"Hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned"

Well, well, well, here we go again. . .

Flogging that dead horse once more, this time in this Adam Kirsch article from The New York Sun.

Having done so on numerous occasions last summer, I feel no need to defend myself. The content of this blog should speak for itself, after all. With all due respect, I believe I've done more for speculative fiction authors, books and publishers than any newspaper around. But that's just me. . .

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Mr. Tanenhaus put his finger on the source of the problem. Questions like those raised by the NBCC survey envision the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader. To be obsessed with potential bias or conflict of interest on the book reviewer's part is to imagine the reviewer as a judge, who is obligated to provide every author with his or her day in court. But that judicial standard is impossible, because there is no such thing as an objective judgment of a work of literature; aesthetic judgment is by definition personal and opinionated. Nor would a perfectly objective book review even be desirable. The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama.

It makes a certain kind of sense, however, that book reviewers would become obsessed with ethical purity just at the moment that the newspaper book review is endangered. For along with the fall of the print review, we are also seeing the rise of the Internet review — or, rather, of a new form of discourse about books, which is not quite the same thing as reviewing. People who write about books on the Internet, and they are surprisingly numerous, do not call themselves reviewers, but bloggers. And the subtext of the NBCC's ethics survey and panel was really about the standards, professional and ethical, that bloggers are bringing to the profession.

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog.

In fact, despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs — or at least, it shouldn't. The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news — it doesn't offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.

Still, it is important to distinguish between the blog as a genre and the Internet as a medium. It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages — ease of access, low cost, potential audience — are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications — like Contemporary Poetry Review (cprw.com), to which I occasionally contribute — that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose. But there's no chance that literary culture will thrive on the Internet until we recognize that the ethical and intellectual crotchets of the bloggers represent a dead end.

28 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

What a pompous ass! Sounds like he's a little scared he'll no longer have a job.
"Ethical"--???? Who is he to judge who or what is "ethical"?
I enjoy and trust your blog way more than any newspaper review, and maybe that's what's scary to him. Besides which, as a lowly regular person, I get to comment immediately.
Thanks, Pat

Ed S. said...

So, bottom line, the horse and buggy guy doesn't like the automobile.

Alan said...

ed s got it right on the nail. Elitism in any field should simply be ignored.

John A. Karr said...

So even bloggers have snooty critics? Hose off your shoes and it comes off

Anonymous said...

What I find interesting about that article is that I bet this writer thinks nothing about the literary world outside of poetry and literary fiction. Genre fiction, just not SF/F/H, tends to create more of a community, and that community is expanding to the internet and to blogs.

Granted, I've heard some bitching within the genre about the same issue, but I am a bit amused by the lens this guy appears to be writing out of.

Course, I'm a blog reviewer myself, so who am I to say?

But I will say, Pat, that you do great work. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I do wonder how many of his readers he'll have managed to alienate with this one.

Anonymous said...

What a boner.

Anonymous said...

"With all due respect, I believe I've done more for speculative fiction authors, books and publishers than any newspaper around. But that's just me. . ."


Sorry patrick but that is pompous.

The piece did raise some valid points, I think, about the state of online criticism. I don't think you need to have a degree in literary theory to write interesting reviews but my experience in reading the majority of online reviews is that they boil down to: "I liked it but it was good." (etc.)

The type of criticism Mr. Kirsch is talking about arises from thoughtful, careful analysis of the particular book/story's place in the collective field.

Most internet reviewers tend to react to any criticism with accusations of elitism. Literary criticism (say, as found in print journals) is not elitist; it is just far more refined and not to everyone's taste.

I really enjoy reading internet/blog reviews of movies and books because they provide me with a connection to the visceral feeling a work has produced in someone. But I often want more - and to date, I have not found it in a blog.

Maybe I am looking in the wrong place but that is kinda the point of the article.

Sorry for being long-winded but I think Patrick's reaction to this article is a little off.


Anonymous said...

sorry, should say "I liked it because it was good"


SQT said...

Anytime something new threatens the establishment this happens. There's always this uncomfortable moment when you watch someone defend something that is becoming obsolete but they just can't admit it.

As another example of how the Internet is changing the world: My dad has been an auto wholesaler for 20+ years and doesn't know how to do business anymore. The Internet has changed the way people buy and he didn't adapt so the old business model is obsolete. He held on as long as he could without changing, but in the end it was futile. He retired about a year ago and all his old cronies are facing the same fate.

Getting news and opinions on the net isn't going to go away because some guy who works for a newspaper or magazine wants it to. There are too many of us out there that like being able to exchange opinions and ideas in an informal manner. Having some elitist snob tell us what we should like just isn't going to work anymore. But try telling that to the elitist snob.

Neth said...


sure Pat may have sounded a bit pompous, but there's a lot of truth to it. General print media pretty much ignores and scorns SFF as so much lesser than literature. They rarely do anything for this genre, so I think Pat is justified in saying what he said in that respect.

Your point about the nature of reviews vs. criticism is a valid one. I actually think it's more due to the fact that the vast majority of potential readers aren't looking for the detailed critique that you speak of here (I know I don't).

Admitedly, most on-line reviews are short and general without probing the depths of a book, however there are a few places on-ine that you can find reviews like this. There are several e-zines that try to provide this sort of review/critique as well as a handful of bloggers/reviewers/critics that can be found when you know where to look.

Check out places like The Internet Review of Science Fiction and Scalpel Magazine (assuming they ever get their technical issue in place) and blogs like Velcro City Tourist Board and SF Diplomat (though they do most of their reviewing for various magazines).

However, I do have to say, that article came off very bad, and evokes almost no sympathy. I think ed s. really summed it up best:

the horse and buggy guy doesn't like the automobile.

Anonymous said...

The guy's an idiot.

Anonymous said...


"General print media pretty much ignores and scorns SFF as so much lesser than literature."

I do agree with this statement but I do not think any individual blog is having the type of impact that makes up for it.

Since the very beginning speculative fiction has been fueled by itself. It has never required the mainstream exposure that the general print media gives to a genre.

Now, don't get me wrong I am sure sales would increase if SFF were suddenly to become "literature" but I doubt that anything (artistically) would change.

I think where my reaction to this article and Patrick's posting comes from is that I don't really care if SFF is considered literature. I love it; I am continually amazed at the new paths writers take within the field. I am constantly on the look for writers who have brought something new and exciting to the table.

Thanks for the recommendations of websites to check out. I will, and will continue to read your's and Patrick's blogs as well


Patrick said...


I did not mean to sound pompous. Indeed, I was just stating a fact.

Sign of the times, there are now a panoply of venues where one can find book reviews of all sorts. The print media, which used to have the monopoly on such reviews, has been supplanted in that regard. Many readers, who now have a choice as to where they'll go to peruse various book reviews, have turned their backs on newspapers.

And if those "professional" reviewers cannot adapt to this new reality, then at some point they will find themselves without an audience. You can't stop evolution, good or bad, after all.

Think about it... There is a whole new generation of SFF readers out there who have absolutely no idea who the heck John Clute is. Chances are they'll never flip through an issue of Locus or Realms of Fantasy in their lives. And yet, they buy novels every couple of weeks or so.

Blogs like mine, message boards and online communities offer an easier, more informal alternative to the print media. And the best part is that it's all free! Plus, you are discussing books with fellow fans who have spent their hard-earned money to purchase said books.

And with the reviews, interviews and articles I've posted in the last two and a half years since the blog's creation, I really believe that I've done more to support and promote the SFF genre. And in their own personal way, every other blogger/reviewer out there has done the same. The same thing goes for message board such as sffworld.com, westeros, and countless others.

I think that many readers grew tired of being talked down to, or they simply stopped caring about reviewers trying to demonstrate how "smart" they are instead of discussing the novel they just finished reading.

Whatever the reason, it's slowly becoming obvious that, unless they manage to regain mass appeal, book reviews in most newspapers might soon become obsolete...

I'm not saying that bloggers are better reviewers. I'm simply saying that we seem to offer what a majority of people are looking for. Hence the growing popularity of this medium...

Anonymous said...

New York Sun? Never heard of it or the author. Can't say I'd trust any opinion he's got to offer. Sounds like he's belly aching; perhaps it has something to do with his amount of readers, or ummm reader.

Anonymous said...


You are not pompous--you are very good, however, at rhetoric and continually are able to manipulate me into wanting to buy more and more sci fi books that have your recommendation!
Have I ever been disappointed with any of your recommendations?
No. Not at all.

Tia Nevitt said...

Great blog you have here.

I read an excerpt from that post on James Taranto's Best of the Web Today over at OpinionJournal. The best word I can think of to describe such an article is "threatened."

I wonder if that article subconsciously affected my own impulse to start a review blog?

Anonymous said...


I recognize that what blogs provide are what most people want. I spend more time reading blogs than I do reading newspapers.

But I agree with the article in that blogs are not literary criticism, that blogs do want to be and I would say that if literary criticism does not make a successful transition from print to web then it would be a tragic loss.

I find it really interesting that people view critics as intellectual snobs trying to show off their smarts. I view criticism as a separate art form, like Adam Kirsch says, "literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority."

It is interesting that you bring up John Clute. I read a review of his today (the new Chabon novel) and felt a sense of awe about how well he dissects his own interpretation of the novel. It was very literary. Now, you might read and think John Clute is a elitist jerk because he uses german and hebrew words without telling his reader what they mean but I enjoyed using my google toolbar to quickly look them up.

I know that John Clute is showing off but isn't that what artists do?

By the way, I take back the pompous remark. I know you are just defending the validity of what you do...


PS Can you hurry up with the Steven Erikson interview, pretty please?

Anonymous said...

I agree with David. Bloggers are a great way to find out about new books and authors but if I want an in depth analysis of a book, a published review is the way to go. Bloggers have a long way to go in meaningful criticism and analysis.

Anonymous said...

"even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen."


It's not like the people who read blogs are going to take this guy seriously.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just me but I find some published reviews are shit and some a really great. Blog reviewers are the same. Some are dog yack while some, like Fantasy Book Critic and Pat's Fantasy Hotlist are really great.

Joe said...

Yes, Blogs are not criticism. Or, not entirely criticism, most review blogs, including mine, provide mostly straightforward reviews without in depth criticism...but that is a superficial look. There are SFF blogs which provide a greater depth of study.

But, my main point is that review blogs are not looking to provide the depth of criticism (which is entirely separate from a review) and the blogs are not taking readers away from literary criticism in newspapers. I may read blog reviews but I was never reading the in depth criticism.

Is the growing number of superficial blogs a threat to literary criticism? Surely not? In fan driven SFF culture, we're talking amongst ourselves about books we like and do not like and we're not getting at the depth of criticism...we don't want it. Not saying there isn't value in it, but it isn't what we're about.

I think the blogs and the criticism are two entirely separate forms of literary (or genre) conversation. People looking for the depth aren't going to come here or my blog or Neth's (no offense to you, me, or he), and people looking for what we do are also not going to look for John Clute. Folks looking for John Clute won't ever leave Clute to read me.

The funny thing about that article is the part where he says how the online reviews and stuff are illegitimate and then drops the "oh yeah, except for this other review site I write for"

Anonymous said...

This is interesting--I just watched the panel on BookTV (CSPAN) titled "Ethical Standards of Literary Review". It wasn't what I was expecting, especially after reading this article, and it was very good. I was impressed with the panel of book reviewers.
One of the questions on the "ethical" survey was: Should bloggers tell their readers when they are being paid for their reviews by the publisher.
What do you think?

Joe said...

"One of the questions on the "ethical" survey was: Should bloggers tell their readers when they are being paid for their reviews by the publisher.
What do you think?"

Well...yes. But how many publishers actually pay bloggers to review?

This assumes the question isn't referring to bloggers receiving review copies of books. I don't think that necessarily needs to be disclosed. Do the reviewers are Publisher's Weekly have to disclose that all of their books are review copies?

Patrick said...

I don't know any bloggers who are being paid by publishers for their reviews. . .

John A. Karr said...

After reading an in-depth "literary" criticism, why would anyone actually want to read the book? Most if not all the discovery and entertainment value has been siphoned off.

A review site that provides generalities seems far more likely to generate an actual sale to a reader. Interest is provoked, not snuffed.

Neth said...

Should bloggers tell their readers when they are being paid for their reviews by the publisher.
What do you think?

I'm still waiting for all my promised bribe money ;)

As far I know, no on-line reviewers are getting paid by publishers - the only place I'd be concerned about something like this going on is for Amazon reviews - buyer beware with those.

Some magazines pay reviewers a very small sum (but not many) and those are not paid for by publishers, but by advertising and very often site donations (many have one or two 'rich' benefactors). Quite a few of us get books direct from publishers - it's my opinion that bloggers should disclose that they do receive books from publishers, and I think it's a good idea to provide a way for readers to find out which books were provided by publishers (I started doing this at Neth Space a few months ago).

Make of it what you will - I think that this has very little impact on most reviewers (or at least the reviewers I choose to read).

Anonymous said...

I've wondered if Harriet Klausner is paid for her reviews on Amazon and B&N. She must read 1000 books a year. Almost all of her reviews are given 5 stars but every once in awhile she will give a book 4 stars--which means it's really bad.