The OF Blog: Maturation and reviewing

Monday, May 20, 2013

Maturation and reviewing

For the past two and a half months, I have busy with two jobs that take up 13 hours of my waking days/nights during the weekdays.  I have not written as much here or at Gogol's Overcoat as I would have liked due to prioritizing sleep (and to a lesser extent, some reading) over writing reviews and commentaries.  Now while this will change for a couple of months this summer to some extent (only working/driving 10 hours/day compared to 13), it does take a toll on me now that I'm approaching 40 (weird to think that is less than 14 months away now).

Lots of thoughts lately on what I've been reading that I haven't yet put to e-print.  Memories of past selves, dreaming and envisioning things that have not yet come to fruition or have shifted with age and experience.  Not as many speculative fictions read lately, not because I've suddenly become inveterately opposed to them, but more because what I am seeking involving more a turning inward, for a time at least, and that seems to be more the province of poetry and realist literature, although certainly there are some "weird" fictions that explore things that jibe with my current desires.

So with these thoughts in mind, it was interesting to discover this weekend this post written about two weeks ago by Tobias Buckell in response to a book blogger's (n.b.  I reject this term in describing what I do) lament about his change in reviewing focus.  Buckell raises some interesting points about the "maturation" of online reviewers/book bloggers, particularly in regards to his first point:

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.

There is certainly a lot of truth to this.  Over the course of 21 years (since my high school graduation in May 1992), I have probably read a little over 10,000 different books.  Histories, cultural studies, monographs, poetry, religious tracts, novels, short fiction – in aggregate, reading and, even more importantly, commenting on these disparate works has helped me mature not just as a reader but also as a person.  But I do not fully agree with Buckell's comment that "what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you're reading) is just a variation to you."  This statement implies a static relationship on the part of the text in contrast to a dynamic paradigm shift for the reader.  This does happen often, yes, but not necessarily always.  At times, texts can seem to shift themselves due specifically to the reader's own maturation.

For example, I just finished re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night for the first time in at least 15 years.  I recall thinking back in 1997-1998 that it was superior to The Great Gatsby and that it had to do with how the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver were drawn, but re-reading this weekend (and also having just watched the 1961 cinema adaptation of it) made me appreciate it even more.  Due to 15 years' greater experience with reading and reviewing fiction, I feel as though I have a greater understanding of how Fitzgerald came to spend so much time working on this novel; it has a raw, visceral quality to it that The Great Gatsby mostly lacks.  It is not a work that has "aged poorly" for me, but instead one that speaks at least as well to the 38 year-old me as it did to the 23-24 year-old version.

What Buckell focuses mostly on in his article is SF/F fiction.  To be fair, that is what most "book bloggers" (or at least those of whom a SF/F author would likely be aware) cover.  Even this blog, back when it was intended to be an affiliate of the now-defunct wotmania site, began with a focus on SF/F, although even back then, there was a sense of a dichotomy between what I had grown up reading – poetry and realist fictions – and what I had largely "discovered" (outside of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) in my mid-20s.  So soon after wotmania went offline, I began to drift back toward my adolescent interests.  Yet re-reading old favorites revealed my tastes had shifted in the interim.  Gone was a "simple" reaction of a reader to the text.  Instead, likely influenced equally by the dozens of short reviews of historical monographs that I had to write in college and grad school and by the fictions, realist and speculative alike, that I had read since my late teens, I was a more "critical" reader, looking not just at the "checkbox" elements of lit courses but also at how things were integrated (or not) within a text.

At first, I consciously decided not to include these reflections within my reviews; after all, back during the first five years of this blog's existence, I was more interested in building an audience than I was in exploring what interested me the most.  But after a while, I grew weary of worrying about others' expectations and I decided over the past four years that I would try to review and promote more of the literature that interested me now.  So there have been more non-Anglophone literature reviewed (both realist and speculative alike).  A bit more on poetry (although I've yet to port over here my two columns on Eric Basso's writing that I wrote last year for Weird Fiction Review; I consider my piece on his poetry to be the best writing I did in 2012), although I would like to focus more on it in the near future than I have to date.  These things likely cost me much of my "audience," or at least the one I had from 2004-2009, but I think there have been those who have discovered this blog precisely because I started reviewing things that not many others were doing, or at least not all in one (or two) place.

Now let's look at Buckell's second point, which I think is more applicable to those who review only one form of literature than toward those who have shifted their reading/reviewing focus like I have done:

2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.

What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.

I think it’s probably a sign of a maturation of book blogging. I’m seeing a lot of book blogs that I used to have bookmarked went and folded up shop. I imagine that was as a result of hitting a certain threshold of either of the two points I relayed, and not seeing a way through. Book bloggers are doing it for the love, they’re not making mad money. They’re enthusiastic spreaders of the word.

So what happens when a lot of that joy fades? Do they continue on momentum? Look to monetize the blog? Focus only on the books that they love, and risk losing the audience and community they created (because they’re interested in artist’s artists, or decrying the lack of originality, while readers who enjoy the books being decried decamp)? Get bitter and throw some bombs, which will certainly create debate and energy, but can also create pushback and enough argumentation that they get tired of the fighting about stuff (unless they’re trollish in nature, in which case they feed off the acid and you’ll always have that)?

I’d be curious to see what long-term professional reviewers think about this stage. As an author you hit this stage, and you often see new writers hitting it. As they accumulate enough writing craft and books read, they pass through a great deal of 1 and 2. And it’s hard to talk someone down in the middle of that.

I've never been a reviewer whose reviews have been dominated by "passion."  If anything, that likely has created a barrier between myself and certain readers who do want a more "personal connection" with a reviewer.  But I think my long-standing devotion to "craft" has served me well, as there is something to be taken (I hope!) from my reviews other than just a simple "did he like it or not?"  Perhaps this is a "maturation" that took place before I ever created this Blogger account in August 2004.  Certainly it is a lasting influence of my academic days and it is, for myself at least, a positive influence that has led to opportunities, professional and personal alike, that I likely would not have had the chance to do if I hadn't been more devoted to my "craft."

Buckell's post can perhaps be summarized as being not just solely about the "maturation" of "book blogging," but also about the poles of "love" and "hate" that a writer can experience over the course of his/her career.  It feels like something that would be penned by someone transitioning into middle age and who has asked himself similar questions (which he does acknowledge in the course of his article).  I myself feel such a dilemma has grown ever more remote as I have aged.  What I do is explore and (re)discover things of personal interest.  These interests change in numerous ways, but there is more to discover than to worry about what doesn't appeal as much to me at the moment.  Perhaps that's a "maturation" of a different sort, of the sort referenced by Bob Dylan in his song "My Back Pages"?

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