Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.
Mark Athitakis has a writeup of a question-and-answer session he took part in at a recent conference for book reviewers. It makes for very interesting reading — because as much as I dread and agonize over writing book reviews myself, I love to read them. To me, book reviews are a writing genre unto themselves, and well-written ones give me the same pleasure I get from reading a beautifully constructed essay. Also, Athitakis has a decidedly broad-minded, welcoming attitude toward the many changes we’ve seen over the last decade or so in the world of book reviews (e.g., who writes them, what venues they appear in), and I like that.
Here, for example, is what he has to say about blogger book reviews versus reviews written by professional reviewers in prestigious venues:
Have blogs become a significant factor in book reviewing? Do they bring a different element to the equation?
One great thing that blogs have done is removed the Olympian tone of the traditional book review—bloggers are freer to write personally and passionately, play with style, and agitate for better coverage of topics that mainstream outlets ignore. Any book blog that lasts for a while is a reflection of the enthusiasm somebody brings to it—because they’re more likely than not writing for free they’re doing it because they care about books. In the past decade more book review outlets have recognized this and brought bloggers into their ranks. It’s practically axiomatic that the next generation of book critics who’ll write for LRB, NYRB, Harper’s, etc, on a regular basis will be people who started writing about books on a blog.
How is critique in the press by an experienced journalist/book reviewer still important?
Experienced reviewers have a long view on things—they’re less likely to be suckered into thinking something is original, and in turn they can keep readers from being suckered themselves. Experienced reviewers can not only say that a book succeeds or fails, but can articulate the reasons why something succeeds or fails. Experienced reviewers know how to write for a general audience in a way a blogger may not. Experienced reviewers may have a better sense of what’s fair game in a review (style, tone, accuracy) and what’s not (size of advance, cover design). Experienced reviewers have a recognizable name against which you can bounce your own preferences and biases. That’s not to say that online reviewers and bloggers lack those things. But outlets that publish experienced reviewers are explicitly looking for those skills.