Saturday, August 02, 2008

Some Guidelines for Book Reviewing on Blogs

Lisa Warren at the Huffington Post (and thanks Yusof Martin for the link) asks, in the face of US newspapers downsizing their literary review sections, whether reviews on blogs can ever adequately fill the gap.

She reckons that reviews on blogs:
... particularly those of the Blogspot variety -- tend to be self-indulgent
and offers these guidelines for those who would try to make their blogged book reviews much more useful :
Book reviewing bloggers need to move away from opinion in favor of judgment. How does the book compare to -- and fit in with -- the author's previous work? What's the book's place in the genre? The canon? Does the writer succeed in doing what he or she set out to do -- meaning, is it the book they meant it to be? Whether it's the book the blogger wanted it to be is of much less importance to me, frankly.

I'd also advise that book reviewing bloggers jettison the use of personal pronouns (yes, I've used a slew of them here; you can nail me in the comments). And for goodness sake, I wish they'd stop telling me what their father and their girlfriend -- or their father's girlfriend -- thought of the book. Also, I don't need to know how they came to possess the book -- how they borrowed it from the library, or bought it at B&N, or snagged a galley at The Strand, or got the publisher to send them a copy even though they average four hits a day. The banal back-story is of little interest.

The book, however, is. And, for that reason, a little plot summary to help me navigate, and a brief introduction to the book's main characters can go a very long way. It's book reviewing 101--not rocket science, I'll grant you--but it's important not to let the informality of the venue serve as an excuse for forgetting the basics.
I posted my thoughts on the issue here, and am unapologetic that most of my reviews here are very personal reactions to books and include a fair bit of banal back-story.

I find it takes a lot of time and effort (many hours, many drafts) to write a review that really does justice to a book, and I generally save that energy for the "dead-tree" publications I write for. (Posting those more polished reviews here in turn.)

But there is a lot in what Warren says and I am sure the little worm of guilt will be gnawing at me when I put up posts in future!

Postscript :

Within minutes of this post being up(!) Satima Flavell of speculative fiction site The Spectusphere dropped by to post a link to guidelines she had written for potential reviewers for the site. Useful advice for reviewing newbies, and a very nice site for those interested in the genre.

Postscript 2

Among those who have responded to Warren's piece is Edmund Champion who sees the shift to blog reviewing in a much more positive light. But things would be better still if litbloggers could be assured an income stream from advertisers! (This is my lament too.)

There's also a sensible riposte from at The Literary Saloon :
Of course, there are a lot of very amateurish review-blogs and sites -- but there are also a lot that are very good. In certain areas Internet coverage has long superseded newspaper coverage: review-coverage of genre books (mystery, science fiction, romance) is far superior in range and, for the most part, quality than what can be found in newspapers. And, sadly, we don't think we're tooting our own horn too loudly when we claim that, as far as coverage of fiction in translation goes, you're better served by us -- little more than a two-bit, one-man operation -- than if you rely on The New York Times Book Review (even with the daily book section tossed in for good measure).
(Pic stolen from The Bookseller)


Tunku Halim said...

Sharon - It's so true. Book reviewing is hard work. Being judge and jury in one, being balanced etc requires it. Not only that but the reviewer, in fact, exposes her own personality (strengths and weaknesses) at every review. That's why it should be done with great care. Happily, I know you are one reviewer that does it.

Satima Flavell said...

I heartily concur with your comments, Sharon. As Reviews Editor for The Specusphere, an e-zine for the speculative fiction community, I am continually looking for good reviewers - and not finding many who know the difference between a review and an opinion piece.

I wrote an article to help prospective reviewers and ask that they read it before sending their efforts to me. (See I'm gradually educating the few who've been willing to learn, but I still have to edit most newbies' work quite heavily and many of them give up when they realise The Specusphere is not like Amazon!

bibliobibuli said...

hal - thanks. i actually really love reviewing and really want to become better at it.

satima - thanks a lot. that was such useful advice i put a link in the main post.

i think we need to run some reviewing workshops here ...

Satima Flavell said...

Thank you for adding that link, Sharon. (I'm dodging between you and Glenda - no doubt you know she's on stage at the Confux Virtual Mini-con right now!)

bibliobibuli said...

didn't know! wow!!

Satima Flavell said...

No doubt she'll tell you all about it. She was, of course, magnificent:-)

Burhan said...

i think that the blog post is its own literary medium, different from an opinion piece or a review in a newspaper, academic journal, or amazon.

wondering what a blog of the 'blogspot variety' means. how different is it from wordpress, typepad, livejournal or even twitter?

bibliobibuli said...

we blogspotters are the hoi-polloi, the commoners, the people not committed enough to get our own domain.

bibliobibuli said...

(thanks anon for the correction - corrected!)

Burhan said...

ah, oui. gotcha.

Eliza said...

Hi Sharon - it's been on my mind for awhile - how to write good reviews. Thanks for posting on this, and also, thanks for posting Satima's article. Satima - your pointers helped a lot, in breaking down the elements of a "good" review, and cleared up the frustrating fog in my head.
Here's to being a published reviewer soon...:-)

Satima Flavell said...

I'm glad you found the article useful, Eliza. If you read Speculative Fiction (Fantasy, SF, Horror, Magical Realism, Alternative History etc) why not try try your hand at writing something for The Specusphere? You can contact me via the site.

alan wong said...

That's why I loved writing for The Star. I have a feeling they let me get away with a lot. I had loads of fun with reviews, positive and negative.

But to the venerable "veterans": you do it your way; I'll do it mine.