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.

The Blogger Chronicles, Part One: Origins and Politics

This is the first in a series of articles about blogging.  Meet Tom of A Common Reader, Ellen of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Two, Melody of Redeeming Qualities, and Tony of Tony’s Book World.

Roman woman writingIn 1994, Justin Hall, a Swarthmore student, created the first blog, a web diary (links.net).

By 2004, blogging was so mainstream that Merriam-Webster Dictionary named “blog” the word of the year.

In 2014, it makes sense to analyze the influence of blogs.

The blog may be an outgrowth of a postmodern trend of equating self-expression with art and pop with literary culture.  If  the diaries of my grandmother on the prairie are judged equal to the letters of Willa Cather, no wonder the proliferation of blogs:  everybody finds an audience online, whether at blogs or social media.

In 2006, Nielsen, a market research company,  reported that it tracked 36 million blogs around the world.  In 2012, it tracked over 181 million blogs.

There are vast numbers of book bloggers, of varying talents, reviewing everything from chick lit to literary fiction to history to cookbooks to science books to science fiction.

If, like me, you romantically imagined that the book bloggers were postmodernist rebels, artists, slam poets, and musicians who wrote online as a political gesture to support the premise that personal writing is as valuable as traditionally published work, you will be disappointed.

Of the ten bloggers (eleven counting myself) who completed a questionnaire I sent out about the pros and cons of blogging, not one of us is a postmodernist rebel.  We range in age from the 20s to 80s.  Six are over 50, three are under 50, and one did not report his/her age.  Eight  are women and three men.  Two are English, eight American, and one Canadian.

Our common ground is love of books.   All believe writing about books in this hectic culture of book review publications going bust is important.  Perhaps it is political, perhaps it is not.

Tom Cunliffe, the author of the book review blog, A Common Reader, in the UK, does not consider his blog “really” political, but focuses partly on European books in translation that few professional reviewers or bloggers tackle.  In the U.S. and UK, only three percent of the books published are books in translation, and even fewer are reviewed.

Tom loves “self-publishing, the tekkie stuff, the putting down of my thoughts, the fact that someone actually reads my stuff, the sheer look of the site.”

“But it can be very demanding of time and resources.  No time to follow up comments properly – I am very bad at this.”

In this age of shrinking print media and a dwindling number of professional book reviews published, he asserts that he has seen the difference blogs make.

I find that my posts are often right at the top of the Google lists when searching for a book, so blogs do matter.  Newspapers have all cut book review space in recent years and most publicists recognise the value of a blog.  I also copy my reviews to Amazon where I am UK reviewer #28 so they seem to want me to review their books.

Ellen Moody, scholar, adjunct professor and author of the book, Trollope on the Net, agrees that blogs are an influential genre.  At her three blogs, Ellen and Jim Have A Blog Two, Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, and Under the Sign of Sylvia Two, she writes about literature, movies, BBC adaptations of novels, opera, plays, her personal life, and politics.   Active in Yahoo literature discussion groups since the ’90s, she started her first blog in 2000 because she wanted  to branch out and write at greater length about literature and other topics than she could at listservs.  The first blog fizzled out, but a few years later she and her husband, Jim, created the successful Ellen and Jim Have A Blog.

Ellen says,

The idea of a diary I would be sharing with others appealed as I thought I would really keep it going and keep it nice if others were to see it.

Are blogs political?  She says one of her blogs is specifically political.  “I comment on political issues of the day: I do it for the others too if the topic warrants it. All art is propaganda Orwell said and he was right.”

She agrees that it may be political in providing a platform “for many who might not get into traditional hard copy print. What people can read has increased 100 fold — that’s why books and published magazines and newspapers are hurting so badly.”

At her blog Under the Sign of Sylvia Two, she kept a very moving diary last year about her husband’s last months dying from cancer.  She also analyzes “the politics of cancer” and the way the medical profession profits from painful treatments and surgeries that did not, in Jim’s case, help.

Politics did not motivate Melody, who began writing her blog, Redeeming Qualities,  about late 19th- and early 20th-century best-sellers  in “spring 2007, after I recounted the plot of one book to, like, three people over the course of a week. I wanted to tell people about what I was reading, but no one I knew wanted to listen.”

Many books she writes about are out of print, but all are available free at Project Gutenberg.   She has written about such obscure novels as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Lady of Quality (most of you will know Burnett as author of The Secret Garden), Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Samuel Hopkins Adams’ Wanted:  A Husband, and Carolyn Wells’ Patty Fairfield series.

As to whether her blog is political, it may be in a sense.

Not exactly — all the authors I write about are dead — but in a different sense, yes? I think it’s important that the classics aren’t the only books we bring with us from past eras, and I feel pretty good about taking stuff that’s almost invisible to people and making it more visible.

She says the pros and cons are

Two sides of the same coin: getting to say things without having had to identify a listener first/seeing how many of the people who visit my blog don’t bother commenting. Having it be a completely open-ended hobby that makes no demands/not having anything pushing me to post as often as I’d like.

Tony of Tony’s Book World, a blog about contemporary literature, does not think blogging “is a political act necessarily, since people with all political views have them.”

But he takes his responsibility very seriously. He does not read at random.  He reviews literary fiction.

I read both critics and bloggers.  I use extreme care in choosing my next book, and usually by reading several reviews and blogs, I can determine if this is something I want to read or not.  Professional critics I like are the Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post.

Tony’s  favorite blog, the Complete Review, is the only other blog from which “I automatically take their recommendations.”

He respects many bloggers, but

If a blogger likes everything, that’s not very helpful.  The negative reviews give me the best idea of the quality of a reviewer or a blog.

TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR PART TWO OF THE BLOGGER CHRONICLES.