The Blogger Chronicles, Part 3: Critic Michael Dirda and Novelists D. J. Taylor & Sherry Jones Speak Out on Blogs

Roman woman writingThis is the third in a series of “featurettes” about blogging.  Today, meet Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Washington Post; D. J. Taylor, an award-winning biographer, novelist, and critic; and Sherry Jones, an award-winning author of historical novels.

In a scene in D. E. Stevenson’s light, humorous novel, The Two Mrs. Abbots (1943), Janetta Walters, a romantic novelist, meets an air force pilot who dislikes her books.

She was aware that the English-speaking world contained people who did not care for her work, but never before had she met one of these people in the flesh–not so far as she knew.  Reviewers were sometimes unkind, but reviewers were different…

Novelists, reviewers, and bloggers often have confusing encounters.  Everybody is a click away by email (two or three clicks if you go through PR people), and bloggers can happily chat with famous writers, or, in this case, interview them.

Because so many of the bloggers I recently interviewed like to read classics and older books, I approached Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning critic at The Washington Post and author of Readings, Bound to Please, and Classics for Pleasure. Not only is he an outstanding writer, but he sometimes reviews classics, reissued editions of out-of-print novels, reference books, poetry, science fiction, and other less well-known books. * (see note)

He kindly agreed to an email interview on the subject of critics and bloggers.

Although he does not read blogs regularly, he enjoys “specialized sites about everything from the classic ghost story (All-Hallows) to the Golden Age Mystery (The Passing Tramp) to the course of popular fiction over the past 100 or so years (the restricted discussion group called fictionmags).”

He is happy with the quality of some blogs, not so happy with others.

He writes:

“China’s Cultural Revolution proclaimed: “Let a thousand flowers blossom”–and, while I’m no Maoist, I do think the proliferation of reader comment and discussion online is to be welcome. Besides, it’s inevitable, even if there are losses. My own caveats are pretty familiar by now.  People gravitate to specialized blogs or tailor their data consumption–to use the lingo–to a narrow band of material. Common knowledge–the stuff that everyone knew about because it came to you in the daily paper or from big-name magazines and book reviews–is being eroded. We can now learn an incredible amount about quite specialized areas of interest: Unfortunately, more and more people  know everything about the strategy of League of Legends yet are unable to name the Secretary of State. And not care.”

He cautions readers about believing everything they read online, since few sites have fact checkers and copy editors.  He can identify bloggers who know their stuff, but thinks “the flashy and the crowd-pleasing sites are often the ones that receive all the hits and make the big numbers.”

He says that when critics and journalists talk about bloggers, it is “mainly to lament their own loss of power and influence.” There is no equivalent of the supportive community of bloggers or online book groups among critics.  They spend a lot of time alone.

He writes, “To read a book well or appreciate a work of art requires a focused act of attention. You need quiet and minimal interruption, both of which are hard to achieve if you’re constantly updating your Facebook page. Addictive twittering is even worse. Personally, I prefer to talk with my friends, truly face to face, over dinner and a glass of Guinness.”

D. J. Taylor is a critic, biographer, and Man Booker Prize-nominated author of the novel, Derby Day.  His brilliant new novel, The Windsor Faction, was one of my favorite books of 2013 (I wrote about it here) and I very much enjoyed his non-fiction book, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age (I wrote about it here; It can also be used as a reference book about such Bright Young People as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and  Cecil Beaton).

Like all writers, he has had good and bad experiences online.  He said by e-mail:

Blogs are like every other form of reader response in the publishing process, from newspaper reviews to Amazon critiques - helpful and instructive if well done (and by this I don’t merely mean favourable to the author), a waste of time if not. My instinctive feeling is that the Americans are better at this than the Brits. I have been very impressed in recent years by specialist non-fiction sites which have been useful for promoting my own stuff -  a blog called Cocktails with Elvira was particularly helpful with my Bright Young People book. With The Windsor Faction blogs such as The Common Reader and your own site have offered a welcome counterblast to various on-line reviewers who will insist that an alternative history novel set in World War II has to be full of stampeding Nazis and derring do.

Sherry Jones, a former journalist and the author of two historical novels, Four Sisters All Queens and The Jewel of Medina, has had good and bad experiences, too.  (I wrote  here about Four Sisters All Queens, a well-researched, fascinating novel about the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy in Provence.)  She said in an email interview:

“How readers find out about new books is a mystery to me. As an historical fiction author, I’m very grateful to the bloggers who’ve taken the time to read and review the novels I’ve written, but I’m also aware that their impact on my readership is very limited. Most bloggers have only a few hundred followers at most — a drop in the proverbial bucket. Some, alas, can barely spell. And yet they offer us exposure, both on their blogs and on the social media where they promote their posts…”

She appreciates reviews online, but says they can be helpful or harmful.

“My only concern about blog reviewers is that, too often, they write authoritatively as literary critics despite having no schooling or even basic knowledge of the art of criticism. In the online world, anyone can post whatever they desire about a book and be taken seriously, even if the person writing is no “serious” critic or even educated in literature and literary history (a must for context, if for nothing else).”

She belongs to two book groups, and says word of mouth or the review of a trusted blogger are often the best ways to learn about good books.  When her new book, THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, is released in October, she will be “writing to as many bloggers as I can find, soliciting reviews and interviews, and offering to write guest posts….  Bloggers, unlike critics, tend to be unpretentious, and quite approachable.”

She thanks bloggers for writing.  “Believe me when I say that we’re all infinitely grateful for what you and other book bloggers do. Please don’t stop!”

Thank you, Michael, David, and Sherry for agreeing to be interviewed!

* Note:  In recent years, Dirda has written about a reissue of Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds (a kind of predecessor to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds), Persian poetry, an annotated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a fantasy novel by Gavriel Guy Kay, an appreciation of Ray Bradbury on the occasion of his death, and a reissue of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr. Polly.

8 thoughts on “The Blogger Chronicles, Part 3: Critic Michael Dirda and Novelists D. J. Taylor & Sherry Jones Speak Out on Blogs

  1. In recent days I’ve become horrified yet fascinated by Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, and the Mitfords which was where it all started, so I am very interested in ‘The Windsor Faction’. There was also an interesting documentary on PBS about Charles Edward, Victoria’s grandson, who became a prominent Nazi, and apparently was connected to Edward VIII.
    Separate from the above, I read and enjoy Michael Dirda regularly.

  2. Taylor is a fascinating writer, Dirda is one of my favorite critics, and Jones’ historical novels will fit my “Year of Reading Historical Novels” bill, if I ever do that! I missed the documentary. PBS is for Washington Week and Mystery!

  3. Very interesting to hear about the thoughts from the other side of the fence Kat! It must be very hard for authors as the Internet is completely unregulated and if someone wants to be nasty for no reason, they have no recourse – but that’s the same for any part of the Internet, not just book blogs. And although the saying is that all publicity is good publicity, I don’t know that I’d subscribe to that view.

    I would however quibble slightly with Sherry Jones’ second quote: “too often, they write authoritatively as literary critics despite having no schooling or even basic knowledge of the art of criticism”. I have basic schooling and no training in the art of criticism but I have a great love of, and experience of, reading books. I comment from the heart, I say what I feel and think about a book, I don’t pretend it’s anything more than my view and I think that’s as valid as a review in a newspaper from someone who’s doing it as a job and may not even be interested in what they’re doing. I wasn’t aware that there was a qualification you could get to be a critic…. :)

  4. Kevin, yes, one of these days we’ll all have a Guinness with Michael Dirda when we have a bloggers’ convention. (Ha ha!)

    Karen, I can see all sides. I love bloggers, novelists, and critics, so wanted to see how it worked for everybody. One of Sherry’s books, The Jewel of Medina, about one of the wives of Muhammad, was very controversial. All of us bloggers here are thoughtful, and she’s talking about bloggers in an alternate universe (In other words, some blogs we don’t read) who are offended by her subject matter. Each of the bloggers I mentioned (including you!) has a unique point of view, and certainly all of us can write. And so what this means is…I should delete that quote.

  5. No, don’t delete because it’s her view and she’s as entitled to it as I am mine! I know there are nasties out there and I don’t want to engage with them – I’m happy to keep a low profile and just write what I think about what I like. I just wanted to present an alternative view so that we aren’t all labelled as uneducated!! :)

  6. Actually controversy does make it much more interesting.:) All of us read a great deal and have a context for what we write, even though we may not write “nice” things all the time. For instance, I have to pinch myself sometimes so I don’t write something I think really funny which will offend people. But, yes, bloggers get a lot of criticism they don’t deserve. I am always beside myself when somebody says something negative about blogs. That’s one reason I thought it would be fun to write about both perspectives. I chose bloggers from my blogroll, because I like them.

  7. Exactly right – if you’ve lived a life and read a lot, you *do* have a context which I think is just as valid as any paid reviewer. And we *can* discriminate too and choose to read the blogs we like and identify with – I certainly do!

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