Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts on the 2011 Book Blogger Convention

Man, how things have changed in a year. At the 2010 Book Blogger Convention, bloggers were tapdancing for publishers to get review copies. Now, the bloggers seem to be in control. This is the big takeaway: the book industry is actively courting the book blogosphere.

Other notes on the day:

1. The term "book blogger" is now unwieldy.
Genre diversity is no longer the only thing differentiating book bloggers: style, professionalism, commerce, tone, experience, technological savvy, and a score of other chacterisitics make describing what a book blogger does extremely difficult.

2. As important as book blogs are becoming, book bloggers are still pretty provincial.
The cagey organizers left plenty of time for Q & A after the various panels; this was usually the most interesting, not the the most informative, part of the sessions. For example, given the chance to query folks in charge of marketing for the big six publishers, most asked weirdly specific questions about their own little problems. You have the ear of the people most directly effecting book publicity in America and you ask about e-galley expiration dates. Seriously? This is one example of a larger trend; most bloggers aren't thinking beyond their own Wordpress dashboard.

3. Authors are becoming a bit of a pain.
This might just be my own misanthropy, but having to fuss over authors directly is a drag. Not only are we told only to shield authors from negative reviews, but we also have to screen increasing numbers of author pitches. I understand; authors, especially those from smaller presses and self-publishers, are desperate for exposure. We wish you the best of luck, but most of us are swamped with reading and writing as it is.

4. ARC obsession
The dangled carrots of the book blog world, advanced review copies (who gets them, who gives them, and when) determine the professional ethics of book blogging. It seems that if you solicit a review copy, you enter into a de facto moral contract with the publicist, publisher, and author. Even if the code is as simple as "be polite" or "review the work, not the person," your continued ability to get review copies depends upon your compliance. More and more, I am becoming  fan of JGBTFB (just go buy the fucking book). This way you can write without any concern that you will violate the covenant of book publicity.

5. Social Media Fatigue
Goodreads. Librarything. Shelfari. Amazon reviews. Facebook. Twitter. Linked In. Online forums. Not to mention your own blog. Managing all of this stuff is a major headache. A future topic of discussion would be some best/most useful practice demonstration/analysis for those of who write about books independently. What works for whom and why? What are the advanced features and behaviors that will give our ideas the widest circulation?

6. Ascending to Pay
At this point, more than a handful of people who started as amateurs are now professionals. One of the undiscussed topics was how did you do it? Should I? How much do you make? And how? Now that book blogging is no longer principally the perview of rank amateurs (most are at least comptent amateurs), the ins and outs of making your blog pay is a conversation worth having--not just because there is money to be made, but also because people should think about the costs and benefits of going pro---or pro-ish.

7. The Writing is the Thing
I think most people who read book blogs can agree that the number one reason to keep reading a blog is the writing. Whether formal, conversational, satirical, confessional, analytical, emotional, comedic, or arch, what a blog says and how they say is its central feature. So it's a bit of an omission not to talk about writing approaches at all. Staging such a discussion is probably quite difficult, but I think we could all benefit from thinking about how to do the work of writing about books better, whatever we understand better to be.

8. Tools
I was excited to see a panel on technology this year, and I think more of this needs to happen. There are so many moving parts to the web that book bloggers could stand to learn more about (my hand is raised highest here). A series of 30 minute tutorials on web design, fonts, SEO, Google Analytics, hosting, and any of the myriad topics an independent web publisher should know about would be a major help.

9. It's the People, Stupid
I know this, but I always forget it: the sessions themselves aren't the main draw to these kind of events. It's the people you know and don't yet know that matter. I should have tried to make the reception the night before or any of the satellite events, but my natural introversion and stubborness took over. Someone remind me next year that I am an idiot if I don't do this stuff.
And with that, The Reading Ape is going to step away from the big picture, meta-blogging posts and return to something like regularly programming. Thanks to my non-blogging readers for sticking out the last few weeks. You both have been very patient.

Updates on Book Blogging Survey and Book Blogger Con Swag Giveaway

Two follow-up things on this Memorial Day:

1. The responses to my eight questions about book blogging have been excellent. I encourage those of you interested in the present and future of book blogging to check them out. I think I will not respond myself and let my series of posts on book blogging speak for themselves.

2. The interest in my Book Blogger Convention Swag Giveaway has also been strong. The stuff is sitting right here next to me. I won't go through it (that spoils the fun), but there are 8-10 books and a variety of other trinkets. I'll keep entries open until tomorrow night at 11:59pm EST. If you still haven't entered and want to, just send an email to readingape AT gmail DOT com and include a link to your book blog (sorry book bloggers only please).

Reflections on the Book Blogger Convention coming up...maybe today, but probably tomorrow.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Blogger Convention Swag Giveaway

Tomorrow, I'm headed to the Book Blogger Convention at the Javits Center here in New York. Several interesting panels, some authors and publicists, and a bunch of people who know their way around a blog.

I know a lot of book bloggers out there would like to go and can't make it. Well, I can't do anything about that, but I can give you a little piece of the action: the swag.

Here's what I am going to do: I'm going to send my share of swag to one book blogger out there. And the list of sponsors looks pretty tasty.

No tricks, no required follows or retweets or anything (though if you did, more people will hear about it. Though I guess that's bad if you want to win).

Here's how you enter:
Send an email to readingape AT gmail DOT com with a link to your book blog. If you win, I'll ask for your mailing address. That's it!

Two restrictions:
1. You have to have a book blog that's been updated in the past two months.
2. This one's a little more painful: US only. I'm going to be mailing this on my own dime, and the package is likely to have a fair number of books. And I am not made out of money. While I do have some affiliate cash banked from referrals here at The Ape, they probably will just barely cover the domestic postage.


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yawning at the Apocalypse: Thoughts from the BEA 2011 Showfloor

This time last year, I had been blogging for about six weeks before I went to BEA. The experience was eye-opening; I knew little about the world of publishing and publicity. It was exciting to get copies of books that I didn't yet know existed and wouldn't be available to the public for several months. There were also authors I admired signing around every corner.

A year later, I am more interested than excited. I pay much more attention to publishing news, so nothing at BEA was really a surprise. Also, my reading list is longer now that it has ever been, so there's quite a bit less room for serendipity or experimentation. So I turned up at BEA more for the spectacle than for the surprise.

Here's a few things I saw:

1. I think the rise of self-publishing reduced the number of oddball publishers and authors at BEA. For the entry fee, they can do quite a bit more online and ensorcel unsuspecting readers directly.

2. Imprints from the Middle East had some seriously huge and beautiful booths. Though, much like a mall in Dubai, they were huge, beautiful, and empty.

3. It's all well and good to know that China has some human rights issues, but it's another thing to flip through an English language Chinese magazine and see absolutely no critique or observation of anything wrong with any aspect of Chinese life.

4. There was one guy sitting the lounge outside the registration area with a weird hat advertising his book PROVING GOD. He sat there alone and made no move to pitch anyone his book or move about at all. I guess they don't make evangelicals like they used to.

5. It's one thing to know that romance moves the most units; it's another thing to see the Harlequin autograph lines. And it's another thing to try to cross those lines to saner ground.

6. Florence Henderson does not blink. Not in a metaphorical sticks-to-her-guns way, but in a Madame Tussaud's way.

7. The coolest thing I saw was Xerox's on-demand publishing set-up. This thing is basically the size of a washer and dryer and can spit out a pretty attractive paperback in a few minutes. I'm currently wondering if they will accept my left kidney as payment.

8.  In case there was an doubt, I am an elitist pig.

9. It's really too bad that the walk from Penn Station to the Javits Center is one of the 9 ugliest walks in Manhattan. The other eight are from behind dumpsters in the Lower East Side back to your apartment.

10. I thought e-galleys would be a big thing this year. I was wrong. You know what is a big thing? Publishers scared shitless of e-publishing.

11. Best way to spend your publicity dollars at BEA: complex carbohydrates. Cookies, whoopie pies, pastries, bagels, whatever. For 100 bucks worth of Oreos, you can have every librarian in New England visit your booth. Of course, then you have every librarian in New England at your booth. Kidding, librarians, kidding. We all love you. Now. Back in grade school you creeped us out.

12. The L. Ron Hubbard landing craft was a bit smaller this year, though it was more informative. Did you know you can get Dianetics in over 37 Earth languages?

13. I really want to care about self-published novels. I saw nothing that moved the needle for me though. (Keep it clean, Ape. Keep it clean).

14. Blogging about literature is exponentially more interesting that the publishing business. And more relevant too.

15. YA literature.....the enthusiasm for the genre blows me away. I wish literary fiction had as much juice going for it. Lines of people 100 deep waiting for autographs from people I had never heard of. Considerably shorter lines for Karl Marlantes autographs. Sigh.

16. Tote bag hoarding was in full effect. Saw one surly homonculus with about 12 bags completely empty freebies on his shoulder. Disconcerting.

17. A truckload of digital publishing businesses who all provide weirdly vague services. Can't help but think this is a kind of carpetbagging before the war is over.

18. Couldn't swing a dead cat without seeing something using an Ipad. I mean, my dead cat kept hitting those bastards.

19. Didn't realize it until I was out on the showfloor, but I am about ten times as interested in the Book Blogger Convention than anything the publishing business is hawking. Not a great sign for them.

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Eight Questions about the State and Future of Book Blogging

In the run-up the Book Blogger Convention on Friday, I've been writing a series of posts about various aspects of book blogging. This is the last in that series, and a list of the earlier entries can be found in the first few sentences of this previous post. Thanks for reading. 

In 1925, W.E.B Du Bois, worried that African American art had strayed from the goal of social justice, sent a questionnaire to influential authors and publishers. In it, he asked them a series of questions about what they thought African American arts and letters should be about.

He must have been quite disappointed. Rather than affirm his own belief that African American art should be propaganda for African American equality, most of the respondents argued for the freedom of the artist to follow whatever path their “genius” desired.

But then Du Bois did a fairly remarkable thing; he published the responses in his magazine, Crisis. All of them. To my knowledge he never wrote about them, he quietly printed them over the course of a year and let his essay “The Criteria of Negro Art,” speak for him.

I’ve always admired Du Bois for this; he asked hard questions and didn’t duck the answers, perhaps realizing that the conversation was just as important as the subject.

It’s in this spirit that I’d invite you to respond to a series of questions about book blogging; these questions are meant to kindle conversation as much as they are to arrive at anything like answers.

If you’d like to respond in the comments, please do so. If you’d like to respond on your own blog, please let me know and I’ll link it up here. If you would like to run your responses as a guest post here at The Reading Ape, I would be thrilled to run it, just let me know at readingape AT gmail DOT com.

Here are the questions:

1. What does book blogging do best?
2. If you write a book blog, why do you?
3. What do you think the future of book blogging is?
4. What do your favorite book bloggers do?
5. If you could tell all book bloggers one thing, what would it be?
6. If you could change one thing about book blogging, what would it be?
7. How do you think book blogging fits into the reading landscape?
8. What about your own book blogging would you like to do better/differently?


Ken at The Ken
Ellen at Fat Books, Thin Women
Mummazappa at The Book Nerd Club
Reader's Quest
What Red Read
She Treads Softly
Ben at Dead End Follies
Nicole at Bibliographing
Jillian at A Room of One's Own
Every Book and Cranny
Falcata Times

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Blogging and The Publishing Complex

This the next and penultimate post in my recent series on book blogging. The comments on the previous entries (on reviewing and subjectivity [1, 2, 3], the problem of pleasure, blogging and literary terminology [1,2], thinking about your reviewing audience, the phenomenon of buzz, and the seven things readers want from publishing) have been wonderful. I highly recommend checking them out.

At the moment, I am reading and enjoying Michael Palmer's new novel, The Watery Part of the World. As much I like the book (it is fine novel, indeed), the most interesting thing about it is that I shouldn't be reading it. Or rather, I shouldn't have heard of it; the only reason I am reading it is because the publisher sent a review copy. I didn't ask for it, hell I didn't even know it existed, but it showed up, so I read the blurb and the first dozen pages and kept going. The publicity machine of publishing dangled the smallest worm, and I bit like a spawning salmon.

Though I've received review copies before, this is the first time where I didn't ask for something and ended up spending time with it. And honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I don't know if you've noticed it, but book blogs are slowly becoming a significant part of book publishing. Book tours, author interviews, sponsored giveaways, advertising, event promotion---the boundless enthusiasm book bloggers have for reading has been noticed by the publishing complex and they are trying to figure out how to use it to sell books. This, of course, is there job and a healthy publishing industry I think is good for readers, but I wonder if it is good for book blogs.

I started reading book blogs about seven or eight years ago, and I've noticed that the blogs that became widely read found their writers being plucked out of blogging into mainstream publishing (Mark Sarvas, Maud Newton, Ron Hogan, to name a few). Many of these blogs are now either gone, incorporated into publishing houses, or shadows of their former selves. Many of the currently popular blogs and bloggers have significant, growing ties to publishers, bookstores, and writers.

See, the thing I love the most about book blogs is the naked, unadulterated readerly passion. Call it being a geek, a dork, a fanboy or fangirl, whatever. The love of reading that spurs someone to write a blog about whatever they happen to be reading just because they need an outlet for their excitement is infectious, inspirational, and affirming.

Maybe it's a paranoid concern, but I can't help but wonder if book blogs will change, will lose some of their valuable amateurism, as they become increasingly linked to the business of books. I see this happen in the academy (and it is one of the reasons I started The Reading Ape); the more someone's livelihood and professional prospects are tied to something, the harder it is to follow your bliss.

What do you make of the strengthening ties between publishing and book blogging?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Literary Techniques and Book Blogging: A Response

Many thanks for those of you who responded to my post about reading and literary terminology. The breadth and complexity of those comments made my regular mode of responding in the comment section itself seem inadequate (and makes me anxious to install some kind of more sophisticated commenting system. A project for after BEA).

Anyway, let me highlight a few points and respond.

1. It seems that, for the most part, those not actively studying literature or teaching it have lost the majority of whatever literary vocabulary they once had. I'm not at all surprised by this and I'm sure for most of us there is some area(s) of our education that is rusty beyond use. (At one point, I was a philosophy major, but my mastery of thinkers and particular schools of thought are now long gone).

2. Also perhaps unsurprising, those that think about/use literary terminology as they read and write think it's important to do so.

3. This third observation is the most interesting to me as it gets to the center of why I asked this question: many commenters expressed a concern that the infiltration of literary vocabulary into reading and reviewing would come at the expense of enjoyment. Jackie's story about SCUBA diving best represents this position--that copious, detailed knowledge about a subject interferes with a more organic experience of that subject.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to write about literature in a way that the academy does not allow--somehow more personal, passionate, informal, and perhaps even funny. I have consciously refrained from using much academic jargon here, both because I can do that elsewhere and because I've felt that the instant I deploy "metonymy" or "negative capability" the tenor of my writing and thinking changes dramatically. The pleasure/rigor binary, though, doesn't seem necessary or desirable to me at this point.

Tolmsted and Greg both posited that some compromise might be possible, to use the tools of scholarship but do so in a different spirit. This seems to me an exciting possibility that squarely matches both my expertise and desire--to use the skills I have but to do so in a more readable, entertaining way: to not mistake or link inextricably the tools and the tone (Tolmsted, I think this might answer your question about why I am asking these questions).

Perhaps this will fail, but if so at least it will be a failure of imagination.

Philip Roth and The Man Booker Judging

As has been widely discussed, last week Philip Roth won the Man Booker International Prize (which might as well be called, "For Those Who Haven't Won Nobels." This choice would have been widely accepted, even perhaps expected, if one of the judges had not resigned her position over the selection.

Carmen Callil decided to air her grievances publicly and spectacularly, with initial disparagement and now more considered remarks.

This is the stuff of good literary water-coolering ("It feels as if he is sitting on your face") and a fair glimpse of the politicking and subjectivity of such awards. To be honest, I tend not to find the back-room dealing of the judges interesting, though I do care about who wins these awards since they tend to provide the most publicity literature receives over the course of the year.

What strikes me know, though, is how little Callil's objection to Roth is about Roth himself: of her 828 words, less than a hundred of them are about Roth specifically. The rest are about the scope of the award and her displeasure about the process. I was anxious to see why Callil objected to Roth strongly, but instead all she said was this:

There are great moments in Roth's work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor's clothes. 
Hard to admire him, hard to see him on the long list, hard to award him this international prize.
If I understand this correctly, Callil's concern is the narrowness of Roth's writerly interest, mainly that that interest is principally "himself" and that self holds little interest to Callil. 

Analyzing Callil's argument is difficult here because she states a preference and doesn't use much in the way of evidence. Still, there are a couple of interesting points here. 

First, the number of metaphors she uses to describe her dissatisfaction is fascinating: "reach," "narrow," "canvas," "digs," "oceanic," and "swish of emperor's clothes." There is a certain cognitive dissonance here (how does one dig into an ocean), but at its core, Callil's complaint is about scope. In her estimation, Roth's artistic vision is limited and that to which it is limited is of little interest to her. 

That Callil finds the fact that Roth's greatest subject is Roth tiresome is of course her prerogative, but I wonder if she isn't missing the point of Roth's self-examination, and in doing so misses reason he is the most decorated and widely read living writer of American literary fiction. Roth's signature achievement is not spectacular understanding, but a consistent, experimental, literary investigation of the 20th century's central artistic theme: the problem of the self. 

Roth's consternation over the self leads him to a staggering display of artistic virtuosity, encompassing nearly the whole array of mid-to-late 20th Century generic forms. Incendiary debut? Goodbye, Columbus. Shocking coming-of-age novel? Portnoy's Complaint. Confessional literature? The Zuckerman Trilogy. Speculative fiction? The Plot Against America. Magical Realism? The Ghost Writer. Postmodernism? Operation Shylock. Satire? The Great American Novel. Domestic drama? American Pastoral. Carnivalesque? Sabbath's Theater. And the list could go on. 

Roth's "limited" vision is the vision of kaleidoscope--fragmented, combinatorial, various, and beautiful. Callil's privileging of subject ignores the bounty of Roth's formal mastery. To dismiss him for only writing about himself would be like dismissing Monet for only painting plants. 

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Do You Think About Literary Techniques as You Read and Review?

I made a claim in my first post about book blogging and the "I"-centered review that I'd like a little feedback on:  "the spread of "I"-centered reviewing covers for a relative lack of vocabulary and strategies for reviewing books."

What I want to know, well, I I right?

I recently saw this list of 40 basic literary terms mentioned quite a bit, and the number and velocity of links, tweets, and reblogs suggested that people want more vocabulary for this stuff than maybe they have at their disposal.

Maybe this question is more generative--do you think about the techniques and vocabulary when you are reading or reviewing literature? 

I know many of you have studied literature--how much of that education and training remains in your head? And what percentage of that could you use?

Would you like to use more formal terminology and modes of analysis? Why or why not?

I'm really quite interested in this and appreciate whatever feedback you can give. 

The "I"s Have It, Once More With Feeling, Follow-Up

Most welcomely, Jillian of A Room of One's Own responded to my last post on book blogging and subjectivity. Unfortunately, a blog-related snag created a little ill-will. For some reason, Blogger decided to list a comment she made on that post as spam. She, perhaps understandably, thought she was perhaps being prevented from commenting. Long-story, short: I've unspammed the comment, which you can read here, and commented on her latest post about the whole matter, which you can read in the comment thread to that post. (I've also responded to the blocked comment here. If you've made it this far, bully for you).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The "I"s Have It, Once More With Feeling

This topic has generated more feedback than anything else I've written on this blog, and I find myself unable to let one of the comments in particular pass without more substantial comment. (First post, second post)

Jillian of A Room of One's Own took exception to my desire for book bloggers to use more evidence and do more analysis in book reviews. I don't agree with her, but not for the reasons she thinks we don't agree. This misunderstanding is worth thinking about.

She writes:
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.
 A few things to note here.

1. Some book bloggers are only journaling.

I know many people use blogs as reading journals, but my question is this: why make it public? I can only assume that the desire to journal online includes the desire to have people read what you write. My point is that if you readers, hell even one reader, who will read what you write about books, you have an opportunity to do more than journal. Pick your verb for what that is, but I am thinking along the lines of "enrich," "educate," "entertain," "inspire," "complicate," "contribute," and so on. If you are giving your opinions of books, you may well get a readership, but what is it that you are offering that readership? And how can you offer them more?

2. 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.

Unless you are writing history or doing mere description/summary, there is no way to avoid writing what you "personally" think. I am not arguing, nor shall I ever, that there is a way to objective book reviewing. In fact, I am actually arguing for a much more transparent, contemplative subjectivity, a subjectivity that not only expresses your reaction, but gets into details about the source and nature of those reactions. One last thing here: since I write somewhat formally and from an academic background, many readers assume that I think only "dry" and "proper" writing about literature is acceptable. This could not be further from the truth: I want writing about literature to come in all flavors. A diverse, invigorated, on-going literary conversation is good for literature, and it's good for me. No matter the style though, writing about literature can be in service of making us all better readers. 

3. 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.

So do I. That's why I started a book blog and don't just write academic essays. The fact that this is positioned as an either/or choice for writing about literature gets to the heart of my thinking. I think that there is a wide, inhabitable space between impressionistic reviewing (describing the "dance") and scholarly writing. That analysis and evidence are cast out with academic/high criticism hurts book blogging. Analysis doesn't have to be boring, nor does using evidence. In fact, I think it can be amazingly illuminative, both for the reader and for the reviewer. Why do you hate the main character? Why do you think the plot is unlikely? What does that say about the book and what does it say about you? Why do you think that is? This is not the stuff of graduate seminars (though sometimes I wish it were)--this is the stuff of living an examined life. 

I'm going to put a coda on this discussion with a bit of one my earlier posts. In it, I disagree with Sarah Mancuso's reading of the end of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I include it here as an example of what I hope to do more often here, not as an exemplar for how other people should review. A few words about it after.

Mancuso on Freedom:

"...Freedom focuses on two fully human adults who, despite their history of betrayals, return to each other. When Patty and Walter drive away from the lake house, they complete the book’s convincing depiction of a mature marriage—one that survives serious conflicts and requires serious mercies. It isn’t nostalgia for Walter’s affair that broke my heart; it’s Patty’s forgiveness, and Walter’s forgiveness of her own betrayal, and the reminder that such forgiveness is possible..."
Mancuso reads Freedom's end with considerably more hope than I do. In her assessment of these novels, Mancuso provides compelling textual evidence, but here at the end she abandons direct quotation of the text. To my mind, one paragraph describes the nature of Walter and Patty's reconnection, and it is the reader's interpretation of that paragraph that will determine how positive their reconciliation is. I'll quote at length:

"Her eyes weren't blinking. There was still something almost dead in them, something very far away. She seemed to be seeing all the way through to the back of him and beyond, out into the cold empty space of the future in which they would both soon be dead, out into the nothingness that Lalitha and his mother and his father had already passed into, and yet she was looking straight into his eyes, and he could feel her getting warmer by the minute. And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside of him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they'd ever said or done, every pain they'd inflicted, every joy they'd shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind" (p. 559).
I find it difficult to call this moment forgiveness. Forgiveness implies a kind of ethical transaction in which wrongs against a moral system are pardoned. Here, the moral system is completely obliterated by "the void." This absence of ethics makes any transgression meaningless, any emotional benevolence null. Their relationship here is cast as a strategic alliance against nothingness--not a turn to each other as subjects of meaning and value.
But that’s me.  

There are a few things I am pleased with here. First, I used a relevant quotation and looked at the passage in detail---no scholarly apparatus required. Second, my reader can follow my logic because they can look at the text in front of them. Third, I didn't even know I felt this way until I wrote about it. And this is where I will end: writing with analysis and evidence actually tells you more about what you think than you even know. You already know how you feel about something, what you don't know is why. Writing can be the most intense personal exploration there is, a place of deep subjectivity and discovery.

In short, write about books in a way only you can write about them. Do it generously, passionately, and deeply.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Loner's Guide to Book Expo America

I have been to BEA a grand total of one times and so am highly qualified to give advice. This isn’t “wear comfortable shoes” advice, though you should do that. (Actually, you should wear comfortable shoes all the time. Except when you are trying to chase me down—then by all means wear some torturous Carrie Bradshaw pair).

1. The book that is being given away left and right is going to be the book you are going to be sick of hearing about in six months. So read that right away before hype fatigue becomes a problem. 
2. If you try to crash the librarian’s special reception/lounge, you will be met with stronger language than “quiet, please.” Unless you are a librarian, in which case it is all high-fives and ass-slaps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to librarians; you should. You should definitely look for them at the bars and buy them tequila sunrises. You really haven’t gazed into the dark void of book nerddom until some glassy-eyed children’s librarian delivers an homily on her love of Ramona Quimby, Age 8.  
3. Do not drop your business card into every “WIN AN IPAD” giveaway. The only thing you will win is an unstemmable tide of email spam.  
4. Drinking game idea: go to a trend panel and do a shot every time someone uses reason or evidence. By the end, you’ll still be as sober as a Japanese nuclear engineer. 
5. Check out the remainder pavilion but don’t dawdle. The dudes who lurk there are a little sketchy. Like drives-a-windowless-minivan-and-knows-his-way-around-a-roll-of-ducttape sketchy. 
6. If you find yourself waiting and hour for an autographed copy of some C-list celebrity’s ghostwritten memoir, then it’s time to reconsider your station in life and your prospects for future happiness. Also, wave to me.
7. Do not tell a clutch of self-pubbed novelists that you write reviews. Save yourself the time by getting on the 6 train to the Bronx Zoo, cutting your femoral artery, and jumping into the piranha tank.  
8. No one likes a free totebag whore. No one that is, except people looking for people to mock on Twitter.

9. To maximize your quality-value ratio, don’t eat at any restaurants between 30th Street and 72nd Street. Unless it is a vaguely “pan-Asian” restaurant. Those places are only slightly below average, but pretty damn cheap.

10. Go to The Strand, but not with a shopping list. Pretend you are in the last scene of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and pick out just one thing--“Choose wisely.” 
11. Don’t bother with a map of the Javits Center. Just let the random placement of escalators flow over you.

12. The press area’s refreshment spread might make a Benedictine monk’s fridge look downright decadent, but there are chairs and Ethernet ports. Also, it seems to be scantily policed, so you don’t even have to have a lightly-trafficked literary blog to get in. 
That's all I have for you. Stay tuned for woefully ill-informed and poorly-researched live-coverage from BEA next week!

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Whom Do You Review For?

My mini-series on book blogging continues. This post grows out of previous discussions on "I"-centered reviewing (part 1, part 2). The third post on the problem with pleasure is here.

 This post starts with a confession: I haven't written a review for this blog since January. It's not because I haven't been reading (I have) nor is it because I don't want to (I do). It's because I can't seem to formulate what I want the reviews to do here: I only know what I don't want. I don't want impressionistic "I loved it/hated" reviews; there are plenty places people can get that. I also don't want to try to emulate mainstream reviewing templates, again those exist well enough out there.

What does that leave exactly? I'm not exactly sure.

I have realized though, that what I need to decide first is whom I am reviewing for. This seems like a relatively simple question, but damn and blast, it is not. There are a great many possible audiences and deciding which of these audiences are of interest seems the crucial first step in resuscitating my reviewing. I should note that I am not talking about "taste" here but more about what the reader wants from the review, not what they want from the book being reviewed.

Here are the possible audiences I've come up with:

1. Readers who are looking for a recommendation
I think most book blog reviews write for this audience. This reader basically wants to be persuaded to read a book. The reviewing strategies for this reader can still be varied, but the central goal of the role will be judgment. Frankly, this doesn't interest me as a primary task.

2. Readers who have already read the book
Writing for readers who have read the book opens up a whole range of discussion possibilities. You can mostly eliminate the tedious task of summary and judgment. You can delve deeply into the content and form. You can ask questions and start a discussion (reviews of books most readers haven't read don't tend to generate many comments).

3. Readers who like to read reviews
These folks might fall into the other categories as well, but I do think there is a subset of people who enjoy book talk. They like hearing interesting ideas and particular readings. Their interest might not be so much in the book under discussion but the discussion itself.

4. Writers
 Some reviewers write with the author in mind and consider the review space as a kind of instruction. What does the writer do well and what do they need to work on?

5. Review Copies
Book bloggers love review copies and writing positive reviews is a good way to get on that train.

6. Writing to History
This is more the purview of academics, but some reviews function to place a work in social-historical-artistic context.

7. Yourself
Writing a review of a book can catalyze thinking that doesn't necessarily happen in the process of just reading the book. It can serve as memory, just capturing thoughts, and it can serve as a kind of crucible, in which your thoughts about the books are crystallized. It can also be a space of discovery, of engagement with the book that leads you to places you wouldn't have reached otherwise.


The more I think about it, the more I think Groups 2 and 7 interest me the most. I'm not exactly sure what that means at this point, but I think it means something for my future reviewing.

Have I missed an audience segment here? Do you think about who you review for? Do you think about how who you review for informs the kind of books you read and the kind of reviewing you do?

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Tyranny of Pleasure

I'm continuing with a series of reflections on book blogging. Check out earlier installments on overusing "I" (and redux) and why we spend so much time not writing about what we read.


I've paid close attention over the last years to the posts in which a blogger lists their favorite books of all time. Most are drawn from a familiar pool (The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, and the like) with a couple of more idiosyncratic titles thrown in. In general, these are a well-crafted, serious works of literary art. This fact stands in stark contrast to something else I've been watching closely: the dominance of crime and romance on bestseller lists.

How is it that most people's favorite books are neither crime nor romance but these are the books that people buy most often?

I think the common answer would be something like "most people enjoy easy, fun reads" and while I don't think this answer is wrong, the emphasis is generally misplaced. This answer tends to blame the unsophisticated reader, but I think the culprit is the verb "enjoy." For once enjoyment becomes the principal mode of evaluation, a certain kind of experience will tend to be sought again and again. Such is the tyranny of pleasure.

Pleasure's tyranny has two sources: the fleeting nature of pleasure and the fact that seat of pleasure resides in the already-known. Taken together, these two characteristics make pleasure the enemy of experimentation, difficulty, and, in the end, enrichment.

That pleasure is fleeting is so well-known that it hardly warrants discussion, but the fact that crime and romance fiction tend to offer the most concentrated doses of readerly pleasure is perhaps not obvious. Readerly pleasure is generally aligned with "page-turning," the almost compulsive need on the reader's part to race through the book. Here, consumption is aligned with pleasure: the more greedily you run-through a novel, the more pleasurable it is. This quality of pleasure, the desire for consumption, then generates a need for more: more pages, more murders, more romantic intrigue, more and more and more to the point where sufficiently successful authors cannot fill demand for their work and farm out their name to other writers.

The second quality of pleasure that is relevant here is pleasure's preference for the known. We tend to desire that which we know. This might seem a tautology (how could you desire something you don't know) and perhaps it is, but for readers, it means that readers who primarily read for pleasure tend to stay within a certain, limited material.

As it so happens, crime and romance deal in consumption and the familiar directly. Both genres hold out the resolution as the goal of the plot: the evidence and investigation lead to a "solved" crime, the courtship and badinage lead to a coupling. That there is a clear finish-line leads readers to race toward it.

Not only do both genres offer a resolution, but it is a resolution that reaffirms normative values. In crime fiction, the crime is almost always solved. The moral fabric of the world is sutured by having the criminals be captured or at least identified. In romance, the chaos of social life is domesticated by romantic coupling. The idea, so romance would have it, is that the falleness and imperfection of the world can be ignored if only the right paramour is located and secured. Both genres create order out of chaos; they transform the unknowable into the familiar.

These two features pleasure, consumption and the familiar, can, given the right conditions, lead readers to strip mine certain genres and authors. If you are a fairly serious reader, you have probably had the experience of reading a new author, loving it, and then tearing through that author's backlist. This was probably enjoyable, but I would also guess that it wasn't exactly gratifying; once you finished the last book, you probably were less satisfied than you were left wanting more. (I call this this "Dorito" effect).

Lest I be accused of snobbery (again), I do not mean to suggest you should only draw your meager gruel from the classics or the high-brow. There is a place in your reading diet both for Fruit Loops and Foie Gras. But if you only or even primarily read "for fun," you are leaving the most complex, most nourishing, most soul-sustaining books on the shelf.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Offshoot of the Buzz

With my one-year anniversary of this blog in the recent past and The Book Blogger Convention fast-approaching, I've been thinking about what I want this space to be and about book blogging in general. The two recent posts about reviewing and subjectivity generated such interesting feedback that I'm going to write a few more in a mini-series about a few issues in book blogging. Here's the next.

There is a great scene in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous where the excitable, huckster frontman of up-and-coming Southern rock band Stillwater tries to describe what rock and roll is all about:

JEFF BEBE: What it all comes down to is that thing, that indefinable thing when people catch something from your music. What I'm talking about is...wait, what am I talking about?


JEFF BEBE: The buzz, yes. And the chicks and the whatever is an offshoot off the buzz.

As much as Bebe is selling himself to his interviewer, he strikes something true here about music and the arts in general; it's damn hard to talk about how a work of art affects you. The right words for how you felt at the end of The Grapes of Wrath or the experience of As I Lay Dying or the delight of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are frustratingly elusive.

And so we get "offshoots of the buzz"--placeholders and substitutes for the "indefinable thing" of reading something great. This is a particular malady of book blogging, rather than try to relay our own experience so that someone else might understand it, we make lists of our favorite sci-fi settings. Or fetishize bookshelves. Or geek out about meeting an author or completing a challenge of reading a book for every letter in the alphabet or doing a weekly round-up of what we picked up a the library.

That's not a critique of these practices; I know many people enjoy them. Still, I can't help but wonder if sometimes we mistake the trappings of reading with the thing we like about reading. Do I really like deckle edges, or is just a Pavlovian expectation of something new and interesting? Do I really care who won the Pulitzer Prize or is it just something I can discuss more easily than how sublime the descriptions in say, Gilead, are?

Are we really writing about what we love about reading or just writing about those things about reading that are easier to write about?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The "I"s Have It, Redux

Thanks to all who commented on my earlier post about using "I" in book reviewing; you really got me thinking.  

There was so much generative feedback in fact that I think a follow-up post is warranted. I don't have a single argument to make here as previously, so let me just address some of the things you guys said. 

1. Greg wrote: "Our jobs are to find the middle ground between Kakutani and "It didn't grab my attention, so I hated it"

Maybe I framed this wrong, but I didn't mean to suggest that using the first-person to discuss books forecloses the possibility of thinking about them seriously. In fact, I would very much like to see rigorous, provocative book discussion that manages to be intimate and "personal" (more on this word in a minute). The problem, as I see it, is that so many bloggers who claim to be reviewing books are using the personal nature of blogging to absolve themselves of any responsibility to the text in front of them. 

2. Amanda wrote: " 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."

I might be wrong about this, but I have always considered Dead White Guys a bit of a satire of book blogging in general. (Is this something you ever thought about consciously, Amanda?) I tend not to learn very much about the books, but reading her critiques are funny in their own right. 

3. Teresa wrote: "I'm all for celebrating our subjectivity and owning our biases ('cause we all have them)"

Teresa is on to something here. The cultural dominance of self-awareness about subjectivity is partially to blame for the infestation of reactive writing in book blogging, in student writing as Heather notes, and the wider world. Unfortunately, our training to speak from the I and to speak only for ourselves has brought along with it a disregard for persuasion and generous analysis, of showing our readers why we think the things we think. If my sensibility is irredeemably idiosyncratic, the logic goes, then there is no reason to explain it, because your subjectivity will be different anyway. This is a rationalization that abdicates thinking and explanation. 

4. Sian wrote: "What are blogs for? I suppose to express your feelings and it shouldn't matter how you do it!"

Couple of points here. While I would never try to diagnose the proper use of blogs, I do think that Sian's sense that blogging is to "express your feelings" is rampant. That's fine. My question is "why should I care about your feelings?" And, of course it matters how you do it. Do you express yourself honestly? with empathy for others? with generosity toward your readers? for personal monetary gain? to beat back loneliness? The "how" matters a great deal. I want to the the "how" of book blogging be serious, entertaining, intimate, provocative, and diverse. I want it to enrich not only my own reading life, but the reading lives of everyone. If book blogging is largely individual reaction, I do not think it will play the kind of role in supporting  literary culture that it could. And this would be a material loss. 

5. Jackie wrote:  "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...there's a book blog out there for everyone."

Perhaps I did come down a little strong. I agree that a diversity of book blogs is both desirable and beneficial. That said, I'm not sure that most book blogs are all that different from each other. Nor did I mean to suggest that all reviews need to "deep analysis": what I do think a responsible book review should do is provide evidence for the judgment/opinion. If you aren't doing that, you aren't reviewing; you are just giving a rating. And there's a place for that, of course. But when we mistake that for "reviewing" or "discussion," then we impoverish both terms. 

6. Christina wrote: "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?"

If one function of a review is to serve as a recommendation (or lack thereof), then establishing your reading sensibilities is crucial. As Christina suggests, this is very difficult to do unless your reader has a wide set of your reviews to compare against their own taste. One thing more sustentative reviewing does is provide a reader-reviewer connection in the space of one review. If you can manage to say interesting things about a book, I don't need to see the scope of your opinions to be persuaded. 

This leads me to another point: the overuse of "reaction" reviewing flattens the possibilities of what a review can do to one thing: help a reader decide if they should read the book under discussion. I think that is an important part of the process, but by no means the only or even the most important goal of reviewing. 


Monday, May 2, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: Handing Out Awards to the Judges

So the The 2011 Tournament of Books ended almost a month ago, crowning Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad winner in a 9-8 decision over Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Since then, Goon Squad has gone on to win The Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize to go along with its National Book Critics Circle Award. Clearly, Egan's book is the must-read novel of 2010 and deservedly so.

But we're not here to judge the books; we're here to judge the judges. Here are some hits and misses from the omnibus decision:


1. The Best Analytical Point Award goes to Anthony Doerr
From a certain angle these books feel the same: well-made realistic fiction zeroing in on American bourgeoisie. Sharp detailing. A smattering of jokes. Searing observations about suburbia.
Many of the judges commented on Goon Squad and Freedom having a certain shared ethos, and Doerr nails it here. This observation is not only true of the final pairing, but of the wider tournament field itself. This was a tournament largely about middle and upper middle class white people in contemporary America. The stylistic differences between Franzen and Egan mask a deeper sympathy and might be making difference out of sameness.

2. The Best Metaphor Award goes to Andrew Womack:
For me, this decision comes down to pacing, and Franzen is the Pink Floyd to Egan’s Sex Pistols; by the end of Freedom I couldn’t take another meandering guitar solo, while I was dazzled by how much Goon Squad packed into such a compact space.
While I think Womack is misusing "pacing," which is about cadence and tempo and not length, he's right to mention the reading experience of each work. We're living in a Goon Squad world where shorter, percussive cultural objects about experimentation and recombination seem to be winning the day. Freedom has more in common structurally with Henry James than with anything that exists in our digital age.

3. The Best Perspective Award goes to John Williams:
Egan’s refracted structure seems only half-necessary, and I’m not sure that in 2011 it’s as innovative as it’s gotten credit for.
Williams is bang-on here: the "innovative" appellation is overblown. Goon Squad isn't even the most technically experimental work in the field (Nox and Super Sad True Love Story would rank above it). And though most reviewers, myself included, haven't paid enough attention to the why of Egan's structure, I do think there is a relationship between the structure and her central concerns that is stronger than "half-necessary."  

4. The Seeing the Forest for the Trees Award goes to C. Max McGee:
Where Freedom is a novel of oversharing, telling many episodes from several angles, Goon Squad, often to its benefit, floats us among characters and across decades.
McGee does us the service of noting the difference between scope and length. For all its heft, Freedom is a more focused, exploratory work, concerned with detail, ambiguity, disagreement and indecision. This kind of narrative noodling takes a great deal of time. Goon Squad is like Rufus from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, dropping in and out of history for the most interesting bits. If we prefer Goon Squad to Freedom these days, it might well be that we prefer sampling and observation to sustained investigation.

5.  The Best Invocation of Subjectivity Award goes to Elif Batuman:
Freedom, however, sucked me in from page one. Its central issues—the good versus the cool; how to reconcile sex with normal life; how to live—are particularly close to my heart these days.
 Batumann manages to speak from her own taste in a way that tells us something about the texts at hand without resorting to judgment. I think she identifies the source of the messiness that Freedom is sometimes charged with: how do you write a book about these knotty issues in a way that doesn't end up confused and compromised? Any such effort would likely be dismissed as unrealistic and naive (e.g., the ending of Lionel Shriver's So Much for That). Goon Squad's central themes (time, detachment, and distance) lend themselves more readily to cleaner, more burnished stories. I do wonder if there are two types of reading personalities: one group prefers literature that makes order out of chaos and the other group wants literature to revel in the messiness.


1. The Beating a Dead Horse Award goes to Jennifer Weiner
 It’s like Sophie’s Choice, if Sophie hated both her kids.Worse, neither book was any fun. Freedom’s characters range from loathsome to despicable, with the author’s contempt dripping from every sentence. Egan’s book seemed more like an exercise in Let Me Show You How Clever I Am than anything as lowbrow as entertainment. But Egan gets my vote, because if Franzen takes the prize, then the terrorists win.
Weiner had a chance to add substance to her on-going displeasure about the separation of "serious literature" from "chick lit." Instead, she chose unfunny sarcasm, a reference to the holocaust, and the always creative Let Me Capitalize Things To Show Ironic Distance From a Category strategy of satire. (Also, how is not being any fun "worse" than having to choose which of your children to kill?). If Weiner ever again wonders why people might not take her seriously as she might like, she'll have the comfort of returning to this brief paragraph to assuage her anxiety.

2. The Everyone Who Plays Gets A Ribbon Award goes to Matthew Baldwin
In the first round I decided against Super Sad True Love Story in its second paragraph, so you’ll be pleased to hear that I made it all the way to page 11 of Freedom—in which Jonathan Franzen describes a child as “like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible”—before declaring it the winner. I think I’ve really grown as a critic.
I guess if you are aware of and self-satisfied about your lame effort, then it's all OK.

3. The "Mixed" Metaphor Award goes to Matt Dellinger
These books were like cocktail cousins made with the same liquor: a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. A Visit from the Goon Squad is the more concocted, more garnished drink (e.g., the PowerPoint chapter). It’s wonderfully balanced and beautifully made. Freedom is the high-octane classic, not as easy to drink (e.g., 562 pages), but its seriousness delivers more wallop in the end. Goon Squad delighted me; Freedom clobbered me. The martini beats the Tom Collins. 
 Maybe I need to be Don Draper to understand the alcohol metaphor here, but by this logic would straight grain alcohol be the best possible drink? And isn't a good martini harder to make than a good Tom Collins? And a Manhattan and Martini are not the same, right? To crib from this boozy allegory: the first step is admitting you have a problem.

That about does it for the coverage of the 2011 Tournament of Books. Thanks for reading, and we'll be back next year. The Ape's the early prediction for the 2012 final pair is *DRUMROLLLLLLLLL* Tea Obreht's THE TIGER'S WIFE against Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE. You heard it here first. Unless I'm way off, in which case you heard it from a guy at the laundromat.