Jane Ciabattari is a fiction writer, book critic and widely published journalist. She’s on the board of the National Book Critics Circle (for which she is a co-blogger on their Critical Mass blog) and is Vice President of the Overseas Press Club. Since it seems to me (a blogger, author, and NBCC member critic) that one of the great opportunities for blogs is to provide a wider audience—and greater number of voices—for criticism, I was thrilled that she took time out of a busy schedule to talk about blogs and the future of criticism.
I wrap up my week here at kottke.org tomorrow with an interview with Steven Berlin Johnson.
JT: What was the motivation behind starting the NBCC Critical Mass blog? It’s one of my essential reads. I also wonder: is there any irony in its excellence, given the rancor against bloggers that has come from newspaper critics this summer? Or some of the return-fire directed by bloggers?
JC: The idea of developing a literary blog for the National Book Critics Circle seemed natural. When it was launched in April of 2006, it provided an instant online community for those of us who are NBCC members and who are passionate about books and book criticism and book culture. It created a quick way for us to communicate with members, to address issues of note to us all, and to provide an ongoing “snapshot” of contemporary book culture by including interviews and lists of what authors and member critics in various parts of the world are reading.
It’s also allowed us to launch a number of ongoing series: In Retrospect, in which today’s critics re-visit all the finalists and winners of NBCC awards from the past 33 years; “Thinking About New Orleans,” about New Orleans writers displaced or disoriented by Katrina and its aftermath; and, of course, the NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviewing.
The irony as I see it is that a number of newspaper reporters and literary bloggers implied that the NBCC was against blogging and in favor of print book reviews. This is an unfortunate and reductive—and unnecessarily divisive—perspective that I don’t share. The NBCC is in favor of a diversity of book reviewing forms. The content is not an issue. The forms merge, morph, transform. One evaporates here, another pops up there. This is part of a vibrant book culture that continues despite the shifts in book reviewing in recent months and years.
JT: I wonder what the role blogs play best in the book world? There’s a big difference between book discussion or gossip and book criticism—blogs do a great job of the former, but not such a great one at the latter: does it matter? Of course, a lot of lit-bloggers have gotten the attention of the newspapers and become critics in their own right: Mark Sarvas and Maud Newton come to mind. Is this going to be a kind of permanent divide—blogs for book culture and newspapers (or their Web sites) for substantive reviews?
JC: I think of this as a moment of pause, a transition, an exciting time in which to watch what the reaction will be to the changes in the newspaper world and elsewhere—as well as the growing familiarity with the gatekeepers of the blogosphere. I think we’re beginning to see some creative solutions evolve.
The NBCC membership includes not just print and broadcast reviewers, but literary bloggers like Mark Sarvas and Jessa Crispin and Lizzie Skurnick who are proprietors of literary websites. We have had two NBCC board members who have founded and hosted literary blogs that are now more than five years old and many literary bloggers are now reviewing for print publications or providing content for the online parts of newspaper book sections. The best of those, the Maud Newtons and Lizzie Skurnicks and others, are making that transition with no trouble.
I have written for The Guardian’s blog, and I read it regularly. The combination of the print edition of a newspaper’s book section and the expanded online editions, with blogs plus comments, additional reviews, seems like a natural thing and this format is building in this country—we now have multimedia book sections in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and others.
I would guess that within a few years the literary blogosphere will have been mostly digested by the websites of the larger newspapers, that the Hearsts and Murdochs and Newhouses of the world, who have the capital and the business savvy to figure out how to attract the most talented, will become the dominant forces online. Online readers are increasingly women, increasingly people over 40, and polls indicate that they will be most likely to trust the gatekeepers the know—i.e., newspapers with familiar names—to give them online news.
I have been listening to the dreams for broadband since before the dot.com collapse, and it is indeed exciting to have the speed and facility of highspeed Internet available for authors, critics, researchers, and students. But I am reminded by every passing thunderstorm and summer brownout or blackout that none of this works without a healthy electrical grid. And that some of the mountains and rural areas where I spend time, and some of the readers I know, people who want their children to be readers, are not able to afford or even obtain highspeed connections where they live: newspaper coverage of books is still very important to them.
We launched the NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviewing in conjunction with the shift of the Los Angeles Times book review from a stand-alone section to a section combined with Opinion (and the shift of some content online) and the elimination of the book editor’s position at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the largest newspaper in the South and the literary home of many of the country’s great writers. There were lots of other newspapers going through transitions in books and arts coverage, too—as well as the fact that academic libraries began eliminating print versions of the literary quarterlies that are the lifeblood of American literary fiction and poetry in favor of electronic databases. It seemed a tipping point, and time for a conversation about the issue—one that we have been conducting both on the blog and through public panels.
What does the shrinking of print newspaper book coverage mean for authors? Novelist Lee Smith offered her perspective from North Carolina on the NBCC blog, noting that she was troubled when her latest book, On Agate Hill, came out last fall: “It was getting pretty good reviews, though fewer reviews. Then I got one really unfavorable review by an influential critic in a major city, which was reprinted in about 20 other newspapers that had cut back on their local coverage and were using syndicated book reviews. I was talking to my husband about all those bad reviews the book got, this was my own negative experience, my feeling about it, and he said, Wait a minute, it got ONE bad review, carried in 20 papers.”
Bottom line: It’s not great if newspapers are syndicating one review and spreading it around; it’s better if newspapers expand the number of books they review by doing it online. The small press books, the independent books, will always be in need of champions. At Critical Mass, I have started a series called Preview 2008, with a specific focus on small-press books that lack the promotional budgets of the larger publishers.
JT: Anyone who’s worked at a newspaper knows how discomfiting it can be to see all the books that go unreviewed—that’s something you don’t hear a lot about: questions about who gets reviewed, why, and so on. The world’s bloggers may not be the best critics (though many are wickedly smart): but from the writers’ and readers’ and publishers’ perpectives, wouldn’t we all be better off if publishers sent 100-200 galleys of every book to the 100-200 most-prominent bloggers in the circles of interest most likely to buy or enjoy a given book? It seems like there’s a lot of inefficiency in the marketplace—and a place for a burgeoning trend here, doesn’t it?
JC: As much as it makes sense to send galleys to prominent bloggers, I think you have to think first about readers; ultimately, the majority of online readers still go to newspaper websites for their information. The evolution of newspapers continues. Beginning in September, the Audit Bureau of Circulation will combine print and online circulation of newspapers, which I believe will show a better picture of what has been going on in the United States. In July, for instance, 59.6 million people visited newspaper websites, a 9 percent increase over the same period a year ago. Nearly eight in ten adults read a print or online newspaper each week. As I’ve noted, many of the best literary bloggers are writing for newspaper book review sections and online websites. Readers are also going to communities like Readerville.com, which is a terrific website for readers and writers. Internet space may be infinite, but readers are pressed for time: I suspect quality will out, online or off.
JT: Finally, I think one thing the blogosphere does extraordinarily well is broaden the base of discussion—while still preserving the idea of the cream rising to the top. It’s just that, on the Web, there are a lot more buckets. As critics and writers, should it matter to us that the “center doesn’t hold?” Is there really anything wrong with there being a large number of different centers—each connected to each, each permeable and in constant flux?
JC: I interviewed Yochai Benkler a number of years ago in a piece for New York Lawyer that predicted that he would be one of the attorneys under forty who would influence the 21st century. I am pleased to see he continues to break new ground, and I found his book fascinating. I see nothing wrong with a large number of different centers, interconnected, permeable, in constant flux: that is the nature of the Internet. Having reported from Cuba, where the flow of information is censored, and China, where the Internet is censored but only partially obstructed because of the various ways one can get around the firewalls, I would not want to see that constant flux impeded. But I also spend enough time in rural areas where broadband Internet connections are either unavailable or too expensive that I’m only too aware that printing is still an important technology—and that it’s important to maintain it for those who read newspaper book reviews, whether at home or in local libraries; whether from desire or necessity. To ignore the needs of this part of the American population would be to undermine our democratic roots—literacy is at the base of an educated citizenry.
That said, for me the ideal is a multi-media approach, with a maximum of choices. A world in which I can listen to public radio, read various newspapers online or in print, watch the BBC and Colbert and John Stewart, catch up with my favorite literary bloggers (chosen because I’ve come to know and love their sensibilities), and continue to have what the MacDowell Colony’s 100th anniversary slogan calls “the freedom to create.”