the hundreds of books that the kidlitosphere alone has talked about in the last year.

Yeesh.

Just . . . yeesh.

I know that's terribly inarticulate, but I just have to read this again and let all the nastiness sink in.

Great post. Thanks, as always, for your considerate responses.

I definitely think that no one is paying attention to the kitlit bloggers in all this because those books are reviewed so little in the newspapers compared to adult titles and get a huge exposure on the internet. (On the Edge of the Forest is a perfect example of what all literary folks should be supporting as spreading literacy.)

And yes Chris - Schickel is most certainly fighting an elitest campaign here. I can only assume that is how he sees himself personally - and reviewing is just an extension of his ego.

I'm interested to see if the NBCC bloggers will say anything over at Critical Mass after the recent comments concerning the "maggot" entry. It seems like someone on that board of directors must be thinking they should readdress how to handle the blog....at least I hope one of them is thinking that.

Wow! Thanks, Colleen, for wrapping all of this up. My favorite part was "people who have no knowledge of literature can air their views as though they were of value and may influence readers." As though they were of value??? Good grief. Who are these people? I need to think about it all some more, too, but I can't tell you how much I appreciate the articulate way in which you stand up for all of us.

"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."

Oh, WOW. Don't worry if critics aren't right - as long as they have the right class/educational background, etc., to be appropriately elite, non-instinctive and properly respectful of our 'cultural objects,' it's all good. As long as what they type, they ...print on paper?

Okay. Going to go finger paint now.

So what is the bottom line? Bloggers should be outlawed or not allowed to write about books? No one should read litblogs because you might get bad information about a book?

So what if I do "dash off" my thoughts about a book, and I sometimes do (I'm a mom and a teacher and life calls); if my thoughts or reviews or whatever are no good, people will ignore them. If the thoughts are helpful, people will keep reading. If I help someone find a good book, I'm doing them a service. If I steer them away from a book I consider poor in quality, I'm also doing them a service. If I'm wrong, in this democratic, not elitist, world, readers will find out.

You guys all crack me up...I do hope you will keep us posted on how that finger painting turns out Tad Mack..


You are a genius, Colleen.

What gets me about all aspects of the print-v.-litblogs controversy is that many of the anti-blog opinionators seem to have the impression that bloggers are a separate breed of people. Most litbloggers of both the kid and adult variety have something to do with literature--reading it, writing it, selling it, librarying it--in the rest of our lives. And last time I checked, there was no formal degree requirement for print reviewing, so it's not like there's some halo of qualified-ness about those who write for the papers.

Who on earth do these anti-blog writers think *writes* litblogs? Mysterious blog people who crawl out from under rocks, write slapdash hit-and-run reviews, and then return to the slime from which they/we emerged?

I'm a librarian, I write reviews for a "real" library review organization, and Ich bin ein litblogger!

That publicist at Little, Brown could help printed book reviews by BUYING A FUCKING AD. Pardon my language, but it's not want of ink that's killing newspapers. It's publishers reluctance to pay for that ink.

And then there are bookstores, both independent and chains, those self-important, cheap bastards who bark endlessly when their lit'rahry events aren't posted in the book review section. Why wasn't author so-and-so's event listed? And you spelled her name wrong, and ...

Never mind that the book section has to pay a secretary, er, editorial assistant to type in those "free" listings, and they take up valuable space, and few people read such tiny print anyway. If newspapers charged for them, they might be able to afford a few more pages of ... get this ... book reviews!

Imagine.

But really, it comes down to the publishers. The WSJ did a big article on where their marketing dollars are going. They're spending it on in-store displays at the chains. Huh. Sound a bit circular? Publishing money goes to the chains, which goes back to the publisher. Not to the newspapers. Not to bloggers.

Maybe Ms. Little, Brown publicist ought to read the newspapers she hopes to save. She might learn something.

I really do think there is a huge misconception about who lit bloggers are and it comes from people never looking at a literary blog. We are librarians, booksellers, writers, book reviewers (in print publications) and on and on and on. That's part of what bugs me about this - it's so easy to make general comments but ask these folks to specifically name a blogger and they rarely do it - they just don't know any.

And Anne - you said it all way better than I could. You rock!

Hey Colleen,
Maggots unite! I guess my thought on reading this is, why do we keep talking about this? I find it annoying that people continue to write about bloggers as if they are the poor hopeless wannabes that know nothing, too. But is it worth spending our time lamenting this fact? I think we can grieve it a little and rant a lot, but in the end, it won't change how these individuals feel. The only way to influence these dissenters is to continue to practice high-quality blogging and continue being a force in the universe. Just think about how many things have been impacted by this community of maggots already. It blows the mind! We can be agents for change by showing, not telling, the world that we do have something worth saying.

This "debate" is too funny. First amendment freedoms are pesky nuisances to those who want to retain their elite status. Blogging has just given another thumbs up to our constitutional rights to freedom of speech, press, and even assembly. Down with the tyranny of "literary" book reviewers in newsprint. Bring on the blog reviews from the masses.

(And of course I recognize that bloggers writing book reviews are often educated, highly literate, and sophisticated readers. Which just makes the objection more ludicrous.)

(Oh, and some of us write book reviews for both newspapers and blogs. What are we?-maggots eating ourselves?)

hope

Colleen,

you mention that newspaper book review sections fail because no one is buying ads in them. i've never bought a book in my life as the result of an ad in a newspaper. have you? i don't think print ads in newspapers sell books. i doubt the publishing world wants to support print reviews out of charity and admiration for the print reveiwers' superiority.

do you think print ads sell books? do you know of any marketing that works? i know there are a few book trailers out there, but. . . book advertising is so low key relative to all of the other ads we are bombarded with. why is that? are publishers just lame at marketing? if they were going to do better, how could they?

I have bought books based on print ads Hope - of course I found a copy of the book and looked it over first to make sure, but I have sought them out due to the ad. They were generally either new books from favorite authors or books on a subject I was very interested in - either way the ad made me aware the book was out there.

I worked in an independent bookstore in AK for two years and we ran ads every single time we had an event in the store. Every reading, every signing, every time there was a new release we thought folks would want to know about, we bought an ad and ran it in the same place in the local newspaper. It was a way to easily reach out to readers. As the people in Fairbanks have a big interest in books on Alaska, the ads were especially successful when we ran them about new Alaska books.

I agree that publishers do not want to support print reviews out of charity, but reviews will sell books - especially reviews in the local newspaper. (I know this was definitely the case in Fairbanks.) I'm sure that publishers want reviews to remain in newspapers - they might not always feel that way but they still do now. All I'm asking, is whether anyone has asked all the interested parties to sit down and discuss the situation and maybe form a new solution rather than reducing or removing book review sections.

Lindsey:

I hope I'm not just lamenting the fact that some folks dislike bloggers - in this post I was trying to convey some bizarre truths about the NBCC Board of Directors blog and how it is constructed and also ask if anyone in print reviewing has considered trying to work with newspaper mgmt to solve the problem. I don't intend to just whine about it all, and I hope that I have said a few constructive things.

And Saipanwriter I have wondered the same thing about bloggers who review in print. I never thought of maggots eating themselves - but maybe you are on to something there! ha!

Colleen,
I see what you mean. It sounds like you are saying your article is providing information. I just noticed that many of the commenting readers were getting worked up and angry. What I was trying to convey was maybe that anger should be used in more productive ways--to create change. Just getting angry never creates change without action.

Well that maggot entry just gets everyone - believe me! ha!

And keep in mind that since I sort of straddle the adult/children lit blogospheres, lots of kidlit bloggers are really only hearing about this for the first time here; so you're reading their intitial frustration on the whole deal.

I do want to see something constructive done - I know what I'm trying to do, and I'm going to update in a couple of days on what I'm seeing other lit bloggers do. None of this is in conjunction with anyone else - they are just independent examples of good work to spread the love of reading.

And that I think is what you are saying we all should be doing anyway!

Thanks for posting Lindsey - and hanging in there when things got bumpy!

I'm going to throw my 2 cents in here.

I think I'd put money on a lot of the most rabbid blog bashers not reading blogs with any frequency. There are a lot of really good lit blogs out there, with insightful critisizm as well as opinions, but I'm betting that many of the complainers don't read them. I'm not sure why some authors seem to think that reviews cause people not to read their books (that's more baffling to me) since they have no emperical way of measuring what turns people away (measuring what attracts is a bit easier).

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