What is the role of bloggers as book reviewers?

[Cross-posted from CogDaily]

A new blog has emerged in Terre Haute, Indiana. Its message is somewhat cryptic, including such gems as this one, from “annefernald”:

For those who think of surgeons as spending their days operating on people, this would definitely not be Dr. Johnson….Not, in fact a medical doctor at all, the wit and writer is constantly trailed by a companion, one Boswell, who does most of his writing for him.

What’s the point of all this? It’s a protest of sorts, inspired by a recent article in the New York Times discussing the decline of book review sections in newspapers, and the rising role blogs are taking in filling that void. The money quote at the end of the article is the one which inspired the creation of the blog “From a Basement in Terre Haute”:

[Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard] Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

Ford signed a petition to save the book review editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but his remarks about bloggers reviewing books has stirred their ire, as expressed in the spoof blog’s mock taunts, including this classic more usually seen on the back of a Chevy pickup:

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A more measured response to Ford’s sentiment can be found on Fernald’s real blog, Fernham:

Don’t get me wrong–I want MORE book coverage and I lament the shrinkage of newspaper book reviews. I’d sign the petition for Atlanta’s reviewer in a minute. And I’d hand [litblogger] Dan [Wickett] a salary while we’re at it. For me, conversations about books are not a zero sum game. We could have more and more and more of it as far as I’m concerned. And different kinds of talk adds new notes to the conversations: even those irritating spammers who keep making banal comments here and then linking to their video review site may add something somewhere. But we learn one kind of thing from a quick mention in a mass circulation magazine, something else from the handwritten card at our local independent, or from Mark or Maud or Bud or Laila, or from the New York Times.

Fernald should know — she’s not just “some guy sitting in his basement” — she’s a respected literary scholar who’s published a monograph on Virginia Woolf and is working on a definitive edition of Woolf’s masterwork, Mrs. Dalloway. She also happens to write book reviews on her blog.

Science Bloggers also write plenty of book reviews. Again, many science bloggers are respected researchers. Many, but not all. In this sense, Ford may have a point: how can we tell some yahoo from a real expert? Isn’t that what institutionalized book reviews give us? Not necessarily. The book that inspired my rant about bad science writing received positive reviews written by newspaper reporters. A reporter isn’t usually an expert in any field other than calling people up and summarizing what they say.

So if we can’t always trust bloggers and we can’t always trust reporters to review books, who can we trust? Arguably, the only people we can really trust are the people who’ve built that trust with us: Just as some moviegoers prefer Siskel (er–Roper) and some prefer Ebert, longtime blog readers know which bloggers they trust. If, like Richard Ford, you’ve never read a blog, you might not know whether to rely on a blogger’s advice. But if you’ve been reading a blog every day for a year, the opinion of that blogger might be worth more to you than that of the New York Times’ most esteemed book reviewer.

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3 Responses to What is the role of bloggers as book reviewers?

  1. Anne says:

    “A reporter isn’t usually an expert in any field other than calling people up and summarizing what they say.”

    THAT totally made my day. Hah!

    Thanks for the mention, too!

  2. Michele says:

    I think that after fiddling about the blogosphere for a while, it’s really easy to tell who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t. Clear writing usually means relatively clear thinking. If a blogger reviews a book well — whether s/he likes it or not — what is there to “trust” or not?

  3. dave says:

    If a blogger reviews a book well — whether s/he likes it or not — what is there to “trust” or not?

    For fiction, I tend to agree with you, but I was originally writing this post with science books in mind, and there, I think you really need an expert or at least someone willing to do some legwork to make sure the author isn’t talking out of her/his ass. To know whether someone is really going to do that requires trust.

    But even for fiction, I think you do need to establish that you share the tastes of the reviewer, and again, I’m not sure you can do that in the space of a single review.

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