Once upon a time, the life of a freelance book critic could be an eerily quiet affair. In 1995, a couple of years after Simon & Schuster axed the imprint where I’d labored for three years on the bottom rungs of the editorial ladder, I worked some old publishing contacts and snagged a book review assignment for the Baltimore Sun. I had never written for an audience any bigger or more exacting than the desultory skimmers of my college newspaper. More to the point, I had never written anything for money. Failure seemed more of a probability than a possibility, and I proceeded with a caution approaching cold fear.
I pored over that first book the Sun sent me, looking for a smart angle and evidence to support it, but the styles of reading and writing I was absorbing as a teething grad student in the University of Chicago English department were interfering with my ability to produce something that would go down easy with Sunday coffee. A friend, Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, whom I’d met when he published his first two books with Simon & Schuster, took one look at my first draft and sent it back for a jargonectomy. Words like “reification,” while right at home in your George Eliot seminar paper, assume a sort of, um, “alterity” in a review of a biography of River Phoenix.
Yes, River Phoenix. After straining the lumps of academese out of my piece, zipping up the lede, and weighing and reweighing the whole for the balance of seriousness and irreverence due a young-dead-celebrity bio, I faxed it to Baltimore and waited for the world’s reaction. And waited. And waited.
And I started to get used to the idea that as an out-of-town writer my rigorously considered, delicately hammered piece of prose had been sent, for all intents and purposes, into a black hole. My review appeared, but I didn’t know this for certain until my clips arrived in the mail more than a week after the fact, followed by the check. Actual people who did not raise me from infancy may even have read the review, in delight or disgust or, more likely, 20 seconds. I had no reason to think they hadn’t–and no reason to think they had. The resounding silence came as a minor relief to my inner wallflower but an historic letdown to my ego.
Ten years later this predicament has become so obsolete it’s hard to even remember clearly. The sense of resigned irrelevance with which I used to dispatch my work into the black hole has been inverted. I now submit copy with something closer to thrilling apprehension. For a few years now, most critics have been able to count on national exposure via the online editions of the papers they write for. They enjoy a vastly expanded audience, readers have access to all they can eat in book criticism, and it’s hard to see how this is anything less than a windfall of cosmic proportions for all. But it’s only very recently that online exposure has developed a new wrinkle–the lit bloggers’ revenge.
In the summer of 2003 Terry, who is also a music critic for Commentary, became one of the first mainstream arts writers to start a blog. Titled About Last Night, it appears on the ArtsJournal.com site (artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight) and provides a forum for him to write spontaneously about his day-to-day life, share thoughts that don’t make it into his paid writing, and generally post whatever pops into his head.
A few months after starting the site, Terry invited me to contribute. I jumped at the chance. By then I was writing regularly for the Chicago Tribune as well as the Sun; for this new gig I adopted the pseudonym Our Girl in Chicago (or “OGIC”). I proceeded to post–at first as a Friday guest but eventually throughout the week–about everything from Bob Dylan’s memories of Johnny Cash to Henry James on film. I blogged about what I was reading, seeing, and listening to, and sometimes I blogged about critics and criticism.
A blog seemed especially well suited to the last–what I had learned from James Wood’s latest review, say, or what a botch Hilton Als had made of a Cat Power profile. One common trait of the best and worst critics, after all, is that they make you want to talk back; before the Web there wasn’t much of a viable public forum for doing so. In a small way, I was participating in what has since become an elementary function of the blogosphere: letting the print establishment have it. The fact that under another name I was a member of that establishment was easy to ignore.
At the time I began blogging, the best-known book site was Jessa Crispin’s Bookslut, launched in early 2002. A bunch of other lit bloggers matriculated that fall: Sarah Weinman, a Baltimore-based critic of mysteries and crime fiction, started Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, Los Angeles screenwriter Mark Sarvas launched The Elegant Variation, and Chicagoan Sam Jones (who also contributes book reviews to WBEZ’s Hello Beautiful!) started transforming his site, Golden Rule Jones, from a compilation of Chicagoland author appearances into a true blog, complete with notes on what he was reading, publishing news, and literary quotations.
This new wave of book blogs attracted a lot of traffic (About Last Night will soon pass one million hits) and, eventually, mainstream media attention, some of it less than flattering. “The gods of the blogosphere really, really like each other–and say so every chance they get,” snarked Washington Post writer Jennifer Howard in December 2003. One big, giddy circle jerk was how she described us–“in love with themselves, each other, and the beauty of what they’re creating,” linking to each other liberally and uncritically, with actual book coverage taking a backseat to schmoozing.
Howard’s piece so offended the sensibilities of its subjects that none of them seemed to notice that her withering criticism was actually somewhat constructive: a plea from a fervent reader who was “feeling betrayed–and a little bored” by blog content that seemed increasingly aimed at a coterie of insiders.
Howard’s complaint was a strongly stated version of a truism. The same qualities that make lit blogs more fun and freewheeling than the book pages–their unedited, uncensored, and unpaid liberty–also make them less accountable to readers, writers, or anyone else. Bloggers, though, almost uniformly took her criticism as an attack, and dug in their heels against their common paper-and-ink antagonist. It was a watershed moment in the establishment of lit blogs as a new faction in the world of literary opinion: we had a blog bloc.
There are plenty of critics-turned-bloggers like me, Terry, and Lizzie Skurnick, who started Old Hag after writing for Mediabistro.com and Baltimore City Paper, and bloggers who have migrated the other way, from cyberspace to the book pages, like Weinman (who now writes for the Baltimore Sun) and Brooklyn-based critic Maud Newton, who started maudnewton.com as a diversion from writing a novel and now writes for Newsday and the Washington Post. But even as more bloggers are absorbed by the publications their blogs were founded to supplement or counter, others are stepping up and formalizing their roles as watchdogs, resulting in a weird, codependent, and potentially explosive relationship. To someone with one foot in sea and one on shore, the whole thing can be a little disorienting.
Until this winter I wrote print reviews and cowrote About Last Night as two entirely different people, though family and friends, and my editors, knew I had an online life as OGIC. I resisted the temptation to have one persona flack the other, but the first time The Elegant Variation linked to one of Laura’s reviews, I got a definite charge. As I became friendlier with more bloggers and, inevitably, revealed myself to them, my print stuff got mentioned more often, and–this will come as no surprise to Jennifer Howard–always kindly. This was a new sensation. After nine years of reviewing in a vacuum, I had my first tangible sense of an audience. I relished the feedback and began to anticipate it. To be perfectly honest, I started working harder on my reviews, drafting and redrafting, getting back in touch with the newbie who’d sweated a river over Mr. Phoenix. It was just a hop and a jump from there to wanting an even wider audience and an undivided identity.
I came out as Laura on About Last Night in February. Around the same time, The Elegant Variation kicked off a new weekly feature digesting, critiquing, and grading the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The Times, the sole major U.S. Sunday books supplement to lock all of its online content away from nonsubscribers, was asking for it, having removed itself from the big, chaotic, inclusive conversation that goes on 24/7 on the Internet. Soon enough, though, Mark started slapping letter grades not only on the section as a whole, but on each individual review–a practice sure to strike fear in the heart of even the most practiced, poised, and professional critic. The scrutiny is hardly unfair, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t scary (and a tad condescending). Gee, I thought when the grades started coming down–thank goodness I don’t write for the Times.
I do, however, write for the Tribune. So when Sam “Golden Rule” Jones followed suit and started filing weekly reviews of the Trib’s book pages, just a week after I’d lifted the OGIC burka, I caught a little shiver up my spine. I was still getting used to Laura being a quasipublic person–being a blogger turns out to be far more public than being a newspaper critic. All of a sudden, my newly glued-together identity was cracking along the seams again. As a blogger, I felt a certain loyalty to Sam’s project. As a friendly acquaintance, I felt a certain loyalty to Sam. As a blog reader and book buyer, I felt grateful for the public service. And as a reviewer? I felt defensive and even a bit indignant. Luckily for me he doesn’t lob grenades or even hand down grades. In February he critiqued a review of mine evenhandedly enough to mollify my ignoble feelings. For now.
With all this policing of print reviews, the lingering notion that bloggers are sworn foes of the mainstream book press has become certified common wisdom. Last month, on his blog, critic Scott McLemee starkly voiced the reigning perception: “In general, literary blog discourse often treats the people running newspaper review sections as, de facto, The Enemy.” Strong word, that, and particularly sobering if you’re regularly switching sides.
Hopefully, today’s common wisdom will be tomorrow’s old wives’ tale. As bloggers continue to play both sides of the street, the enemy line is getting harder and harder to draw cleanly. Already bloggers are changing tactics by throwing their collective influence behind new alternatives to the Sunday books supplement. I’m a member, for example, of a new endeavor called the Litblog Co-op (lbc.typepad.com), which brings together 20 book bloggers to promote and discuss an overlooked literary fiction title every three months. I’m betting that ventures like this one, which present the print media with some actual competition instead of failing grades, will have more staying power than the report cards.
The co-op, of course, amounts to an establishment for those who have made their names as alternatives to the literary establishment. Inevitably this attracts its own backlash, and already we participants have received a questionnaire from a writer for a city magazine quizzing us as to whether we might eventually sell out, take graft, or stab each other in the back. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I got the distinct impression that our corruption in any one of these forms would be rather gleefully received.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornschemeier.