Thursday, June 14, 2007

Checking Out the Literary Blogs

I have an insatiable curiosity about all kinds of things, so I’ve managed to learn at least a little about a lot. With writing, I’ve recognized my limitations and know the next step is getting some formal instruction. Self-education has taken me as far as I can go. I’m nervous and excited to say that I joined a writers’ workshop with a very qualified faculty and exactly the kind of workshops and resources that I’ve been looking for. Thanks to Scott’s encouragement and insistence that I get on the phone and take the first step, I’ll be attending a week long retreat next month and I’m enrolled in an eight week workshop on writing the novel that starts in August. I feel incredibly fortunate to have access to this kind of help and that I have Scott’s enthusiastic support.

I’ve also tried to supplement my education by checking out the Literary Blogs. I’ve got links to a number of them on this site and I’m getting a lot from the essays and reviews. Lengthy, thoughtful pieces of the type posted on these sites are relatively new to me. My favorite so far is Conversational Reading. Scott Esposito posts fresh content often that’s interesting, informative and even when he’s critical, it comes off as professional and objective. June is Reading the World month and in the short time I’ve been reading his posts, he’s had a focus on books translated into English. Interviews with translators have brought me a new perspective on foreign writers and even on reading books originally written in another language. For each new book I discover and for each piece I read that provides a new insight I’m growing and learning. Now and then I read something on one of the Lit Blogs that gives me that “odd man out” feeling. The criticisms on a few sites come across as personal and harsh. The comments can also be pretty outrageous – at least to me. Today I read a review by a reviewer of another reviewer’s review. Yes, I said the word review four times in that sentence. Most of these people are full time reviewers, essayists and editors, and some are novelists and professors. Books are their lives so it’s understandable some of them get pretty passionate. In those moments, I feel like I’ve accidentally wandered into a private party where I’m not welcome. I wonder if the Lit Bloggers are writing only for each other. Maybe they are. I’m a lurker only in these environments and sometimes I have questions about what I’ve read, but I’d never consider asking them. At least not yet. Sometimes what I read makes me feel a little dumb. I'm not familiar with all the references. I know I shouldn’t feel dumb – it’s my ignorance that’s making me feel insecure and that can be cured, but I don’t like the feeling.

That really got me thinking about literary fiction and the audience for it. It’s no secret that it’s a tough space for an author and that most literary fiction will never be read at all or at least not by very many people. I find most of it very accessible and I enjoy reading it – it’s the reviews and the essays about the books and the authors that are sometimes tougher to get through. What I’ve learned on the LitBlogs has introduced me to even more that I think I’d like and it’s given me greater perspective on it. But the sense that group discussing this type of work is somewhat exclusive and elitist is hard to shake. I wonder if the tone of these pieces actually makes some of the books and writers sound less accessible than they really are.

There’s been a lot of discussion about newspaper critics, bloggers criticizing books, who should be considered credible as a critic or reviewer and who shouldn’t. How do you feel about it? Do you read essays and reviews about authors and books or do you ignore them? Do you have an opinion about the ongoing discussion and debate between the in-print and online critics?

10 comments:

Yellow said...

I don't read many, if any 'literary reviews' other than the bits included inside the cover of novels I buy, which will always be positive.
I have read a number of books recently though with notes at the end by the author, which I've found fascinating & helpful. Two of these were in historical novels, where the author explains which biuts were based on history & where they've combined the actions of a few figures to speed up the plot. It's very honest of them & shows that they too appreciate they're writing fiction.
Others I've read have explained how their books were based on fairy tales & folklore, and where they drew their inspiration from.
It's great to hear the author's 'own' voice, after reading the 'voice' they used in the novel. It reminds me what a craft writing is, it's not just their recording of a stream of consciousness.
If I can make a request (probably aimed at publishers rather than the authors themselves) is to make it clear on a book cover where in a series that book falls. I often find that I have to do an internet search, and make a note of the running order, to help me out. Very frustrating.

reality said...

Literary fiction is a misnomer. Any book, that is out of the box and written in good English is literary. I guess the subject matter also comes into play.
I have been coaxed by reviews into buying books. Sometimes the reviewer was spot on. At others, I found the reviewer/critic woefully off target.
At the end of the day all reviewers are like readers: they have their personal fancies, whims, likes and dislikes.
I would rather read a book and make my own personal opinion.
The one areas where reviews have helped me is when someone speaks highly of a writer, I have never read. That makes me want to read the author.

kristen said...

Lisa,
You sound so excited about your upcoming retreat and workshop. I'm so glad Scott pushed you to pursue it.

As for the critics...I guess anyone can set themselves up as a critic of sorts. We all do it, in a way, when we recommend books we love to friends and family. I think the online community is making a huge impact on publishing. I recently bought 3 books that I read about on blogs/websites. I don't know if I would have stumbled onto these books otherwise. They just wouldn't have been in my radar.

Think how limited the print media is—and think about how many more authors and their books are able to generate a buzz because they have the ability to gain exposure through blogs and websites.

I think the credibility of a reviewer is in the eye of the reader. And as with anything we read we take from it what we will. Some reviews can open our eyes to new understandings; others can close our minds. Just like the books themselves.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm so pleased that you were able to find a writers' workshop to attend. Eight whole weeks of instruction and interaction with other writers sounds wonderful for you. Is either the retreat or the workshop near you? If so, maybe you'll meet some people you can use as second readers or form a critique group with. I hope you get everything out of them you wish for, and more.

Larramie said...

Hmm, I knew the retreat was coming up soon but couldn't recall when. So please don't anticipate, Lisa, and drop the "s" word in your describing yourself. Everyone begins once or they don't even try.

As for a review...isn't that similar to a revision in that a new view is being taken on a writing? And, ultimately, the only review that matters is yours. ENJOY!!!

Lisa said...

Yellow,

I agree. I just finished reading Spoonwood -- the sixth in my favorite author's (Ernie Hebert) Darby series and there was an author's statement and interview that really enhanced the story for me and I loved learning more about him, etc. I've had the same trouble with books in a series, or even knowing what order a writer's novels were published in.

Reality,

I know that term is contentious, but like it or not, it exists and I continue to use it for lack of a better term to describe what the Lit Bloggers are focused on. I agree with you about the value of reviews. Everything has to be framed within the context of our own ability for critical thought. It's interesting to get to know the tastes and tendencies of reviewers so that we can add the appropriate grain of salt, when needed.

Kristen,

I'm glad he pushed me too because I would have procrastinated and I know I wouldn't have signed up for the retreat. I think I agree with you on the expanded space the internet provides for commentary. Written reviews by familiar reviewers are OK, but some of what I've found online is so much more comprehensive. In a loose sense, we all provide opinions, but in a strict sense, those people who are paid to read and write about books are coming from a different place -- not better necessarily. With so many opinions, I find the best way to get a balanced perspective is to read multiple reviews of the same book or author and with so many reviewers, that's a piece of cake.

Shauna,

I'm very pleased too and yes, Lighthouse Writers Workshop is in Denver, where I live and the retreat will be in Grand Lake, CO -- a beautiful spot. I also wanted to let you know I took your advice and on Tuesday I went to a book discussion group -- we talked about Blindness, by Jose Saramago. It was a good experience and I plan to continue going. Thank you for making that suggestion on your blog.

Larramie,

Yes! Great observation, a RE-VIEW is like a RE-VISION. Actually, I may like reading reviews of books after I've read them better than I do before. Point also taken on having to begin somewhere.

Patti said...

i have felt this for years, but dismiss it. the reason being is that if i am not a fan of my stuff then no one else should be either. if i am lucky enough to see print i don't think i will read the reviews. it won't matter at that point and i wouldn't want it to flavor anything to come. there will always be the critics, the reviewers, the elitists, and then there will be those who man the trenches. give me a trench...

great topic.

Lisa said...

Patti,

That's an aspect of this subject I didn't touch on, but should have. Most of the people who stop by here are writers of on stripe or another -- some published, some almost and some of us still working on it. The published writers have almost all blogged about the anxiety of being reviewed. How much does the review mean to the authors of the books themselves, I wonder. Based on what I've read, it means something -- most of the time it means a lot. And if you extend it from a short review to the idea of a longer essay, how much would that mean? How many people would really love to write something that someone took the time to really analyze, apply some critical thought to and write up an essay -- especially a complimentary one? Hmm...

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I love the insight Larramie brings to each and every discussion, don't you? I wish you could fold me up and put me in your pocket to attend that retreat with you. It sounds like heaven and Scott your guardian angel. I don't think you're as far behind as you think, though. Your writing is excellent, so what is it you think you lack? Pacing, plotting, stakes? Are you afraid you don't know what you don't know?

I think you're better equipped than you realize.

Amy

Lisa said...

Amy,

Larramie does always manage to find a fresh view on everything.

I wish you could go with me too! I don't recall ever showing up for something this intense where I didn't know a soul, so I'm a little nervous, but in a good way. Scott is so supportive. I'd never have the nerve to do this if he didn't push. Thank you for the nice comments -- I need help with all of the above. I have some fear of not knowing what I don't know, but there are plenty of things I know I don't know. I suppose it's so difficult, if not impossible to determine if I'm headed in the right direction with my own writing that I like the idea of an environment with instructors who can give me feedback and guidance I can trust.

Take good care of yourself. I'm sending positive energy your way and I hope things are improving.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf