Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On Blogger Backlash

In a revealing report on Book Expo America for Santa Cruz News,  Daniela Hurezanu finds three publishing trends especially troubling: the lack of interest the big six publishers have in literary fiction, the paucity of translated works in American publishing, and the increasing influence of book bloggers.

The first complaint might very well be true; I tend not to be terribly interested in who publishes what I am interested in, so long as there are plenty of interesting things to read. And at this point, there are still far more interesting books published in a year than I can possibly read. The second complaint is unassailably true: Americans, and American publishers, don't seem interested in translated works. Hurezanu's statistics, that less that 1% of books published in America were written in a language other than English, does not speak well of our attention to and education about the rest of the world. (I would be surprised, though, if this is a particularly new trend, equal, say to the dizzying change in publishing technology that is giving the whole industry vertigo.)

But it's the third observation that really irks Hurezanu, that book blogging seems poised to be the dominant mode of book discussion going forward. Actually, it's not even this: it's who she thinks the book bloggers are and what motivates them that elicits remarkable disdain:
At the Book Bloggers reception I met many girls in their early twenties who already have hundreds of followers on Twitter. As far as I could tell, I was the only person at the convention who doesn’t tweet. All these 20-year-old bloggers form a community that is replacing the traditional book reviewers; they know each other, read each other’s blogs and blog about the same books. So, in a paradoxical way, this subculture is even more limited in its interests than the mainstream media. Though, in theory, the Internet is a space of infinite diversity, in practice many communities reproduce the patterns that exist outside cyberspace. The main difference between the new book bloggers and the old book reviewers is that the former don’t have any literary “prejudices.” They are children of pop culture and the mass media, and have transferred their interests onto the realm of books. Their electronic chatter will soon cover whatever is left of book reviewing. 
Let's leave aside all the counterexamples to this characterization (your humble primate perhaps the least of them) for the moment to what it is about "book bloggers" that galls her so: the constellation of gender, age, class, and interests. The demotion of 20-year-olds to girls and the dimunition of women who work from home to "mommies" are difficult to see as anything but a particularly insidious form of sexism.

This intial dismissal makes the next insult possible, that bloggers are "children" who have wandered, however mistakenly, from Beverly Hills 90210 to Jane Austen. By this point, the well as been contaminted, so that even technology she doesn't use or understand becomes part of the problem, the slide from "Twitter" to "chatter" here might rhyme, but her conflation ignores one of the amazing aspects of online literary discourse: community and discoverability. (The graphic accompanying the piece, showing a cartoon bird typing on a laptop above the caption, "another great critical mind at work," would be laughable if it weren't so sad.)

My initial temptation was to ignore this piece and avoid giving it any further attention. But I realized that the attitude that Hurezanu expresses here comes from the same source that gave rise to book blogging: prejudice against certain kinds of readers and certain kinds of books. She is invested in the functioning of a certain kind of critical establishment and book blogging is a direct threat to that establishment, a threat on par with the threat digital publishing poses to print.

So this is my takeaway--book bloggers, even the twenty-year olds among us, should not be insulted by this reaction, they should rejoice in it, for it means that we have the bastards on the run.

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57 comments:

  1. Yes, they are running.  However, they will turn and make multiple desperate stands before accepting the new reality - you don't have to look much further than the record industry.

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  2. I find this the idea that “many communities reproduce the
    patterns that exist outside cyberspace” interesting.  I could believe
    that’s fairly true. People seek out newspapers and TV stations that jive with
    what they like to hear. So, it makes sense that those with similar reading
    tastes would be drawn together in cyberspace. But I can’t help but think that
    traditional reviewers fall prey to this tendency as well. It sounds like the
    popular kids have figured out that those excluded from their group no longer
    care and have happily formed their own groups and now the popular kids are
    scared they aren’t popular anymore. Why can’t we just all be friends?

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  3. Yes, exactly!!! When I read the quote you included I wondered where I fit in - I'm nearly 51 years old, college educated and working full time...and although I have a Twitter account, I rarely use it (mainly because of the time suck element). The funny thing is that I know many bloggers who fit my demographic...and those who are MALES! LOL! So where does she pigeon-hole us? The other thing I wondered about was why she thinks we all read the same things. There are bloggers covering anything from classics, to literary fiction, to non fiction and everything in between.

    But, finally, I sighed when I read your last sentence and laughed - because of course you are right. Any time these savage responses against one group of people happen, they are invariably because of jealously and fear. Let's keep 'em on the run!!!

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  4. MWAH! Brilliant. I had a good time going all Twitter-rant on this, but I held back on the blog post because I had to run out for an appointment and wanted to process the insanity a bit more. The writer obviously feels threatened by the (not just emerging but actually quite well-established) role bloggers play in the industry. She made some very unfortunate decisions when she wrote this piece, and I am rather outraged that such a fluffy piece filled with sweeping generalizations made it past an editor ANYWHERE, but the really appalling thing is that she attempts to spin her own cultural illiteracy (as if "I don't tweet" is the charming new equivalent of "I don't own a TV") into an argument that people who have succeeded using a medium she has never attempted to understand are to be blamed for the supposed decrease in quality.

    And "children of pop culture?" I'm sorry. I must have missed the part where pop culture became really good at encouraging literacy and promoting literary culture. But what do I know? I'm just a girl with a couple thousand twitter followers.

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  5. Michele Young-StoneJune 22, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    Well said!  As an author, the notion that book bloggers are without "prejudice," particularly her own, is a joyful fact.  ...So I just wrote a long tirade about Hurezanu's sexist notions regarding young women and mothers.  Here is an abridged version:  As a stay-at-home mom and novelist, I'm very glad that although part of me wants to ignore this woman, there's this other part of me that is thankful that we--as women, readers, writers and lovers of books--can speak out about just how very wrong Daniella Hurezanu is.  That's the infinite possibility of the internet.    

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  6. Michele Young-StoneJune 22, 2011 at 8:56 PM

    More like 8,000!!!!!!!

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  7. I dislike how the "traditional" book reviewing/publishing community blames the Internet for it's problems. The we (the market) have been begging for novels in translations, more indie reviews, yet, they act aas though they're unable to. Why not hire some of these savvy bloggers to writer for this papers? According to the mainstream book publishing world, there are only three good black writers, Zadie Smith, Victor LaValle and Colston Whitehead.

    Now, some of these bloggers really need to be taken to task for their writing and reviewing skills. And I think that needs to be addressed. If the printer papers aren't going to stand up for books, then why should we care what they have to say on the matter?

    I hate seeing 100 reviews on the same big named author while a better, yet less popular author gets at best an NPR shout out.

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  8. Excellent and so true.
    I also think the person that wrote the article doesn't have the foggiest idea about Twitter and blogging in general. I am so confused as to why she was allowed to write the article.

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  9. I read this post after seeing folks pretty riled about it on Twitter, and I was a little surprised. It seemed so utterly clueless about book blogging and really blogging in general, that I just couldn't see it as any other than ridiculously low-quality journalism. It was like she had heard the term "mommy bloggers" once, had no idea what it meant, and used it herself for the first time in that piece. Her outrage or disapproval were incoherent by virtue of her total unfamiliarity with the subject at hand.

    That's not to say she didn't make offensive statements; she definitely did. But I couldn't do much more than roll my eyes and laugh a little at the patheticness of it all.

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  10. Thanks for the thoughtful discourse. First, as Rebecca notes, I would be appalled this made it past an editor, but come on - look at the news today. Journalistic integrity (pshaw) and research are a thing of the past on many of these sites.

    “The few presses on whose tables one could see books with literary appeal were New Directions, NYRB Books, Overlook Press, Other Press, Europa Editions—all in all, about 10 out of hundreds of publishers.” What about the university presses who had thoughtful, eclectic offerings?

    As for this: “Book blogging has become a subculture whose members are mostly women between 20 and 50 years old, often known as “mommy bloggers” because they are housewives who blog about romance novels, horror/vampire stories and paranormal novels.”

    I simply laughed. This simply shows me her ignorance on several levels. Of course, I could rant about my age, my marital and womb status, and what I read, but why? She clearly doesn’t care and just wants to make an illogical point - that I don’t read anything outside of a very small and pre-ordained lot, when in fact, connecting with bloggers from Africa, New Zealand, the UK, India, etc. has done anything but narrow my reading.

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  11. One of the things I found amusing about the piece (because I can't bring myself to be outraged by an online editorial in a non-major newspaper) is that she mentions a handful of small presses by name who produce the kind of writing she approves of, and one of these presses--Europa--was at Book Blogger Con and expressed great enthusiasm for bloggers and our role in getting the word out about their books. I wouldn't be surprised if others she mentioned would do the same; Overlook reaches out to bloggers, and I believe Other Press does as well.

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  12. I'm not sure why being a "child of pop-culture" (by definition aren't we all?) and bringing that aspect to book reviewing is a bad thing. We are all products of our times and if that means we view literature in a different way, at least we get to see the classics through new eyes and heaven forbid we explore new forms of literature and redefine the old ones. Sounds like someone's ship is sinking and they want to make sure everyone else has a hole in the bottom of their boat too.

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  13. I am so ecstatic to read your response! I posted a comment to the article, but I see that the Santa Cruz news haven't added any more than the comments that were listed from six hours ago. My particular concern, outside of the generalization and stereotyping, was that as a "journalist," she's got to provide facts to validate statements such as "bloggers are age twenty to fifty" - which is essentially a broad age range anyway, and of course the statement of "girls in their early twenties." How many bloggers did she meet that day? Did she miss the niche blogging panel that covered everything from science-fiction to the classics? Sigh.

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  14. Such a crazy original article, love your response, especially the points about how she says that we are all "girls" who are stay at home mommies (and that it is a bad thing) and it's rather ridiculous of her to say. I also think it is funny because we bloggers are some of the most vocal about the lack of translation sometimes!!

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  15. Recycled thought from Twitter earlier today, but let me get it in here too - since, once again, your fantastic piece is THE spot to be for this conversation. Myriad other problems aside (many of which you point out), isn't it a bit of contradictory logic to marginalize these 20-year-old girls with their hundreds of Twitter followers as unimportant and frivolous, but then to complain about how influential they are in the publishing world? In fact, neither one of those assertions seem to pass the real-world test. And taken together, they're just as silly as she'd hope us to believe bloggers to be.

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  16. I am as far nearly from the demographics of a 20 something female book blogger who posts mainly on the paranormal as one could be-There are many small communities of book bloggers on the net that go under the radar of the media-just to give one example-I was asked to post on the short listed stories for the Caine Prize for African literature-last year I am pretty sure I was the only one to post on them-this year a mini-community of bloggers posting on the stories has developed-most of the bloggers live in Africa and are very into African literature-I would love to see more fiction translated-I am very into the fiction of Kenzaburo Oe, for example, and only about half his 30 or so works have yet been translated-I, like the Reading Ape, do not care too much about who publishes the books I read-maybe on a serious book I might have more initial respect for one published by Oxford Press than a place I never heard of but I am open minded-

    I think print media book reviewers (and academics) who make fun of book bloggers are in fear of losing their territory claims-

    to refer to the book bloggers as she did as "girls" is really nasty-it is also just flat out ignorant-

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  17. Excellent piece.  You've said what I hope I would have and probably done a better job of it, too.  I just want to say that I am a male blogger in his late forties who seeks out literature in translation.  And that I began blogging about books several years ago because my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, stopped running book reviews in its daily paper and reduced the Sunday books section to a few very flimsy pages.


    And I've never used Twitter in my life, which may or may not explain why I don't have thousands of followers.  Oh, well.

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  18. When will the pseudo-journalists learn? If you stick your hand in the book bloggers' cage, I sincerely hope you weren't too fond of that hand...

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  19. I do love a good rant about bloggers :)

    Me? 30s, male, heavily into translated lit - and not American (gasp).

    I think nationality was about the only thing that wasn't mentioned in that piece...

    ...or perhaps it was implied?

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  20. Well, I appreciate being called a 20 year old, long after that time has passed. I think these remarks are poorly researched - eg. I've never knowingly met another book blogger in the flesh, I was never big on 90210 and I'm not really a 'chatterer'. But whatever encourages someone to read should be applauded!

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  21. I remember reading that the percentage of translated work published each year is similar in the UK.

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  22. I cannot tell you how much I love this comment:  " So this is my takeaway--book bloggers, even the twenty-year olds among
    us, should not be insulted by this reaction, they should rejoice in it,
    for it means that we have the bastards on the run."  LOVE IT and WHOLEHEARTEDLY AGREE!

    When I posted the link to the article yesterday I had no idea that there would be such a backlash.  But I'm glad that there was.

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  23. No, it just means that one particular writer has a dismissive and somewhat ill-informed attitude towards us. I wouldn't read much more into it than that.

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  24. Did music criticism all get ceded to blogs too? Or was there no entrenched critical establishment for pop music?

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  25. Yes. It's odd to critique something for having the same flaws as what already exists. 

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  26. I suspect she doesn't read many book blogs. Her only first-hand experience in the piece is the Book Blogger Convention reception. 

    Now, there are a lot of book blogs about YA written by 20 something women. But there's a significant difference between "many" and "all"

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  27. It's a good point: there is the implication that blogging has somehow become important at the expense of traditional reviewing and criticism. This isn't true--if there weren't book blogs, book coverage in mainstream media would still be small (and shrinking). 

    The pop culture reference was...ill-advised.

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  28. You know the ignore/react problem is one I am interested in. My sense is that responding to silliness with outrage might only fuel the problem, so my strategy is now to combat this stuff by trying to do what they don't--try to be thoughtful, honest, and intellectually generous. 

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  29. Amber-
    At the very least, there is varying quality when it comes to book blog writing, I will grant you that. 

    But have we been begging for novels in translation and more indie reviews? I don't know. One thing about blogging is that most blogs are driven by one individual's taste. This aggregation of individual tastes will, perhaps inevitably, reflect the popular.

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  30. Lax editorial standards. Hope that 50 buck was worth it.

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  31. I think part of the vitriol comes from the fact that this caricatured point of view does represent how some people think about book bloggers. That this silliness was given a voice and name (and so poorly done), coalesced some latent frustration.

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  32. Really, the factual mistakes aren't as interesting to me as the general attitude and motivation. Since what she wrote is "isolated" from the truth, the only thing worth talking about is how and why she wrote what she wrote.

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  33. Or, she thinks the ship is sinking but doesn't realize that it is actually a submarine.

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  34. One of the ironies here is that any of the major charges that get leveled at bloggers could apply to this piece: shoddy writing, solipsism, reliance on anecdote, mixing opinion with reporting and so on.

    She could have written something about book blogging that would have added to the discussion, even including some critique of how it operates, but instead resorted to snark and condescension. If this is what blogging is going to replace, good riddance.

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  35. Right...so what if every single blogger was a stay at home mom? I don't get it.

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  36. Yea, good point. I think the author is genuinely conflicted and cannot process the information in front of her. At its core, her problem is that these people are influential but don't deserve to be (her opinion, not mine). The only way she can deal with this is to be dismissive and condescending.

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  37. I think there is something to this point that book blogging is more vibrant than any other circle of literary discussion (this is one of the reasons I started a book blog in the first place). That she is now an outsider may explain some of the snark.

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  38. James-
    I think your story is a microcosm of book blogging in general: the internet provides the space to have conversations and coverage that weren't happening. 

    If the mainstream media was providing compelling, diverse, connected book coverage, than book blogging wouldn't be as robust as it is. Just wouldn't need to be. In this way, I think you can see book blogging, writ large, as a critique of traditional modes of talking about books.

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  39. They won't learn. Just run out of hands.

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  40. Yea, implied for sure. She clearly hasn't spent much time reading book blogs or she would know better.

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  41. Oh to be 20 again! Actually, no. 

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  42. Interesting. In all fairness to the Anglocentric, English is the dominant cross-national language in the world. 

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  43. Yea, it really caught on. Nice catch and glad you were around to see it. How did you stumble across it by the way?

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  44. Marie-
    It would be tempting to dismiss if this angle wasn't in some ways representative of a larger skepticism/wariness/dread about book blogging. To dismiss something the writer herself recognizes as influential represents a blindness that is intrinsic to a certain view of how book discourse should be.

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  45. You should patent this. "The Reading Ape Method." It's going to be big!

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  46. Literary Fiction - perhaps I'm mistaken, but reading her
    article I felt as if she was equating literary fiction with foreign authors
    and/or translations.  The small, independent presses she cited (New
    Directions, Overlook & Other Press, Europa) are all strong in that area.  She would be correct in stating that the
    larger publishing houses don’t seem to have a vested interest in foreign lit
    (unless, it seems, you’re from Iceland).  Unfortunately, her information seems to have
    been based solely on an Italian translations panel she sat in on.


     


    If she isn’t confusing the two categories then her blanket statement
    that Literary Fiction is dead outside of small presses makes absolutely no
    sense.  For example, how did she miss the
    compound housing the Penguin Group?  Does she not realize that Knopf Doubleday
    Publishing Group is part of Random House? and that its imprints include Pantheon,
    Vintage/Anchor, Nan Talese and Everyman’s Library?  Did she talk to anyone at Harper Collins?


     


    I also didn’t see the takeover of technology booths that she
    describes.  In fact I was a bit
    disappointed at how small the section was this year.  To say that a third of BEA was dedicated technology
    was, like much in this article, a huge exaggeration.

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  47. Umm... my comment went wonky.  Here's a repost.  Sorry!



    Regarding the comment the author made about the lack of
    interest the "Big 6" have in Literary Fiction - perhaps I'm mistaken,
    but reading her article I felt as if she was equating literary fiction with foreign
    authors and/or translations.  The small, independent presses she cited (New
    Directions, Overlook & Other Press, Europa) are all strong in that area.  She would be correct in stating that the
    larger publishing houses don’t seem to have a vested interest in foreign lit
    (unless, it seems, you’re from Iceland).  Unfortunately, her information seems to have
    been based solely on an Italian translations panel she sat in on.


     


    If she isn’t confusing the two categories then her blanket statement
    that Literary Fiction is dead outside of small presses makes absolutely no
    sense.  For example, how did she miss the
    compound housing the Penguin Group?  Does she not realize that Knopf Doubleday
    Publishing Group is part of Random House? and that its imprints include Pantheon,
    Vintage/Anchor, Nan Talese and Everyman’s Library?  Did she talk to anyone at Harper Collins?


     


    I also didn’t see the takeover of technology booths that she
    describes.  In fact I was a bit
    disappointed at how small the section was this year.  To say that a third of BEA was dedicated technology
    was, like much in this article, a huge exaggeration.

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  48. I shall buck the trend and will be mostly be reading and reviewing translated fiction in July. Of the 7 books I received today 5 of them are translations but then I'm not American and we seem to have a healthy interest in other countries' literature here in the UK. I am surprised that the success of Stieg Larsson's books hasn't triggered an interest in Scandinavian crime in the US too, maybe after the films have been remade... *rolls eyes*

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  49. This is an excellent response.  I hope the bloggers keep them running!

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  50. Great response as always Ape. Plenty of people has emphasized they to not belong to the category of blogger she describes, and she misrepresents the bloggers that do. I am in my twenties ( for another minute or two), I have a Master,s degree...in Literature and I have a full time job. However, the real problem I have with the article isn't that she misrepresents me demographically.

    I fully agree with you that there is some anxiety here the we book bloggers are replacing the traditional reviewing establishment. I happen to really respect that establishment and I support it as a consumer. I subscribe to the NYT book review and the NYRB. I follow professional reviewers online. One day, I might be interested in professional reviewing myself. If I do decide to enter that establishment, I'll have lots of experience from blogging. So, I guess that is why the article pisses me off. The author is not much different than the rest of us who love and want to promote literacy in all its forms. Why can't we all just work together?

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  51. I'm going to share the same rant about this as I posted on DWGs blog..
    People from all different parts of the media have been pitchin a bitch about bloggers. For example in fashion, vogue et all are pissed off that their front row seats at fashion shows are being giving to bloggers. People in the traditional industry are angry that they have to share their once exclusive goodies: the attention, the comps, the cash. Perfectly natural. But social media is not going to go away. I think it's reached it's high point and will find a balancing point with the traditional media. But idiots like this lady who don't get on board, and find their own spot in the new world will be left out of it.

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  52. Have emphasized.  Master's.  Any other typos.  I was on my I-pad.

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  53. Actually, the Larsson stuff has triggered a mini-boom in Henning Menkell books and THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo is getting quite a bit of attention.

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  54. Oh, I think we're going to be seeing a lot of these semi-lightweight outraged articles popping up this summer. I've been blogging for a few years now and in the past, I don't know, four months maybe? I've noticed a real sea change in publishers' attitudes toward bloggers who review. Not just the forward-thinking ones, either, or the small presses. And in a way that (logically) came to a head at BEA, so it's not surprising that Hurezanu's piece would show up when—and in the reactive, under-researched form—it did.

    I think people are afraid that the gene pool of criticism is going to be terminally diluted by the new levels of participation. But you can't forget that this also corresponds to new levels of accessibility in terms of readers, and there has to be an increase in product to meet the demand. The old review platforms could never meet the needs of eight gazillion internet users (yes, I have done my research, thank you) -- what will come out of this is a whole new set of criteria among users to sort through all the buzz. And sure, if you don't take well to change then that's scary on both sides. But y'know... tough. The wheels are in motion.

    I think of my 90-something-year-old great aunt telling me stories about her and her friends as kids, watching the first cars go by, taunting them by yelling, "Get a horse!"

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