Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Keeping down the filthy bloggers

Neth Space mentions what I consider to have been one of the least interesting panels of ReaderCon: "Reviewing in the Blogosphere." Ken wasn't actually there, but I was. I was incredibly frustrated that when they did an introduction of the panelists, only one of them, Kathryn Kramer, actually had a weblog, and that weblog was not devoted to science fiction or reviewing. (There is a first-hand summary of this panel at Fantasy Book Spot.)

I wouldn't expect every panelist on reviewing in the blogosphere to be a blogger. There certainly should be an old pro print reviewer like John Clute defending tradition against the rabble like ourselves. But the split should be at least 50/50. As it was, it was like doing a panel called "What do you think of Brooklyn" which contained nothing but Manhattanites.

Of course, the limitations of blogosphere reviews were discussed at length. Blog reviews are "plot summaries" with a few author opinions thrown in, bloggers write too fast and too sloppy and don't think enough about what they say. And to some degree they have a point. I am not going to spend three or four hours coming up with a blog post.

But then I have already stated that I'm not going to do reviews as such. What I don't think was discussed extensively enough is the limitation of "reviews as such" in the print or the online market.

Reviews, by their very nature, tend to be about whatever came out in the last five minutes. Most reviews out there do not address the larger trends happening within the market of a genre, or compare works that might have come out last year, or ten years ago. Reviews are expected to primarily address the basic question "Should I read this or not?" Not many professional reviews out there really place a work in the larger critical framework. With a blog you can address whatever you want whenever you want, because no one's writing the checks.

And lets face it, a lot of reviews are just as rushed as a blog post can be. Someone gets a review copy of the new, say, Tad Williams doorstop and is expected to read the whole book and write a thoughtful review for, say, one hundred dollars, which is probably a lot in the current market. And they need to do it fast, before it's on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. So assume they are speed readers and can get through the book in ten hours or so, and then spend five hours or so coming up with a good review. That's, what, six dollars an hour? I think McDonalds pays better in most places right now. So can we really expect the person to write like the next TS Eliot?

One of the topics of the debate was whether you got to write more or less words in an online column. John Clute said that he likes the freedom to write as many words as he wanted. Other panelists pointed out that maybe he could only get away with that because he was John Clute, and who was going to tell him he had to keep it under 500 words? The most interesting statement was when another panelist (Gordon van Gelder, I believe), suggested to Clute that in fact everything he does is a blog, because people are going to his columns not to find out "Is the next Charlie Stross any good?" but to find out what Clute's view of the world and scifi market is.

In other words, it might be that what John Clute does, and thinks that other reviewers are all doing, is more like what a good blogger does than what a mediocre reviewer does.

Or to re-apply Sturgeon's law:
Q: Isn't ninety percent of the blogosphere crap?
A: Ninety percent of everything is crap.


Remy said...

You make some great points about blog reviews and I agree that most bloggers usually can't spend 3-4 hours writing a blog post because they do it as a hobby not as a means of income. When I write a book review, I will spend days reading the book and it usually takes me 3-4 hours to write the review. Most of that time is proofing and making changes since I really think I have any writing skills at all. My book choices always stem from what I want to read and my ultimate goal is to create discussions of those books by people who share a similar opinion as me.

I wanted to ask you about your statement that most reviews don't usually take the critical framework into mind. Do you think it is important to comment on trends in the market and what would you consider to be some recent trends?

Jim Stewart said...

Hi Remy,

I don't think it's necessarily important for a review of a specific book to take into account trends in the market. A review might at most say, "This reminds me of something that John Brunner did in Stand at Zanzibar," or something of the sort.

But in a blog, when you're not restricted to talking about whether a particular book is good or bad, you can talk about what's happening in Science Fiction generally. For example, the slipping of interest in scifi generally, the focus on "five minutes in the future" kind of fiction, which perhaps is getting less dominant than it used to be, or the "sense of wonder" versus "sense of cool" question, which I'll talk about more later on.

Remy said...

Thanks for the response. You make a very valid point about trying to add something to the discussion. I wish I would have thought about it before. I always think it is important to make special notes for anything that brings innovation to the genre.

Immediately after your post I reviewed a comic based on a gaming world rather than a book and I couldn't help but think about how great it was that a company took a chance on something unproven rather than adapt a NY Times best selling.