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The review is dead. Long live the review?

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There’s a fascinating conversation going on over at Matilda about the ethics of reviewing, and in particular the question of whether accepting free books from publishers compromises bloggers. My feeling is that the latter question is a bit of a furphy, since reviewers for the mainstream press accept free books all the time, and it doesn’t compromise our integrity (or what we laughingly call our integrity). But I also think the discussion at Matilda is circling around another larger and more interesting question about the future of the book review itself.

The book review, in its current incarnation, is largely a creature of the print media, and in particular the newspaper. But over recent years the commitment of newspapers to their book review sections has been wavering. In his excellent Overland lecture Malcolm Knox disputes the economics of this failing commitment, but whether it’s sound business thinking or not, the review sections of newspapers are in trouble. In recent weeks The Washington Post has folded its august Book World section back into the main paper (although it will continue to live on, ghost-like, online) and it seems likely other papers around the world will follow suit in the next few years. Given the convulsions (death throes?) afflicting the print media more generally as the GFC collides with their already shaky business models it might be interesting to see whether newspapers themselves outlive their book review sections, but whatever happens it looks less and less likely the traditional mainstream media print review will be around in anything other than a niche capacity ten years from now.

That of course raises the question of what happens then. Assuming there will continue to be interest in books (and while I think interest in books will continue to contract I’m confident both that there will continue to be a community of readers eager to discuss and debate books, and that the net will drive deeper and broader collaborations between such individuals) there will continue to be a demand for reviews of new publications, and I think we can safely assume the publishing business (whatever it looks like in a decade’s time) will continue to seek out forums prepared to give space to its product.

But what will those forums, and those reviews look like? The book review as it is traditionally understood is an awkward beast in cyberspace. The very qualities that give it shape in the print media – its authoritative air, the craft involved in shaping a piece to fit the space allotted, its ongoing process of attempting to balance the subjective response of the reviewer with a more objective view make it seem overly formal and hopelessly enclosed in the more collaborative environment of the blogosphere. Blogposts, and blogging, as they have evolved to date, are a much more personal, subjective form of writing, and offer quite different pleasures to the traditional review.

Yet the traditional review looks the way it does for a reason. Unlike bloggers, reviewers operate within a complex web of competing responsibilities to author, reader, book and editor (Kerryn Goldsworthy has written about this elsewhere but I can’t find the link, dammit) as well as restrictions relating to length and similar questions.

So will the end of the print media’s commitment to book reviewing mean the end of book reviewing, or at least of book reviews as we know them? Or will the ways bloggers write about books begin to become more formalized and codified as they become more enmeshed in the cycle of book promotion and discussion? Something of this sort is already happening with Amazon’s system of ranking for its reviewers, which despite being driven from the bottom-up, still push the reader reviews towards the more formal and balanced mode expected in the print media. Will new forums spring up to replace the broadsheet review sections, either aggregating reviews on blogs or actually commissioning them? And if it’s the latter how will it work economically? And perhaps most importantly, how will the blogging community, which has traditionally been opposed to absorption into the corporate machine, handle the process of being professionalized by inevitably closer relations with publishers and publicists? What will it mean for their independence and freedom of expression?

I don’t pretend I know the answers to these questions, but they’re real, and I suspect they’re dilemmas the blogging community is going to have to face up to, possibly sooner rather than later.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. WordPress.com’s pregenerated links just threw up this post, which touches on some of these points as well.

    http://wordlily.wordpress.com/2008/08/22/blogs-saving-books-a-conversation-part-1/

    February 7, 2009
  2. You’re linked, Mr. B., and thank you for the favour. What a nice new site.

    I have written a draft article on some of these things, which has not quite found a home – the short answer is that book reviews will continue to make inroads into online publications, I think. There may even be an online reviews site for Australian writing one day, who knows? apparently the Australia Council would not be averse to the idea.

    And I think if quality reviewers exist, they will find a home somewhere and take those skills with them. The skills will not disappear simply because newspapers drop the bundle.
    I say this as someone who has wanted to write reviews for the papers all her life and now finds them closing everything down just as she get a toe in the door (admittedly through blogging, oh, the irony). Crushing, it is.
    I think wherever people read books, they read papers, and papers should always be casting the net for those looking for reading recommendations. It makes no sense to drop books when you continue to review in all other arts. I could go on – I hold up the Guardian with its incredibly fine books section as an example of how it can be done better. C’est ridicule.

    February 7, 2009
  3. Adster #

    Good to see this site up at last. Did you make it yourself James? And good to read articles by someone who knows the difference between death throes and death throws.

    Is this the point at which I could say “Those who can write should write, and those who can’t write should write reviews?” Of course, those who can’t even write reviews should write blog comments.

    February 8, 2009
  4. Thanks to both of you, though I’m not sure I can take credit for the site design, which is just a wordpress template. And Gen, I take your point about the skill base and interest remaining, even if the papers shut down their review sections, but I still think it’s an interesting question as to what the shift from the relatively formal context of the newspaper to the less formal, more conversational and deliberately subjective mode of blogging will mean for the review as a form. Will the book review as it is currently conceived be replaced? Or will blogging about books become more formal? Or will there be new forms again, taking on elements of both?

    February 8, 2009

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