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Somewhere This Way

I’ve been blogging about books, in one way or another, for a few years now—I think the first book I reviewed, on a long-forgotten website, was Yellow Dog by Martin Amis, which would make it 2003—and lately I’ve been thinking about what kinds of books are best suited to blogging.

I’m not talking about genre, because fantasy bloggers will always want to blog about fantasy novels, and literary folk will always want to blog about Philip Roth. Neither am I thinking about old-versus-new books, which again is down to the blogger’s taste. (The Fiction Desk covers only new books published in the last three months or so, some blogs only review classics, while others combine the two.) I do occasionally cover older books in the diary section, and I don’t limit myself exclusively to fiction, although that’s certainly the focus of the site.

Once the blog has established its genre, old-or-new, etc., then what makes a book a good candidate for a review?

Here are some of my own thoughts about what works for me, but I’d love to know what other bloggers and blog readers think:

Length

The shorter the better! In my personal reading, length really isn’t an issue either way, but book blogs need new reviews at least every week, if not twice or three times a week, and that just isn’t going to happen with 600-page mammoths. These do need to be covered, but they can take a bit of planning—maybe a couple of novellas first, so that the second novella review can be run midway through reading the mammoth?

If there’s a title I’m especially keen to review, it’s a priority whatever the length; but all else being equal, 200 pages will rise to the top of the pile faster than 450 pages will.

Debut vs. established author

I’m always a little hesitant about reviewing a book by an established author if I’m not very familiar with his or her backlist. While each book should of course be judged on its own merits, if a review is going to be as good as it can be, it should also be able to place the novel within the author’s body of work. In cases where I’m not familiar, it won’t put me off doing the review, but I’ll pick up one or two of the author’s older works first—which delays the review for the same reasons as the longer novels mentioned above.

If I’m familiar with the author’s other work, then I’m as likely to review an established author as I am a debut—you can find interesting things to say about both.

New vs. old

As I said above, this is largely down to the style of the blog in question, but it is an interesting one. Reviews of old books are best when they’re obscure or forgotten; the world doesn’t need any more reviews of 1984 or Wuthering Heights, but I must admit that I ran a review of Treasure Island on my last blog. (I’d reread it for the first time since I was a boy, and I was just very excited by how good it was.) I’ll continue to talk about old books in the diary here, but only when they’re vaguely relevant—for example, if they’ve just been reprinted after a long absence, if they’ve just been filmed, or if the author’s recently passed away.

This presents a slight problem, in that it excludes a lot of my personal and work reading from the blog, which means that I can’t multi-purpose my reading as much as I’d like to.

Good and bad books

When I started this site, I had the vague notion that I wouldn’t review any bad books. I don’t mean that I intended to lie; I just wouldn’t review them. It’s still the case that, if a book turns out to be just awful within the first few pages, I’ll put it down. But if I’m well into it when hope fades, I’ll now finish and review it. This is down to time as much as anything: If I’ve used up a couple of reading sessions on a bad book, I’ll have new content for the site quicker by finishing it than if I start again with another book. I don’t feel any guilt for bad reviews (well, maybe a little), because I think I’m fair, but I do get a twinge when I see by my Web statistics that a Google blog alert’s been triggered in the author’s home town—which happens a lot.

I’ve also noticed that negative reviews seem to attract more comments than positive reviews, but that’s not enough of a motivation for me to read more bad books, or be unfair about good ones.

Heavily publicised vs. obscure books

Both have their merits. If a book is getting a lot of publicity, running a review means that you’re joining part of a larger conversation, and you’re more likely to attract comments from other people who’ve read it, which is great for getting a discussion going. On the other hand, reviewing obscure titles means that you’re more likely to be able to contribute something new. Titles from small or new publishers are also good to review, partly because there’s the added dimension of the publisher to talk about, and partly because it’s always a pleasure to support small presses. Book blogs are also more able to talk about obscure titles than the mainstream press, because we’re less bound by expectations; there are no titles that we have to review, the way a newspaper has to hand over two pages to the new Salman Rushdie, say, before even looking at what else is coming out.

In summary, I think that a key issue for me—and for many bloggers—is time. Short books win over long books because of time constraints, and debut authors or authors I’m familiar with win over established authors I haven’t read, because I can go straight to the book in question. But if a book looks particularly interesting, I’d never turn down an opportunity to review it for those reasons.

8 Comments on “What makes a good book for blogging?”

  1. John Self Says:

    I think of my posts on my blog as being simply open responses to a book by someone with no specialist knowledge in literature or criticism – in other words, as close as possible to what the reader will think when they pluck a book from the shop shelves to try. So I don’t worry too much about my depth of reading of the author: I’m not trying to provide a definitive criticism, just a reader’s thoughts. That’s also why I sometimes talk a bit about the format of the book and the circumstances which led me to read it, as these are all things which we as readers experience in the real world – nobody reads books in a vacuum; we all have lives to get on with and plenty of other calls on our time (hence comments earlier about long v short books).

    Having said that, and while I don’t shy away from writing about established classics, there’s obviously a greater risk of making a fool of yourself by taking on Middlemarch and trying to talk about it in 1,000 words or less, than there is in talking about a new author or a popular contemporary writer.

    As for good and bad books, like you Rob, I tend to give up on a book if I’m not enjoying it, so obviously I won’t write about it. In fact over the last weekend I gave up on three books in the space of two days. Rest easy knowing my venom will never see the light of day, Marcus Harriman, Tonia Veldt and Lord Archer of Weston-super-mare!

    I do try to be balanced and point out what is good about a book even if I think overall it’s beyond rubbish (eg Child 44). Largely because I realise that while hatchet jobs are fun to read and fun to write, they tend to look a bit silly and a more balanced view shows you’re taking the book seriously – and the author too, who whatever the results, has spent probably years of hard work on the book. I can’t ignore, on that point, that authors do sometimes read my reviews; I’ve had contact from some about positive reviews, so presumably some are seeing the negative ones too. And there’s no particular merit in kicking a man when he’s down – and most authors are down, in the sense that they’re not making a living from their writing and can’t afford to shrug off a negative review.

    This links also I suppose to obscure titles. Nothing nicer than bringing a great but little-known book to slightly wider attention. Not so sure on the merits of doing so if the book isn’t good. Effectively one would be saying: “Here’s a book you’ve never heard of/which is out of print. And it’s no good.”

  2. Rob Says:

    Now that you mention it, I’m sure there’s room for a niche blog that only reviews bad books that have fallen out of print. Otherwise, I’m inclined to agree with you that such books are best left out in the dark…

    I agree also that straight hatchet jobs are to be avoided. I think, if I had nothing at all positive to say about a book, I wouldn’t run a review even if I’d finished it. The Boat was probably the closest I’ve come to a purely negative review, because after the first story, I did find reading it to be an utterly horrible experience, but I’d prefer not to do such a negative review again. Fortunately, I’ve got a little stack of more interesting books coming up.

    I think you achieve a good balance of “reader’s thoughts” and informed criticism on your blog, and a lot of your posts are textbook examples about what a book blog should be trying to do. When I started reviewing on this blog, I was gearing the reviews slightly more towards writers (I think the Blackmoor review is probably a good example of what I had in mind), but I think that’s moved more into the background lately. I’m wondering whether or not to make that a larger part of my reviews again. I think it’s an interesting way of looking at a book, but on the other hand, sometimes I get sick of reading like a writer, and prefer to read, you know, like a reader.

    I’m also steadily building up my own set of review clichés to be avoided. At the moment I have: beginning a penultimate paragraph with “But those are minor quibbles, and…”; “What’s frustrating is that this could have been a terrific book. It just needed one more solid edit.”; “…hobbled by mindless postmodern gimmickry…”; and “I like what the author’s trying to do. I just don’t think he/she succeeds in doing it.”

    I also can’t help thinking how lucky we are to have so many people creating such a diverse and interesting range of new books. Good an bad, long and short, the high-brow literature and the pulpy page-turners, I’m glad as hell they’re there.

  3. John Self Says:

    I don’t see why you shouldn’t take a bit of a writer’s angle on reviews. Everyone needs a gimmick, eh!

    Ah, the clichés. The “minor quibbles” is one I have to stop myself doing too. The problem is that we all have our individual clichés which only others will spot. I’ve recently stopped myself saying “of course” as a prelude to a statement. If it’s that obvious, you don’t need to say it at all. If it’s something that many people won’t know, then prefacing it with “of course” sounds patronising. And I also try not to start sentences with “And.”

  4. Rob Says:

    “Of course” is a tricky one, isn’t it? Even though I’m aware of it, it’s almost impossible to stop myself writing it. It’s like trying not to close your eyes when you sneeze. It appears three times in the post above, for example.

    Edit: and now it appears once.

  5. Candy Schultz Says:

    My blog is not only about books although they seem to be the predominant subject. Reading has always occupied the major chunk of my discretionary time so that is what gets the most notice. I like to think of myself as literary but I cannot for some reason tolerate Philip Roth.

    My book reviews are not meant to be so much literary as just my honest view of the work and how I enjoyed it. I rarely write about the books I dislike unless it is to mention that I gave up on reading them. Since I am not a professional I don’t feel I have to diss someone’s work.

    I don’t review every book I read but I always review the books I receive from LT’s early reviewers feature. Free books are not to be sneezed at. With these books, however, I will do a negative review rather than none at all.

    And, finally, since I have so few readers I don’t give as much time to my blog as I did when I started out three years ago.

    Thanks for coming by!

  6. Tom C Says:

    Rob, you have a thoughtful and well-presented site here – which makes me think a spot of redesign is in order for A Common Reader. I’ve printed off this post (unusual for me!) and its comments and am going to reflect on it. No greater compliment can a blogger give . . . ?

  7. Rob Says:

    Thanks very much, Tom! I hope you’ll come back and share the fruits of your reflections. (That’s a bit of a mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean…)

  8. Are book blogs and novellas made for each other? Says:

    […] while back, I wrote a piece on The Fiction Desk about the kinds of books that I thought made ideal fodder for book blogs. […]

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