Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The "I"s Have It

I came across a review of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad on a book blog I read regularly that caught my attention. Not only was it a rare negative review of the book, but it also used "I" 57 times. about 1100 words. That's more than one use of "I" for every 20 words.

This is an extreme case, but still exemplary of the kind of reaction review that dominates book blogging. Opinion, not assessment, rules. That's not to say that it should be otherwise but simply to note that it is.

My question, though, is this what we want?

At its core, I think book blogging is an antidote to the more detached, analytical reviewing of academia and first-rank reviewing outlets like The New York Times. I think book blogging performs a needed service of re-injecting passion and public conversation into reading.

The "I loved it" mode of reviewing, though, has its problems. For one, it undermines the public and collaborative nature of online discourse by privileging the subjective taste of the reader. Your "I loved it" review will only convince me to be interested in a book if I can be reasonably certain I share your sensibilities.

Second, the spread of "I"-centered reviewing covers for a relative lack of vocabulary and strategies for reviewing books. Rather than discuss the particulars of a novel, these reviews resort to generalities under the cover of the reader's impression. "Unlikable characters," "stilted prose," "uninteresting plot": these qualitative statements absolve the reviewer of doing the hard work of thinking deeply about a book.

Let me be clear: I do not want book blog reviews that sound like The New York Times. I want book blogs to be as diverse, interesting, and engaging as the readers themselves are, but this requires an effort to be interested and engaged.


  1. Well said, Ape - I could not agree more. Our jobs are to find the middle ground between Kakutani and "It didn't grab my attention, so I hated it" - just as sports bloggers should find middle ground between Jeremy Schaap and "F%$k the Yankees."

    To be a credible blogger, a fair amount of thought and critical analysis is required. But to be widely read and to be entertaining, a certain amount of personal dash, humor and is also required. Finding that intersection is tough, but it's certainly not at the point where you use "I" 57 times in a book review.

  2. Pshaw. There need be no critical thought past F%$k the Yankees! That is the epitome of reason!

    In really-real land, I agree with you both. I tend to err on the side of "I hated it because Heathcliff is a wanker," but the people who read my blog have a pretty good sense of my sensibilities. If all you've ever said about your taste in books is something along the lines of "I like nice characters and interesting stories," that doesn't really...mean anything. Everyone likes those things. It's like a food critic who says yummy tasting things are good for eating. (Weak simile, but hey. Whatevs.)

  3. You said it very well. I've heard people say that they just want to know what a blogger thought about a book, but I definitely want to know more. I want to know why the blogger felt a certain way. I want to know what specifically in the book elicited a particular reaction. Concrete examples, quotes, something other than just a summary followed by a paragraph of personal reaction. I'm all for celebrating our subjectivity and owning our biases ('cause we all have them), but I also want actual information in a review.

  4. I'm not sure that I entirely agree, but I am a bit nervous about saying so in case it comes out sounding too much like my opinion without any great analysis behind it.

    In my mind at least, when I'm reading reviews on blogs, I'm not too fussy about what I am reading. It's a personal blog, not a professional one. If someone wants it to be all opinion and no assessment, go for it I say. It's their blog after all.

    I think its great that there are blogs out there that take reviewing more seriously than others and are concerned about the collaborative nature of online discourse etc etc

    I also think its great that there are the "I loved it it because it was fantastic" blogs. Variety is the spice of life.

    I'm not sure how to accurately say this so bare with me - but I would also worry that if I were looking for more analysis and assessment in book reviews on personal blogs I would be placing my own... standards? (I can't think of the correct word) on other people. I imagine that not everyone has the same education I do, some have more and some have a lot less, and expecting analysis beyond personal assessment might actually be expecting too much from someone with their experience. For example, someone might not have a wide vocabulary because of their level of education, and saying that characters are unlikeable might be the extent of their deep thinking because of that. It could also be that the reviewer is a teenager, or even in their early 20s and so hasn't had time to develop reviewing skills or analytical thought. I would hate to think that I was judging people unfairly because I wasn't satisfied with the level of analysis in their review, when for that particular individual it actually might be all the analysis they are capable of.

    Anyway, I am not sure that made sense but I hope that it did.

    A personal blog is that person's opinion expressed how they want to express it. I say just relax and enjoy.

  5. I like a lot of 'I'! I read book bloggers not necessarily as I'd read print reviews, but more as I read columnists - I may not ever go to the restaurant they've visited, or have thought about the issue they are commenting on, but I'm interested in what they, as an individual, have to say. I feel the same about the bloggers I return to again and again, like writemeg or sashaandthesilverfish. I have different reading tastes from both these writers, but I'll read whatever they've got to say because I know it will always be engaging - and it's the 'I' that makes their posts engaging.
    On the straight-up 'I loved it' posts: I can see how these happen more often than not, especially because I generally can't be bothered to write about a book unless I have a strong opinion about it. I don't mind 'I loved it' as long as the writer explains why - and like you say, has made an effort to be interested and engaged.

    Eugh, I realise I've written 'I' fifty thousand times here: please don't put me on your blacklist :)

  6. What are blogs for? I suppose to express your feelings and it shouldn't matter how you do it! The consequence of the way you strut your stuff, however, will be your followers...a blogger deserves the followers they gather...and Reading Ape is a blog I recommend on my own what you like into that mutual back slap

  7. I disagree with you. I love book blogs because of their personal nature. I don't expect book blogs to perform deep analysis of a book - all I want to know is whether or not the person enjoyed reading it. Once you find a blogger who shares a taste in books then you can trust their recommendations. In the end everything is subjective anyway. The great thing is that there is a book blog out there for everyone.

  8. To those of you who say you like the "I love it" blogs - there is a place for them in the wide scope of "reviews", but how is a blog reader supposed to determine what the blogger's sensibilities are without any depth.

    Most readers of blogs want an instant connection - "will this blog give me what I'm looking for" and that's difficult to find when the writer is prolific in their "I love" "I think" and "I feel" without deeper explanation. Readers are more likely to be one time visitors who move on quickly. A regular "fanbase" is most likely to be created through interactions outside the blog (i.e. twitter) where other's can connect and better understand the personality and thus reading sensibilities of the blog writer.

    Of course there is a place for the more subjective opinion based review, but there are better ways of writing and expressing one self without over using "I" based sentences.

  9. If my students are any indication, we're going to hear a lot more "I" in the future. At 9 and 10 they are very sure that everyone wants to hear everything they are thinking and feeling as soon as they are thinking and feeling it. NPR just had an interview with a person who studied pop music lyrics over the last 30 years to see if he could trace a rise in narcissism in the national culture, and sure enough he found lots more "I" and "me" than "we" and "us". I suppose that I probably fall somewhere in the middle with my blog, but I think that is also partly a function of the kind of books I review. When I review something more literary, I tend towards analysis. When I read the latest Southern Vampires book, there's not much to say about it except for whether I approve of the books particular configuration of human/vampire/fairy/wereanimal love.

  10. Stopping over from the blog hop. New follower. Would love for you to follow me back. Yay for the blog hops and follow fridays! Blackberry Summer is my upcoming release I want to read and I listed my shelter books on my blog.

    Judith Leger - Paran/Fantasy Romance
    w/a L.J. Leger - YA Fantasy
    w/a Jadette Paige - Erotic

  11. It's a little difficult to write a review without including your own opinion, but I try to get a balanced review of what was good and bad about the book, I can probably be a little heavy on the 'I' but that's the way I read, I read for myself, and I blog for myself (when it comes down to it), I try to keep my reviews balanced to say that what I have to say is not the be all and end all. Whether I'm successful or not I suppose my readers will have to judge.

  12. Excellent thoughts on this. I'll admit that I sometimes stray into the "I loved it so it's a great book" school of reviewing, much to my own chagrin. Looking back at a post of mine from earlier this year, I count fourteen "I"s in a review not even close to 1100 words. However, as intellectually boring (to put it nicely) as they are, reviews like this also serve as an easy catharsis, a way to unload without over-analyzing or dissecting. Still, I think you're right when you say that the blogging community should fall somewhere between the hifalutin rhetoric of professional reviewers and the sometimes self-indulgent "This book is awesome 'cause I say so!" reviews. At least that's where I try to position my blog. Great post!

  13. Book reviewing is a subjective endeavor and book blogs are personal undertakings so I expect the blogger to say "I" when discussing the book. That said, however, I do tend to prefer blogs that follow up their I liked this book with a because and lots of supportive evidence. I tend to stay away from blogs that declare a book is bad because "I didn't like any of the characters" or something similar or that say I liked or didn't like and then just give a plot summary.

  14. I try to write positive parts in with the negative parts (if I have something to say that's negative), but all of my reviews come from the place of "I".

  15. I desperately try to avoid it. I allow myself to give my opinion, but I DETEST a review that says 'I didn't like it. 2/5' That's not a review. But then, my blog reviews tend to work quite differently that way. 'I' is the big bad no no of the literary world!

  16. I recently posted my first comments about a book on my new blog, stating my reluctance to review in the traditional sense. I don't want to tell people what to like and what not to like. Since my target audience is the writing community, my take is what I learned about writing from the book, negative and positive. A book can be successful in my eyes, despite some flaws in the craft, or, despite good writing, just not hold up in other respects. So, rather giving a book a thumbs up or down, I point out that there are things a writer can learn from any book, and reading as writers is how we all learn. Very interesting post and point of view. Thanks.

  17. Some book bloggers are only journaling (me.)

    I would far rather hear what someone personally thinks of a book (I), than what they've analyzed about it according to somebody ele's idea of proper reader response (one should/we believe/etc). In fact, I recoil at a dry 'review' of a book (analysis, supporting evidence, blah, blah, blah) rather than an embrace of the work as a dance beween I and the author.

    Generalities about how one has decided we as a world whole should read (or write) are still just that blogger's personal opinion, minus the straightforward and less pretentious 'I'...

    *Second, the spread of "I"-centered reviewing covers for a relative lack of vocabulary and strategies for reviewing books.*

    And by whom do we learn this strategy? Who has decided how 'one should' speak? What is stopping the disgruntled blog-reader from picking up the book and deciding for him/herself what he/she (I!) thinks? Have we become a society that relies upon a quick synopsis of the quality of a novel to determine whether or not it is worthy of a read? Should I rely on you to speak a book's qualities, its weaknesses, its power to spark inspiration? (Which must be authoritative if it's missing that unworthy 'I'? For perish the thought anyone stand behind I alone as verification that they have a right to their opinion.)

    I think that I am the best person to teach I-self how to speak what I think.

  18. Even when I review professionally I am told to use "I". It is a subjective experience and as long as you are backing up the why of what you are stating the "I"s have it.

  19. Honestly, I completely disagree. I'd much rather read a review full of I-statements as opposed to a TL;DR analytical review.

    And, I really don't think Book Blogging should be any one single way. People will blog how they want to blog, especially on blogs they pay for via self-hosting and paying for their own URL. If people want to use I-centered reviews so be it. If people want to write analytical deep reviews so be it. There's room for both, and I really don't think it's right to say that a reviewer isn't thinking about a book simply because they review emotionally instead of analytically.

  20. Pam-
    I didn't say (nor do I think) that reviewing is anything other than subjective. I use the "I" construct as a sign of a general trend, but it is not determinative. Plenty of reviews that use I do the things I think a good book review should do.

    I overtly said that I don't want all book blogs to look the same. Also, to ask that one provides evidence for a claim is does not necessitate "deep analysis." What I am suggesting is that claims be supported by reasons.

    As I write in my follow-up post, my motivation for this discussion is to try to encourage richness and diversity in book blog discussions. Of course people can write whatever they want to. I am asking them, though, to think about the reasons and consequences of writing the way they do.