Wednesday, July 30, 2008

SPOTLIGHT: The Blog/Review Ranting Meme

For the purposes of this post, I’ll just consider blogging and online reviewing the same kin. Also, there will be many parentheses throughout.

Rather than respond to all the posts in my blogroll about this topic, I decided to continue the meme. This rant may wind up being more to voice my thoughts to myself than anything, though.

All over the genre blogosphere (at least the blogosphere that consists of my sidebar and other haunts) the topic of blog/reviewing has reared its head again. This creature comes out of hiding every few months and this time, the questioning creature has something of a different face – the bloggers themselves are asking these questions, whereas in the past publishers (not exclusively) have been the ones to spark these discussions. Perhaps because of the two new genre blogs (Suvudu and Tor) having recently been launched not to mention the venerable Web sites like SFSite & SF Signal, we (the FSF review/blog community) find ourselves navel gazing again.

About, I don’t know a year ago or something on that order, the blogosphere started to make its presence known in the SFFWorld forums, where a lot of new bloggers thought they could just drop in and get some free publicity and linkage to their blogs without really ingratiating themselves into or becoming part of the community there. Admittedly this put the moderators at SFFWorld in an interesting place, especially me since I have my own blog. The sense of community we’d built at SFFWorld over the past half-decade plus was now (at that point) perceived by the blogging community, by some of us behind-the-scenes folks, as nothing more than a free advertisement forum for these new bloggers. In the time since, I think (and hope) we’ve been able to build and tow a decent line between keeping SFFWorld discussions active the forums themselves while also continuing to foster a good genre community to consider cool for discussion. Essentially, I hope we’ve been able to foster a good community between the SFFWorld forums and the bloggers who visit.

So, where were we? Jonathan McCalmont started it, the returning Gabe continued it, Pat took the relay, and Larry kept the ball rolling. One of the points brought up was how (or if) getting paid for writing these reviews was viable. Getting paid would make it almost like a job, wouldn't it? A lot of us start doing this blogging / reviewing thing in our "personal time" out of our enjoyment of the books we read. This idea of payment could also bring into the validity of the reviews; after all couldn’t we just be seen as paid members of the PR machine – paid to pander to those who pay us to help promote their product? In one sense, we reviewers / bloggers are part of the PR machine, but right now we are basically unpaid independent contractors. What we need is a union!

The publishers, in about the past year, saw the sense of community between the bloggers/ reviewers and started paying attention to us. Granted I’d been receiving review copies for a few years, but the bloggers started receiving them for review on their blogs. Most notably, newer publishers like Pyr and Solaris, but the Del Reys, Roc & Aces, and Tors of the world are there too. It’s a tricksy place we find ourselves in nowadays. There seems to be an almost, I don’t know, over-worked sense to some of the discussions I’m seeing. As people have been posting their daily and weekly hauls of books they receive in the mail (both from publishers and bought on their own, but mostly the free books for review) it seems as if some of us are overwhelmed by our place in the genre community. Or perhaps, I’m speaking solely for myself here. Part of the issue is that (as I’ve said in comments on other blogs and probably here as well) it is impossible to review everything I (or any other blogger/reviewer) receives.

This begs the question posed and intimated in the links above – how does one decide which book to read out of the plethora of choices? Initially it can be pretty easy – Book 4 of a series in which I haven’t read or even own books 1 through 3 get shunted to the pile of unread books. That eliminates about a book a week. I’ve had Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains on the pile for a few months and I feel it is a book I have to read and review since it seems to be one of “the” books this year. Matt Stover’s next Caine novel, Caine Black Knife arrived recently and that’s a definite. Conversely, if one of the books I receive doesn’t seem to be getting all that much attention around the blogosphere (at least those limited to my sidebar), I’ll try to get that book into the mix. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a media tie in arrived and primarily because I really enjoy the writer, Sean Williams, I’ll be reading/reviewing it. But I wonder what affect, if any, reviews from our portion of the genre community, will have on a book that basically has a built-in audience of Star Wars fans and gamers. (This could be a topic all to itself.) What of a book like The City at the End of Time by Greg Bear? The book sounds like pretty interesting Big Idea novel and I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve read by Bear, yet there doesn’t seem to be much chatter about the book, so how do I factor that into the decision on whether or not to read the book?

In terms of quantity vs. quality, one Harriet Klausner is enough and the majority of us are self-aware enough of what we don’t want to do in our reviews. As such, we’ve all crafted our own personalities and quirks. In a more snarky sense, McCalmont seems to be contrarian, Adam’s reviews are solid and very balanced, and not a one of us can figure out Pat’s damned number ratings.

I recall Cheryl Morgan’s last postings at Emerald City and her talk of review burn-out. I’ve been posting at least one new book review a week for the majority of this year and much of 2007 and times, more than one review. I know some of the reviews are stronger than others, it’s only natural. I can feel it when I force myself to write some of the reviews both the positive and the negative reviews, and some would say I often lean towards the positive in my reviews. I also don’t want to keep saying the same things over and over again, even if I’m lucky enough to be reading books that often work for me. I’ve also thought about taking a break, if not completely putting and end to this whole reviewer thing. The thing of it is, I love the genre and I really like being a part of it even in my small capacity as reviewer and administrator/moderator at SFFWorld and maintaining this blog. I’m also working on my own fiction and generating these reviews, irrespective of their length, do take a decent amount of time to think about and craft. In some form, though, I feel a great drive to write, be it review of my own fiction.

After this sense of review burnout creeps in; however, I’ll read a book like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and want to shout how great it is or, on the other hand, I’ll read a book that didn’t agree with me like Karen Miller’s Empress and feel the drive to put my thoughts about that book down. Or, right now I’m reading a book that didn’t initially interest me too much based on the premise and the author was untested (by me), but I figured I would go outside my comfort zone and give it a try. I think that’s something we all need to do, is go outside our reading comfort zone and Jeff VanderMeer has said as much. Conversely, I really enjoy Epic Fantasy and I’ve really begun to enjoy Urban Fantasy / Detective Wizard, so if something new with one of those slants comes down the pike, I feel a responsibility (for lack of a better word) to measure it against other books if its kind.

As I said, this whole reviewing thing started out because I enjoy reading and sharing my thoughts about what I read. The reviewing gives me an opportunity to voice my thoughts and opinions on a larger scale. Contrary to this though, sometimes I just want to read a book without having to write a review or with a review as the ‘endgame.’ Books like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Steven Erikson’s Malazan saga, the Star Wars Legacy of the Force series, an anthology like the Strahan/Dozois edited New Space Opera, Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, or other books that have remain unread for upwards of a year or two, but at times, I’ll feel a little guilty about reading one of those while 10-20 books I’ve received from publishers await on the TBR pile for reviewing. This doesn’t even factor in my weekly/monthly haul of comics and graphic novels.

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t life-shattering decisions or frustrations (I don’t think), but they are things I and (probably) my peers think about. I enjoy being involved, knowing what books are out there, and being afforded the opportunity to have my voice heard. I also have to admit that I like getting the free books, but I think it’s only natural (based on the resonance I’ve seen in other’s thoughts) to feel a bit guilty about not being able to read all that arrives. Strange dichotomy, I realize.

Where does this all leave us? Still in that strange place between fan and critic, I suppose. Granted, my blog is not as trafficked nor does it have the volume (and consistent substance) of postings as many others, but I feel responsibility to maintain it. I enjoy maintaining it and being part of this community. In the end, my drive to write (be it my fiction, the book reviews, on this blog, or if somebody wants to be kind enough to compensate my monetarily for my thoughts) will continue and push me to be a presence.

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