The OF Blog: A vicious circle?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A vicious circle?

This past month, with its ever-growing demands on my time, has caused me to forego my habit of checking every link in my blogroll at least once weekly. Therefore, I missed seeing this piece over at SF Diplomat. Needless to say, I have comments to make.

On my first read of McCalmont's article, I found myself wanting to agree with him, before ultimately deciding there were flaws in his argument. A re-read only confirmed my initial reaction. Beginning with a link to a cover design post done by Pablo Defendini on the site, his discussion devolves from a focus on book cover posts to a rather broad and at times disjointed critique of "cover porn, direct discussion or even award handicapping," leaving me wondering if the arguments he presents would have been better served if separate posts had been made about each issue (since the "direct discussion" and "award handicapping" bits are not really touched upon after the early mention I quoted above).

By putting up pictures of book covers on your site, you are giving the publishers eyeballs. If you even go that further step and give away free copies of books then you are going even further to raise awareness of products. You are not commenting on these books, you are advertising. You have crossed the line between editorial and stepped into the world of sales and PR.
At first, McCalmont's comments might seem to be rather reasonable; after all, if you mention something, it is a form of advertisement, no? (Of course, pictures or no pictures, any endorsement I may or may not make in the following paragraphs could be used as an "advertisement," not that intermittent pimpage of the dead Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges is a true advertisement, right?) But one begins to wonder if McCalmont has tried to define this issue in such a fashion as to make a false division between "editoral" and "sales and PR."

I have posted regular Book Porn entries for four months now; I decided to do it mostly to showcase the diversity of books that I buy, receive as review copies, and acquire as gifts. While doubtless there is that element of the books receiving "airtime," I would imagine that one would have to be a bit more sanguine about the entire situation than McCalmont appears to be in his article. Nowhere in his article does he address the size/audience element, for example. While this blog may be relatively popular, with its hundreds of daily visits, page views, and around 300 subscribers to my Feedburner, the likelihood of mere photos affecting anything is rather remote, especially when I tend to go out of my way to highlight books that maybe a quarter of my reading audience (I suspect it's much less) could even read, much less easily acquire in most bookstores. (After all, while Angélica Gorodischer's Las Jubeas en flor is a very strong short story collection, I had to spend close to $30 to acquire a used copy and I doubt there are more than a handful of readers here who have even heard of this collection outside of this blog, much less have read it.)

As a critic, I am not a part of the publishing business. I have a relationship with different parts of the business (chiefly that of being a consumer) but it is not my role to boost sales or to convince you to part with your money. In fact, it wouldn't bother me if nobody bought a single thing I reviewed positively on this site or in any of the other organs I write for. My role is to engage as fully as I can with the subject material of the books. As Clute puts it in Look at the Evidence (1995), the critic's task is...

"That of unmasking the being of the book; re-creating that being, freeing the book from the author of the book and from the beehive cloister of the affinity group; and, in the end, granting a privilege. The author's true privilege is to be misunderstood [...] and the critic's true function is to make misunderstanding into a door of perception." [page 7]

Now, not everyone considers themselves a critic. A lot of people wear too many hats to fit into a single role or they are content being fans, However, if you have a blog or you post to SF forums or contribute anything at all to the wider genre community then chances are that you are aware that you are sharing an opinion about SF or commenting on it. As such you have to consider the credibility and the authenticity of what you say.
As someone who wears a great many hats, including that of arranging on my own to interview authors on occasion, I find it quite amusing to see words such as "credibility" and "authencity" being bandied about in such a fashion as this. As I have written below the title banner, this blog "focuses on reviews, interviews, and other odds and ends that might be of interest to fans of both literary and speculative fiction." I do critical pieces on occasion, when I have time (said time has largely faded due to a time-consuming but enjoyable teaching job), but my "credibility" and my "authenticity" is related to sharing and propagating things that I myself find to be of interest. To claim to be "objective" furthermore would be antithetical to my own personal attitudes (just in case such a claim will be introduced later on by another), so while I can sympathize with McCalmont's unease, I just cannot agree with his statements.

If that is the case then you have to ask every time you post, are you doing for free what a viral marketing agency might possibly pay you for?

Discussions of book covers and posting book covers are examples of raising awareness about a product without actually commenting upon, evaluating or criticising the actual product itself. You're playing the man and not the ball by taking about the advertising instead of the product itself.

Now, not everyone is going to agree with this and you have to set your own ethical standards for yourselves but I would encourage you to think about the extent to which your voice and the content of your sites are yours as opposed to that of the people who send you free stuff.
It's quite ironic to me that earlier tonight I had the idea (still exploring it, as nothing is finalized in my own mind, much less elsewhere) of doing a bit more promotion of authors whose work I enjoyed, in hopes that maybe a few people, possibly as many as a dozen (see, I am quite pragmatic when it comes to realizing my "real" influence on people). Things such as conducting my first interviews since January or perhaps even offering authors a chance to comment about their own upcoming projects. As for the "free" versus what I might be "paid" by a viral marketing agency...I make over $40,000/year at my current job; I don't need the money, especially the likely $20? $40? or at most $100 (money that would be ill-spent by said hypothetical groups, but that's a point that's been discussed and refuted elsewhere) that would conceivably be offered. (But let's say I want to note in passing a new author, say Felix Gilman and his debut novel, Thunderer, for example. From the few online interactions we've had, I like his sense of humor and his politics. I want him to do well, especially after reading his novel and liking it, even though I swamped at the time of reading it to do a proper review then. Let's say I think it's a book that many would enjoy reading. Is this crossing over into the realm of advertising? Should I be hitting up some hypothetical ad agency for $20-100 for mentioning his name and the book and how much I liked it? And what about that cover? Would I be doing the book and its author a favor by not posting a cover of it?)

Asides aside (say that three times fast! Oh wait, these are to be put...aside), I can't help but to think that McCalmont's points are rather undeveloped. If he's trying to argue for a more "critical distance" approach, his article falls well short of addressing that point. If he's arguing that all mentions of a "product" (itself a rather telling view of the entire affair) that don't open up the hood and examine the engine are mere "advertisements," then I would have to conclude that he is being rather overly broad with that issue and he would need to finetune it more. Because frankly, the best his article manages to achieve is what a great many bloggers (not excluding myself here) seek to do - draw attention to something written in order to "advertise" that they have something worth examining at length further down the road.


Jonathan M said...

Hi Larry :-)

I agree that I could probably fine-tune my thinking on this issue. As with most moral questions, I'm feeling my way here and tend to think that devoting time and cognitive function to these matters are half the battle. One of the reasons why I didn't fine tune it all that much is because there's little point in me drawing a line in the sand and expecting everyone to respect it. There are exceptions to every rule and everyone's conscience kicks out a little bit differently.

A couple of points of clarification though while I am here...

Firstly, I don't buy into "objectivity" at all. I don't think it's possible to be objective in criticism and I don't think that it's a goal worth pursuing. What I'm more concerned about is with the authenticity of recommendations and opinion.

If I put pictures of all of the books I receive then I am, in effect, giving advertising eyeballs in return for free stuff. People come to my site expecting a recommendation or an opinion and they find an unspoken quid pro quo between me and publishers. That makes me slightly uneasy and I think it's a practice that requires some thought... hence the post.

Secondly, I do think there's a hard line between editorial and PR. If you something that you would not ordinarily say because of a relationship with publishers or authors that have nothing to do with the text then you're stepping across the line in my opinion.

This can take the form of cutting and pasting press releases or free promotional give-aways or it can be getting on well with an author and so allowing your views on their work to be coloured by that relationship.

To my mind, this is a constant struggle that every critic faces. There are some pressures on the opinion-formation process that are simply... not cool for want of a better term.

Gabriele C. said...

I don't get the problem. All the SF review blogs I read have pictures of book covers. You bundle them in book porn posts, others attach them to the reviews, and/or have Books I'm Reading on the sidebar, with cover pics. The internet is a visual media, after all, and just plain text won't attract as many readers as blogs and websites with pictures and graphics.

Larry said...


I prefer putting pictures in when mentioning books because there are quite a few visually-oriented people and I've found it really helps in drawing attention to what I'm saying on occasion. As for the reasons why people come to my site, I suspect they come for a variety of reasons, including news on new releases in addition to my commentaries on a wide variety of subjects, so I guess in the end I just don't share the unease you feel, largely because any "advertising" is of such a minuscule effect (only a few hundred page views a day on average) that I highly doubt most, if any, are going to come away thinking much about the matter. Not that I wouldn't mind persuading a few to try authors that I really enjoy (many of which are quite obscure, naturally).

As for my relationships with authors and publicists, it is more of a post facto matter. I've never come to "know" an author until after I've reviewed their works and/or interviewed them at length. If anything, I'm likely to use email correspondence to be even more direct in my critiques once I've come to make the acquaintance of a few, so I'm not really worried about going "too easy" on them. All one has to do is ask Scott Bakker about my comments about his third novel three years ago...

Add to Technorati Favorites