05 May

The fate of today’s book bloggers

A book blogger wonders out loud about personality, versus the stars and professional voice system, that they view as something that can blend into similar sounding reviews:

“I was having a small moan (only a small one) that book blogging seemed to be becoming more and more samey, not just in terms of the same new books being mentioned but also in terms of tone. Where has the distinction and individuality gone? It seems to have all become very polite, unless it’s some nasty person endlessly posting bile, and professional lately.”

(Via Sarcasm & Stars; The Lowest Form of Reviewing? | Savidge Reads.)

That dichotomy of acid or professional is worth exploring for institutional self knowledge to me, because it reminds me of a stage writers of fiction often go through.

I think there are two dangers from repeatedly reviewing (or reading critically) a lot of books. And, as I said, it’s a danger that we writers also face (heck, struggle with, as well).

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.

Secondly, and you see this with a lot of artists, is that they begin to gravitate toward something that feels new to them. They seek out ‘artist’s artists’ and are not happy when those voices aren’t welcomed by the mainstream, because these are stories aimed at people who’ve simply consumed a terrific amount of fiction to be able to enjoy the work.

2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.

What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.

I think it’s probably a sign of a maturation of book blogging. I’m seeing a lot of book blogs that I used to have bookmarked went and folded up shop. I imagine that was as a result of hitting a certain threshold of either of the two points I relayed, and not seeing a way through. Book bloggers are doing it for the love, they’re not making mad money. They’re enthusiastic spreaders of the word.

So what happens when a lot of that joy fades? Do they continue on momentum? Look to monetize the blog? Focus only on the books that they love, and risk losing the audience and community they created (because they’re interested in artist’s artists, or decrying the lack of originality, while readers who enjoy the books being decried decamp)? Get bitter and throw some bombs, which will certainly create debate and energy, but can also create pushback and enough argumentation that they get tired of the fighting about stuff (unless they’re trollish in nature, in which case they feed off the acid and you’ll always have that)?

I’d be curious to see what long-term professional reviewers think about this stage. As an author you hit this stage, and you often see new writers hitting it. As they accumulate enough writing craft and books read, they pass through a great deal of 1 and 2. And it’s hard to talk someone down in the middle of that.

For myself, I do some things to help blunt the impact of reading so much. I read outside of my genre a lot, to prevent burn out. I also revisit books that I remember fondly. With my new lenses, I usually am able to recover what fired me up about those books, while also being able to see their flaws. For some, that destroys the magic of it all, but for me it reminds that I’m the one who changed, not the book. If the book that made me want to write doesn’t read so well now, the words haven’t changed… but I have. That lets me know that other books I feel the same way about right now need to be more objectively examined.

Over time, I’ve been able to move back into a place where I can focus on what works about a book, and focus less on what doesn’t. Author C.C. Finlay has a quote he uses that runs something like: “A novel doesn’t excite readers because you took all the bad stuff out of it, it excites them because of all the good stuff that’s in it, regardless of the bad.”

At a workshop not too many years ago a newer writer began to condemn a best selling novel, pointing out all its flaws and jagged edges. I listened for a long time, nodding.

“All those things are true,” I said. And gave him the C.C. Finlay quote. “But until you learn what the good parts were that excited the reader, you’re always going to be bitterly upset about what is wrong with that bestseller. Learn to spot what worked in that book, and you’ll be able to move forward. And you’ll be a lot less upset all the time as well.”

It was true for me. I don’t know if it helps reviewers, but it was essential to navigating my changing personal aesthetics as I continue to read a great deal.

I think book blogging is new enough that a lot of people are finding their way through some of the same issues I’ve seen over the last 15 years with writers (because, lets face it, blogging *is* writing, some of the lessons are transferrable). Writers have been lucky to have other writers a generation ahead passing knowledge back on down, but bloggers are going through it alone, it’s all new.

I have to say I’m looking forward to what happens when book bloggers like Savidge and others move through this period (if it is a period many are going through as a whole).