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Off the Shelves: Is blogging damaging our literary critiques?

POSTED: October 7, 2012 7:00 a.m.

With the advent of user-friendly websites such as Blogger and Wordpress, just about everyone at one time or another has created an online blog. It is an easy way for people to share their experiences, their interests, and their opinions on a worldwide scale.

When it comes to literature, there are thousands of blogs dedicated to book reviews and literary advocacy. While this allows us to gather a vast array of viewpoints about books, there are some who argue that the rise of blogging is gradually destroying literature as we know it.

In The Independent earlier this month, there was an interview with Sir Peter Stothard, literary supplement editor for the Times of London. He believes that bloggers are hurting the book publishing industry. He said, “As much as one would like to think that many bloggers’ opinions are as good as others, it just isn’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good (books) will be overwhelmed (by bad ones), and we’ll be worse off.”

One’s initial reaction to this statement may be: Who is anyone to say one person’s opinion matters more than another’s? Yet there are important factors that contribute to Stothard’s comment.

Professional critics usually have studied English and world literature; they have read a wide gamut of written works and can analyze a book deeper than just whether they “liked” a story or not. The average reader tends to base their opinions solely on their emotional reactions to a book, and they typically gravitate toward one or two genres and dislike the rest.

Yes, all criticism is subjective, but how many readers, if they claim a book is “good” or “bad,” could give valid, in-depth examination to support their point rather than say, “That’s just how I feel?”

It also doesn’t help that blogging reviews and comments can be done anonymously, thus no one need fear any negative repercussions for slandering a novel. Last month in the Los Angeles Times, it was reported that a British author was caught posting “sock puppet” reviews of books on Amazon — that is, he was writing reviews under several pseudonyms, praising his own books while slamming other authors’ writing.

Who knows how many people — because of a personal agenda, a grudge or just because they believe it is funny — write fraudulent reviews and influence other readers before they can evaluate the book themselves?

For those who may argue that blog reviews are harmless — that most of us can tell a legitimate, intelligent review from a lazy, uneducated one — popularity over substance is having a heavier effect on the literary world than just readers buying the current book “fad.”

In 2011, there was an intense debate over a “dumbing down” of the Man Booker Prize when the chair of the judges said she wanted to include books in the judging that “people would read and enjoy.” Can books be properly judged for their quality if they are being considered solely because they are temporarily in high demand?

No one can say for sure if blogging is damaging the publishing industry or in fact stimulating it, but Stothard did say something that rings true, at least for me: “Storytelling is a great art and not to be knocked ... yet, if the English novel does nothing to renew the English language, then it really doesn’t do anything.”

If bloggers can put as much honesty, dedication, time and effort into their reviews as the authors whose books they critique, maybe they can attain a better understanding for what truly gives a novel its value, and can help promote genuinely good storytelling rather than hinder it.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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