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:
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.