litblogging and the future of reviewing

Book reviews — or, more generally, books pages — are disappearing from the newspapers. The process is more advanced in the US; here, if you want a vision of the future, take note of the increasing anorexia of the Saturday Age. Yes, the Oz has ALR as well as its own reviews but it’s hard to imagine the ALR experiment continuing once its external sponsorship lapses. As for News Corp generally, well, its profits on newspapers fell 40 per cent in the last year; expect to see the knives out soon. The newspaper format is in crisis and, when it comes to cost cutting, pages dedicated to books are an obvious target since, by and large, they don’t generate much advertising revenue (the publishing industry is scarcely cashed up at the moment).

Now, literary optimists have responded by suggesting that the gap will be filled by the growing number of lit blogs. Here’s a representative version of that argument:

I can never muster any significant sympathy for this decline. I don’t read any of the newspaper book reviews except for The Guardian. I’ve never tried the Globe & Mail’s, except for one lame mystery round-up. Literary journals I can get behind, sob over, picket at corporate towers, you name it, I would probably do it. Newspaper coverage? Not so much. The sort of reviewing they offer doesn’t interest me. Bloggers pretty much have me covered with the synopsis + concise commentary reviews, the book round-ups, even the casual mention of what’s on their bedside table. With the diversity of books covered among them all, and the wide taste of some readers, I can read their thoughts on romances, fantasies, mystery and literary fiction, all in one place. What’s left? Author profiles and gossip. Hmm. I could live without those.

Of course, in some ways, the industry will transition from newspapers to blogs without skipping a beat. It’s already happening, in fact. As well as sending out new titles to the main papers, these days publicists also include the main blogs in their lists.

But the familiarity of the process disguises how fundamental the change really is. That is, the point about a newspaper (at least in the Australian context) is that it orients to a broad readership. A newspaper derives its authority from the presumption that its absorbed by the community as a whole. It is an organ of the public sphere, addressing itself (in theory, at least) to populace in its entirety. The various supplements (arts, sports, food, etc) are skewed to special subjects — but special subjects about which  it’s assumed the ordinary reader will have some interest. The books pages were never intended to be simply for writers or publishers or literary festival goers; they were predicated on the idea that the well-rounded citizen needs to know something about the latest novel or popular history.

I think I mentioned this in an earlier post but Meg Simons, in her book The Content Makers, points out that, at their peak, newspapers in Australia really did reach just about every household in the country. But that was in the late seventies — and since then they have been in slow but steady decline. The problem for newspapers isn’t the internet per se; rather, it’s a long-term social fragmentation that makes the notion of a single public sphere increasingly problematic.

The digital revolution exacerbates that trend — or, perhaps, allows it to become more evident. The internet doesn’t relate to a single public so much as it fosters a proliferation of niches. Which is why online book reviewing is quite different from a newspaper book section. A review in a Saturday paper would traditionally reach even the non-bookish — or, at very least,alert them to the existence of a particular title. Without meaning to be too cynical, that was partly its function: to allow people to nod along to conversations about books they hadn’t read. The book section, by its very existence, reinforced the idea that literature mattered (or should matter) to the informed public, that it was more than an exotic hobby for the cognoscenti.

It’s very difficult for a blog to function in the same way. The Crikey blog network provides a good illustration. In some respects, the Crikey blogs relate to the email bulletin in the same way that the Saturday supplements relate to the daily paper: you have the core product and then you have sections relating to particular interests (sports, movies, the environment, books, etc). Yet that similarity is deceptive, precisely because the internet is so easily shaped by individual preferences. I regularly read Angela’s lively book blog. But there’s a number of the others that I don’t see at all because the subjects don’t interest me. If they were in print form, I would at least have to page through them to get to the stuff I wanted to read, a process that means, for instance, that I have a basic knowledge of AFL even though football bores me stupid. The traditional newspaper, then, is like a multi-course meal, where you can skip the soup and the dessert but you can’t help but see what others are having. The internet is a smorgasbord, where you load up the plate by yourself and, if you don’t like salad, you never have to see a lettuce leaf at all.

In many respects, the changes are all to the good. The public sphere created around the old newspaper was, in many ways, bogus. The traditional press barons were not philanthropists; it’s often been noted that the point of a newspaper was to represent a particular interest as a universal one, to turn private aspirations into the concerns of the public, and so there’s nothing to mourn about the inability of a small number of media dynasties to determine our agendas.

Nonetheless, we are still facing something fundamentally new, the ramifications of which are still becoming apparent. One suspects that even the most popular litblogs are read, almost exclusively, by book lovers. They may well do a very good job in helping those people decide which titles they want to read but it’s doubtful that they attract new readers in a way that a newspaper review might. The shift from print to the internet may then represent a turn inward, a step away from literature as a public discourse and towards literature as a private hobby.

What follows from that? To be honest, I’m not really sure. If this is a particular manifestation of a general social trend, any solution extends beyond what you or I might do on the internet. Nonetheless, at the most abstract level, the response needs to centre on the rebuilding of new forms of connectivity. If we care about writing, we need to find ways to make literature relevant to the world around us, to link the books we review to the concerns of others, and to build the litblogging readership into something more general. To mangle an old imperialist, we might ask: what do they know of literature they who only literature know? The task then, is to find ways to recapture the generalist spirit of the newspaper experience, even while using the phenomenal new technology of our times.

Mind you, that’s easier said than done.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Food for thought. Of course, I have thought hard about many of these things, Jeff. And not just how to bring forth a general reader, but to encourage blog readers to take interest in a wider sphere–reading ALR, discussing literature (and the themes and issues therein), and discussing technology (and its impacts) as well. If I had more time, I would do so much more with the blog. *sigh* It sounds odd for a litblogger to say, perhaps, but I'm frightened of the death of print media, and print reviews etc. I hope that never happens. I love ALR, ABR, and journals. And I want the general reader to pick them up and discover something. I think sometimes the general reader might come across my blog if they google a certain topic (tagging works well for that), so that's okay, but I'm sure you have a point that the committed readership are book lovers, like myself. I think, content-wise, that esotericism is fine, and even effective, but of course I'd love to inspire more people to come by and take something from it–become aware of Australian titles and authors, or interesting books, or poetry

  2. And don't forget the new Twenty-first Century Bookshow! Literature doesn't have to resort to private hobby if it's presented in ways other than text. Podcasts, etc, are also increasingly the forum for such discussion, and most of us genuinely enjoy exploring these things in forms other than the written word (around the dinner table for instance – a common hub for the review of everything ever since cavemen first turned round and placed something down on a stone slab).
    Our little show's pretty daggy, it has to be said, but as long as the discussions continue and are shared… http://twentyfirstcenturybookshow.blogspot.com/

  3. Hi Zoe,
    I meant to say, I tried to embed your show on the OL site but couldn't work out how. Maybe upload to Youtube or similar format next time?

  4. Jeff, you make many good points, particularly the thought that litbloggers are preaching to the converted: book lovers talking to other booklovers. Angela's right, creative use of tagging can bring the unsuspecting into the conversation, and if it is sufficiently engaging, they are likely to return. But that still doesn't reach a general audience in the same way that even the smallest newspaper column manages. I'd mourn the passing of book pages in our papers and wonder if engaging more actively with their content via the internet might help revitalise them.

  5. multi-nodal specialisation brings about a relative well-roundedness anyway. (i've heard that's how you review wine – say something that sounds good & also means nothing). if i had more time, i would read more reviews. or start a meaningless list-blog. but then i keep meaning to grow some vegetables in the garden out back too…

    this experience of page turning (whereby one is at least alerted to the existence of certain things in the few seconds of scansion necessary to adjudge reading a whole page or article a waste of time) is insidious. i think i read the ALR supplement like that now, just because it's an ink & paper broadsheet. (i even skimmed ivor's review, found the part where he mentioned the jerilderie letter, privately pondered whether or not he had written the article when he publicly aired this sentiment at the recent asal conference, & then turned the page. the whole thing should have interested me but it lost me.) but then it's not just newsprint – the hundreds of new blog posts coming into my feedreader each week encourages that style of reading too. it seems things are easier said (or written) than done, & so they are, prolifically. & social interaction via text increasingly encourages that 'all about me' notion. we should investigate a move towards sign-language. you should see the weeds in my backyard…

    perhaps the world around us needs to become more relevant to me. should familiarise itself with the particular dialogue i offer – sporadic, & oft esoteric – & learn to value that. seems achievable. a collective turn inwards. food for thought. i think i would start by growing pumpkins…

    sorry to ramble on. recently a friend wrote 'ramble – yawn' as a comment on my facebook status. now i figure, hey, she must have at least read my ramble to come to that conclusion. she's alert to the existence of my curiously self-centered dialogue.

  6. Another thing that's been lacking with print media's silos is that they haven't let their reviews 'go free' and become attached to any conversations that might be happening about the book online. Imagine a widget-world where any mention of a book — in a blog, on a booksellers' website, at Shelfari or Library Thing or Booktagger or Facebook or Twitter or wherever — would be able to include links to any and all reviews of it. This isn't necessarily going to save the newspapers' review pages, but think of the enormous back-catalogue of reviews that could be opened up and attached to mentions of books.

  7. You legend, Derek, I can only get pigface happening in my garden universe. Haven't worked out if I can eat it yet.

    Great post, Jeff. Ditto what Ange said about journals ( if book reviews are so important, why don't journals have more of them? Barkus is willing…)

    Also am personally noticing increased traffic when a very popular book is reviewed, which is not usually the raison d'etre of a book blog (I didn't expect that book to be such a smash either, and will not blog such books again without giving it some thought ) – in the States and the UK, their original intention was to encourage conversation around overlooked or out of print titles, or to break a rising title that might not be immediately pumped up in the papers.

    Replacing newspapers was certainly not part of bloggers' intentions in the beginning – in the states and the UK in 2004 or thereabouts, they sought to encourage newspapers to provide more stimulating and inclusive coverage of largely literary fiction (not less!), so depending on one's perspective and views of the role of literature in public discourse, that could easily have been a fairly conservative agenda. Hence, for example, Mark Sarvas' continued attacks on his local book review section (he used to run a report on it and grade each section) which led to its editor being replaced.
    A lot of this post-newspaper rumbling about echo chambers and so on is really crying after the milk was well and truly dried up and congealed, as you sensibly note. As the 21C show ladies are demonstrating, there are plenty more rivers to cross out there.
    What a great little vehicle that is too. Haz blogged it.

  8. Complex questions require thoughtful debate. First of all, reviewing means different things in different contexts. A blog may be an expressive, creative, informative response to a book. Academic criticism is probably going to remain in Journals that give academics/writers credence for their efforts including specialized publications like The London Review of Books.
    That said, some newspapers do no more than some blogs and that is, offer not much more than a marketing appraisal – a good read, or a not so worthy read. Reviewing is a middle of the road approach to reaching the general public, to hopefully inspire some intelligent debate or thoughts that ultimately help the sale of books. Some previewing masquerades as reviewing, which is not helpful for debate but it is helpful for marketing.
    Literary criticism generally, is found lurking nowhere near the sports pages and attempts an insightful, academic look at a book. With The Australian, I have noticed a decided rise in postmodern framework as the rationale in criticism. Sometimes, this is cloying because there can be biases that just overlook the basic aspects of book as entertainment, book as Art, but book as justifier of current fashions in postmodernism. I’m in the same position with a book review for an academic journal now – I feel like I’m checking off, Queer Theory (done), Post-Colonialism (done), psycho-analytic theory (done – cursory from reading Wikipedia) etc., etc., To me this is truly dismal. It is as if the qualities of imagination cannot be freed from pre-conceived frameworks which were supposed to free the critic from subjective appraisal.
    Returning to the self made blog, the main advantage of print form is the still incontrovertible fact that print, whether, preview marketing, review or criticism still holds the advantage of a misconceived sense of authority. The blog – no matter how genuinely more adventurous and thoughtful in the best of hands – is still viewed by many with great suspicion. Certainly this is my experience from tutoring older post-grad writers.
    It’s a great subject to explore but I don’t think that there are any real answers as yet.

  9. I think many people overestimate the impact that newspaper book sections had on people who were not interested in books. People who did not read book reviews (and I'm sure they were many) simply skipped over that section for years and years. I'm not sure it's any different than avoiding certain types of bookish websites today, or only occasionally visiting them.

    Home Google Pages and RSS feeds are our newspapers today, self-created and perhaps just as varied as newspaper pages (or perhaps even more varied). So I don't worry about non-bookish types not being exposed to books and reading — they'll get it in the welter of links and news that is it the internet.

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