Beyond the Limits of the Online Book Review
Collisions release energy in unexpected directions, sending us off to places we might never have fully explored. When I wrote my post banging against the limits of the contemporary book review last week I mentioned online efforts as a matter of course, not expecting to think more about them as a special case. But I now realise they are – they not only capture impressions of literature, but also mark the spot where attention and interest separate.
Not long after I completed the post I noticed that John Quiggin had commented on the Prospect article by William Skidelsky that inspired my own ruminations, picking out its two passing references to blogs. Fair enough; Skidelsky takes an unsubstantiated potshot at blogs that dare to review books, and in doing so becomes the sort of snobbish critic he otherwise derides. But Quiggin made no other attempt to engage the article, and the comment thread on his post suggests that no-one else in the discussion had bothered to read Skidelsky’s piece at all.
This reinforces the point I made yesterday – in the Cyber Age impatience breeds contempt. We are quick to comment but slow to check, or maybe don’t even check at all. Responding to my post in a more thoughtful manner, Cliff Burns from Beautiful Desolation observed that although the ‘thumbs up’ culture prevails in online reviews, a couple of sites are worthy of note: Popmatters and Book Forum, the online presence of a review magazine. And to that I should add Cliff’s blog itself.
Back in the fast lane, what draws together the snappish defence of blogs and the culture of fandom behind many of the book reviews they issue is the way in which we read online, and how that forces us to think. Very few people ever read a webpage with anything near the scrutiny they reserve for novels, or more often the print media. At a time when the bullet point rules, we look for factlets in reportage or highlights in the lesser written arts. And we think in snippets, which is a far cry from the contemplation needed to absorb a thoughtful book review.
This reminds me of something Margery Cuyler wrote in ForeWord last year about the vogue for comical fractured fairytales rather than the traditional versions – they miss the deeper meaning and “skim the surface of experience”.
Is this what we achieve in reading online reviews? Do they – in their brevity, in their similarity to the book reports we suffered through at school – drag us away from experiencing literature lovingly refashioned, gifted to us secondhand?
These are questions I can’t yet answer, but I intend to try. They’re the reason I persist with my own microreviews, probing the limits of what can be written meaningfully about literature online. If you have any thoughts on the matter, please let me know. I’ll also be interested in learning about any blogs that allay my concerns, or disprove my allegations. And I’ll be searching for them myself.
As always, I find myself caught between the comfort of certainty and the allure of indecision in this truly puzzling world.