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At BEA: The critics and the crowds

Otischandler

About 150 perhaps overly optimistic people -- heavy on book reviewers -- piled into a basement meeting room this morning to hear a panel of five discuss “Book Reviews 2010: What Will They Look Like?” sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle. The short answer: No one really knows.

The panelists were Otis Chandler, founder of Goodreads.com; Peter Krause, formerly of Muze and now one of the leaders at Tactic Co.; Bethanne Patrick, freelance critic and former Book Maven blogger for Publishers Weekly; blogger Ben Greenman of the New Yorker; and David Nudo, who has been involved with media old (the New York Times) and new (Shelfari).

The panel, moderated by John Reed, books editor of the Brooklyn Rail, sought to get a sense of what the media move to the Internet might mean for reviewing -- and which reviewers and reviewing platforms will retain authority. Tellingly, newspapers weren’t mentioned until near the end as the panelists debated the varying merits of the continuing evolution.

Chandler pushed the theme that most people don’t rely on reviews to decide what books to read, but on the recommendations of friends, which has fueled Goodreads’ success. But if those with authority now can “figure out and stay with the new methods of distribution they can absolutely retain their authority,” he said.

The conversation evolved into more of an analysis of the lay of the reviewing land, which was a recitation of the obvious. More and more bloggers are weighing in on books while mainstream media are laying off writers and cutting back on space. What they were describing, though they didn’t say it in so many words, is that book reviewing is at its Big Bang moment. The explosion has happened (we’ll skip the obvious “Million Little Pieces” joke) and now from the dust new systems are forming -- but no one can say for sure what the new universe will look like.

But it looks like two dominant systems will probably evolve from this mess. The informal reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon.com will continue and become something like the vox populi, amplifying the success of mass culture phenomena (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Harry Potter”). And there will still be the serious attempts by professional reviewers to assess literature as art, some from established outlets and others from the still-gelling litblog world. How anyone will make a living at that is still the great unknown question.

-- Scott Martelle

 
Comments () | Archives (5)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I think newspapers might be well served by keeping the traditional book reviewer and incorporating some reviews by "average, everyday" readers. That would give readers the opportunity to know if a book is well-written while also giving the reader an opportunity to know what people that generally like this type of book think. I also think excerpts are critical to my decision about whether or not to read a book. Even if a book comes highly recommended, when I pick it up in the bookstore, before I buy it, I flip to a page and read a while to see if I will enjoy the style.

I was at the panel and I think you did it a disservice. Patrick and Greenman (who said he was a novelist, not a blogger -- in fact he made a point about not blogging) both made several interesting points about how books are processed and how gatekeeping happened. Also, someone on the panel said that each kind of review will find its own audience.

Lisa touches on two of the major issues the panel addressed: experts and user-content. The general feeling: both types of content are useful. How they will appear side by side is another question. The need for the "expert," in an increasingly deep sea of web garbage, has reasserted itself—again, the process of fulfilling that need is already underway, but it's hard to say what venues, what vehicles, will carry the weight. Various corruptions of user-generated content were also a topic of discussion; large-scale compromise of the review process can be a problem with user-generated content.

Lisa also brings up a subject that we didn't get to address: browsing. An important part of book-buying, and somewhat imperiled.

Scott, thank you for covering the panel. There was a great deal we didn't get to, perhaps because panelists (like me) went on too long in responding to specific questions.

However, I think you did miss the chance in your entry to touch on points that Greenman and I made about the shift itself, as opposed to lumping our comments in to "a recitation of the obvious." If it's so obvious that book reviews are distinct from book summaries, then why are so many of the latter allowed to pass as "reviews," not just in amateur book blogs, but in the mainstream media?

I talked a great deal about upholding standards as we head towards the future. You may regard standards as part of the Big Bang -- but I can't be sure, since you didn't actually cover my remarks.

Bethanne Patrick

Ms. Patrick:
I agree with you, that your comments were not particularly obvious. I don't know what this blogger is talking about. I came up afterward and waited in line, but I couldn't wait long. I wanted to know what you think about mobile platforms and "push expertise" -- meaning that I will sign up for your recommendations and consider you my expert. I don't mean you personally, but any critic whose taste I come to know.


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