Major market newspapers have been downsizing their book review sections for awhile now, so I don't think it came as a total shock to anyone when the Los Angeles Times announced last week that it's laying off two of its books editors and folding its stand-alone Sunday books section into its Calendar section -- presumably reducing the space for book reviews in the process. And, despite her being an excellent book review editor, I doubt that anyone felt blindsided when Connecticut's Hartford Courant laid off Carole Goldberg around the same time. The writing about writing was on the wall.
But I'll tell you what does make my jaw drop: the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs. To be sure, there are some excellent book blogs out there: Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation. The National Book Critics Circle's Critical Mass. MediaBistro's Galley Cat. Jessa Crispin's Bookslut. The Boston Globe's Off the Shelf. And, of course, the New York Times' Paper Cuts. They're all bookmarked on my computer. I read them often for news on new titles (and older ones I missed) and Q&As with authors. Many of them are also good for stories on publishing trends, which as a book publicist and editor I appreciate a great deal. But, for the most part, these blogs don't actually review books. Instead, they cover the business of books, book culture, and the world of the author. Yes, they often link to reviews--but, ironically, they're usually of the dead tree variety. The book bloggers ferret out the most interesting reviews for us and sometimes provide incredibly cogent commentary on them--but they consistently rely on print book review sections to get the conversation going. Why? And, more broadly, why don't we as readers give book reviews on blogs as much respect as book reviews in major market papers?
I'm tempted to say it's an issue of format. Blogs are, by nature, brief. They give the appearance of having been dashed off even though many bloggers (though I'd argue not enough) spend a good deal of time crafting their posts. For that reason, we tend not to assign them the same "weight" as the reviews we see in the San Francisco Chronicle or the Washington Post. But to judge a review by length alone would be a mistake. Look at the "Briefly Noted" reviews that can be found in The New Yorker each week. They typically run 125-150 words. Masters of economy, those folks -- but they're generally spot-on in terms of their assessment.
So if it isn't just a "size" thing, what is it? Well, I think book reviews on blogs -- particularly those of the Blogspot variety -- tend to be self-indulgent. Book reviewing bloggers need to move away from opinion in favor of judgment. How does the book compare to -- and fit in with -- the author's previous work? What's the book's place in the genre? The canon? Does the writer succeed in doing what he or she set out to do -- meaning, is it the book they meant it to be? Whether it's the book the blogger wanted it to be is of much less importance to me, frankly.
I'd also advise that book reviewing bloggers jettison the use of personal pronouns (yes, I've used a slew of them here; you can nail me in the comments). And for goodness sake, I wish they'd stop telling me what their father and their girlfriend -- or their father's girlfriend -- thought of the book. Also, I don't need to know how they came to possess the book -- how they borrowed it from the library, or bought it at B&N, or snagged a galley at The Strand, or got the publisher to send them a copy even though they average four hits a day. The banal back-story is of little interest.
The book, however, is. And, for that reason, a little plot summary to help me navigate, and a brief introduction to the book's main characters can go a very long way. It's book reviewing 101--not rocket science, I'll grant you--but it's important not to let the informality of the venue serve as an excuse for forgetting the basics.
I realize the intrinsic irony. If people spent less time reading (and writing) blogs, they'd have more time to read books. So, yes, it feels a little funny to be asking bloggers to review more books -- and to take more care when doing so. But I can't ignore the power of blogs to stoke the public interest, any more than I can ignore the fact that the traditional book review outlets are drying up and no one has yet determined how to save them. No, I don't believe blogs will save books -- not in their current format. But I can envision a day when blogs do for books what books have done for people: challenged us, made us think in ways we never would have.
I'll open it up to the floor now. What book blogs do you read, do they review and, if so, are the reviews as good as the ones in your daily paper?