Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Mark Athitakis: The Way of the Litblog

By Jane Ciabattari

NBCC member Mark Athitakis brought to our attention that literary bloggers D.G. Myers and Patrick Kurp were hosting an online symposium called “The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time.” The symposium, and his commentary below on the topics, offer valuable grist as the NBCC, at 35, contemplates the future.

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Funny: The first thing that popped into my head after I read this question was “the society column.” That’s unfair and inaccurate and diminishes what blog bloggers do, but it probably came to mind because book blogs a) occasionally speak to a small, somewhat esoteric group that shares many of the same opinions and social graces and b) because they play a largely supplemental role in the media landscape, and even within the book-reviewing landscape.

In the days before blogging, I worked as a reporter and critic at an alternative weekly that had a couple of popular “items columns”—slots for stories that were brief, perhaps good for a laugh or food for thought, but didn’t rise to the level of a full-fledged news story or feature. Plenty of newspapers have, or had, similar columns, or have recast them as blogs—think of the “news and notes” sidebars in the sports section next to the official gamers, or the “reporter’s notebook” pieces from whoever covered city hall or the statehouse. (My former employer, Washington City Paper, has transformed its news and notes column, City Desk, into a blog called City Desk—which in turn has fed the print version of the column.)

These columns are largely surplus information—interesting tidbits, but really only intended for the true aficionado of the particular subject. Book blogs often behave in a similar way. (Sorry, but I’ll be using “often” and “largely” and other self-insulating modifiers a lot in my responses. You’re asking questions about all book blogs, but that’s a big category, and they don’t all behave the same way.) Even ones that produce a lot of original content spend at least some time being responsive to stories and trends in the literary world that have been covered by the larger media outlets. If you’re dedicating yourself full-time to providing original literary content, you’re no longer running a book blog—you’re running an online literary magazine, which is a different creature.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Before I started my own book blog in January 2008, I read a lot of what I’d suppose you might call the usual suspects: The Elegant Variation, Maud Newton, the Millions, Blog of a Bookslut, the New York TimesPaper Cuts. But in terms of them being inspirations and models, I largely looked at them as models for what not to do. Not because I disliked them, but because I figured that they had already claimed their particular patches of turf, forcing me to avoid their most common habits. (No knee-jerk whining about the contents of the New York Times Book Review, I told myself; no dutiful mentions of the death of a Syrian poet I’d never read and never heard of until the obit popped up in my RSS feed.)

As I blog more, I inevitably read more blogs—partly because I learn of the bloggers who are reading me—and I’ve seen book blogs roughly break down into two types. There are those that are concerned with books as a consumer good (ie., blogs about the publishing industry, or publishing trends), and those that are concerned with books as literature, or that discuss particular books, or actually engage in criticism of them. I read and respect both, but my ambitions lean toward the latter. I got into this racket because I want to become a better reader, not because I want to better understand the publishing biz. (I got burned out on covering pop music in part because I was spending too much time learning how the sausage got made.) Though I don’t mind being aware of what’s happening with e-books and the upcoming Dan Brown novel, I really don’t have the energy or expertise to speculate on “why it matters.”

But to answer your question directly: I have a ton of admiration for Sarah Weinman, who can successfully navigate both worlds and is a sharp journalist besides. Otherwise, I tend to gravitate to the blogs that are going to teach me something I don’t know, and are engaged in thoughtful readings about books—Blographia Literaria, Conversational Reading, and A Commonplace Blog. (If that sounds obsequious, all I can say is that I wouldn’t spend time writing lengthy answers to questions from a blogger I didn’t admire.) And I still have plenty of admiration for what Sarvas, Newton, et al do as well.

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

I don’t wind up reading a lot of book reviews on book blogs, mainly because I don’t wind up coming across too many of them. (In saying this, I’m making a distinction between Blog of a Bookslut and Bookslut proper, which includes reviews and interviews; and between Conversational Reading and its associated review site The Quarterly Conversation. For what it’s worth, I find the review sites interesting, and they often introduce me to books that aren’t getting covered otherwise, but they can be frustratingly erratic in terms of quality.) I think there’s a lot of thoughtful engagement with books on blogs—a lot of quick-hit riffing and expressions of enthusiasm, and I participate in some of that myself. That has its place—I wouldn’t do it if I think it didn’t—but it isn’t a replacement for the kind of considered reviewing that appears in newspapers, magazines, and the better-financed online publications. I still believe that, overall, more interesting writing about books is in the pages of Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books than in any one blog. But there’s writing about books on blogs that’s much more clever, engaged, and surprising than what you might find in a mediocre daily newspaper or most alternative weeklies. That’s why the print-versus-blog debate is frustrating and often silly; who “wins” depends entirely on the perspective from which you approach them.

Regardless, I think it’s true that blogs are filling in gaps that those mainstream publications won’t dedicate space to. I appreciate that a lot of book blogs concentrate on areas the more established publications ignore—romance, small-press books, works in translation, etc. My only complaint is that I could do with less of the keening on those sites about how the NYT or whoever isn’t dedicating enough space and attention to your particular enthusiasm. If you know you’re doing a good thing, bellyaching about how other people aren’t doing it either just makes you look unconfident.

Blogs are also much, much better at stoking conversations about books than print reviews, even the ones that appear on comment-enabled Web sites. To perhaps overgeneralize, book reviews are declarative statements; blog posts are questions. The former puts forth a line of argument; the latter invites others to help formulate lines of argument. Or at least the better blogs do that, leaving the door open for additional commentary. Both have their place, though—there’s something to be said for reading somebody who has produced a thoughtful interpretation on something, and it can be entertaining to read somebody trying to work it out as well.

How do you respond to this statement? “Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.”

I’d say it’s just as true as this statement: “Book reviewing is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.” If we define “hobby” as an avocation pursued more out of passion than out of a need for money, book reviewing is a hobby for the overwhelming majority of people who do it. I can only imagine what would happen to the membership of an organization like the National Book Critics Circle if it included only those who make a living reviewing books. I work a day job unrelated to the book world or book reviewing, so I can’t get too outraged at this supposedly provocative statement; I’m a hobbyist myself.

Others are welcome to judge if that means I’m therefore unfit to review books. But I think the question buried underneath here is more like, “Do you feel diminished when somebody says blogging is just a hobby?” Nah. I’ve gotten lots of edification out of blogging and even a little bit of work; I feel more engaged with books, and feel better equipped to write and talk about about them. I feel it’s improved how I’ve written about books, and pointed me to ones I otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. I certainly know more about the things I don’t know. When I started doing this, I nursed a slight concern that it would peg me as “just a blogger.” Perhaps that’s the case—after all, the New Yorker still hasn’t rung me up. But I don’t think it’s lessened me in the eyes of the publications I do write for, and I’ve met more smart people than I would have if I’d never started my blog.

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

One thing blogging does is remind you that you have an audience—people will read what you have to say, comment on it, and call you on your errors, flaws in logic, etc. That’s a great improvement from years back, when a book review in a paper may have had more authority than a blog, but you didn’t get much of a sense of what readers were thinking. So blogging keeps me on my toes—I write now being much more mindful of the fact that there will be people scrutinizing it with a mind for logical gaps, cliches, and just plain bad writing. I’ve worked as a reporter and editor, so I had a lot of that beaten into me anyhow, but it never hurts to have a little extra downward pressure.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast—the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks?

Occasional viciousness is true of online conversation in general—I don’t think it’s limited to book blogs, or blogging in general. After all, in the early 90s we got Godwin’s Law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (It may speak to the level of our current national conversation about politics that Godwin’s Law has moved offline and into in-person conversations, where people apparently believe that putting brush mustaches on pictures of the president equates to thought and argument.) Something about online discussions just happen to spark this stuff—the stakes are low and the environment of one-upmanship is high.

Arguments happen; smart people can choose to engage or disengage as they see fit. Hopefully, those same smart people can detect when somebody is trying to launch a discussion (perhaps through “harsh disagreement”) or just pushing a finger in somebody’s chest. Ultimately, there are only two ways a conversation can go—either people can find some common ground and room for compromise, or they can keep barking about the points on which they disagree. Both of which are fine (though the latter seems silly after a while). It only gets annoying when things degrade into taking-my-toys-and-going-home behavior: removing somebody’s blog from a blogroll, unfollowing them from Twitter, huffy posts about how you shall never speak of [Blogger X] again. A good rule of thumb regarding arguments, both online and in everyday life, is to ask yourself, “Will this matter six months from now?” I’d suggest that more than 90 percent of the time it won’t.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

No. At least, I don’t agree with the logic of the argument put forward by this “some.” Who said that the end goal of blogging is fame? And how might a book blogger become famous, anyhow? People magazine has a circulation of 3.7 million; the New York Review of Books has a circulation of only 130,000. Is the NYRB thus a failure? Conversations about books are esoteric in the larger world; within the Web world, we all might as well be in a cult.

I suspect that when somebody says that blogging had a “golden age,” the person means that there was a time (circa 2002) when it felt new and exciting, and the media wanted to do stories about it, and some people got a lot of attention really quickly (book deals! movie options!), and everybody got to have lively discussions and post pictures of puppies or argue about string theory, and it was a thrill because we all had a brand-new toy to play with and we knew who was reading us and we were finally, finally, getting some interesting e-mail. That moment has passed, so it’s easy for media folk to say blogging is old hat and move on to the new. But blogging remains a valid form, and Twitter is no replacement for it. (Twitter is more a supplemental form, I think—a supplement to a supplement.) What other online format besides blogging allows people to write at various lengths, distribute to a wide audience, and spark conversations? I suppose Facebook might qualify, but it’s a poor vehicle for lengthy, considered thought, and its system is designed to push your ideas only to your closest friends. If blogging is over, nobody’s created a suitable replacement for what blogging does.

(Aside: For the record, there are non-online formats that allow people to write at various lengths, distribute to a wide audience, and spark conversations. They’re called newspapers and magazines. Nobody’s invented a suitable real-world replacement for those, which is why I’m not in the hurry that some are to declare them dead.)

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have “earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not,” because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers “to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better.” Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

I’ll start by addressing the second question, which strikes me as presumptive—or, at least, doesn’t define its terms precisely. The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, is among the top 3,000 blogs around, according to Technorati; so is Whatever, a blog by science fiction author John Scalzi, who often discusses books and prompts plenty of lively discussion about them. The number one site on Technorati is run by an author, Arianna Huffington, who has provided a platform for dozens of authors to express their opinions. So who’s a “book blogger”? And what’s a “huge audience”? We are not starving for discussions of books online, and there are a few of those places that are attracting a sizable (perhaps even “huge”!) audience.

I imagine the second question is designed to prompt me to wring my hands about the matter addressed by the first question—that perhaps book bloggers are not being trustworthy enough, or entertaining enough, or reflect our collective consciousness enough, and therefore aren’t huge enough. To that, the only appropriate response I can think of is: Screw it. Even setting aside that all litbloggers, regardless of quality, are playing small-ball in an online space dominated by sex, politics, celebrity, and technology, building trust and regularly producing quality has never been a recipe for success. Newspapers, after all, have traded on their authority, quality, and ability to connect with readers for decades, and it hasn’t done a thing to help their rapidly diminishing circulation.

(Please indulge me a brief rant on this point. That same Malone article perpetuates the canard that newspapers are dying “because they violated readers’ trust that they would deliver timely, accurate and unbiased news.” Newspapers are dying because the advertising market collapsed and because in the past ten years people have been introduced to many more ways to receive information, all lobbying for the rapidly evaporating pool of advertising dollars that remain. Bias didn’t kill newspapers any more than poorly written reviews of Dan Brown novels killed newspaper book sections [though they certainly didn’t help]. “Newspapers are dying because they betrayed our trust!” is a lie that partisan types tell themselves when the New York Times doesn’t splash their hobby horse on A-1. I wish all the people who keep telling me that the papers are full of bias would follow through and cancel their subscriptions. Then I could get through the morning paper without reading letters to the editor about media bias.)

If the real question here is, “How can we create better book blogs, and how can we get more attention drawn to them?” I’m not sure that can be done in any organized fashion. I certainly wouldn’t want to be charged with trying to make it happen. Book bloggers already exist in a competitive environment for their audiences: To get attention, they have to do things that other blogs aren’t doing, find their points of differentiation and run with with them. Sometimes you can get attention by stuffing your blog with linkbait like a top-ten list or a passing mention of a celebrity. But ultimately a blog’s success is going to have to be defined by how often you provide interesting commentary about books, without gimmicks. The online advertising landscape is so screwy at the moment that it’ll be some time before book bloggers enjoy any real financial rewards for their efforts. I do believe that moment will arrive, and I’m still a firm believer in the notion that the good stuff finds its audience. But as far as “huge audiences” go, I’m reminded of Daniel Clowes’ comment that being praised as the greatest living comic artist is a little like being called the world’s best badminton player. No matter how good you are, there’s only going to be a limited pool of people who care.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Bloggers are always wise to speak out on what they’re passionate about. This was perhaps the hardest hurdle for old-school newspaper journalists to clear when it came to blogging—they’re trained not to write in the first person, or to register political opinions, and their initial stuffy attitude toward the first-person led to all those accusations that newspapers don’t get it when it comes to online commentary. Online readers want to know who they’re dealing with, and they want some sense that person blogging is somebody with a life and relationships and enthusiasms. But book bloggers who post about their politics are a little like political bloggers who post pictures of their cats—-it’s not illegal, I suppose, and it won’t make me remove you from my RSS feed, but it does often feel ungainly and irritating.

On a personal note, I imagine that part of my aversion to deep political readings about books has to do with the fact that I was an English major at the University of Chicago in the early 90s, during the height of the PC wars in academia. Back then, my efforts to be a dutiful student were unsettled by the squabbling among cultural studies theorists who would pre-dismiss any thought in my head as a tool of oppression, by virtue of the fact that I’m a white middle-class male. That squabbling started for some good reasons, I know, but it’s made me averse to divisive, overstated political readings of books ever since. (It also put me off going to the graduate school in the humanities, which I’m confident was a good thing; I imagine it’s no fun spending a whole career feeling weaponized.)

All that said, not all political commentaries on blogs are created equal. Posts on the order of, “We Interrupt This Litblog For a Very Special Announcement of My Thoughts about Health-Care Reform” won’t do much for me. But though I’m not much of a socialist, I like reading Scott McLemee’s writings from that perspective on his (too rarely updated) blog, Quick Study. I just want to be convinced that politics are relevant to the argument. As we know from various books on online communities (Infotopia by Cass Sunstein [lefty!] being one of the better ones), political commentaries online tend to resolve into echo chambers. If you feel like finding fans who will applaud you for sharing the same political leanings you have, go for it. If you’re hoping to convince people with different leanings to agree with you, you’ve assigned yourself a hopeless task.