Book Bloggers and the Fate of Literary Criticism

The book blogosphere has grown exponentially since I joined it about two years ago. More people are getting their reading recommendations from book blogs as opposed to the slowly disappearing book sections of various print publications.* Publishers now openly court the favor of book bloggers, sending them free review copies of books hoping for exposure and working book blog tours into their marketing plans. Bloggers can make (and sometimes break) a book or author’s success.

I’ve looked at the rise in popularity and influence of book bloggers as a type of democratization of book criticism. It’s no longer necessary to have degrees in literature or a stable position in the book section of a print publication to get your thoughts about a book out into the world. The literary conversation is exploding. This is a good thing.

But it also means that it’s no longer necessary to have an editor to make sure those thoughts you have make sense. It means there’s no Official Standard of Professional Doings by which bloggers need to/have to abide. Bloggers have myriad styles that range from Very Serious And Analytical Reviews to GIF-laden Reactions (my posts tend to land on the latter end of that spectrum), but no matter what the style, most bloggers want to be taken seriously.

So where will the rise of book blogging leave the world of un-academic literary criticism? While I don’t think professional book reviewers are a dying breed, they do have to share more and more space with people who are both customers of the industry and participants in it. As the voice of the blogger becomes more influential, will the heavily serious review become less important to readers? This is not to say that some book bloggers can’t or don’t always write heavily serious reviews, but it’s probably safe to say that the majority do not.

There’s also the topic of negative reviews to consider. It seems like book bloggers are more willing to write a negative review than a professional reviewer is; after all, most of us don’t run the risk of running into the author at an industry dinner over the weekend. Generally, the authors don’t respond to anything we say because we’re also the customer, and that’s horribly tacky and bad for business. So bloggers have space to be more honest, but we also have space to be lazier. We’re free to write the “this haz no pictures so I hate it NEGATIVE TWO STARS” review while professional book reviewers aren’t.

Which brings us back to the main question: where does that leave criticism, as book blogging becomes more prevalent? Will literary criticism be left to the academics, or will it devolve into reactionary, Amazonian (the company, not the river) CAPS LOCK HEAVY reviewing? Does the increased influence of less critical bloggers say something about the general reading population’s lessening interest in criticism- or did they just not care in the first place, and now they have a place to have a bookish conversation without all that headiness?

If I had to predict it, I would say that the democratization of reviewing via book blogs won’t change much in literary criticism aside from the medium through which it’s delivered. Book bloggers who want to be analytical will be so, and readers that want that will find them. The same goes for bloggers and readers who are out for something more lighthearted. It boils down to this: people will read what they want, just like they do now. If anything, book blogging will expand the literary conversation, if we have faith that the people in this democracy are smart enough to handle the responsibility.

*See this 2010 VERSO Advertising survey (slide 31) where 37 percent of readers survived got their book recommendations from book reviews as opposed to this 2011 version of the survey (slide 10) where only 18.9 percent used book reviews and 12.1 percent used blogs (blogs weren’t even an option on the 2010 survey, which in and of itself says something).

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