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. 



  1. Thank you SO much for continuing this line of dialogue and highlighting specific viewpoints in this post. I'm a month into my book blog, and even though I spent a significant amount of time prior to starting said blog figuring out what how my philosophy of reading (and writing about reading) was going to manifest/ what the rules of my book blog world were going to be, these past few posts have given me even MORE brain food to chew on. Thank you, thank you!

  2. I missed your original post (just gone back to read it now). Lots of valid points but just as everyone blogs for a different reason, people read them for different reasons. I've got plenty of people that have told me they enjoy my blog when they're not the type to follow book blogs in general. I'd like to think I appeal to the people that will read my blog on a regular basis and therefore know a little about me, my tastes and how I see things.

  3. I enjoyed this, and the previous post on this subject very much. Lots to learn here, thank you.

  4. There seem to be a few different ways of reviewing books: the long dissection (NYT Review of Books), the professional reviewer and blogging about books. Whichever one you choose, depending on formatting and the need to exercise your academic tropes, ultimately, a review is a personal thing. Whether or not it is based on academic credentials, extensive reading or just off the cuff remarks, reviews are personal. It's your education, or lack, your reading, or not, and your views, entertaining or not. That is a given. The more you read, the more likely people like you are going to agree with you, and the obverse is also true.

    As a reviewer, I began writing impersonally, but now and then I include an I to single out what I found interesting or lacking in the book. It is ultimately (see above) my opinion, although it is a fairly accurate opinion since I have read a book or a few ten thousand or so, and write my own books (fiction and nonfiction). Take it or leave it, we search out the level that appeals to us most, or we expand our horizons and try different things.

  5. I do consider my blog to be a satire of book blogging in general. On the other hand, I do think Heathcliff is a wanker.

  6. I agree that people can use subjectivity as an excuse to avoid serious thought--the assumption being that because all opinions are subjective they are equally valid. What I think book blogs do really well, which is difficult in traditional print reviewing, is to pick apart which aspects of their opinions are personal and specific to them and which can be fully supported from the text. The blogs I most like reading do some of both.

    If you'll excuse the self-promotion, you might find this post and comments--especially the comments--worth reading. A lot of discussion of opinionated book writing. (Be sure to check out as well the blogs that I linked to right at the beginning of the post.)

  7. I still that this all ignores the different levels of education, language skills and other experiences that people have.

    Some bloggers are English professors, some are other professionals, some are tradespeople, some are in school still and some may have English as a second language. Some may have finished school in Years 9 or 10, others may have completed high school and not gone onto university and some may have university degrees.

    My point is, not everyone is going to be capable of what you are looking for.

    I think that this also means that not everyone is going to feel a level of responsibility toward a book when they are reviewing it on a blog. They may have a completely different approach to you.

    I'll tell you what, if any of my clients read your post, I doubt any of them would be understand a word of what you say. "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" would be completely be mumbo jumbo to them.

    For some people using evidence to support their opinion may be outside of the scope of their education or abilties, leaving aside the issue of deeper analysis.

    My worry is that if everyone is looking for this level of seriousness and responsibility that is expressed here about book blog reviews, then blogging would be left to those elite few with a high level of education and analytical abilities.

    I would rather that book blogging be for everyone.

  8. Becky, No one is saying book blogging has to be serious or follow specific rules of seriousness.

    Depth doesn't mean some XTREME! Analysis. It means something beyond cliched phrases and sentence after sentence that begins with "I think," or "I felt." They're like saying um repeatedly during a speach or on the radio.

    Writing classes teach the idea of show-don't-tell. Anyone touting themself specifically as a book blogger is by default a writer. As J.M. Cornwell points out, no matter the level of "reviewing" - from Academia to the vanity blog - it's possible to do so without over-reliance on using "I."

    There is room for all types of blogs out there - no one is arguing against that. The issue is more directed to the overwhelming number of book bloggers who are expecting to (and in many cases) do review books in advance of publication dates, that whine over the fact that they're not taken seriously.

    Jane Doe "I have a blog and talk about books" is a very different type of blogger from Jill Smith "I'm a book blogger and have a review policy, and why doesn't publishing take me seriously." Jane Doe might read book themed blogs, but she certainly doesn't care about readership, review policies, or whether or not The Reading Ape thinks she's a good writer.

    There are, however, an obserdly large number of Jill Smiths out there and I get the impression those are the people The Reading Ape is speaking about, not the Jane Does.

  9. To further take over the comments....

    Ellie, I pointed out in last year's Book Blogger Con panel "Writing and Building Content" that each blog post is like a first date. (note: Please take the following "you" to be generalized)

    A returning audience is something most bloggers are trying to achieve. It's good for building a community, having conversations, and if you are so inclined, advertising.

    No one starts a blog and immediately has return readers - no one knows what the tastes of the blogger are to start.

    Each and every post - for anyone who is interested in growing an audience or who claims they want to be taken seriously by the publishing industry has to make each post represent themself and their taste. That's difficult to do well with they type of writing The Reading Ape brought up.

    Not everyone has the same goals or interests in blogging - and there's room for any and all types. There does happen to be a very specific "type" of book blogger that those of us on the fringe have noticed, and they all sound the same. The format of each post is the same, the writing style is the same. When "I" becomes overused it loses meaning and the opinion of the blogger is lost into the void of "BOOK BLOGGING!!!" - negating any personalized touch.

  10. Do I really want to wade into this debate?

    The beauty of book blogging (as *I* see it) is that it allows for a balance between the subjectivity of blogging and the (supposed) objectivity of the traditional mode of book reviewing (a la Kakutani, Maslin, Ron Charles et al.). When it comes down to it, a book review is a single person's opinion about a book. How well-informed that person is (and how big the words used are) depends on expertise, education, and that unicorn of reviewing: authority.

    Subjectivity and use of "I" have a place, but they're only meaningful within a greater context. "OHMYGODILOVEDTHESHITOUTOFIT" only tells my reader something if 1) I explain WHY and 2)I do so by referring to more than just myself.

    The BOOK, not the writer's personal taste, should be the primary point of reference for any review---blog-based or otherwise---that is intended for readers who do not have personal relationships with the writer, and unless a blog is private and shared only with personal friends, bloggers must assume that the majority of their readers fall into this category.

    Each blog post or review should convey the writer's voice and personality. The cumulative effect of this is that it creates community and the *sense* that a reader knows the blogger, and that is lovely. There is great pleasure to be had, as a reader, in developing an understanding of a blogger's taste and how it relates to your own. But bloggers have to assume, as Christina has noted, that every reader is a first-time reader, and the way to keep them coming back is to not only reveal bits that create the feeling of a personal relationship but to illustrate your opinions and perspective on a book by making review writing more than an exercise in navel-gazing.

  11. This is a thought provoking post. I am guilty of using the "I" here and there, most of the time to justify my grudges (for example, when Chuck Klosterman decides to be a complete turnip about a random subject), but also, I tend to affirm drastic stuff when I review things. Or I love or I hate. In these occasions, I will require the assistance of the "I" again because my inner wrath might not be applicable to every viewer although if somebody reads my blog I figure he's into my style and shares common traits.

  12. But how does the role of education or english as a second language fit into all of this?

    That's what I am wondering.

    Even putting aside seriousness or analysis or even putting aside the desirability of variety.

    Rebecca said that how well informed a person is depends on their expertise, education etc.

    That's why I suppose I don't have any particular expectations of what a book blogger should or shouldn't do in their review, like keep the use of "I" to a minimum, or be focused on the book (although lets face it, this is desirable!!) or have a particularly personalised touch.

    Don't get me wrong, I prefer book reviews like this (the more interesting analysis the better in my view) but I don't think its useful to expect it of book bloggers when you can't know anything about their education, experience or expertise. Or time constraints for that matter - the better my review, you can be sure the longer I have spent on it.

    Does that make sense?

  13. Thanks for all the comments, here. Yet again, I find myself with more to say on the topic.

    I think something Becky wrote stuck with me and want to discuss a little more: "My point is, not everyone is going to be capable of what you are looking for."

    In the simplest terms, I think claims made about a book should have some evidence. If you thought the main character was a jerk, why was he a jerk. If you loved the plot, what was it about the plot?

    I don't expect everyone to write in the same style, but this I think really goes beyond style. This is a question of showing your reasons for your claims. Anyone can do this, if prodded.

    Now, do I think someone should have their internet rights revoked if they don't do this. No. But what I am saying is that every time someone discusses a book publicly, they have a chance to enrich public discourse about books, and I think this is something very much worth striving for.

    So if some of this stuff I am writing about now feels snobbish, I hope it's at least snobbish in the name of having a robust literary culture.

  14. When you said, "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."

    I thought, "But I don't want to do an in depth analysis on most of these books, and I don't want to spoil it for those who've yet to read it. I just want to tell them whether or not they should read it."