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Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Book Blogging: Really, Positively Enthusiastic

I think that when most of us can freely choose what to read--when there’s no obligation or assignment--we’re usually going to pick books we think we’ll like. It may not always turn out that way--sometimes a favorite author has an “off” book, sometimes a book description is less than accurate, sometimes The Book Everyone Loves just isn’t our thing--but for the most part, I doubt that regularly reading authors or genres or topics we dislike or lack interest in is anyone’s idea of fun. (It may be your job to read those, sometimes, if you’re a paid reviewer...but that’s why it’s a job.)

I rate the books I read on LibraryThing (where I also cross-post most reviews), and wondered if my rating stats would support that proposition. LT ratings are on a zero-to-five-star scale, and allow for half-stars.

Average rating: (3.55)
The bulk of my ratings are solidly in the middle to upper-middle range. I think that’s a fair indicator that I like most of what I read, and therefore, most of what I say about most books will probably be positive. And when it’s not, I’ll usually approach the negatives carefully and, sometimes, with a degree of regret that some aspect of the book fell short.

Based on five-plus years of book blogging and reading book blogs, what I’m doing is not particularly unique. Given that most of us blog about books for the love of it, it makes sense to me that we tend to accentuate the positive.

Beth Kephart, author and blogger, independently reviews books for various publications, and recommends them on her own blog:
“I read, often, dozens of books each month. On this blog I only talk about the ones I love...I choose to write about that which inspires me, or heartens me. I choose not to add darkness to days, choose not to hurt if it is not required. When days go by without my blogging about others' books, that is because I've not lately fallen in love.

"But when I am asked—by the Chicago Tribune, by the Pennsylvania Gazette, by various other publications—to give my opinion about books I have not chosen, there is no walking away. I have an obligation, a responsibility, to tell it as I see it then..It may not in my nature to be cruel, but it is in my nature to be decisive about books. And so I aim, always, to criticize constructively, to speak of a book's perceived flaws as I would about the work of a beloved student...to suggest, to query, to wonder out loud, to ask, Could more have been done?”
"Thinking out loud" badge (edited stock photo)
I think Beth beautifully delineates more objective critique and reader’s enthusiasm, and clarifies that there’s a place for both. Enthusiastic recommendation and a preference for avoiding negativity are two of the privileges of being a book blogger, and they help distinguish blogger-style book reviews from more traditional book criticism...while at the same time, they may be influencing a change in old-school reviews. In Salon, Laura Miller made a “case for positive book reviews,” noting that
“Since the average new book is invisible to the average reader*, critics who have a choice usually prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy...platforms on which to write about books for a general audience are vanishing fast. Most of the readers drawn to such publications want to be informed of the best new books and to read criticism that enhances their understanding of and appreciation for those books.”
*Note: Most book bloggers probably are not “average readers,” and many are highly aware of new books, but I think the broader point is probably valid.

Miller wrote in response to other recent pieces suggesting that there isn’t enough *critique* in current book criticism, and that it’s because readers and writers--who are sometimes the same people--are too nice and “like” each other too much. In “Against Enthusiasm,” the Slate piece that got this ball rolling, Jacob Silverman argues that “recommending" is supplanting "reviewing:"
“Reviewers shouldn't be recommendation machines...As if mirroring the surrounding culture, biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web. And, of course, critics, most of them freelance and hungry for work, want to appeal to fans and readers as well; so to connect with them, they must become them.”
Having quoted Beth Kephart earlier, I should mention that Beth is an author who has become a friend. I mention it because I think that Silverman may have a point about the social-media-fostered closeness among writers, readers, and reviewers--who. again, may be some of the same people--and I think it’s something bloggers need to keep in mind. Getting to know authors beyond their books is another book-blogger privilege, and many of us embrace the opportunity to champion our favorites. I seldom question the honesty of such enthusiasm, and I enjoy expressing it myself. That said, I think that if payment for a review warrants disclosure--because of the perception that it might influence the reviewer’s opinion in a particular direction--so might a friendly relationship with an author, for much the same reason.

(And if the author is the one paying for the review? If they ordered it from Kirkus Indie, they can opt not to use it if they don’t like it what the reviewer said; if they bought it from GettingBookReviews.com, the subject of that New York Times article, they paid to be liked--in some cases, liked a lot. Either way, such a “review” might be more appropriately considered advertising, and there definitely are rules about disclosing that.)

BBAW 2012 badge

Today's BBAW theme encourages bloggers to promote a favorite book. I'd say that's something we do, with enthusiasm, at every opportunity.