Sunday Afternoon Visits: April 15
Children's Literacy Round-Up: April 17

Professional Reviews vs. Blog Reviews

In case you've missed it, there's quite a controversy brewing in and about the Kidlitosphere concerning book reviewing. It started with a write-up at Fuse #8 about an article that I mentioned briefly in a recent round-up (which I in turn learned about from Jess). The gist of all of that was, essentially, about the eternal question regarding posting of negative reviews.

Roger Sutton, however, took that topic and went with it over at Read Roger, raising issues about whether people who have informal blogs that include interviews and the like can write unbiased reviews. There are many comments, some of them quite negative towards blogger book reviews (including what I think is a veiled dig at Readergirlz). There are also several well-thought-out responses from people like Mitali Perkins, Kelly Herold, Gwenda Bond, and Colleen Mondor in the comments. Liz Burns has just posted her own response at Tea Cozy. Gail Gauthier has also weighed in, with a reasonable, "not better, not worse, but different" approach.

I think that it's a thought-provoking debate. There are certainly annoying aspects of the "establishment" (traditional publishing) throwing darts at the bold (and mostly female) upstarts from the Kidlitosphere. There are inferences that people who write blogs, because they aren't professional reviewers writing for print publications (though some of them are, actually), are likely to be swayed by free books and "swag" from authors and publishers. For the most part this is nonsense. We're talking about free books, and the occasional cupcake, not things that people who are otherwise employed are going to sell out their integrity for.

But what makes me uneasy about the discussion is that I think that there's a tiny grain of truth to it, in regards to how we can objectively write about books written by people we consider our friends. At least for me. For example, I've been getting review copies lately from people I've had direct interactions with through the Kidlitosphere, and I wrestle with whether or not my opinion of each book is colored by my opinion of that book's author or publisher. It's easy not to review a library book that I liked but didn't love, since I have so many books that I do love that I want to talk about. But what if the author sent me a nice signed copy, and is checking my blog to see if I posted a review? What if I think that the book deserves a little extra notice, and that there's the potential for other people to love it, even if I didn't?

I'm not ever going to write a positive review of a book that I disliked, or didn't finish. I'm confident of that. But I think that I am more likely to go to the trouble of writing a review of a book that I liked but didn't love madly, if I feel some sense of personal obligation to the author or publisher. This is an issue that Wendy has raised, too, at Blog from the Windowsill, and that I know other people must struggle with. It's not necessarily wrong to do it, either, because again, I'm never recommending books that I don't like. And so many of these books do deserve a wider audience.

But the whole debate has me wanting to be more careful about accepting books, and more thoughtful about what I write. I've always tried to be up front about where my books come from, and where I have relationships with the people who wrote or published them. But I think I can do better. I appreciate this debate for forcing me to think critically about what I'm doing, and for whom.

All of that self-doubt aside, I agree with Gail that what the blogs are offering is different from what print media is offering. I know that there are parents who visit my blog looking for recommendations for their kids. Usually they don't need a full critical analysis of every book that's been published lately. They just need help sorting through the many titles in libraries and bookstores. I'm happy to do my small part to provide that. Of course these parents can, and in many cases do, also consult with librarians and booksellers and print publications.

But there's an accessibility to blogs that appeals to people. As Gwenda alluded to in her comments on the Read Roger post, people like to get recommendations from people they feel like they know. My picture is on my blog. My bio is there. People who read the blog regularly know that I care passionately about helping raise kids who love books. No, it's still not the same as talking to a librarian face to face, and a pale substitute. But for today's parents, who are at their computers all the time, knowing someone via blog works, too. And there's an anonymity to reading blogs that I'm sure appeals to some people, the appeal of not having to ask directly for help.

And of course, we all blog because we love the community, and the discussions that we have with each other. Like this one. Sorry that I went on for so long. I really started out just recapping the controversy. But it got me thinking... Thanks for listening.

UPDATED to add: TadMack and a. fortis also contribute at Finding Wonderland. And don't miss Betsy's response at Fuse #8. I think that we can all agree that we don't do this for the free books. We're people who would find copies of books anyway, and review them, even if publishers didn't send us free copies. The free copies are a convenience that lets us write about new books earlier - that's the main benefit, as far as I can see.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.