There is quite a lot of discussion going on this week about so-called 'amateur' reviewers who blog about children's books and the 'professional' reviewers who appear in print (and/or are paid for their reviews). I was already planning on posting a mission statement/review policy of sorts. So this does provide an interesting reason to do it now instead of putting it off yet another day or week.
To get caught up on the arguments/debates:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: Leave the Reviewing to the Professionals
Fuse #8's Sillies and Give 'em the Old Razzle-Dazzle
Jess: Lit Blog Wars
Read Roger's: Why I Don't Have A Blogroll or Friends
Jen Robinson's Book Page: Professional Reviews vs. Blog Reviews
Finding Wonderland: The Writing YA Weblog: My Two Cents...Well, More Like Five Bucks
Interactive Reader: I Just Hate it When Hopes Are Dashed
MotherReader's Coziness (Added 4/19/07)
(I have not read the comments below each blog post. There were too many. But I did read most, and scan the rest of the above links.) I am not trying to engage in the above dialogues so much as I am trying to state MY beliefs on what the role of a reviewer/blogger is.
Someone--a snooty someone it sounds like--posted that "Obviously, it benefits the publisher to cozy up under the guise of friendship, to tell the bloggers how interesting and brilliant and important they are. (Bloggers must already be preconditioned to believe this -- why else would they have a blog in the first place?)" I find that insulting and rude. But is it true? Is anyone in the kidlit community really trying to blog their way into fame and fortune and the good life? Is that even possible? People blog because they have something to share. Something important, yes. But it's not "me, me, me." Instead it is read this book. Read that book. Listen to what this author has to say. It's not "I'm such a wonderful person. Look at me. I'm fabulous." If literature blogs were like that--who would read them??? Seriously. And no one begins off a review, "I'm so brilliant. Listen to what I have to say. Don't bother reading anyone else's review. I'm the best. My opinion is the only one that matters. If you disagree with me, you're rubbish." I've never really read a blog whose author had a huge ego and an insatiable thirst for praise and glory. So to say bloggers are egocentric, and attention-seekers is just misguided. They are no more egocentric than anyone else.
WHY I BLOG?
I blog because I can. I have the time and energy to post reviews and ramblings daily. I read books. Tons of books. I find it personally satisfying to write about and discuss the books I read. Therefore I blog. That is not to say I blog for myself alone. I'm always thinking of a potential audience. It could be teens or tweens. It could be parents. It could be teachers or librarians. It could be other bloggers. It might be authors or publishers. But my audience is anyone and everyone who likes to (or loves to) read. My site offers options.
UNDER WHOSE AUTHORITY???
I cannot remember where I read this--but it was something I read this morning--but it was something to the effect that every reader has a right to have an opinion about a book and share it. Whether they share it via a blog or an Amazon review or just among friends. You don't have to be one of the select few 'professional' reviewers in a major publication to have a point of view. All that being said, the more you read...the more informed you are and able to distinguish and discern quality. The more you read, the more you know. So experience adds to your credibility as a blogger. But everyone has a right to an opinion. Same goes with education. I have an MLS degree. My specialization was children's literature. I have numerous course credits in the field. My other degrees include a BA and MA in Literature. So I know reading. I know how to read "big people" books and "little people" books. I can analyze and dissect great works of literature. I can write thesis statements and have a well-organized research paper. Does any of that matter when it comes to blogging? It's debatable.
BALANCING BEING "OBJECTIVE" WITH BEING "SUBJECTIVE"
The great thing about reading is everyone is different. Everybody reads a book differently. One person could love it. One person could like it. One person could hate it. Which person is right? None of them. All of them. Only the reader can decide what is "good" in their opinion. You can't force anyone to like a book. You can't enforce your tastes and opinions on anyone else. Everyone can have their own opinion on a book. That's the only way to view it. If I disagree with your taste in books, fine. If you disagree with my taste in books, fine. There is no right or wrong here. All this is obvious. More than obvious. But here is the bottom line: how does a reviewer balance their personal response from a book with an objective view of the book? Can any book be read objectively? How can the reader divorce themselves from the reading process? Should they even try?
Reviews are opinions. They reflect the opinion of one person--the reviewer. They cannot reflect every opinion. To some extent, you can weed out about 10% of books objectively. There are a few books that you can read and examine and come to the conclusion...I don't know anyone, anywhere who could possibly like this book. But most books aren't like that. Most books have a potential audience. Every book is potentially someone's "favorite" book waiting to be discovered. The world would be a very boring place if everyone had the same favorite book or author. Variety is a good thing. So no review--whether appearing in a journal or a blog--is free from personal opinion. They may try to disguise it. But you can almost always read between the lines and discern whether or not they liked it. They may try to be "professional" and "objective" and try to convince you that they're free from bias. But no one can be completely free. They may have logical arguments. Proof to say these are the reasons why. But there are always other reasons why that may not be quite as logical. Sometimes you dislike a book and you just can't put your finger on it as to why. You just know. Same goes with a good review. You like it and you really don't know why. You just know you love it. Do you have to justify it? It is always better to try to explain it than to just shrug your shoulders and say in your review: "I love this book. I think everyone should read this book. It is great. I love the author." I think we've all seen book reviews like that on Amazon. So somewhere in the middle is the best place to write your review. I think bloggers can share more of their personality in book reviews. But essentially, you should never forget that reviews = opinions. Whether the reviewer is educated or uneducated. Whether the reviewer is young or old. My opinions about a book are just as valid as any review source. And so are yours.
SO WHAT RESPONSIBILITY DOES THE REVIEWER HAVE?
Some people only review books they love. Some review books they love and like. Some review books they love, like, and dislike. Do you have to love a book (or like a book) to review it? No. Does that enthusiasm help the review? Sometimes. I actually find it easier to write reviews of books I am indifferent to or dislike. Sometimes the words come easier. I can always think of reasons why I didn't like something. But if I really, truly love a book. Sometimes the words don't come. Sometimes I'm too emotionally caught up in the book to explain why it was a great book. Sometimes it takes more effort to get the review "just right" to do justice to that new, great book. What I strive for with each review is authenticity.
IS THE ROLE OF REVIEWER DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF A LIBRARIAN?
Many (but not all) bloggers have been trained in the tradition of librarianship. Whether they're currently employed at a library or not. They're familiar with the philosophy that you don't have to personally love the book (or like the book) to recommend it to a patron. When a patron comes to you looking for a new book to read. When they share what they've read in the past. When you know what genres they like. What authors they like, etc. You don't have to personally love (or like) any of the books you recommend. You can even actively hate the books that you hand over to them. That is because you recognize that everyone is different. Readers advisory isn't about recommending YOUR favorite books to every person you meet. It's about actively listening and making recommendations and such based on them...not you. Do reviewers play by the same rules? Should every review be seen as a personal endorsement of a particular book? Every reviewer has to answer that question themselves. I can only say that I have reviewed books that I didn't necessarily like or enjoy. These reviews were not necessarily written any differently than the reviews of books I liked. With one exception. If I say I really loved a book. Or if I go on for paragraphs about how wonderful a book is, you can obviously conclude that I personally liked it. That's a given. But there are some books (and some reviews) that I've written where I didn't personally care for the book, BUT I saw the potential for readers. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this book would appeal to someone. It's a slightly different story where you notice a lack in quality. But judging content is another matter. So is it dishonest to try to be neutral? I don't think so. It's a mood thing I suppose. Some days I review a book I didn't personally care for and I do it in a very neutral way. I never come right out and say that it wasn't my cup of tea. That it wasn't for me. Some days I review a book I didn't like, and I let everyone know I didn't like it. Every book is different. Every review is different.
WHAT KIND OF REVIEW IS BEST?
Every reviewer has their own style. Their own spin on what makes a good review. Some people like to include lots of summary. Some like to analyze style and approach it critically. Some like to point out strengths and weaknesses. Some like to compare and contrast it with other books with similar subjects or themes. Some like to include spoilers. Some like to treat a book review as a commercial. Tease the reader into picking up the book for themselves. To create or generate interest. All reviews share the fact that they are calling attention to a book. Some try to tell you what to think exactly. Some like to leave that up to the reader. There is no *right* way to review a book. One way isn't better than another.
DOES RECEIVING A FREE BOOK NOW AND THEN MAKE US BIASED?
I really want someone to logically explain to me why a professional book reviewer who receives ARCs and review copies of books (not to mention bookmarks and other little trinkets) would have a different (more ethical) response than a blogger receiving the same kind of courtesy from the publishers. If they both receive books from publishers...wouldn't they equally be at risk of writing biased reviews? Who deducted this...and based on what exactly? What logic are they using? Seriously. If both receive free books. If both write reviews. What is separating them? Money. The fact that they're in a printed journal or newspaper? The fact that they've got prestige? I think that is a slightly uppity opinion to assert that bloggers are so unethical and untrustworthy and therefore they must be more susceptible to such practices as bribery and flattery. If free books = bribery, then "professional" reviewers must be scrutnized just as closely as bloggers. Does a free book = a guaranteed 'good' review? I don't think so. I think authors and publishers know this going into it. They know that every book they send out isn't going to be necessarily loved and praised. They know that not everyone is going to proclaim it "the best book of the year." What they're hoping for is that it will find a few people who appreciate it. Who understand what the author was trying to do. That liked it. That will recommend it. That will give it a good review. I think they're smart enough to know that not every review will be glowing. I think all they're looking for is a chance.
And on a more personal (and therefore less interesting) note:
Where do most of MY books come from?
I would say a good 40 to 50% of my books come from my local library. I check out books regularly and read them.
As a participant of Librarians Choices, I have access to Texas Woman's University SLIS Review center five to six times a year. That might equal about 100 to 125 books per year. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. I buy a small percentage of my books. I do not have enough money to buy every book I want. But I buy about five or six books per year. That is I have bought that many new. I frequently go to Half-Priced books and buy books--typically the variety that are under $4 or $5. So my used books would make up a small percentage as well. I have also, on occasion, been sent books by authors and publishers. Not enough to really speak of. Not as many as I would like. But I would never turn down a free book.
Am I open to receiving free books from authors and publishers?
Of course. I would love to review every book I can get my hands on. I love reading new books. I would happily read every 2007 title that I came across. I think it's important to keep up to date. And I would love to receive more books so that I can provide readers with greater variety. The truth? My local library does the best it can. But it doesn't get that many new books. Oh, they might get in 2007 books, but it will be late in the year--or into the spring and summer of 2008. There are very few *new* titles that they've ordered that are even close to being available to check out. And I would love to review books in a more timely manner. Books are always a good thing. The more the merrier!