So yes, I realize that it’s the tiniest bit gauche to swing by after such a long stretch of radio silence to report that I was inspired and engaged by the Book Blog Unconference on June 4th. If I can break the fourth wall a moment—does this thing even have walls?—the past month has been the perfect storm of a slam: professionally, academically, and familially. Give me another week without taking Like Fire off your reader and I promise I’ll get back to something like our regular posting habits.
So yes—my inspiration and engagement, while genuine, were definitely on the internal side for a while there. The Reading Ape’s Jeff O’Neal did a fabulous job organizing and leading the uncon, and the participants were all enthusiastic, supportive, articulate, interesting, and warm. Our hosts, the Center for Fiction, could not have been more gracious—more on them later.
I missed the first part of the day, which I’ve been regretting ever since. The group covered topics that included close reading—a favorite soapbox of mine—and the uses of social media for bloggers. I would have been interested to hear some other people’s takes on how useful they find the various platforms for promoting their blogs. I tend to swing between Facebook and Twitter, depending on which is my favorite at the moment (in other words, which one has the better conversation going), although I will say Twitter never has that ick factor that Facebook gives me from time to time… you know what I mean.
The second half of the day was devoted to discussions about comments—reciprocity, moderation, how to deal with the negative variety—as well as review issues—publishers’ expectations, what percentage of books received should be reviewed and in how timely a fashion, whether to review books that were unfinishable, and rating systems. The group was on the small side, between 15 and 20 people coming and going, which made for a better circular discussion than small clusters, and the discourse was cheerful, inclusive, and respectful. I’m pretty sure a good time was had by all—I certainly enjoyed myself, and am looking forward to what next year brings.
The day also put me in a reflective mood, mulling over what spot, if any, I occupy in the larger blogging community—or if there even is such a thing. And what I think, to my dismay, is that I am something of a conservative blogger, or at least reviewer. The idea pains me for a few reasons, not least being the adjective “conservative” in any kind of connection with my person. Aside from the political connotations, I don’t consider myself personally conservative, or any of the things that connotes: convention, tradition, lack of imagination, inflexibility. And I also have at least a small amount of self-consciousness at being on the older end of the blogging continuum… I like to imagine I’m not so staid as all that.
And yet… and yet. In a conversation where the word “professional” turns out to be surprisingly loaded, standing in for everything from conducting one’s business responsibly to buying in to an obsolete and restrictive model, I surprised myself at how old-fashioned my reaction was. Maybe it’s because I started out in the paper-and-staples publishing business, working on book reviews in particular, and I’m just used to that paradigm: galleys from publicists, pitches, review schedules, 1,200-1,500 words double-spaced in Courier New. I’m not saying that’s the be-all and end-all of book reviewing—I wouldn’t be here if I thought it were—but neither do I think it’s a bad thing. Maybe a little slow on the uptick in some cases, and limited in scope when there’s a whole world of independent presses and crazy genres out there that could use some honest consideration, but I do believe there’s still a lot of good reviewing being done in the traditional venues. The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books are both worth the time I spend with them every couple of weeks, and I still believe the usual suspects—New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker—are worth sifting through. I may not always agree with James Wood, but I’ll defend to the death his right… well, no I won’t. But I’ll read him. I think he’s a thoughtful, careful critic, and if he hits or misses is up to me to decide. I will read The New Republic, god help me, and only because I like the book reviews.
But I think this probably puts me on the more traditional side of the room. Not that I mind, mind you. It’s just a strange place to find myself. But you can’t dress 25 when you’re 49—I wouldn’t want to—and I guess you can’t blog 25 either. I don’t think it has so much to do with any particular youth culture as not getting to have your cake and eat it too. I learned what little I know from reading the old school reviewers all my life, and that’s what I do. I don’t give ratings, I don’t review did-not-finishes—I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either, but they’re just not in my individual vocabulary. And I feel like I’m in reasonably good company, most notably my soul brothers and sisters at Open Letters Monthly. (And my parents, Ayn Rand and God!)
I love the idea of community in all its forms, although I’m not a big joiner by nature. I always have fun doing blog tours, for instance, but I also feel like my particular whistle stops tend to be duds. Not because the reviews aren’t always raves, because I don’t think that’s the expectation, but I’m not quire sure they fit in either. One fact I took away from the Uncon is that I’ve been pretty remiss in terms of managing my comments and returning the favor on other people’s blogs, all of which may take more time and energy than I have right now. But it’s worth experimenting with a bit. I’d love a more robust commenting community, but I also feel like asking comment-leading questions in posts is like doing a layup: if you make it, you’re cooler than shit, but if you miss—if you ask your mythical audience something and get crickets—you just look dumb. Then again, as one of my fellow unconners pointed out, it’s a blog, a vertical phenomenon, and whatever looked dumb three days ago is off everyone’s screen and far from their mind today.
I’m not fishing here, not asking for high-fives or assurances that I’m as hip as anyone else in the ether. Just musing out loud, taking some much needed wireless-deprived downtime in LaGuardia airport to connect up my thoughts a bit. I do feel guilty when I don’t deliver reviews in timely fashion, because I’ve spent several years building good relations with publicists and hopefully establishing some kind of reputation as a dependable blogger. Grad school has messed with that status quo in a big way since last fall, for which I feel bad, and only hope that I’ve earned a little coin over my blogging career and that the post-pub bumps I offer are worth the wait. I’m also planning to do some giveaways on a more regular basis, so if you’re in any way greed-motivated then by all means keep reading! But really, I’d appreciate it if you keep reading anyway. I still have a lot to say, even if I’m not, as it turns out, saying it in particularly radical ways.
Peace out, dear readers.