Part 6: Book reviewers on the Web

“Reviewing in the Internet Age” was the topic of a panel discussion at the Ohioana Book Festival earlier this month. Strangely, none of the four book critics who served as panelists could cogently address the Internet Age, because they seemed desperately devoted to newsprint for their livelihoods. One critic held up a section of newspaper as a visual aid, perhaps realizing that some of us have nearly forgotten what a broadsheet looks like. The inclusion of at least one speaker who advocated the Web as a news medium would have given the discussion more critical merit. Most of the audience was over forty, but not everyone shared the reviewers’ shallow perspectives.

The weary gatekeepers are convinced the reading public should prefer to be exposed only to what book critics and their newspaper section editors consider valuable opinions. Evenhanded Mark Glaser, who writes the MediaShift blog for PBS, confesses his love-hate relationship with print and acknowledges that older people don’t seem to consider the viability of print newspapers open to debate:

They like the idea that a team of well paid editors are sitting in a room — formerly smoke-filled — arguing over which stories should make print, should make the front page, should get their attention. While they might well be smart enough to make their own decisions on which story is important each day, they are fine with outsourcing that decision to someone else.

Oprah Winfrey began sharing her favorite books with viewers of her daytime television show in 1996, and Oprah’s Book Club also has a website. She doesn’t affect the role of a critic, yet her enthusiasm has an uncanny and well documented influence. As the freelance writer Jane Elliott recognizes:

…draw[ing] unapologetically on one person’s taste, the Oprah list doesn’t reflect a consistent standard of literary merit. Rather, it records exactly the sort of meandering path many habitual readers take through the landscape of the literary.

Many users of digital media enjoy the idea of discovering talent and excellence through unconventional and unrestricted channels. They’re confident of the recommendations of others who share their peculiar tastes and of their ability to connect with those individuals online. A couple of generations taught to abhor discrimination now feel as entitled to their “amateur” opinions about art and literature as they are to their religious leaders’ interpretation of scriptures. Increasing use of the Internet has meant more traffic for literary weblogs, or litblogs.

Those who don’t trust their own ability to think critically—or who lack the time, patience, or technical aptitude to sift through the multitude of blogs, online reviews of independently published books, and viral videos—can always enjoy their regularly scheduled TV programming and slowly shrinking newspapers while dozing in their living room recliners. They’ll still catch a few highlights of what they’re missing, because broadcast and print media have already begun to source the Web.

The timid among critics will remain skeptical, wearing their disdain for the Internet like a class ring, insensible to the irony irreverently described by Douglas Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

…anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The Sunday Times, August 29, 1999

Those who believe they have ten more years to become acclimated to the Internet Age might do well to note Garrick Davis’s experience:

When I founded the Contemporary Poetry Review in 1998, “electronic magazines” were not fashionable. In fact, the whole genre was considered to be, if not disreputable, then certainly distasteful—an enterprise not easily distinguished from the various “vanity presses” and poetry associations that exist for the sake of collecting membership dues from innocent and aspiring poets. Established poets did not submit their work to such journals, and academics frowned upon them as neither popular nor peer-reviewed.

Five years later that situation has changed, and remarkably so. In the world of literature, electronic magazines are vastly more popular than their print counterparts in the terms which matter most: readership. (The largest print journal of its kind in America, Poetry, has 11,000 monthly subscribers; ten times that number visit the website, Poetry Daily, every day. And what of the critical magazine? The Criterion, at the height of T.S. Eliot’s fame, had 700 subscribers. For the Contemporary Poetry Review, that is a day’s audience—and it doubles each year.) There is, suddenly, an audience for poetry and criticism that is much larger than anyone had dared to imagine.

You’ll find the Contemporary Poetry Review listed among the many online sources of book reviews on a new page of Treated & Released: Book Reviewers. Included is a category for reviewers of books that are self-published or print-on-demand.

The Web’s amplitude challenges our ability to find what we’re seeking precisely because it’s probably there to be found. The most astute and undaunted literary critics are, as befits their roles, risking ridicule by plunging into and invigorating this accessible, complex, and influential not-so-new medium.

Previously Posted
Part 1: Online social networking for authors
Part 2: Special online social networks for authors
Part 3: Managing your online identities
Part 4: Launching a book’s website
Part 5: Starting an author’s blog

Next in the Series
Part 7: Free publicity for book authors
Part 8: Book video trailers

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