How I single-handedly destroyed book reviewing. Or not.


Bluestalking has served as a portfolio of sorts, initially the humble offering stretched out to publicists when begging review copies, before I had actual publishing credentials. I needed proof I had a platform, and readers who dropped by to listen to me yammer about books, so other publishers would give me more books.

Circle of life.

That’s how early bloggers leveraged their experience to branch out and write for other venues. There weren’t that many of us back in 2006, not like today, when countless cool kids are vlogging and podcasting and going all Facebook live. We reviewed the old fashioned way, in actual typewritten prose. And we liked it.

Instagram? YouTube? Try Blogspot and Blogger — Typepad if you could afford the subscription, then WordPress, once you figured out how to migrate your posts and navigate their platform.


At present, the only book-review videocast that’s widely available is the Washington Post’s The Totally Hip Video Book Review featuring Ron Charles. Charles, the regular fiction critic of Post, writes sincere, uninspiring reviews. The success of the videocast is Charles’s ability to laugh at himself. The episodes are, of course, totally unhip but charming nonetheless.

– Sarah Fay, “Could the Internet Save Book Reviews?”, The Atlantic, May 7, 2012


Get off my damn lawn, lousy millennials. You and your fancily composed tableaux of books, coffee with pretty designs carved in the foam – how do you even have the time? We downloaded cover photos from Amazon.

Guess what? We liked that, too

There used to be websites tracking book blogger rankings. If you dropped your guard your nemesis would sideswipe you, sending you skidding into the tires like an even nerdier version of Mario Kart. Amazon was brand new and already becoming a review site superpower, bloggers an extension of their reach. We became the first top Amazon reviewers just by showing up. Try accomplishing that now.

Try it, punk.


the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there 
are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

– George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer”



Upstarts like me were yelled at by literary critics of stature, academics bloviating about the ways we were ruining everything, taking their jobs by undercutting them. We weren’t specialized, had no idea what we were talking about. We were not professionals.

It’s funny to me now just how much that pissed me off at the time. Sitting in my living room in 2019, I’m frankly flattered they even noticed. It’s like getting a no thanks note from The New York Times. Usually they just ignore you; embrace the rejection.


– Dorothy Parker, book critic, The New Yorker

John Sutherland lead the crusade, positively apoplectic the great unwashed civilian book reviewers put ourselves out there — worse, that readers were responding. After one particularly insulting article I sniped back at him, though I wasn’t his primary target. On behalf of those without specific educational credentials, I felt personally affronted by his elitism. The purpose of reviews is to sell books, I told him. If you don’t sell the books, no one reads them. If no one reads them, his job was rendered moot.

As for reviewers on Amazon, why did you need a doctorate to have an opinion? He engaged me briefly, then crawled back inside his ivory tower.

It was awesome.


Nothing stands still on the web. There is emerging, on Amazon, a corps of regular ‘reviewers’, so called, trusted to kick up dust and move books. Dinahbitching is becoming institutionalised.

Why do the web-reviewers allow themselves to be recruited as unpaid hacks? Partly for freebies. But more because they enjoy shooting off their mouths. And they enjoy the power.

– the Guardian, 19 November 2006, “John Sutherland is SHOCKED by the state of book reviewing on the web”


“THE POWER!” We were mad with it: a vast conspiracy, one small step below the moon landing.

Knowing how it panned out, I can look back with a lot more empathy. His huffing and puffing appeared reactionary, half annoying and half amusing, but turns out the dude wasn’t wearing an aluminum foil hat. His fears were not misplaced.

Overall, the market for writing about books and literature has atrophied almost to distinction, comparatively speaking. Most national papers have cut books sections, those that remain no longer plump and healthy. A large percentage of literary journals have either gone belly up or migrated exclusively online, printing costs skyrocketing past the point of affordability.

It pains me to admit John Sutherland had a point.

Writing in the literary field is not a viable career path; it’s been decimated. If you’re still undeterred, you better be prepared to violently elbow other writers in the ribs and push some prams in front of speeding busses. Respect to the strugglers, but this is why I’m not quitting my day job.

Fair warning: I’d still keep an eye on that pram, not gonna lie.

The internet opened up writing and reviewing to the masses, and when publishing professionals saw that they swooped in. Given a choice between paying an exorbitant wage to an established writer or giving away a few books to popular blogger/reviewers, which do you suppose a financially-strapped publisher would choose?



Word of mouth isn’t so easily separable from book reviews. What is a good review from Michiko Kakutani but a recommendation directly from a reader to hundreds of thousands of her closest non-friends? As with word of mouth, it’s tough to measure the impact of a glowing review on sales numbers. Still, one study showed that reviews do influence libraries’ purchasing choices. Another suggested that New York Times reviews swayed sales. In 2010, GoodReads pulled charts showing massive spikes in certain books’ activity after the books were reviewed or recommended on major platforms.

-Claire Fallon, Book Critics Don’t Exist to Flatter Your Taste” HuffPo, Nov. 25, 2015

Once through the door, a lot of talented people took advantage of the opportunity and carried it further. That’s called opportunity, and it’s no bad thing.

Are book bloggers responsible for the partial collapse of formal criticism? I still say no: the two markets are very distinct. Everything we’re seeing was inevitable following the explosion of the internet. It would have happened without us.



New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani steps down to write a book about Donald Trump


The arts aren’t immune to rules of supply and demand. When the walls came down, canny writers with drive were able to break into the old boys’ club, throwing their legs over a few wingbacks and grabbing handfuls of Cubans. But maybe this lot of mostly old, white men had grown too complacent. Maybe writing about literature needed an injection of fresh blood.

Shaking things up every few hundred years is no bad thing. A little scary, granted, but necessary for growth.

Blogging opened a lot of doors I’d never have found on my own. I’m still not published in Harper’s, but it’s paid off far beyond the time I’ve invested. There’s more I could be doing, but work-life-avocation balance is a consideration. And I’m not quite dead yet. I nominate myself as one of the top thousand-ish writers to watch under 60.

DON’T BLINK.

I appreciate the opportunity afforded to writers by the grace of the internet. It’s not all good or fair, but was it before? It’s a damn sight more accessible, this I know. It’s also dynamic, still in transition. When I revisit this in another 15 years, who knows?

The exciting part is it’s completely unpredictable; it will never, ever grow stale. As long as there are markets I can barge into, and ribs to elbow, I’m happy taking the good right along with the bad.


Flaubert, Sand and A Sentimental Education

 

Frederick expected that he would have felt spasms of joy; but the passions grow pale when we find ourselves in an altered situation; and, as he no longer saw Madame Arnoux in the environment wherein he had known her, she seemed to him to have lost some of her fascination; to have degenerated in some way that he could not comprehend—in fact, not to be the same. He was astonished at the serenity of his own heart.

  • Flaubert, A Sentimental Education

 

Despite its towering reputation as one of the greatest books ever written, I didn’t get along with A Sentimental Education when I tried reading it roughly a decade ago. The story of a thoughtful young man -Frédéric Moreau – living through the revolution of 1848 and founding of the Second French Empire grated on me, Frédéric’s musings romantic, often over the top.

While I have a high threshold for much Victorian sentimental writing, I found this book barely readable. It’s possible I read it at the wrong time, that whatever was happening in my life made it difficult to settle in properly and pay due attention. Should I give it another try? I wouldn’t have considered it until, perusing the most recent issue of the Literary Review, I stumbled upon a mention of a new book about this novel, as well as Flaubert’s relationship with writer George Sand.

The book argues for the importance of Flaubert’s book, its place in the literary canon, and the relationship between these two authors. My experience with George Sand has been more limited than with Flaubert; I’ve read only her Indiana. I admit I found it less than riveting. I knew of her friendship – and correspondence – with Flaubert, even owned a volume of their letters, but got no further than that.

 

Basic Books – 27 April 2017

 

I hadn’t realized Flaubert considered  A Sentimental Education his monumental achievement, nor that it was a critical flop on publication. I’ve read and re-read Madame Bovary, a story I vastly prefer to his exploration of the French philosophical and political climate during one of the most tumultuous times in its history. To be honest, that interests me very little; it’s Emma Bovary who moves me.

There’s some high-flown language in Madame Bovary, as well, but its storyline and characters make for more conventional fiction. If I can’t engage in the story, I can’t engage with the book. Nevertheless, Peter Brooks’ book caught my eye. It promises to challenge my belief about A Sentimental Education, arguing why it is, in fact, an important book.

A lifetime student of literature, I’m bothered I haven’t developed an appreciation of Flaubert’s masterpiece. I know I’m missing something. Added to that, Brooks’ book promises deeper study about the personal relationship between Flaubert and Sand. Even if I don’t have a lot of background reading their work, I know their reputations. I love reading about the inter-connectedness of great writers, how each influences the other.

It’s unlikely I’ll re-read A Sentimental Education anytime soon. Still, it’s good knowing if I should find myself hankering to try the French classic again, there’s a literary expert who’ll hold my hand.

 

New books about Austen, Woolf and the Brontës

 

2017: A Year of Literary Nonfiction Celebrating British Women Writers

Hat tip to nonfiction scribblers assiduously churning out new literary biographies and criticism about these iconic female authors each and every year. Convinced surely there could be no new angle, I’m always pleasantly surprised when out pops a new one. Wherever this New Idea Generator is located, long may it churn.

Possible candidate: New Idea Generator

Common sense dictates at some future point original topics will be exhausted, until and unless something radically new is found in someone’s trunk or attic. Surely there’s a saturation point? But who am I to say. Keep ’em coming as long as possible. With the 200 year anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth last year, and 200th of not just Austen’s death but also the publication of her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey this year, it’s a veritable bumper crop of delicious nonfiction titles. All the better.

I’ve long dreamed of the existence of an undiscovered Austen manuscript. Ditto the Brontës. Pry up those floorboards in the Haworth parsonage! There just may be something squirreled away.

New titles stretch out as far as early 2018, I’ve found via a few searches on Amazon. No doubt more are lurking past that. Certainly enough new stuff to keep devotees busy for quite some time.

I bought this one a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently reading and enjoying it very much:

Austen, Brontë and Woolf, oh my!

A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Aurum Press
1 June 2017

And here are some of the others I’ve found whilst rooting around:

General works on female writers of the period

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
Virago
19 Oct 2017

 

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees
Harper Perennial
12 Jan 2017

Virginia Woolf

Walking Virginia Woolf’s London by Lisbeth Larrson
Palgrave Macmillan
10 Aug. 2017

 

 

Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Woodring, Forrester and Gladding
Columbia University Press
January 2018 – paperback release

An explosion of Austen!

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Icon Books Ltd
1 Jun. 2017

 

 

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton
18 May 2017

 

The Genius of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
William Collins
18 May 2017

Four Austen tiles I’ll be reviewing

Biteback Publishing
25 May 2017
(Currently Reading)

 

Jane Austen: Writer in the World by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
16 June 2017

 

 

Jane Austen: Illustrated Quotations
Bodleian Library
3 July 2017

 

 

Jane Austen: The Chawton Letters by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
29 September 2017

 

And the Brontës

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
Chatto & Windus
12 Jan 2017

 

 

The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher
WW Norton
5 Aug 2017

 

This is the point at which I make you particularly envious: at the end of this month my favorite Scottish host and I will be taking a journey south of the border to England, where we’ll visit various sites related to these three beloved writers. Five, actually, if you count the other two Brontë sisters Anne and Emily. Mea culpa.

When I have the full list of places we plan to visit (the Scot has that, but he’s in the other room and I cannot be bothered) I’ll post that here. Once I’ve returned, of course I’ll have photos along with excessive, likely rather purple verbiage to share.

Between now and then, I plan to finish as many of the review titles as possible. At the very least, I need to brush up on basic biographical facts about each of the ladies. I posted a few times about the Brontës last year: here, here, here and here. For Woolf, I posted most recently about her shorter fiction. Here’s a post about Woolf and the Brontës, a double-header. As for Austen, aside from some very insubstantial posts, I read Rachel Brownstein’s Why Read Jane Austen? back in 2012, enjoying it immensely.

I’m looking forward to hanging out with these literary ladies this summer, back to Victorian and early 20th century writing. It’s been too long.