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The fate of today’s book bloggers

7 May 2013

From Tobias Buckell:

I think there are two dangers from repeatedly reviewing (or reading critically) a lot of books. And, as I said, it’s a danger that we writers also face (heck, struggle with, as well).

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.

. . . .

2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.

What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.

. . . .

Over time, I’ve been able to move back into a place where I can focus on what works about a book, and focus less on what doesn’t. Author C.C. Finlay has a quote he uses that runs something like: “A novel doesn’t excite readers because you took all the bad stuff out of it, it excites them because of all the good stuff that’s in it, regardless of the bad.”

At a workshop not too many years ago a newer writer began to condemn a best selling novel, pointing out all its flaws and jagged edges. I listened for a long time, nodding.

“All those things are true,” I said. And gave him the C.C. Finlay quote. “But until you learn what the good parts were that excited the reader, you’re always going to be bitterly upset about what is wrong with that bestseller. Learn to spot what worked in that book, and you’ll be able to move forward. And you’ll be a lot less upset all the time as well.”

Link to the rest at Tobias Buckell

Reviews, Social Media

17 Comments to “The fate of today’s book bloggers”

  1. Excuse me while I build a bonfire of my personal library, smash my Kindles in the driveway, and go occupy the local B&N to close their doors forever.

    Oh yeah, I’ll miss reading PassiveVoice because I have to cut the cord on the internet, too.


  2. Something like this happened to a book blogger I know. She read one of my books last year and gave it a very astute review. I approached her this year for a review of another book and she agreed. A few weeks later she wrote me a very emotional note saying basically she was burned out, had so many books to read and didn’t want to read them because so much of what she gets isn’t very good. She went through her list and stopped at my book “because at least you can write” (lol). She read it, loved it and said she was grateful my book had reminded her why she does this.

    It certainly put it in stark relief for me what these people go through who are serious about the task at hand.
    You can also get a review from a person who skimmed the book and winds up with no clue as to what they read. They may get bored with “book reviewing” but they’re not getting burned out like this serious woman.

  3. You make a lot of valid points. I review children’s books so I am trying to view them from a different viewpoint, while still keeping in mind that an adult is most likely the purchaser. It is a fine line to walk, but having close to 40 years of experience working with children of all ages I try to stay focused on their issues.

  4. I never thought about these issues (both the burn out and the focus on the bad), but they make sense to me.

  5. I can 100 percent relate to what he’s talking about. I’ve been reviewing baseball books for about 5 years now and over the past year or so I’ve been seeing a lot of books that remind me of books I’ve already read. I am getting burned out on it. I feel guilty for reading non-baseball books because it takes away time I could be doing reviews. But I enjoy the others so much more lately. It’s becoming clear to me it’s time to scale back on my reviews (something that is kind of happening naturally anyway). It’s reached the point where it feels like something I “have” to do (though I don’t really) instead of something I want to do.

    I also think I’d benefit more as a writer by reading more fiction (what I write). I don’t think it’s just the burnout, but some of the books I’m sent for review just aren’t all that well written, and instead of spending my time marveling at the craft of other writers that I can learn from, I find myself counting off the number of pages until the end of the chapter so I can put the book down and go to bed.

    • Can I just say YES, YES, and YES to the blog author and James Bailey? I have seen how reviewing a lot within a single genre (science and medical thrillers) takes the joy out of it, and raises my standards.

      The solution, I agree, is reading other stuff that’s totally different. It refreshes the brain and soul.

  6. No truer words could have ever been spoken. What a fabulous post.

  7. Buckell’s “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay…” bit sounds exactly like the last few book reviews I did on Goodreads. He’s articulated a feeling I’ve had for awhile–that I’d read too many books of a specific genre (mostly, military SF) for my opinion to matter all that much. I’m way too picky, and it’s easy to be critical when you’ve read at least one book that’s done specific bits better than others. It’s basically why I decided to stop reviewing altogether.

  8. Any book blogger or really anyone in a position of critiquing anything in any role with even a hint of self awareness has to notice this in themselves. I think it is both a positive and negative thing. The negatives are explained well in this post.

    The positive is that just like with anything else in life, experience makes you more skilled. Rather than thinking “something isn’t working here” and struggling to figure out what it is, you’re more likely to recognize the reasons and know how to articulate them. Reading more books with a critical eye from a broader range of genre and quality that you might have otherwise gives a better perspective. I’ve also found that the experience of writing a review helps the reviewer appreciate (and therefore notice more) when someone’s words in what they’re reviewing are especially well said. This applies to books, obviously, although I first noticed it several years ago when I reviewed music with song lyrics.

    I imagine the way to counteract the negatives varies, but at least for me I find reading a book purely for pleasure and (as much as possible) turning off the critical eye helps. Or just taking a short break from reading.

    It seems that authors are prone to this as well. I know of at least a few who are unable to read for pleasure anymore. I suspect many editors, agents, and other publishing professionals suffer from this. I daresay it is one of the things that contribute to the instances of books rejected by almost every publishing house that go on to be blockbusters.

  9. Reminds me of the publisher’s weekly review I got for being a quarter-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Anyone who uses the word “unspools” in a book review has got issues.

  10. “When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change.”

    Oh, wow!

    I’m not a book reviewer, and I’m not entirely jaded. But I have changed over my years as a reader. And I do miss the wonder I experienced as a younger reader. I’ll always remember the thrill of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at age nine, my delight from The Hobbit at age thirteen, and my awe in the wake of The Curse of Chalion at age forty-one.

    I must confess that I long for those feelings when I approach a new read today. Only rarely do I receive it! But I recognize that the change is in me.

  11. I’ve seen this same phenomena with movie reviewers. Sometimes it’s clear they know they will be one of hundreds to review a given movie, & try harder than necessary to say something different about it. Or they get so used to making fun of B-movies that they forget the reason why people watch them–often for the camp, but sometimes because a B-movie does something amazingly original that it’s worth putting up with all of its flaws. Or they get so obsessed with the bizarreness of an art film that the reviewer thinks it’s the next revolution in film-making.

  12. I used to review restaurants for a monthly magazine. Dream job, right? Go out to eat on the magazine’s dime, even bring my friends (also on the magazine’s dime) and then tell everyone what we ate. I was dining out three times a month and getting paid well for it.

    And after four years I just couldn’t do it anymore. I started disliking all the food and rituals of fine dining. I quit the job before my reviews started suffering. (My friends howled at that!)

    Luckily there was a long line of people waiting to take my place. I noticed that 3-4 years is all anyone can do in that job, though.

    So, yes, I can relate. It’s possible to overdo it, even on things you love passionately.

  13. Ever since I got my e-reader, a year and a half ago, I started reading in huge quantities. Like, 3 books a week. That’s not the world record, but it’s pretty amazing to me.

    What fuelled my interest, and still does, is the immense possibilities opened by e-books. Being French, I at long last got easy access to a wealth of english-language books, and that alone was probably a sufficient factor.

    But I also discovered genres and writers I was yet unacquainted with (and I consider myself well-read), such as romance, military SF, Muchamore’s Cherub series, Akunin’s mysteries… I still try many things I wouldn’t have given notice, or dared, not so long ago.

    So I’d like to say that, in my case at least, reading a lot never grows old and I have a feeling it won’t. That said, I very seldom review. I read for fun, and it does me a world of good.

    I always thought that you need to be a reader to become a writer. I see how critical thinking could hurt your enjoyment, especially if you delve too often into it, but I don’t think it necessary, not even to learn. No-one learns faster than a child, after all.

  14. The problem for many book bloggers is that they bought into the idea promulgated by the indie writing community that they were the answer to the Tsunami of Swill — that they were the new and improved gatekeepers.

    And so they took on the job of “slush pile reader” for the universe.

    But that doesn’t help anyone, because it gives up control of what you read, and as this article points out, it changes how you read to something very different from the way regular people read. (And not in a good way.) So you end up either filling your blog with books you don’t like so much, and don’t really have important or interesting things to say about them.

    And that is bad in several ways:

    1.) A review blog is not a database. It’s a blog. People read it because it’s interesting. It has a personality and a voice. If you aren’t choosing the books you review, and taking your time about it, then you’ll end up with a mess instead of an identity.

    2.) There are too many books out there. We don’t need to hear about the books which will never interest us — even if those books are very well written. We choose to follow a book blogger because he or she brings interesting things into our lives.

    3.) In this algorithm-driven discovery model, the fact that you review a book is as important as what you think of it. If you choose to review ten books, then those books will be associated in search engine algorithms. If those are ten random books which were sent to you, that’s low-quality information. It doesn’t help the algorithm drive readers to those books. If they are ten books you chose, and you are enthusiastic about, and have a lot to say about them, THAT helps the algorithm match interest to the books.

    IMHO, book bloggers need to stop thinking about helping authors. Instead they should be thinking about finding books which they can say interesting things about.

    • You hit the nail right on the head. I started reviewing books on my blog because I wanted to help give exposure to Indie writers who deserved it, but I’ve recently suffered the burn out. I can’t keep up with it, and I’m not getting to read all of what I want.

      My solution has been to reduce the number of reviews, focus on the Indie books I’d dying to read, and save time for non-indie books. I’ll end up looking like an Indie fanboy with favourite writers, but I’m okay with that–at least I’ll love doing it!

  15. I think this burn out is quite obvious at some blogs and has slowed down my reading and digesting of them.

    When the bloggers start, they’re in love with books, genres, and the idea of free books. About two years in, they’re bitter, overwhelmed, and a bit snarky. I used to love book blogs to discover new books about five years ago. Now, not so much.

    Also the burn out seems to be happening faster. Perhaps that is due to the large number of books being published and the large number being submitted to them.

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