Jun 6, 2010

The Sunday Salon - On Writing About Books

The Sunday Salon.com On Writing About Books

Let me start this by saying that my intent in writing this post is not in the least prescriptive: this is not a post about how people “should” write about books, but a sort of personal manifesto on how and why I do it. What got me thinking about this was a series of posts and comments all over the blogosphere that touch on this subject, both directly and obliquely, and which have been fermenting in my brain for weeks: Melissa’s post “On Objectivity, Niceness and Dialogue” and Liz B’s comment clarifying her understanding of the terms “personal” and “objective” when it comes to reviewing; Amy’s post “Being a Fan” and Jason’s comment about how subjectivity is exactly what makes book blogs appealing to him; Lit Love’s comment about the potential dangers of the blanket of opinion; Chris’ thoughts on the kind of review she personally enjoys writing and reading; and, more recently, Heidenkind’s musings on “Objective Reading”.

Conversations about books can of course exist at different levels: there’s the academic analysis, the slightly less formal but also in-depth critique, the quick recommendation, the informal bookish chat, and so on. Personally I find them all valid, useful and legitimate, and I think it should go without saying that they’re complementary; that there’s more than enough room for all both online and offline. But sadly, defences of one particular approach often turn into attacks of different ones. The last thing I want to do is turn this post into more of that – let us hope that I succeed.

The reason why I enjoy writing about books (and reading other people’s thoughts on them) is because I find that book discussions are an excellent platform for discussing, well, Life, The Universe and Everything. They’re a perfect way for an incurable introvert such as myself to find out how people feel about all sorts of things. If you talk about books for long enough, eventually everything will come up. I realise that my awkwardly earnest kind of approach (sometimes also referred to as “self-indulgent”) is very off-putting for some people, but I’ve made my peace with that. And while this mean that book blogging is extremely personal for me, I’ve come to realise that saying so is risky, as not everybody defines “personal” in the exact same way.

What I seem to be saying here is that I like personal and subjective approaches to discussing literature – but I notice that sometimes people take this to mean that I’m not interested in moving bookish conversations away from how much I happened to enjoy the experience of reading a particular book. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with focusing on that, though that’s not my preferred approach. But that is certainly not what I mean when I say I don’t particularly strive for objectivity.

At the same time, I’m often taken aback by comments about how outrageous it is that any post that contains the phrases “I feel” or “I think” should dare call itself a review. I’m not comfortable with the idea that the absence of these phrases is the one thing that differentiates professional and amateur reviewers, as if not uttering the personal pronoun “I” would magically make you able to do more than see the world (or read a book) from your own limited perspective. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to enlarge our own individual perspectives, but it seems to me silly to assume that saying or not saying “I think” is a reliable marker of whether or not we do that.

When I say this I worry that I’ll sound like an anti-intellectual who’s having a go at academia. I’m not one, I assure you, and I highly respect and value knowledge and learning of all kinds. But I notice that intellectual authority, especially in the humanities (and I say this as a passionate humanities girl) is often manufactured and feeds upon itself. One of the things that make you an authority is the fact that you sound like one. You’re objective because you don’t say “I feel that...,” regardless of how narrow what you then go on to say actually is. I could give you quite a few examples of pieces of professional criticism where the author’s personal, political or ideological biases are as clear as daylight.

I confess I’ve always been a bit wary of intellectual authority. This probably sounds immensely arrogant, but that’s not how I mean it, really. I don’t think that I know better than everyone else – I just want to hear more than the one single voice that cloaks itself in authority to silence all the others. One of the problems I have with the idea of implicitly distrusting those who lack expert status is that its counterpart is the idea what we should trust those who do have it blindly. And that doesn’t always quite work out.

To which extent can we step outside ourselves when talking about books? To which extent should we? Of course, by now you might be thinking, “Define ‘step outside yourself, please’”, and with good reason. I don’t know that I can, and I struggle with these conversations exactly because of all these hazy definitions. I think I’ll have to cheat here and borrow Jason’s comment on Amy’s aforementioned post, as it perfectly describes the kind of bookish conversation I like best and strive to have myself:
A moderately objective description of an artwork can give me an idea of whether I will subjectively like it (sometimes), but it doesn't make me feel connected to the book, or, more importantly, the author of the review. Subjectivity in description is how I see you, the human being (…) I think the book review tradition, and in some sense the influence of the publishing industry, gives us the impression sometimes that the most important part of a review is whether or not it gives you the information you need to choose whether you plan on adding the book to your TBR list. This is certainly valuable, and certainly PART of it. But I think the bigger piece of it is making human connections, and that takes subjectivity, it takes very individual, idiosyncratic passion, whether that passion is 'right' or not.
This is what I mean when I say I’m interested in personal opinions – but then again, the sacredness of opinion is often used to defend statements of the “this book sucks because I say so, and if you disagree you must be stupid” variety, which don’t exactly appeal to me (though I’ll acknowledge people’s right to make them if they choose, as well as my right not to read them).

What I most enjoy reading about, in both amateur and professional criticism, is how a human being understood a particular literary work, and especially how that understanding relates to their overall experience of being human. This isn’t, of course, the only valid way to talk about books, but it’s the one that I happen to find the most rewarding and satisfying.

And yet ironically (considering everything I’ve said above), I find I’m not always comfortable with the word “review”, and I often dodge from using it to refer to my own blog posts. I’ve also noticed that I’m not alone in this. Why is that? What do I think is missing? What do you think is missing, if you happen to avoid the word too? What makes a review legitimate? Or is the problem simply that the idea that our lack of expert status means we have no legitimacy has been hammered into our heads for so long that we implicitly accept it, even as rationally we rebel against it?

What I really want to ask you today, though, is why YOU write about books. Do you hope to recommend (or not) books that you enjoyed reading? To share your passion for the written medium? To make better sense of yourself and of the world in the process? To use books as a starting point to discuss things that matter to you? Do you find the process of writing reviews intensely personal, or is it something more intellectual and removed? Or is it both? And how do you feel about the validity of different types of bookish conversation?


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/specialkrb/3805699025/

78 comments:

Beth F said...

"my awkwardly earnest kind of approach (sometimes also referred to as “self-indulgent”)" -- this made me laugh out loud because I find your posts to be incredibly thoughtful in a literal kind of way: full of thoughts. And those thoughts make *me* think.

Let me also say that I've been baffled by the whole "what you write is not a review, it's really a recommendation or opinion" thing. The use of the word "I" does not "demote" a post from review to recommendation. What, after all, is a review--no matter how formally written--if not the writer's opinion?

I don't use the pronoun "I" very often in my reviews because I don't feel comfortable writing in the more personal and rambling (grin) style of other bloggers. My writing style and my ability to articulate my thoughts come off better in the more formal. I am simply not a good creative writer -- I need structure and I need to step back a bit. I admire you and Eva and others who can write passionately from the personal. Believe me, I can't.

At the risk of alienating everyone who reads my blog, I believe that what I write are reviews. I embrace the term, and I do not shy away from it. Perhaps I'm simply too cocky and egotistical. (shrug)

I live books -- both for work and for pleasure. I write about about books to help me become a more careful and thoughtful reader. Along the way I want to tell others about my discoveries and disappointments and what I got out of a book. I read about books to see if someone else thought what I thought, to gain new insights about a title, to get exposed to new ways of thinking about what I'm reading.

I write about books to spark passion in others, to create a conversation, and to expand my horizons.

Nymeth said...

Beth, I absolutely don't think you're cocky or egotistical! I love that you embrace the term "review", and I want to get over my own resistance to it, as I don't find that any of the reasons why people claim bloggers shouldn't use it are valid. It worries me to think I might have interiorised some of that. As for writing in a more formal style, I love many blogs, yours included, that do. Your reasons make perfect sense to me, and I see nothing wrong with formality as long as the writer doesn't claim that it signals they're above writing from an individual perspective - which I know you don't! And lastly, I absolutely love the reasons you listed for writing about books :)

irisonbooks said...

I know this might not be a response to your thoughts in general, but I was reminded of something while reading your post and that is the use of the word "I" in academics. I've had a lot of discussions about this in uni because I was "raised" so to say, in 2 different faculties (but both part of the humanities). When I first started my studies I learned that I should never use the word "I" in academics and let me tell you.. it's been very influential. I have a hard time using I now in any "official" essay I write. And yet, the sort of sentences you hae to construct to get around the use of the word seem very artificial. Later on, switching faculties, I suddenly had to start using "I" because 'it's hard to deny the influence of your person on your work, so it's better to come out and admit it than pretend to be objective'. And I have to admit that I agree with that sentiment. Although I still have this weird feeling whenever I write down "I" because for years I was taught not to.

However, in blogging I do not feel that using "I" is in any way wrong. These are my personal thoughts and reflections on books. Maybe I shouldn't call them reviews because of it, but I really don't know what to call them otherwise. I look at my blog more like a personal diary in which I share my thoughts on books with friends instead of something that is supposed to be "academic". At the same time, this does not mean that I do not have certain standards for myself. Hm.. it's hard to explain the difference between those?

I like reading personal thoughts and that is why I love blogging: you get to know a person behind a blog and that more personal aspect makes me more likely to pick up a book recommended by a certain blogger than a reviewer for a paper. I don't mean to say that I only enjoy reviews that tell me that this and this part of a book made them cry because of this and this personal experience (I often enjoy to learn a bit more about the book), but I can't say I mind finding out about certain personal experiences at times.

Nymeth said...

Iris, I understand. I was taught the exact same, but I have to say that I tend to agree with the sentiments of your second faculty more. In the humanities, that is. I think that this partially has to do with the prevalent idea that literary studies and etc. have to strive to be like natural sciences if they want to be a worthwhile field of study at all, but that's probably a rant for another time... Anyway, what you said here - "These are my personal thoughts and reflections on books. Maybe I shouldn't call them reviews because of it, but I really don't know what to call them otherwise" - is a very widespread feeling, I think. The thing is, are professional reviews really that less personal? Of course, that depends on how you define "personal", which is where all the confusion comes from, I suspect. I tend to enjoy reviews that tell me how an individual responded to a literary work, and I see both professionals and amateurs doing that. So yeah, I agree with you that it's not at all an easy distinction.

Marieke said...

Deep questions here! I'm with you, Ana, in that my relationship with books is always personal. My focus in my reviews is my response to a book - how did this book affect me?

And I'm in total agreement with Beth F - a review is an opinion, no matter how well informed or critical. That's the whole point!

I can't see how some people would have exclusive right to the word 'review'. A review can be anything from a one-sentence endorsement to a pages-long critique. Anything goes, in my book.

I love your reviews and your approach -- especially to 'Life, the Universe and Everything'!

Marieke said...

Can I also add that my recent experience in graduate school was that most humanities departments have shed any pretense to 'objectivity' and the theory all seems to be about positioning oneself and being up front and open about one's subjective position. And I have the master's thesis to prove it!

winstonsdad said...

i write my post from the heart ,i don't have a academic backgroud ,nor have a toolbox of expressive terms like some other bloggers ,i constantly worry about my style of posts and how i come accross ,all i have is a deep sitted passion ,a great post s,all the best stu

Nymeth said...

Marieke, thank you for the kind words! I agree with you and Beth F, really. It just baffles me that so many people still act as if it were otherwise! Also, what you and Iris said about the new approach in humanities departments nowadays makes me very happy. I work at a small uni, and it doesn't surprise me to hear that we're a bit behind. Most people here are also still pretending that you can (and SHOULD) write off whole sects of literature that haven't been traditionally considered worthy of professional criticism, that fairy tales and children's lit are reactionary by definition and that Angela Carter was the only writer to EVER break that pattern, and so on and so on :P

Stu, I find that that passion is the thing that matters most!

Jenny said...

I wonder if the reason people worry about "I think", "I feel", and other expressions of subjectivity in bloggy reviews is that there's a sense of being in competition with "proper" reviewers. I know I've read endless articles by professional reviewers about how everything's going to shit and bloggers are taking over and real right proper professional reviewers aren't valued anymore. While deploring any elimination of book/film/music review pages in newspapers and magazines, I always want to write back and say I AM NOT TRYING TO BE YOU.

I like personal reviews. I like having a peek into other people's reading lives. Plus I find the blogosphere gives such a variety of opinions on a lot of books. V. validating. :)

Fiona said...

Reading I think is so much more about sharing, it doesn't have to be and shouldn't be a solitary medium. I love sharing my books with people - even if they HATE the one I love I like knowing why and I'm not bothered if they rip them to shreds. I mean I might disagree, maybe I'll even feel on the surface a little - hurt isn't the word really I guess it depends if I think their criticism is valid or not.

Sometimes it is shocking when you find someone else doesn't love the character you do and sometimes I probably do find myself jumping to their defence! I think though we should all be free to discuss why we love books, why we hate them etc every opinion and thought and feeling is valid.

This is all part of sharing books though. It does frustrate me meeting people who think that because you hate a certain book that you must be narrow minded and unable to understand the book.

The good/bad thing about sharing reviews when it is just personal opinion, is I suppose that if you are not used to it it can be shocking finding out that not everyone loves your favourite book. Sometimes it is hard to comprehend but you just have to accept it...

Although saying this I suppose there is a fine line - when writing negative reviews you're always going to open yourself up to disagreement especially if they are popular books. Saying that you find a book for example, stupid, isn't to say that you think its fans are stupid. I guess when reviewing you should be careful perhaps of your language used... and always explain why you find it to be so.

Anyway, I write reviews mainly for my own personal enjoyment not to sway other people's opinions. Sometimes of course if you hate a book it might give someone a reason to read it - especially if they know that you have a directly opposite taste in books!

However saying that because I am writing it for others to read (otherwise I would not be publishing them to the internet) then of course I write them with an audience in mind. I don't remove myself from the book though - how can I do that? Whilst I am reading there is a a part of me glued to that book - a part of my subconscious that moulds itself and looks into that world and emotionally connects with those characters.

I feel I do have a kind of... spiritual (in a completely non-religious, non-otherworldly sense) connection to the book I am reading and if I don't get this connection I can't read the book. I can't even explain what this connection is or why I connect to some and not others because sometimes it makes no sense.

Ah that is another ramble... what my point is, is that each book that I read is an intensely personal experience and to separate the two would require surgical intervention.

Apologies for talking your ear off I certainly didn't mean to go on for that long.

Fiona said...

(cont. from before)

Reading I think is so much more about sharing, it doesn't have to be and shouldn't be a solitary medium. I love sharing my books with people - even if they HATE the one I love I like knowing why and I'm not bothered if they rip them to shreds. I mean I might disagree, maybe I'll even feel on the surface a little - hurt isn't the word really I guess it depends if I think their criticism is valid or not.

Sometimes it is shocking when you find someone else doesn't love the character you do and sometimes I probably do find myself jumping to their defence! I think though we should all be free to discuss why we love books, why we hate them etc every opinion and thought and feeling is valid.

This is all part of sharing books though. It does frustrate me meeting people who think that because you hate a certain book that you must be narrow minded and unable to understand the book.

The good/bad thing about sharing reviews when it is just personal opinion, is I suppose that if you are not used to it it can be shocking finding out that not everyone loves your favourite book. Sometimes it is hard to comprehend but you just have to accept it...

Although saying this I suppose there is a fine line - when writing negative reviews you're always going to open yourself up to disagreement especially if they are popular books. Saying that you find a book for example, stupid, isn't to say that you think its fans are stupid. I guess when reviewing you should be careful perhaps of your language used... and always explain why you find it to be so.

Anyway, I write reviews mainly for my own personal enjoyment not to sway other people's opinions. Sometimes of course if you hate a book it might give someone a reason to read it - especially if they know that you have a directly opposite taste in books!

However saying that because I am writing it for others to read (otherwise I would not be publishing them to the internet) then of course I write them with an audience in mind. I don't remove myself from the book though - how can I do that? Whilst I am reading there is a a part of me glued to that book - a part of my subconscious that moulds itself and looks into that world and emotionally connects with those characters.

I feel I do have a kind of... spiritual (in a completely non-religious, non-otherworldly sense) connection to the book I am reading and if I don't get this connection I can't read the book. I can't even explain what this connection is or why I connect to some and not others because sometimes it makes no sense.

Ah that is another ramble... what my point is, is that each book that I read is an intensely personal experience and to separate the two would require surgical intervention.

Apologies for talking your ear off I certainly didn't mean to go on for that long.

Kay said...

Ana, you always bring up the most interesting topics to ponder. I love that about your blog. So fascinating - much food for thought.

I don't know if what I do is actually review or not on my blog. I talk about books. I love books. They are as necessary to me as breathing and I have a passionate need to share my experiences with others. When I worked in the library, reader's advisory was my absolute favorite thing to do. My book groups are an extension of that in many ways. My blog is another. I think you are correct in your comment about reviews and some bloggers' hesitation to call their thoughts and sharings actual reviews. I think part of that is the criticism that has been levelled at bloggers who are not "actual paid critics". However, I agree that reviews are really nothing but opinions, thoughts, sharings - it's the same, in my opinion, if perhaps not so structured or formal.

As I said before, I love books. I love to talk about them. I love to share my experiences with them. My reviews or thoughts or whatever you want to call them are given with the best of intentions. I love to connect readers with just the right book at just the right time. My thoughts are presented in a very informal way, usually with a bit of humor or sarcasm - it's how I talk. They are just me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions. Always a pleasure to stop by your blog. :-)

Nymeth said...

Jenny: Ha, yes, I've read countless of those The End of Intelligent Discourse About Books is Upon Us and Bloggers Are To Blame articles, and they completely baffle me. We are NOT out to get you fired, Mr or Ms reviewer. Calm down.

Fiona: I LOVE how you said this: "Ah that is another ramble... what my point is, is that each book that I read is an intensely personal experience and to separate the two would require surgical intervention." Also, don't apologise for leaving a long comment! I love long thoughtful comments like yours. Also, I think you're right that whenever we express an opinion about a book we're setting ourselves up for disagreement, and I don't mind that at all! I should have clarified that I don't think that calling a book stupid is the same thing as calling its fans stupid. However, I do sometimes see people adopt a smug, superior tone and intentionally belittling anyone who feels differently than they do, and then refusing to even clarify what they mean because it's "their opinion". It's that particular approach that I find very off-putting. Fortunately, it's rare among book bloggers.

Kay: Thank you for the kind words! I have a feeling that reader's advisory will be my favourite part of being a librarian too. It's all about sharing and connecting, isn't it? As Fiona was saying above, reading can be quite solitary. I love how blogging makes it less so.

Eva said...

I definitely avoid the word 'review' on my blog. :) For me, it's not a value judgement...I don't think a book review is more valuable than a blog post on a book. It's more that I think of reviews as structured, formal, thoughtful things and my own posts on books are rarely like that! I don't think that makes them less legitimate, just different. So I guess that answers your validity question!

I definitely write in a personal style with a liberal sprinkling of 'I' in every post (and emoticons...and exclamation points...and lots of other things I'd never use in my academic, social science-based research), simply because that's what naturally happens when I start to write about a book. But while my blog is definitely personal, I would say the process of writing it is intellectual as well. I don't see those two as a dichotomy...at the risk of sounding snotty, my intellect IS a big part of my personal self. Just as my favourite books engage my heart and my brain, I tend to use both when reviewing! That being said, when I'm reviewing a book I had issues with, I feel myself switching over into a more 'removed' mode...I find creating that space allows me to write a less 'mean' review. Whereas for books I love, I tap into the gushing as much as possible!

Sometimes I worry that I focus too much on my reaction to a book and not enough on the larger 'issues' it brings up, so that's something I'll have to work on in the future.

I enjoy bloggers who have both approaches, and I think the vast majority of bloggers mix the two, simply in different proportions. :)

C.B. James said...

I've found many academic type books with "I" used frequently, just as Marieke describes above.

What I find problematic is the use of "think" and "feel". Saying "I think" or "I feel" is too often a way of apologizing for a point of veiw or an opinion. "I think" and "I feel" can become a way of saying "this is just my opinion, please don't take offense." This is the difference between professional reviews and many blogs.


We should be bold enough to state our point of view without apology. It makes for a better reading experience and a better blog. It can be difficult to do, but no critic would ever apologize for their opinion about a book. Why should we?

Nymeth said...

Eva: I actually don't see emotional and intellectual approaches as a dichotomy either, which is why I said, "or is it both?" (they DO tend to be seen dichotomously, though). The end result might not show it, but I don't really turn my brain off when writing even my most gushing and emotional posts either. I understand why you shy away from the word "review", but I sometimes see professional reviews that use a more relaxed style too. I'm not sure if the formality of the style is necessarily what matters the most when determining whether or not something is a review. Then again, I'm not about to start telling people "you SHOULD embrace the word", as that's getting prescriptive, which I vowed never to do when it comes to ANY aspect of blogging. Not everyone will feel comfortable with the word, for different reasons, and that's fine.

C.B. James: I really don't agree that those terms are always, or even often, used apologetically.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I very much agree with you but I would say unfortunately I have the same problems as Beth (uncomfortable bringing my persona into the equation) and Iris (taught to avoid "I" even while simultaneously learning about the impossibility of avoiding seeing anything at all without donning one's own set of perceptual lenses). The Beth Problem is more salient for me than The Iris Problem.

I have been trying to overcome these because I really prefer reading more personal reactions myself, but it is difficult! Shyness for me even extends to online encounters!

Fiona said...

Wow masses of replies whilst I was rambling away on my own!

RE: Jenny: I know I've read endless articles by professional reviewers about how everything's going to shit and bloggers are taking over and real right proper professional reviewers aren't valued anymore.

Oooooooh that bugs me. It's one of the reasons I don't read so called "professional" reviewers. That's just really arrogant and it really isn't a good idea to alienate your potential readers like that!

Nymeth said...

Jill: lol, I'm sitting here laughing at The Beth Problem versus The Iris Problem :D With both your blog and Beth's, I feel that I get a good sense of the person behind it even though your writing style is more formal than my own or some other blogger's. So really, I think you're doing just fine!

Fiona, I don't find that professional critics always use that tone, but I DO know exactly the tone you mean, and it sends me running too. Interestingly enough I've seen non-professional adopt it too, but usually I don't read their sites for very long.

Clare said...

I write about books to both keep a log of what I read and how I read it and to improve my critical eye as an editor.

The way I write my reviews has a sort of a basic format, and I try to be fair and objective with novels I didn't like. If they offend me, they are fair game.

Fiona said...

For me personally, I'd rather invest my time in reading a good blog, or my friends' reviews on Goodreads. I didn't mean to suggest I thought that all professional critics were like that of course - just that I have to make a decision between who to invest my time in reading.

I do read the occasional review on The Guardian's website though don't find them half as useful as I would a blog review or a friend review.

I guess it is progress - and you'll always have the few people who don't like progress. There was a lot of resistance to the railway when that first started to spread - allowing the movement of the lower classes to move around more then they used to. So I guess this is the same.

In the future this is how it will be - social media - we have to embrace it.

C.B James - I don't think that saying "I think" or "I feel" is a form of an apology. I don't apologise for how I think or how I feel but that doesn't mean I can't use those words in my reviews or opinions.

However, I think some people have used them with a tone of apology before - but this isn't how I use such words.

Nymeth said...

Clare: I do sometimes make an exception in the "no snark" rule for things I found insensitive or offensive :P

Fiona, I know you weren't saying all professionals are like that! I completely understand where you're coming from, and I think you've made several excellent points about resistance to new technologies and new media. The "I think...", "I feel.." thing - I agree with you. I suppose the terms have been used apologetically, but that's not how I use them nor how I see them used most of the time. Though I guess there could be different ways to define "apologetically" (ha, definitions again :P). I don't think that acknowledging that my perspective isn't universal, or that just because I didn't think book x was particularly well written everybody should point and laugh at the writing, is at all the same as cowering in fear of causing offense. I do say so when something about a book doesn't work for me, but I try to say it tactfully and inclusively. For me, that's not being unprofessional or apologetic; it's leaving the door open for people who feel differently to say so without being made to feel small. I realise this will make me wimpy in the eyes of some, but I'm perfectly fine with that.

chasingbawa said...

Great post, Nymeth, as always!

I always assumed I was writing reviews of the books I read until I also started seeing posts about whether blog posts can be 'legitimate' reviews especially if you use the words 'I think' or 'I feel'. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. It depends on who you are writing for and what reading means to you. Reading to me is a subjective thing and you will always bring your experiences and thoughts into the reading experience, no matter how objective you try to be. I have an academic background and it's something I've always struggled with, because no matter how much of an authority someone tries to be, there is always an agenda behind their argument (be it in the arts or the sciences (really!))

I write my posts because I want to share my views on the books I read (and also bug others into reading them too!) I don't think I'm an authority but no one else can tell me what to think about the books I've read. However, I do like to read about what others think to see if there are different ways of looking at a book (or if I've missed something) because they may have experiences which I don't.

I just don't think there's a right or wrong as long as it opens our minds and gets us thinking for ourselves.

Debi said...

Oh Ana, I cannot possibly express how much I loved this post! And how much I've loved reading the comments.

"The reason why I enjoy writing about books (and reading other people’s thoughts on them) is because I find that book discussions are an excellent platform for discussing, well, Life, The Universe and Everything. They’re a perfect way for an incurable introvert such as myself to find out how people feel about all sorts of things. If you talk about books for long enough, eventually everything will come up."...Even if your entire post had consisted of just this, I would have been so in love!!! This, Ana, sums it up so well for me. It's really sort of mind-boggling to me, in fact...conversations about books, and where they've led! Seriously mind-boggling. When I look at our friendship---aside from Rich, you honestly know me as well as anyone in the world does--and it started because of books, and the sharing of thoughts and feelings on books. And while our conversations don't always start with a book anymore, I'm amazed at how often they still do, and how much I feel I learn about you and really how much I learn about myself in the course of these conversations.

I lack both the skills and desire to talk about books analytically...for me it's always about the experience. I have *nothing* against a more formal approach at all...I really do enjoy reading a variety of approaches. But I do tend to look upon them *all* as reviews. (Okay, except for what I write, of course...and I don't have to explain to you my reasons for that, do I? As I said, you know me as well as anyone. ;) ) But I wouldn't know what to call your gorgeous, insightful posts on books if I didn't call them reviews.

Teresa said...

Count me in as another person who embraces the word review. I write reviews, and I don't apologize for it. My reviews aren't professional reviews, but that doesn't stop them from being reviews. And honestly, the claim that professional reviewers are totally objective is, as far as I'm concerned, a load of hooey. They, like bloggers, are going to be influenced by their background, their own pet loves and peeves, and whether they happened to have eaten a meal that disagreed with them at the time of their reading and/or writing. And I have seen professional book reviewers use the first person. It's just less prevalent than in the blogging world, I think. And bloggers are often more open about their biases and other factors that influence their opinions. To me, that's a good thing.

One of my favorite film critics is Roger Ebert, mostly because he does a marvelous job of blending objective description and analysis with his own personal response. Perhaps the "standards" in professional film criticism are different, but I've never seen anyone try to argue that his reviews aren't reviews just because they're personal. (I've seen his work characterized as overly subjective and too popularist, maybe, but never as something other than reviews.)

Steph said...

As you talked about the different ways people could go about approaching book blogging, I thought that one of the things that I love about the way you write about books is because you have a little bit of everything. You talk about your personal response to books, which I think is important, but you also tend to talk about those more objective qualities as well (and I love that you so often frame things in the appropriate historical perspective).

Personally, I never consider myself to be reviewing books, but rather jotting down my thoughts on what I've read, and in the case of good ones, recommending them to other. I try to highlight what I got out of reading the book - whether that be ideas, feelings, entertainment, or something else. I try to capture the experience and my thought process, and maybe that puts some people off, but I always remember that at the end of the day, I'm writing for me so I'll write how I like!

Kate said...

This is a very thought provoking post!

For a long time, I kept a book journal. I wrote about and reflected on what I was reading. I had thought of starting a blog, but felt nervous about it because I am certainly not a writer - there's a big difference writing your thoughts in a book kept in the nightstand, versus writing your thoughts for the world to see.

Since starting my blog, I've completely fallen in love with writing about books and bookish ideas.

I start each post imagining that I am writing a letter to a dear friend. When I read a review I am looking for the emotional reaction of the reviewer. It makes me feel connected to the story, and it makes me want to read the blog.

I may be rambling too - but I'll go on just a teeny bit more. I love the personal stuff. When I open my google reader in the morning I'm looking for more than book reviews. I'm looking to check-in with and connect with the people behind the review. I think as long as you don't have the personal side outweigh the book - you're in good shape.

Fence said...

Every review, whether or not the reviewer states it explicitly, is an example of what they think or feel about a piece.

In college we were taught to write essays using phrases such as "this paper will attempt to X" or "in this essay the argument Y will be explored".
Translate those out of academia speak and they mean "I think" or "I believe".

At least that is what I think ;)

irisonbooks said...

Fence: that is exactly what I meant when I talked about having to formulate things in an artificial way in academia to make it look more objective. I'm so glad most universities are past that stage now.

ibeeeg said...

This was a great post Nymeth.
I usually do not get caught up in these conversations because, simply, even if I wanted to change my writing style...I cannot.
I am an amatuer, and I am fine with that. I do not have a litery background, I like what I like, so I do write my "reviews" from a subjective point. I do try to say why I like something, what bothered me, ect. For the most part though, my thoughts are an expression of what I felt.

I, like you, feel uncomfortable embaracing the wore "review". For me, it is because I have not set out to really "review" books, rather, I write about them because I want to share what I liked or not. I want to share with others, "converse" with others about a book that I have read.

Ultimately, I am writing about the books I read for me...a place to keep track of what I have read...my thoughts, for me. If others read what I have written, liked what I wrote, got something out of it then that is a boon for me (which I love, so you know).

One more thing, I have stopped writing about the books that I did not like. For me, it was not worth my efforts, plus it is a subjective view-point. I have a bookmark for the year where I keep track of the books I have read by month, I asterik the book(s) that I like a whole lot, place a rating to all the books...anyway, this system works great, and I do see the titles of the books that i did not like for a future reference, as well as the books that I *greatly* liked.

One other thing, I have read several of the comments, and am now intrigued by a few commentors
like Kate and Steph, what they said is similar to how I would like to write my thoughts (may not accomplish that)...going to head over to their blogs to check out their reviews.

Thanks for posting about this topic Nymeth.

Gavin said...

Nymeth - I have not read all the comments yet but will do so. Again, you've written an intriguing, thought-provoking post and started a great conversation.

I write my brief "reviews" to share my thoughts about a book I have loved or had difficulties with it. I am thrilled if someone becomes interested enough to make a comment or to read the book. I enjoy sharing my love of reading and believe that reading books and talking about them help us to connect as human beings. Thank you for a great post.

raych said...

I think part of the reason many in the bloggonets subscribe to the 'I felt/I liked/this made me stabby' school of reviewing is because we aren't writing masters theses on these books, so we care less about which ones are Objectively Very Good. We read to enjoy ourselves so we want to know which books other people enjoyed. This isn't to say that we aren't critical or analytical of what we read, or that the Objectively Very Good books can't be enjoyable, or that we can't take pleasure in a challenging book, but we want to know that in the end the experience will have been worth it. That is the information the 'feelies' give us, and that the less obviously subjective reviews tend to lack.

Amanda said...

First off, I have to say that I love the way you write your reviews or book thoughts or whatever you want to call them. I don't have a standard definition of reviews, and personally I think feelings and thoughts about a book are an integral part of reviewing it. A person can review from an academic viewpoint, unbiased, or they can talk about the emotional part of a book, which is half of what a book is about.

Personally, I review books because it's fun to review books. It started out as a fun way to talk about books with some friends and my cousins, and then branched out. If I ever stop loving it, I'll stop doing it. But what I love most of all is the interaction with other people, which is hard for me to get in my everyday life.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Why do I write about books? Because I don't know how not to. Since I've been blogging, I now cannot imagine being unable to share my thoughts about what I'm reading with other book lovers. And hopefully, people (like my IRL friends who read my blog) who don't read much will be encouraged by some of the books I have read, and will want to pick them up for themselves.

I think of what I do as reviewing, although I'm the first to admit that my reviews aren't very formal. But while my reviews contain my opinions, obviously, and personal bias, I also like to give people an idea of what kind of reader might enjoy whatever I'm reviewing. I love talking about books, and being involved in the conversations books generate about life, love, everything else, but I also love suggesting books to people and seeing them love the books too. I know we all love that!

And just for the record, I LOVE your posts, Ana. You are always so amazingly thoughtful and actively engaged in everything you read, and it inspires me. I know I don't get nearly as much out of books as you do, but I can always be guaranteed to find new ways to think about things when I read your blog. And I cannot tell you how valuable that is.

bermudaonion said...

I write about books because I love to read and I want to share my passion. I do use "I" in my reviews a lot because I'm not smart enough to write a more objective review.

Jeanne said...

I have so many thoughts about this that it will be hard even to summarize them. First of all, I agree with Nymeth so absolutely that it's part of why I blog at all. In my professional life I teach writing (and for the past 27 years, the rhetoric and composition model in the US has been to use the personal pronoun to enable active voice and critical thinking). For the past 8 years I've taught various literature classes at the freshman, sophomore and junior college level, and usually I teach various approaches. Occasionally on a class blog I'll link to my personal blog and tell them that's where to look if they want to see what I think. But my job is to elicit their responses, not parade my own in front of them.
So second, my personal and professional opinions dovetail when it comes to the issue of whether a personal voice is desirable when you talk about literature. For some approaches (reader-response) it's not only desirable but necessary. And talking about books can include but is not necessary limited to "reviewing" them. I am not trying to sell the books I discuss on my blog. Most reviewers are attached to some magazine or newspaper that they are, at least implicitly, trying to sell. So the whole "amateur" issue actually makes some bloggers more objective, if you care about that sort of thing.
Third--and probably most important--I don't read blogs to add to my TBR pile, although sometimes that happens as a side effect. I read them because I'm an incurably nosy person (why else teach writing?) and because I love what Nymeth describes: "if you talk about books for long enough, eventually everything will come up." I won't read blogs that don't give me any sense of the writer.

Bina said...

Fascinating post, Ana! And I really consider your posts very well thought out and I´m glad you have decided to share so much with us! :)

I do obviously use the term review to refer to my posts on individual books, although I also see them as amateurish. I do not by any means strive to present my thoughts in a professional and well-written way. It is rather that because I have an academic background, I want blogging to be a bit seperate from that. I usually want to just say right away what opinion I have on the book I just read and what I learned from it. I spend so much time shuffling papers for cross-referencing etc and formulating my thoughts as objectively and dispassionately as possible, that I don´t want to do the same when reviewing a book. I want to just come out and share my reading experience without the somewhat clinical aspect of academia.

It´s not that I don´t like that in other bloggers´reviews, I can appreciate what they are doing but it´s just too exhausting for me. Perhaps that´ll change once I´m done with uni, and then I´ll probably long for all that :)

The stand academia takes on "I" is really too radical and I´m glad that it seems to have changed somewhat, at least am allowed to write in this paper I will present etc :) Of course using I think and I feel all the time would rather negate the impression of objective argumentation one is trying to convey. And that´s exactly one of those things that we are free of in the blogosphere. Here we can choose any approach :)

So when it comes to reading reviews on blogs, I like variety. I enjoy a detailed post on feminism and class just as much as someone writing that the book spoke to them and that they loved it.

But I also appreciate it when people let me know what they´d like to see in my reviews and how I can make them better.

Whoops, sorry for the long comment! :)

Chris said...

Well, I call mine reviews because what the heck else am I going to call them. ;) But really one definition of review is:

"A retrospective view or survey."

Which is sort of what we do. We look back upon what we've read and give our thoughts and opinions. I don't get hung up on whether or not what I'm doing is 'reviewing.'

I'm with Fence in believing that every reviewer uses "I feel" whether or not they actually say that. You have to feel something. Even if it's just admiration for the words themselves.

Liz B said...

I agree with a lot of what you say.

I believe blogging has created a new defintion of "review." To the extent some people stay away from using the r-word, I think its because they don't want to be held to old-school definitions. Example: I don't review the way SLJ/LJ/Booklist/HornBook do; my "review" isn't that type of review. But it still is a review, if that makes sense....but I'm not saying "hey, read me instead of PW, we don't need that stinking review journal anymore."

In other words, my hesitancy to use the word review involves not wanting someone else to point to some traditional definition of "reviewing" and yell "look, you're doing it wrong." Which is why I think we need to embrace a new definition of review that includes what we do on blogs. That said, I wouldn't want to define it because it embraces so many different reactions and responses!

Giggling at the I think/I feel, as a few times I've had criticism for not using those terms and I think, "um, my blog, so I think it's a given that it's how I think and I feel without saying it over and over."

Truly, what and how I write about a book has so many variables....so sometimes it is more personal, sometimes it is more gushy, sometimes I'm intellectual, etc.

As for expert/nonexpert, what blogs show (to me) is that "expert" can be earned in various ways. And yes, I value knowledge in what I want from blog reviews. So the person who goes on and on about ERAGON's originality b/c they have no knowledge of LOTR/PERN has no appeal for me; but the knowledge of what ERAGON uses can be gained by any reader, not necessarily a MFW/MLS/PHD. That said, I think one fascinating thing about blogs is the progress a blogger may make from being the "Eragon is so original" reader to gaining a better depth of the genre to understand "oh, that is where Paolini got it..."

Gricel said...

My posts are entirely self-indulgent as well :) but I think of book blogging as a sort of personal indulgence, so I'm completely unapologetic about it. Oddly enough, I started book blogging because I wanted to hold on to the kind of book discussions I used to have when I was in my master's program. Many of my classes were like book discussion round-tables, and I started to miss that when I completed my coursework and was concentrating on my thesis. Book blogging gives me an outlet to talk about the books I love and to connect with others who are just as interested in books. I don't get many chances to discuss books "in real life," so blogging about what I'm reading allows me to enjoy the moment and share what I think about a work.

I don't mind using "I think/I feel" because I am writing about what I think or feel about a work. When I write a review for professional publication, I do use the third person... I think I feel that until I am more well-known professionally, most readers won't care what I feel on a personal level and would prefer a more objective review.

Andi said...

Very interesting and thoughtful post, Ana! Coming from an academic background myself, I am always baffled by the importance of leaving out the "I." I understand it logically--and I'm teaching my students to be able to write objectively--but I'm also quick to point out that just because one elminates "I" does NOT mean one eliminates personal opinion and bias.

Obviously, I'm one of the bloggers who writes personally about books because I've had my fill in my former academic life of being strapped to rigid objectivity which was never really objective in the first place. I guarantee every "objective" review I wrote as an academic was still pushing an agenda. Maybe I'm beginning to believe objectivity is dead, and when it comes to books, I'm personally OK with that.

I'm more interested in the "conversation" surrounding books and book blogging--not only the ongoing literary conversation as it exists between genres and authors, but the literal conversation among bloggers.

Amanda said...

I have an odd view of book blogging (I suppose). I embrace the personal. I started blogging because I wanted to express my feelings and engage in bookish chatter with others, not because I wanted to be the next Harold Bloom.

I love the vibrancy of your reviews; keep up the great work!

Emily said...

I was blissfully unaware of this whole pro-versus-amateur boondoggle until now, Nymeth! Not sure whether to thank you or not. (Just kidding - very thought-provoking stuff, in fact.)

I avoid the word "review," not because I think reviews are more legitimate than what I write, but because I don't find the standard newspaper-review format as interesting as the tradition I want to participate in, the tradition of writing essays on books. I hardly ever enjoy, for example, Maureen Corrigan telling NPR listeners what she recommends for beach reading this summer, or Roger Eberdt giving a film a "thumbs up." But I do enjoy Virginia Woolf writing on her relationship with Ruskin, or Montaigne writing about his reading habits. And I also enjoy academic criticism that's focused on the details and contradictions of a work, rather than its Place In The Canon. That canon-formation stuff bores me to tears. Also, plot summaries are boring to me, and they're an integral part of the newspaper-reviewing format. I'd rather be down in the weeds, pointing out an interesting stone I found, rather than feeling I need to give an overview of the whole landscape.

But good grief, certainly no one should feel that they're not writing "reviews" just because they're not being paid! Or because they use "I think" and "I feel." Corrigan & Eberdt both say "I." Harold effing Bloom writes "I," and he's about as obnoxiously Establishment as you can get.

Amy said...

What an amazing post. (As usual!) I have to say that I love the personal. I don't think it is possible to review a book without the personal, as the way you approach a book is necessarily affected by you - your thoughts, your actions, your upbringing, etc. I embrace the personal and bring it in to my posts. And I LOVE your reviews. Just had to add that :)

nicole said...

But I notice that intellectual authority, especially in the humanities (and I say this as a passionate humanities girl) is often manufactured and feeds upon itself.

Yes. This. I always take this sort of rule about not using the first person singular in formal writing as the same kind of ridiculous prescriptivism that says it's "wrong" to use the passive voice or too many adverbs or adjectives. Refraining from saying "I" does not make for professional or even well-thought-out writing. At the same time, I do believe there is a value to actually formal writing that attempts to be objective when writing about something where the possibility for objectivity is greater (because like you, I really think it's tough to get there in most humanities-type writing).

As to your questions...I don't consider most of what I write in my blog to be reviews, because most of it couldn't be called that by any stretch of the term. When I write about a complex novel and zero in on one tiny aspect of it, be it a motif or theme or a single scene, a review it is not. I wouldn't exactly call it "criticism" or anything so serious either, but then I don't take myself that seriously. Instead I tend to just call it "my blog." Ha!

So why am I writing it? Mostly because it helps me think and read better. I am a much better reader now, and I like having a record of at least some of what I thought about things. I notice more parallels and connections. And while I love when someone feels inspired to read a book I write about, I like it even more when another reader comes along and says, "Yes, I noticed that too, you've got that point exactly right." Or, not exactly, but you know.

Sometimes it can be personal, but mostly not. I'm a bit of a cold fish as far as that sort of thing goes to begin with. And I don't often use it as a jumping-off point to talk about wider issues; those are things I tend to keep to myself though I might be more up for talking about them in someone else's comments section, say.

Great post...I'm often thinking about these sorts of things as well but getting the thoughts out can be tough.

the Ape said...

It's definitely true, as some have already mentioned, that the academic prohibition against the use of the first person has waned. What seems more interesting than the "I" in the "I think" and "I feel" are the verbs themselves.

Perhaps thinking about various responses to books (be they reviews, recommendations, rants, raves or what have you) according to "thinking" and "feeling" might be useful. Academic writing about literature is mostly about "thinking"; the "sharing my feelings" model comprises a certain portion of online book discussions. Mainstream journalistic reviews, it seems to me, tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

My point here is that we needn't privilege any one of these, nor do we need to denigrate academic writing as "dry" or informal book bloggins as "amateur." As long as we allow ourselves to be open to multiple kinds of writing about books (and for those of us who blog about books to consider the range of available modes) then a rich conversation about books can happen.

naida said...

Great post Nymeth. I am by no means a professional book reviewer, but I review because I simply like to talk about books. I do find the process of reviewing books to be personal since I'm sharing my honest opinions.
I also enjoy reading other people's reviews and comments. I find it very interesting and have met some amazing people through book blogging, including yourself!

http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Chris said...

Another fantastic post, Ana that's generated some great discussion :D I'm not crazy about the word "review" either for a lot of the reasons you've mentioned...for what it's come to mean...I remember in school getting chastised everytime I'd use the word "I" in a "review" or a "essay" and I'd think, why? I can certainly share an opinion without using the word "I"...but it's the word "I" that they hated.

Personally, what I like to see and what I strive for in writing my reviews is just simply to share what a book meant to me. The feelings it evoked in me, what I took from it, why it was special to me, or why it horrified me. And that's what I want to know from other people too, really. Those are the "reviews" that stick out to me. One's that make me think about things in a bigger picture.

Like you, I like to talk about things...discuss things...learn about other people, other cultures, things I didn't know before. And I can't do that with "this book was good. the writing was good and it won a pulitzer." Or "it sucked, it was a waste of my time." I want more. And I'm not saying what people should or shouldn't write...that's certainly up to the individual, I'm just sharing what I like in a review. Thanks so much for this post Ana :)

Shelley said...

I too am an incurable introvert/writer, and I wanted to say that I really liked your final sentence. Not only will everything come up, but with true literature, all those things will come in the ethical, complex, contemplative lobe of the brain (wherever that is). So different from simple-minded propaganda.

Melody said...

Great post, Ana!
Most of my friends don't read so I started my blog as a way for me to ramble/share my views on the books I read. Then I found this bookblogging community, and I'm very happy that I'm able to share my opinions with other bookbloggers. I've to admit most of my books I got now are recommendations by them; and the most wonderful thing of this community is, I've met several wonderful friends even if I've not met them in person, and one of them is you, Ana! :)

Jenners said...

So much to think about here!!!

I know my own approach is very personal (I shudder to think how many "I" or "me" or "I think" or "I feel" appear in my reviews.) But I personally love that in a book review ... I want to know what the reader thought, felt and reacted to in the book. I like to feel the enthusiasm for a book that someone loved. I love when reviews depart from the "beaten track" and don't follow a defined format. And the more personality in a review, the better. My only real requirement is honesty and authenticity in the writer. I think people are smart enough to judge whether a book is up their alley or not ... or to have the interest to find out for themselves.

And I do think a review HAS to be personal. How can I say what others would like ... all I know is what I like or what a book made me feel. I certainly wouldn't judge others for not liking a book I loved ... or vice versa.

Sometimes I think we can all overthink things too much. Part of me is glad that I'm not beholden to anyone when I write my reviews so I feel free to just express how the books made me feel ... and I hope we all have that freedom.

Wondeful post!

Stephanie said...

Awkwardly earnest? Self indulgent? You are one of the most beautiful, intelligent writers I know -- yours is one of the blogs I head to FIRST when I want something good to read. :-)

I love this topic, but I need to get some sleep and give it a bit more thought before talking about how and why I blog.

mee said...

Originally when I started my book blog before I got to know all the other book bloggers, I used the word 'review' naturally. After all the fuss about what is called a "real review" I became more conscious about using it. But at the end I just decide to use it. Why the hell not? Why should people tell me which word to use and which one is not? If I wanna call my post a review then that's what i will call it. If it's just personal notes, I wouldn't need to worry about spoilers. But I do, I'm careful about giving too much away and everything. [end of rant, sorry :] About why I write about books, I think I'm gonna have to answer yes to all of your questions in the last paragraph. Interesting post Ana, like always :)

Jessica said...

I always see blog reviews as like receiving a recomendation (or not) from a friend. If I asked a friend whether they liked a book or not they would not go into a deep critique they would say they either liked it or disliked it and the reasons why, while using the words 'I think'

Blogspace is big so there are all forms of reviews which are very welcome but I also cant understand the snobbery sometimes - its not like anyone here is writing for the New York Times.

Jodie said...

litlove's post totally threw me into thinking this over as well Ana. So glad you could come up with some coherrent thoughts on the subject. The furthest I've got is that while I want to put up my own experience with a book, I think sometimes I have to be willing to see the technical good in the books I don't like. So my emotions get a space and my objective look at the book gets a space and they spend a whole post battling away at each other. Sometimes that doesn't work, but I feel like it's important to try in the interests of fairness and I think it's something a lot of book bloggers do naturally. That's why I can't do ratings because I'd have to have an emotional rating and an attempt at an objective rating, which would take forever.

I do think I've seen some people who can't seperate the two and that can be tricky, especially when their politics clash with those of the author (I'm sure you've seen reviews of the 'the characters are gay so this is a bad book' type). So it's vital to acknowledge my subjective biases (negative and positive) but also very important to me that I reach beyond them. However soemtimes that can result in my emotions getting squeezed out (there is only so long a post can be if you don't want to bore everyone) and I'd like more of a balance.
I think like some of the other people who have commented that the reluctance to use 'I' comes from education. It was forbidden to use I when I was at university and that's embedded pretty deeply into me, not sure I can shake it now :)

In reply to CB James I don't think using 'I think' or 'I feel' are necessarily apologies, instead they're a useful way of qualifying and acknowledging our subjectivity. While paid reviewers tend to make out that what they're writing is an objective statement of true authority book bloggers freely acknowledge their own subjective limits when reading. It feels like a bit of transparency to me and I like it.

Meghan said...

I think you've articulated your thoughts beautifully here and I'm having a hard time formulating my own. I am definitely a fan of more "casual" reviews - I spent four years at uni exorcising the "I" from essays regarding literature and it's been downright refreshing putting it back in. My blog is definitely about how I feel about books, and while I don't always look as deeply into them as I would like, I still think what I do can be called reviews. I like all kinds of reviews, but I prefer ones where I can isolate how the writer felt about the book, not just its literary merits even if I'm interested in those too.

Shonna said...

I started writing about the books I read to be able to refer back to that information when choosing future reads, and when I went online with it, it was so that I could access it anywhere there was internet, including at work (in the library) when I am talking about books with patrons.
I do recommend books as part of my job (readers' advisory) and to friends (more and more are asking and reading my blog). I definitely include a personal comment when I feel it is warranted, relating to my own experience on the subject or the fictional situation or characters. I hope it makes me look at what I am reading more closely and think about the book more than I did before, and thus get more out of it. Whether that more is learning something I can apply to my own life, helping me understand others, or have conversations that take me to new places. I think an enthusiasm for a book can come through in a review in many ways, including the personal, and that can sway me into wanting to read a book that I otherwise wouldn't have noted.

Alex said...

Very interesting post, losts of food for thought!

Maybe because I didn’t do literature in school, I actually never realised that by using “I feel” or “I think” I might be stepping out of what is considered a review. My (naïve?) understanding was that although journalists should strive to be impartial, a review is an opinion. And while I don’t expect personal rambling in Time magazine’s book review section, I actually look forward to it in book blogs. I enjoy a good analysis, but the best part of reading book blogs is to know how people saw a book through the lenses of their own personal experience. It is especially interesting if it’s a book I’ve read as well.

When talking books I’m all about the gut feeling. This can also be frustrating and I sometimes wish I was more analytic and able to make fresh, never-heard of connections. But alas, I’m all about how this character gets on my nerves and that another would make my Dinner Table of 12 Literary Characters. In the end, I find that one of the biggest pleasures in reading reviews comes when, not being able to pin-point why I love or hate a book, someone across the globe expresses exactly what I’ve been feeling.

There’s this idea that always fascinated me: collective memory - experiences shared, constructed and perpetuated by the group. Book blogging allows me to actively participate in a global conversation about books and hence tap into this collective memory. And a conversation becomes much more interesting if it’s all about how something personally impacted you.

All of this to say that, for what’s it worth, I love to hear yours and everyone’s random thoughts, musings and un-objective reviews.

Zibilee said...

Oh Nymeth, this was a beautiful post! I agree with a lot of what you have said, and My answer for writing reviews is much the same as your own. I want to be able to share the thoughts, ideas, and feelings that I take away from the books that I read, and be able to start discussions and garner interest for books that I think are worth reading and discussing. I know that I use a lot of personal opinions and "I think" statements in my reviews, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Some of the best reviews I have read are very personal and subjective, and I also wouldn't change that either!

J.T. Oldfield said...

When I was interning at The Stranger, my boss, the books editor told me that when he started he had to make himself refrain from using "I think" or "in my opinion" because a review (at least in print) should have a certain weight of authority behind it, but also because people know that a book review--or any review--is by a critic, ergo is only one person's opinion.

Iliana said...

I really enjoyed reading your post Nymeth. I have struggled with the whole "review" issue since I started my blog. I certainly don't give a critical review of books because I don't feel prepared for that. My intention since I started blogging was just to share how a book made me feel, think, etc. I personally love to read reviews where the reader also shares their emotional reaction to a book. I find that I feel like I actually get to know the reader that way. Ok, now I'm rambling but just wanted to again say how much I enjoyed this and reading everyone else's thoughts.

softdrink said...

I write about books because I have a lousy memory and it's my way of keeping a reading journal. Also, I know few people in real life who are as passionate about reading as I am, so I love the book blogger community for making me feel like I'm always involved in a bookish conversation.

I use the word review, but I do cringe when I'm using it. Since my posts are so varied in length and content and usually are more about my gut reaction to a book than anything else, the word review just doesn't feel right.

Valerie said...

I try not to use the word "review" in blog posts themselves, but I tend to loosely use it when I'm saying something like "oh, I've got three books to review" .

This is a great post which once again brought on great comments :-).

I'm now wondering if I use "I think" "I feel" etc in my blogging. Interesting!

Paperback Reader said...

Very interesting post, Ana, and one I have been ruminating on since Sunday. As a mini experiment -out of personal interest- I wrote my latest "review" differently than I normal would; I didn't inject any of the personal and emotional into it. I found the process of writing it restrictive; I continually wanted to validate my points with the personal. I'll let the review (certainly I can use the word in this context although I use it anyway for my standard, personal reviews) stand but I think it comes across as staid and lacking a definite position in where I stand in relation to the book. Fascinating.

Nymeth said...

Sakura: Thank you! I do agree with you that biases also affect academic writing in the sciences, but what I meant by highlighting the humanities, particularly literary criticism, is that in the sciences I see a good reason to strive to exorcise the "I" - you want to stick to method that's clearly defined and whose aim is to have the same results happen regardless of who's conducting the research. In literary criticism, though, the idea just doesn't make sense. No two reads will respond to a work the exact same way, though they may agree on what techniques the writer uses, what they could be trying to achieve, etc. And that's not a flaw for me - it's part of what makes reading so interesting.

Debi, you are too kind :) It does amaze me to think of how many amazing conversations I've had with people over the years where books were the point of departure.

Teresa: I like your non-apologetic stance! I also like the expression "a load of hooey" quite a bit ;) I also like the openness about biases and personal preferences that I see in blogging. It's a big part of its appeal to me.

Steph: Aw, thank you for the kind words! I love what you said about how at the end of the day you're writing for yourself. That's how it is for me too. Of course that the fact that people are reading me is very rewarding, but I couldn't *not* write the kinds of posts I personally find the most satisfying, even if people told me they hated them.

Kate: The exact same happened to me. Blogging made me grow to REALLY enjoy the process of writing about books, to the point that I now feel that my reading experience is incomplete if I don't do it.

Fence: I think you might be on to something ;)

ibeeeg: The thing is, I actually don't think having a literary background makes that much of a difference. It might for your style, but not for content, and at the end of the day content matters more. Also, I completely respect your decision not to write about books you didn't like. I enjoy reading both negative and positive reviews, but it REALLY bothers me to see people suggest that bloggers who don't write both are cowardly or dishonest. We all have the right to blog exactly how we please. Also, I'm glad to have "introduced" you to Kate and Steph, both of whom have wonderful blogs!

Gavin: I think that's an excellent reason :)

raych: I actually go as far as to question both the idea that people are only worthy if they write about Objectively Very Good Books AND the idea of their existence altogether. I don't know; it's tricky, and when I say this I don't mean it as simplistically as people tend to assume. I just think that there are many definitions of "objectively very good" and that in the end it comes down to what we think literature *should* do.

Amanda: IS the academic viewpoint unbiased, though? After five years in academia, I remain unconvinced :P Anyway, thank you for the kind words! And I think that "because it's fun" is an absolutely excellent reason :D

Nymeth said...

Heather: "I also like to give people an idea of what kind of reader might enjoy whatever I'm reviewing." I try to do this as well - to acknowledge that my own likes/dislikes don't make it a book for either everyone or for no one, really. I appreciate bloggers who do that, because when people don't they sometimes end up sounding, intentionally or not, like they're saying "this book is so stupid that you must be stupid too if you happen to like it". Nothing sends me running from a blog faster, even if the book in question happens to be one I hated. Also, thank you so much for the kind words, Heather!

Kathy: I think you're plenty smart! And more than that, I don't think that being personal or not denotes intelligence or the lack thereof. It tends to be *perceived* that way, I know, but it all strikes me as smoke and mirrors.

Jeanne: What you said about a personal perspective being allowed in the US for some time now makes sense to me - my favourite professor when I was an undergraduate was American, and he didn't hesitate to both demand original thinking and call shenanigans on all the talk about objectivity we were being taught in some of our other classes. His classes were a breath of fresh air!

Bina: I don't actually think your posts come across as amateurish! Unless we use the word in the sense Michael Chabon uses it - someone who's passionately enthusiastic about something. And that's really what attracts me to blogs. Don't be sorry for the long comment - I LIKE long comments :P And I agree with you that variety is part of the allure of blogs.

Chris: When you put it that way, it kind of is, isn't it? :P

Liz B: That does make sense, yes. I think that this might be what made me shy away from the word "review" too. I don't want anyone to expect the same of my blog than they'd expect from a traditional review, though I absolutely don't think that one form of writing about books is "right" and the other "wrong". They're different, and there's a place for both. I also agree with you about different forms of expertise. I absolutely appreciate it when a reviewer, be it a traditional one or a blogger, knows the history of the genre or medium they're reviewing (as opposed to reviewing, I don't know, Persepolis and going on about how it's so AMAZING to find a graphic novel with actual MEANING). It just bugs me when people only recognise traditional forms of expertise - a literature degree, a position in a reputable publication, a particular style of writing that's usually associated with intellectual authority, etc.

Gricel: Self-indulgent bloggers of the world, unite and take over ;) I do miss that about studying literature too. As someone else was saying above, it's a way of making reading less lonely, and it's wonderful that blogging can do the same.

Andi: Exactly - it's not like the absence of the pronoun magically makes you unbiased! I'm completely okay with letting go of objectivity when writing about books - mostly because I was never convinced about WHAT it was supposed to achieve in the first place.

Amanda: I don't find that odd at all! And I think the world needs FEWER Harold Blooms, not more ;)

Emily: lol - sorry to have brought you into the boondoggle ;) I love what you said about the tradition of the bookish essay, and now that you mention it I realise that it also appeals to me more than the traditional review. A contemporary example are Nick Hornby's Believer columns, which are among my absolute favourite books about books. They're not "reviews" in a traditional sense, but they're smart and insightful pieces about his reading, and that's really all I could ask for. Also, I'm with you on being bored to tears by endless talk about a book's Place In The Canon. There are so many other things that are so much more interesting to talk about!

Kathleen said...

This post had me thinking a lot about why I write about what I read and how I go about doing it. My posts tend to be what I call "commentaries", for want of a better word. I try to convey what I like and don't like about a book so that a reader of my blog might get a sense of whether or not they would agree. But mostly I find myself sharing my reactions to what I've read and what it has made me think about or stirred within me. I realize that not everyone will enjoy this style and that's okay. I read because I am passionate about books and that is something that I hope comes across in what I write.

Nymeth said...

Amy: I agree - I don't think anyone can leave the personal out completely, and I see no reason why we even should. So hooray for embracing it. And thank you so much for the kind words!

Nicole: Yes, exactly! I do see the point of formality when objectivity is both possible and desirable, but I completely fail to see why a reviewer, amateur or not, should feel that the only way to be taken seriously is to attempt to emulate that. The appearance of intellectual authority (however you define it - personally, I value the kind of expertise Liz B mentioned in her comment above) is not the real thing. And you know, I think calling it "my blog" just might be the perfect solution ;)

the Ape: I think that's an excellent point. As Eva was also saying in her comment, the intellectual and the emotional approach don't even need to be seen as mutually exclusive. There's room for both, sometimes at the same time, even.

Naida: Thank you! I love the fact that I met so many interesting people as well. And the personal connection I feel with them says a lot in itself about how personal these bookish discussions can be.

Chris: What I meant to say was actually not that I had lots of reasons not to really like the word "review", but rather the opposite - personally I don't feel that they're reasons that make sense, so I don't know why I still shy away from it. Though after reading everyone's thoughts in the comments I feel that I can articulate it better.

Shelley: So true! In the end, that's really why I'm such a voracious reader.

Melody: Thank you and likewise! As Debi and Naida were also saying, the friendships that were created thanks to these bookish conversations really do say something.

Jenners: Don't shudder! Let us embrace the "I" ;) I agree, the more personality the better. Reading a blog that gives me so sense whatsoever of who the person behind it is really throws me off. I'm not saying everyone HAS to be personal (and there are several ways of adding authenticity and personality, of course), but I'm not likely to feel at ease when someone is not. And not judging or condescending to other readers is an absolute must. NOTHING sends me running from a blog faster than a tone that suggests, "if you like this book, you're surely stupid!" *shudders*

Stephanie, you're too kind to me! That was a reference to the discussion Book-a-rama Chris linked to, where people contrasted "short and to the point" reviews with "long, rambling, self-indulgent ones". I have absolutely nothing against reviews that are short and to the point, but if someone frames the question that way, surely what they're after isn't really an honest conversation about the merits of each format, you know? They've already completely dismissed one of them.

Mee: "Why should people tell me which word to use and which one is not? If I wanna call my post a review then that's what i will call it" --> I like the way you think ;)

Jessica: I'll definitely acknowledge that not all bloggers are talented writers - not to the same degree, anyway. But having said that, I still don't understand the snobbery at all. It's not as if people who aren't exactly great writers are polluting the internet with their very existence, or claiming that they SHOULD be writing for the New York Times, or making it impossible for quality writing and in-depth analyses to exist alongside their more informal bookish notes. So why lament their existence and wish that they were gone? (I'm not saying you're saying any of this, Jessica, but these are all things I've heard before.) Personally I'm just happy to see people talking about books, no matter how or where.

Nymeth said...

Jodie: I completely agree with you on what "I feel" and "I think" denote, and personally I appreciate the transparency too. And I see what you mean about acknowledging the qualities of books that didn't do it for us. That kind of objectivity makes sense to me - it's leaving the door open for literature that reveals truths that might not be YOUR truth. Hmm, I sense a post on THAT coming sometime soon :P

Meghan: I prefer those kinds of reviews too, though yes, both things interest me.

Shonna: Getting more out of what I read is definitely one of my favourite "side-effects" of blogging. I like what you said about being able to access your thoughts anywhere. And I'm SO looking forward to library school and reader's advisory :)

Alex: I'm not sure if that's a naïve understanding (for the record, it's my understanding too) or if it's one that's refreshingly free of the power games the literary establishment sometimes falls into. At the end of the day, I don't actually want to SOUND like an authority. Which doesn't mean I don't appreciate it if people trust my recommendations, of course - but it's not the same thing at all. Also, I absolutely LOVE what you said about collective memory and shared experiences. That's a fundamental part of the appeal of blogging.

Zibilee: I'm glad you wouldn't have it any other way! I love your reviews the way they are, and I think you do such an excellent job of being both personal and analytical. The two aren't mutually exclusive at all.

Carl: I think that simply not reading those posts/comments might be an EXCELLENT idea ;) Why get myself worked up? And yes, that makes plenty of sense. That's exactly the kind of tone I want to achieve in my posts. I'll share my experiences, and if I think a book betrayed the complexity of life in some way, I'll definitely say so. But I want to leave the door open a kind of conversation that doesn't denote anyone who disagrees to a position of intellectual inferiority from the very onset. Sadly, a lot of writing about books *intentionally* fails to do this. And then it becomes about power, status and prestige instead of being about whatever the topic of the discussion is supposed to be.

J.T. Oldfield: I understand that, but that's exactly the kind of manufactured authority that I reject.

Iliana: You're not rambling! The fact that the personal post makes me feel that I'm getting to know people is exactly what I love about it.

Jill: The memory thing is definitely a reason for me too. I love being able to remember what I thought of a book a year after I read it. It's especially interesting when my impressions at the time don't match how I remember it!

Valerie: I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I find that I do use the word informally too.

Claire: Now I'm tempted to perform a similar experiment! I have a feeling I'd also find it very limiting.

Kathleen: "But mostly I find myself sharing my reactions to what I've read and what it has made me think about or stirred within me". It's exactly this that interests me the most :)

heidenkind said...

One of the golden rules of academia is to never use "I" in a paper. I asked why in school once, and the teacher said because it was too informal, but I do think it's closer to what you were saying--that it lends the writer a sense of impartiality when in fact everyone, even academics, write with very clear biases.

I like to review books mainly because it clarifies how I feel about a book to myself. I don't know how many times I've written about a book and been surprised at how much I actually liked or disliked it--I guess I'm not very self-away that way. :P

Staci said...

I for one am a HUGE amateur. I never started blogging to be a paid reviewer ever. I guess when I use the word review in my blog title it's basically to let others know that this is going to be about a particular book. That's why I always use the words MY THOUGHTS and honestly never try to come off as highly intellectual..heck, I'm not let's face it. I often read for pleasure and sometimes truly miss those hidden meanings and layers. I notice them when I've read a review of the same book on another blog and love seeing the book from their POV. What word would you recommend to replace "review" ?

Nymeth said...

Heidenkind: Ha, neither I am! I really love that about the process of reviewing.

Staci: I honestly see nothing wrong with calling it a review even if you have no ambition at all of being a professional. But whatever makes you comfortable! Thoughts or posts or bookish notes are just fine too.

valentina said...

"If you talk about books for long enough, eventually everything will come up"
This is so true. I remember drunken conversations in pubs with my (now ex) colleagues about our favourite books and they would often end with big and passionately loud talks on life the universe and everything:)

I started writing about books because I felt the need to share. Not only recommendations but mainly thoughts. After I finished a book, before I had a blog, I had all these thoughts and not many people to share them with. After I started writing my reviews I realised that they made me think even more about what I read. I had to untangle the messy formless feeling and ideas I had while reading and it was sort of rewarding for that reason only. Then I discovered this huge book blogging world and it made even more sense. Now, I didn't stop thinking whether my posts were worth to be called "reviews", I just did. Of course, not being paid and never having worked as a professional reviewer,I didn't even think someone could come to me as say "you're not a professional, you shouldn't call your posts reviews". I thought that was just the nature of blogs. Write your personal opinions freely. Also, I never thought academic or professional reviews were objective. Nothing can really ever be, they are just opinions written in a more literary , sophisticated way, which are even more sophisticated by the reviewer's cultural knowledge and experience. That makes them interesting from many points of view. I can learn from them, but it doesn't mean I'm going to take their words over my friend's just because they have read more books.
Same goes with music reviewers. They listen to a lot of music, it's their jobs. But taste is taste, and if I don't like that particular album which is supposed to be the best of the year, then I'm not gonna feel guilty about it.
And then just look at how often one book or movie can receive widely different reviews from two prefessional journalists. One think it's a masterpiece, they other one think it's rubbish. Is there a right or wrong opinion? Again the only difference is that they are paid and (sometimes) they can write better and more knowledgeably.
Actually, there is another difference. They most likely won't engage in stimulating discussions with other reviewers about what they saw or read or listened. While, we do, and that's the fun of it!

Vishy said...

This an awesome post, Ana! I am sorry for not being able to join the conversation earlier.

I personally feel that our reading experience is most of the time personal and subjective, though sometimes we might try to distance ourselves from the book, try to resist its influence and try to react to it objectively. I use the word 'review' when I write my book posts, but I liked the questions you have raised on using the word - quite fascinating! I don't think that we (=book bloggers) have no legitimacy, though sometimes the 'official' press seems to think that way. (I have seen some extremely poor reviews in the literary pages of renowned newspapers and magazines).

I found this comment of yours, quite thought provoking - "I could give you quite a few examples of pieces of professional criticism where the author’s personal, political or ideological biases are as clear as daylight." It made me remember something - I remember reading a book on history, a few years back, called 'Europe : A History' by historian Norman Davies. Davies had proposed a different point of view and perspective through his book and he had ignored the (imaginary) line separating western, central and eastern Europe and had given equal importance to all the parts of Europe in his book. It has created a big controversy and got him scathing reviews in leading publications by reviewers who subscribed to the mainstream view - just because he proposed a different point of view.

I read an essay recently by Zadie Smith which was related to the topic you have written about (objective and subjective reading). I thought you might like it and so am giving excerpts from the book here.

In one part of the essay Smith says "I flattered myself I ranged widely in my reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons...I had my own ideas of 'good writing'. It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly 'lyrical' language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered 'folk speech' or the love tribulations of women". She continues - "Three hours later I was finished and crying a lot, for reasons that both were, and were not, to do with the tragic finale. I lost many literary battles the day I read 'Their Eyes were Watching God'." Later she says - "At fourteen, I did Zora Neale Hurston a critical disservice. I feared my 'extraliterary' feelings for her. I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool. I disliked the idea of 'identifying' with the fiction I read : I wanted to like Hurston because she represented 'good writing', not because she represented me." The subjective side of Smith seems to have prevailed on this occasion :)

Kate said...

Just wanted to let you know that I included this over at Kate's Library in The Friday Five!

Trish said...

Oh Brother. I know you hate this remark as much as I hate this remark but I have to admit that when I read a fantastic post by you several weeks after it was written (I guess in this case a week) and come over to leave my comment and see 76 ahead of me I wonder if you really need/want another comment left by someone who would love to read the comments before her but doesn't want to take the 30 minutes it would require to do so just to repeat what X people said before her. Sigh.

Several things really struck my eye in this post. First, "but I notice that sometimes people take this to mean that I’m not interested in moving bookish conversations away from how much I happened to enjoy the experience of reading a particular book." Wow. This is such a depature from how I personally see your reviews. I see your reviews as taking your personal experience with the text and purposely moving these experiences to bookish conversation about a greater topic--how these experiences relate to Life, The Universe, and Everything. You do with your reviews what very few other bloggers do.

I had other points as well but I end up just feeling a little bit inadequate when I start thinking about these things too deeply.

kissacloud said...

"If you talk about books for long enough, eventually everything will come up." Love it. Thanks for laying it out so perfectly.

kissacloud said...

P.S. To answer your question, my "reviews" would be super subjective. I don't know how to separate myself from what I read because each book is a whole experience to me. I personally will read any type of review but admittedly skipping over plot descriptions. I hate knowing anything about a book beforehand, so what I look for in reviews is some other thing, something that will make me think and say, hmm.. I want to experience that. The reviews that only give plot are spoilers to me. I don't want a shortcut or summary of a story. I want to experience a story the way the author intended.