Defending Book Blogging…

Why is it that so many people like to lay into book bloggers and basically say how rubbish they are and how bad for literature’s future blogging is? Peter Stothard, who is chairing this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the latest to have a go at bloggers in the Independent. He basically says that blogging is killing of good literary criticism which I actually disagree with, especially as you look at the article in more depth.

I was asked to contribute to the Guardian’s piece on this yesterday defending book bloggers, which of course I did and you can see here. I also threw in the fact that with bloggers we have more space to discuss literature, no deadlines for print so we can think on books longer and we don’t get paid for the work we do. It is, for me and the blogs I follow anyway, about a passion for books and literature and spreading the word about great books and discussing them and the ones we don’t like as much. How is that a bad thing?

What has been lovely to see is that most of the comments, well the ones I have seen so far, feel similarly and on the whole think, as I do, that bloggers and literary critics can live together quite happily as we all simply love the book and literature. End of.

What do you think?


Filed under Random Savidgeness

51 responses to “Defending Book Blogging…

  1. Thanks Simon, you put it into better works that I could of ever done

    • Thank you Michael that is very kind of you. I didn’t want to speak on behalf of all book bloggers, but I actually wanted to make sure someone said something. I am bored, bored, bored of bloggers getting slated.

  2. I think Stothard actually has a point there, although he maybe might brought it across somewhat better and less condescending-sounding (but then, those are just quotes taken from an interview and hence should probably be taken with a grain of salt). The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between what he calls “argued criticism” and “opinion pieces” and that most book blogs (my own admittedly included) are firmly in the latter camp.

    And no, just having read a lot of books does not automcatically qualify you as a literary critic, just as having driven a lot of cars does not make you a car mechanic. It does require a good amount of knowledge of your subject and a certain skill set – both of which certainly are things everyone can acquire, even non-professionals, but they none the less have to be there, to enable you to write criticism that knows what it is doing and, more importantly, lets others know, too, i.e. come to a conclusion by way of arguments and reasons that in turn enables others to reason with it, instead of judging literature by taste and gut-feeling alone.

    Which is not to say that there is no place for blogs posting opinion pieces – man is a social animal after all, and we do like to share, and there are some wonderful communities in the interwebs. But one really cannot stress enough that what the huge majority of book bloggers are doing is not literary criticism but the internet equivalent to a literary kaffeeklatsch – which can be very fun but, when everything is said and done, should not be taken all that seriously.

    • Yet still, why is what we’re doing ruining literature? I think that is the problem most of had with his comments. We do not recommend “bad books” or get in the way of “art”. There are plenty of bloggers that do do exactly the same as literary critics in the papers…and personally I don’t really like those sites. I find they are more likely to spoil the reading experience for me.

      Bloggers encourage reading at all levels and there is a blog for everyone from serious criticism to ones dedicated to having fun. That is no reason to accuse us of ruining anything. I take it as a sign he is feeling under threat by the internet and therefore we are probably doing something RIGHT.

      • We aren’t doing anything to ruin literature Ellie, it is snobbery and also a little lashing of threatened egos that is causing this furore. If blogs were bad people wouldn’t be reading them like they do.

    • I completely disagree with you on the whole ‘reading books doesn’t mean you can criticise’, of course you can. Anyone who reads, even a book or two a year, is allowed to say if they like a book or not. That is choice and taste and is natural. No maybe not everyone can write 500 – 2000 words on why they liked it or give some massive academic slant on it, but that isn’t what reading is, or should be, about and I feel slightly saddened that people think it should.

      • i never claimed that people couldn’t say (and could say so publicly) whether they like books or not, that would have been just silly – of course they can do, I do even it on my own blog. However, telling your likes and dislikes is not criticising and it’s not writing a review – it’s uttering an opinion, which by its nature is completely subjective. Not everyone can or even wants to write criticism or reviews, which is perfectly fine, it would just be nice if people stopped claiming to do exactly that when they quite blatantly aren’t.
        This is quite obviously not what reading is about (and I never said it was, nor did Stothard, btw) but it’s what writing is about, writing blogs at least, and whether you are writing criticism/reviews or opinion pieces.
        Which, again, both are fine and nothing is wrong with either – but the first give a reasoned perspective on the book in question which basically can serve as a guideline for everyone who want so know about a book, while the second give a subjective opinion that can serve as a guideline only for those who happen to share that particular writer’s taste.
        There is a difference here, and it is an important difference, and I quite agree with Stothard that this difference is getting blurred in many (blog) readers’ minds and that, while claiming it endangers literature is maybe over-dramatising a bit, it is something to be noted with concern because in the long run it is likely to devalue those writers (and quite a few bloggers among them) who try to give a reasoned analysis of books whether in the form of criticism or reviews.

      • What do you classify as a review then? I am genuinely interested because to me ‘I didn’t like it’ from a young reader is a simple review. It’s explaining why that is the critique of it surely? I find this fascinating because opinions make reviews be they bloggers or ‘professionals’ no? Many authors become reviewers too, and they are simply sharing their opinions in the broadsheets. It doesn’t make any one the righter or the wronger (bad english there from me hahaha)

  3. Rhian

    Very well put.

    The blogs I follow (obviously including this one) have a love of reading for the sheer pleasure of it, which has to be a good thing.
    I find that I get a feel for the blogger’s taste, and how it compares with mine, and am therefore more likely to follow a recommendation. (And all the comments addes other views).
    Additionally the books discussed cover a wide range – highbrow, lowbrow, new, classic.

    • I also think one of the joys of blogs, that people seem to forget, is the fact (as you mention) that we can review books from a year ago, three years ago, decades or centuries ago. Something the broadsheets find quite difficult to work out how to do as that isn’t really what they are for now.

  4. I think in some ways blogs and paid critics are doing slightly different things. Professional critics mostly focus on new titles and in many publications the range of books covered is fairly limited – genre work on the whole tends to be ghettoised if featured at all, with a short paragraph detailing the plot being about the best most writers can hope for.

    Bloggers in my experience provide a far wider range of content and opinion than mainstream media, often highlighting older books, out of print titles, neglected modern classics and all kinds of genre writing. Blogs such as your own, or provide avid readers and book lovers with a welcome breadth of material, often well-argued, passionate and enthusiastic (or not) about the books they talk about.

    I do also appreciate some professional critics, Nicholas Lezard’s reviews in the Guardian very often cause me to buy or borrow books, which I may otherwise have missed or not imagined would be of interest to me.

    Of course there are some bad, unreasoned and dull book blogs out there, but then, it isn’t difficult to find lazy, sloppy and badly written professional reviews, which are ultimately nothing more or less than personal opinion as well.

    I think Peter Stothard’s comments are in some ways nothing more than establishment snobbery, but are perhaps really driven by a deeper and more general fear of the threat to paid for media by free content from the internet; which is a much thornier question than where readers choose to find their inspiration.

    • It think, like with anything, there are good and bad critics and good and bad bloggers. I wouldn’t name names though obviously, I simply stop reading anything I don’t like – like books really.

      I think the two can live in harmony in all honesty. I read both, when I can, and I enjoy the different elements they both have and the different, or indeed same, thoughts they have on books I always find really interesting.

  5. That was such a wonderful and inspiring quote from you Simon. I think this is very much a case where you can allow the market to sort it out on its own: bloggers providing content which others value will get followers, and that seems to me the only criterion which matters. (However, speaking as a statistician I think I could probably make the argument that there is far more information contained within a large sample of readers giving their personal opinions, provided they are willing to record when that opinion is negative, than in a single individual giving his argued opinion. And what is the basis for this assumption that bloggers are incapable of argued opinion anyway?)

    • I do wonder if, simply because of the diversity they can bring and lack (on the whole) of agenda, blogs are becoming more popular than critics. We don’t have deadlines or a max number of words we can use. We just enthuse, or constructively criticise, and that’s that.

  6. Urrch. Right on cue another Booker judge has made a contentious comment to the media just before the winner is announced. It’s almost as if he’s just re-hashing tired and staid yet mildly controversial opinions to coincide with his big moment and ensure more column inches for a prize that many argue is becoming less and less relevant. Almost….

    I could point Mr Stothard to loads of blogs that are far more theoretically well-versed, critically astute, eloquent and funny than some of the hack in his TLS. There’s some really high-level academic stuff going on in the blogosphere. But, of course, that *isn’t* the point is it? I read both op-ed style blogs and lit crit blogs (and the many blogs that exist in between), and personally I find that there’s more than one interesting approach to thinking about literature/writing/whatever.

    I find his insistence that popular, opinion-led internet reviews aren’t a valid and important part of critical discourse to be nothing but a great big cultural fallacy. Books and literary criticism don’t exist in isolation from popular opinion and dialogue; (and let’s face it, “literary criticism” is a long way from being anything like an exact science – and, in my experience, lit crit is just as influenced by individual opinions and contexts as any other form of writing) I have no doubt that book bloggers can have a positive effect on the future of literature. And surely a wider, broader critical community can only ever be a good thing?

    I wonder where Peter Stothard draws the line. Is there a certain number of critical terms from the dictionary of literary theory that a blogger has to use before he stops being a writer of ‘opinions’ and starts being a writer of ‘criticism’? By his argument, then, the only person fit to review books is the hypothetical individual who knows the most about critical theory and has read the most novels in the world (redcutio ad absurdum etc.).

    I find his comments that literary criticism is about “identifying the good” (as if literary ‘goodness’ is some objective quality that critics are especially positioned and privileged to recognise) to be absolute baloney. As for his comment that critics need to be “alert to what’s new” – well I agree with caveats, but I’ll take him more seriously when TLS stops giving so much attention to Jacobson, McEwan, Mantel, Faulks etc, and starts reviewing the truly boundary-pushing, unusual and creative fiction out there: your Michael Ciscos or Danielewskis or Lydia Davies-es etc. etc.

    Sorry… this type of stuff fills me with a kind of petulant, self-indignant urge to rant and rant and rant…

    Loved your response, Simon. 🙂


    • Thanks Tom. I think really, and I have actually worked with Peter believe it or not, this was realistically less about attention grabbing Man Booker headlines (though you probably have a point, but with the Green Carnation I have been on the end of being misquoted as the press need an angle) and more a threat to the TLS to be honest. Which in itself is interesting because he has made bloggers of Mary Beard etc who pull people onto the site. But then she is an academic, but not a snob thank goodness.

  7. gatsbyscar

    I completely agree. I read this article yesterday when it was retweeted by Irvine Welsh and was rather dismayed. I think Stothard assumes a great gulf in quality and an inability to find new reads, showing a lack of knowledge of the subject he’s deriding rather than a pointed argument against it. Yes, column inches are shrinking and blogging is becoming more popular, but this can surely help bolster readerships if bloggers do concentrate on new and exciting texts.

    • It does make you wonder how many book blogs Peter Stothard has actually read, and if so which ones. Oh god, maybe it was this one… Goes and hangs head in shame hahahaha.

      I think actually bloggers continuing to look at new and old texts is more important than just new. Some books sadly get forgotten all too quickly new and old alike.

  8. Thanks! and the comments were quite enlightening and encouraging for bloggers actually.

  9. A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

    I read the Guardian article today and was not impressed by Stothard’s comments. He seems to have lumped all bloggers into one category which isn’t fair at all. There are good book blogs and not-so-good book blogs just like there are good literary critics and not-so-good literary critics.

    • Exactly and also good and bad doesnt mean right or wrong or high or low quality because again that is all in a person’s taste. I might love a blog that others just don’t get and vice versa.

  10. Pingback: Book bloggers are damaging literature?! « what amy read next

  11. amy

    Completely agree and love your response to him!

  12. gaskella

    Well done Simon. Most of us bloggers are doing it for the love of reading, and wanting to share that passion. There is a place for literary criticism of course, but I think Stothard, Jacobson et al dismiss bloggers at their peril!

    • I think its just silly dismissing us. We have a presence in the book industry now and it is just a bit foolhardy to slate that.

      That said, I have been following all the links on comments here to other book blogs… where have they all come from? There are so many of them I don’t quite know what to do. Do I add more new voices to my already form favourites, who I already feel stressed about not reading regularily enough. Eek!

      • gaskella

        While it is great that there are so many good book bloggers out there, there aren’t enough hours in the day to visit all of them regularly are there! I have copious bookmarks, and I read and comment as much as I can… as I’m sure you do – try not to stress too much!

      • I think, as I am slowly getting back on track catching up with blogs (well I managed to catch up with one yesterday) I might have to sort out which my very favourites are, which worringly makes me sound elitist, like Stothard hahaha.

  13. sandranoel

    Stothard’s piece struck me as a new bit of literary elitism. Elitism has always existed in literature, where the critical world draws lines between “hacks” and “giants”. As the battle lines are drawn, the inner circle of the literary lumenati underestimate the groundswell produced by the ordinary readers who take the time to blog. We are not paid to blog. We read and write because we love to read and write. And that makes a book blogger a very dangerous person to the inner circle. You know, those of us who dare to form our own opinions and share them – it erodes their power base.

    I think the establishment is running scared.

    • I wouldn’t say they were running scared, though I love the picture that brings to my mind. I think they just arent sure how to adapt and maybe the e-book panic in publishing is having an effect elsewhere leading to an ‘online’ review panic of sorts.

      I think you are right about the elitism, and that will stay, we can’t change that, I just choose (apart from in this case) to ignore it in the main. I don’t follow elitist minds.

  14. I liked your comment Simon – it was spot on. Another thing that Mr Stothard had neglected to consider is how many bloggers raise the profile of works that are not newly released. There is always a lot of press interest in newly published novels, new authors, and there is certainy room for bloggers to join in with this. But also many bloggers talk and review books by authors who haven’t had a book published for years but whose work is still popular with readers. I read far more older novels than contemporary works – and I have often been prompted to buy and read things that I have read about on other blogs – and because of the kind of books I like these are often books first published a long time ago – but still beeing sold by booksellers and more importantly enjoyed by readers.

    • Totally agree with you on this. I would also add even the review pages simply cannot review every new book, yet in one day I can visit ten blogs and discover various new books that have slipped under the radar and are fabulous treats, that is a real bonus also.

      I also love finding about about lesser known classics, another thing that bloggers are amazing at.

  15. Just because a book is the recipient of “literary criticism” versus an opinion post doesn’t make that book inherently better or worse. Books are what they are and any view of them helps a reader decide if it is a book they would like to read or not. What Stothard fails to admit is that readers are all different and are looking for a wide variety of things in what they read. Are all (or even most) book bloggers churning out university-level critiques of novels? Of course not. Do they need to be in order to promote literacy and a culture of book love? Of course not. Perhaps he believes that only the “well-read” can be true book lovers but that simply isn’t true. Thank you for defending us, Simon!

    • I think that is another great point Kristen, I think some people think if a book gets reviewed in the Guardian then if the review is good or bad it doesn’t matter, those books are deemed the ‘literary’ ones as opposed to ones that might appear in Heat Magazine or The Sun (if they do reviews of books) let alone blogs. That isn’t right and needs to change. There are some authors, like the lovely James Dawson, who have shown how word of blog can lead to a books success. But they many wouldn’t deem his book ‘literary enough’!

  16. The whole thing saddened me. I think that it was a generalized, encompass the whole, from the good bloggers and indie “real people” reviewers to the friends and family, or barely literate reviews out there. Personally, many of the books that I have taken with ONLY the recommendation of the “traditional literary critic” have not numbered in my favourite reads. There are books out there that critics scream you must read – and they left me rather blah. There are 4 books in my life that I have never been able to force myself to finish – 3 were highly touted by critics. That’s not a great average in my mind.
    I review and read because I love the written word. I look for positives in the books I read, ideas that get other people interested in a book. Even if it is just a ‘candy floss read’ for escape. I could write a critique of every book I read, but who would want to read that? Even I get bored with critique-based reviews. I want people to be excited about an author’s work, anxious to read the book, and ultimately, to enjoy the written word as much as I do.

    • I think enthusiasm and excitement are all part of ‘personality’ and that is where a book blog can differ from a review in the broadsheets. You get to know bloggers and their lives and tastes and that actually is really quite special.

  17. Pingback: Overthrow: Peter Stothard and Why Blogging is Valuable | tomcat in the red room

  18. Perhaps demand for his publication and other serious literary reviews like it, coming from an old tradition is diminishing, is it a sign of a shifting generation, that today’s audiences are choosing to follow the more dynamic, interactive model of blogs that fit their own personal niche. One magazine publication can’t do that, it has to find a model that fits a wide audience, book blogs attract like-minded readers. Those which are more analytical or critical will attract appropriately interested readers just as those who read young adult or even children’s books will equally attract their own audiences.

    People will read what they are attracted to and I believe book blogs are doing a great job at disseminating and sharing their views on books in a variety of styles to suit their readership. We are better informed for making book buying choices than ever before.

    Literature isn’t going to suffer, but reader’s desires will evolve and change and if Mr Stothard’s type/selection of literature isn’t what people wish to read, they will look elsewhere for it.

    • Another great point Claire, there is the generational factor. (That is ironic coming from me when my mother and grandmother have iPads and Kindles and I refuse.) I think reviews are still important personally but if they are reducing the pages of them in the broadsheets there has to be a reason, market wise, why they are doing this.

  19. david73277

    I did not study literature beyond A level. As a postgraduate history student I read a piece of academic lit crit about Jane Austen that was tangentially related to what I was studying. I found it utterly incomprehensible. Apart from anything else, it did not seem to have very much to do with anything Austen had actually written.

    As others have said, lit crit and book blogging are, in most cases, two different things. The writer of one gets paid nothing for writing things that are often a joy to read; the writer of the other often holds a salaried position, or at least gains a modest fee, for addressing a tiny audience most of whom are only reading it either because they are paid to do so or because they are students.

    I do not have a blog of my own, but I do read and comment on a fair number. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Simon, gaskella and others whose book blogs I follow for all the pleasure you have given me, both in what you say on your blogs and through all the fantastic books you have introduced me too. Don’t let another Booker Prize PR car crash put you off.

  20. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I couldn’t agree more. I started blogging recently because I found all the other book blogs I was reading really inspiring. They’re written for other readers, not for academics. They come from a love of books and reading, and I think they’ll tell me more about a book quickly and whether I want to read it or not than any screed of literary criticism. I don’t think they do harm at all – and in many cases they could be seen to be rescuing lost books. Look at A Penguin a Week and Stuck in a Book – both have directed me to some amazing volumes I wouldn’t even have heard of otherwise. And book bloggers don’t care about what is trendy or the latest literary fashion and will often see through the Emperor’s-New-Clothes approach of the literary establishment. The Booker prize has had some real turkeys so I don’t think they’ve got much to boast about!

    • That is another thing that is great about book blogging I think. There is no competition is there, well I don’t think there is. If there were and it was a catty environment then more blogs wouldn’t be joining in.

      I also whole heartedly agree with what you are saying about Stuck in a Book and Penguin A Week (and many more) about the joy of the discovery of old forgotten classics which I love discovering and reading myself.

  21. I’m not going to comment on the Gaurdian posts, except to say that I did read them and found them more-or-less interesting reads. This topic has come up before, at least twice, in the mainstream “press.” I’ve become bored with it, frankly. We’re here, we’re not going anywhere. Get used to it.

    I will say that your comment was excellent.

  22. Sarah Williams

    Well said, Simon. I love the book blogs (and podcasts)I follow. My schedule is such that I don’t have much free time for local book groups and such. The blogs and podcasts allow me to learn about titles I might not otherwise. I love the enthusiasm of the people who participate in this world. This is where I learned about Diving Belles and The Snow Child and so many others. It is just good to know there are so many other book lovers out there!

    • Awww thank you Sarah. Interestingly I think Diving Belles was a book that only a very few broadsheet critics picked up on, because it was a debut short story collection and they don’t get featured much and thats a shame as you will, I am sure, agree having read it that it is marvellous and that is where blogs and podcasts can step in and say ‘oi, read this!’

  23. Pingback: Blog e critica letteraria. Riflessioni su un dibattito | Samgha

  24. Pingback: Literary Criticism Can Not Be Accomplished By Bloggers (Again) || The Worm Hole

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