Writing, Blogging, Learning

Collaborative Reviews and the Battle for Literature

Gav Bad Speed-Reads, by andropolisThought in isolation is a little sterile, prone to fits and starts. Writing can help the learning process by forcing ideas into shape, but only conversation in its many forms can really beat out misconceptions. A blog is, or at least should be, a conversation in motion, and in that I’m thankful of the comments I received on my post yesterday.

I particularly want to mention John Quiggin’s rejoinder because it made me think more about the nature of the book review and what a certain type of blog can add to it. My position has been that online reviews tend towards the book report form, and I’ve been thinking – somewhat narcissistically – of blogs like this, single author affairs. In the first part of his comment Professor Quiggin pointed to the value of the book seminars on Crooked Timber, a multi-author blog to which he contributes and I read.


Seriously, though, I’m excited about this and a little ashamed it slipped my attention. The seminars begin with introductory posts and then offer lengthy, considered pieces on the book in question from around six or so contributors. Not scattershot reports, but deeper considerations of the book’s value and limits. This is reminiscent of the book forums occasionally conducted at Marginal Revolution, the current version of which is covering Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. But the main difference is that the Crooked Timber seminars are reproduced in downloadable PDF format; you can comment online or repair to the comfy lounge for more leisurely consumption. I’m currently reading the seminar on Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics.

The first question I have to ask is, do economists have all the good ideas? This is clearly not what I envisaged in my first post when I mentioned the sort of review that draws you into a book’s milieu, but it has the same effect with one added benefit: the many voices, in the posts and in the comments, push you into a conversation that digresses and returns, always chewing over new ideas.

The second question is a bit more pointed, and I hope someone can provide an answer. Given the obvious value of collaborative reviews, are many, or any, blogs doing this with works of fiction?

Wrong Way . . . Way Wrong, by Bob.FornalProfessor Quiggin thinks that the Crooked Timber seminars surpass the quality of the average newspaper book review. Chastened, I agree. He also points out that he has used his own blog to offer early version of reviews that he later publishes in newspapers himself. Doubly chastened.

Where I diverge from this position – and it has made me think a great deal about the flexibility of my own thought – is the notion that William Skidelsky dismissed blogs entirely as vehicles for considered reviews in his Prospect article.

In my reading, Skidelsky’s conclusion is conditional. Of ‘good criticism’ he writes that “the blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing”. Note that he mentions the ‘optimal’ conditions rather than just the conditions.

That’s why I offered brief examples for and against his position in my previous two posts – it seems to invite a definition, or at least a delimiting, of what the optimal conditions for captivating reviews could be. Skidelsky’s concluding paragraph begins thus:

In the end, though, squabbles between literary journalists and bloggers miss the point. While both parties have cast themselves as adversaries in a pressing contemporary drama, they really are (or should be) allies in a more important battle – for literature itself, and its right to be taken seriously . . .

My feeling is that he creates the atmosphere of squabbles to push a point, but the idea of cross-fertilisation between blogs and the print media is interesting. This seems to be at least partly what Professor Quiggin is doing when he posts early versions of his reviews, feeding off the comments for improvements before sending them to newspapers.

Lacking any examples of what blogs can actually do, or don’t do well enough, Skidelsky generalises, as Professor Quiggin mentioned. But I still have to ask, how do we begin to encourage the majority of single-author review blogs to shift towards deeper, more considered coverage and fight the battle for literature?

In another comment yesterday, Cliff Burns mentioned that his own considered reviews tend to drive away impatient blog readers. So that’s the other side of the equation.

I find myself returning now to a question that was banging around in my head when I wrote the initial post last week. How do we, as both readers and participants in online conversations, encourage reverence for the sort of wonder – or perhaps the deep critical knowledge – that a truly masterful review can impart on us?

Puzzled Alien, Purchased from BigStock PhotosLeading by example is the first step: Professor Quiggin has shown me that. But what comes next? How do we get more people to expect reviews rather than previews?

I’m learning with each comment and every post, but it’s still a puzzling world.


3 Responses to Writing, Blogging, Learning

  1. John Quiggin says:

    In relation to Cliff Burns’ problem, a difficulty I’ve noticed with blog-based book reviewing is that most regular commenters haven’t, in the nature of things, read the book being reviewed. So comments tend to be scanty or else veer off-track. For example, anything on fantasy will end up in a thread on Lord of the Rings.

    On the other hand, people keep noticing these reviews years after the event, whereas I imagine hardly anyone discovers reviews in back issues of London Review of Books (I keep mine for a while, but hardly ever reread them).

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Yes, magazines seem worth keeping but they’re probably more transitory than older online reviews. That’s an interesting divergence from the conventional wisdom that paper outlasts, or is at least more substantial than, hypertext.

    Your other point made me think about readers in a slightly different way than I had been. Regular readers will have, at least potentially, a different set of priorities than those who come to the blog looking at the review specifically.


  3. Honourcw says:

    favorited this one, brother

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