Last month, while I stayed home, my novel went on a “virtual tour” of book blogs. The person who set this up encouraged me to visit the tour stops and contribute to each comments thread, to thank the bloggers and answer potential readers’ questions. I found this a little embarrassing, as if I were eavesdropping on conversations about me (which I was) or obsessed with people’s opinions about the book. I’ve heard some writers swear that they never read their reviews, good or bad, and while I’m not sure I believe them, I can understand why this might be wise.
The tour started with a book blogger who didn’t want to read “another depressing book about suicide,” and resented having to read about a woman in a relationship with another woman. She doesn’t like reading fiction in which the characters make “objectionable lifestyle choices,” a point she made more than once, carrying it into her comments thread. “The lesbian thing was the icing on the cake!” (Um—that sounds kind of good).
While I knew that I should just brush it off—clearly this wasn’t the right reader for my book—her review irritated me. She is entitled to her opinion, and her politics too, I guess. Still, her criticisms struck me as odd, coming from someone who apparently wants to review fiction, if not for a living then at least for free ARC’s and a public platform. When I write book reviews, I’m sometimes assigned novels that aren’t exactly my thing, books I wouldn’t necessarily choose to read in my free time, but I try to approach them on their own terms, not to contrast them with books closer to my taste.
I was tempted to remind her that fiction represents the spectrum of human experience, and that homosexuality and suicide both occur fairly frequently within that spectrum. But I figured she didn’t want to hear it from me. Besides, I didn’t want to be accused of recruiting. I chose not to post a comment on that particular blog post.
But aside from that first stop on the tour, the book bloggers who took the time to read and write posts on my novel were generous and insightful, measured in their varied opinions, which interested me greatly. Before the advent of book blogs, I don’t think that writers had the chance to see how readers (not just professional book critics) were responding to their choices on the page. Aside from that lingering feeling of voyeurism, it was cool to follow the comments threads, to see how something that one person mentioned especially liking could spur another reader to want to pick up a copy, or how the same thing could make a different reader decide this probably wasn’t the book for her.
The book bloggers and their followers were clearly passionate and close readers, and they made me doubt all of the fear-mongerers who have been dourly predicting the death of the novel, and the collapse of the print media as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s an easy market for fiction writers—especially literary fiction writers. The print media is struggling, and book reviews in particular are dwindling or getting cut with disappointing frequency. I hadn’t realized how little print space there is for book reviews, compared to the number of books being published, until I paid a recent visit to the basement of the San Francisco Chronicle, a labyrinthine space devoted to the storage of galleys, most of them gathering dust before getting boxed up and donated to the library. There is precious little space left in print journalism for book reviews, most of which go to authors with established reputations and readership, making it hard for beginning writers to get attention paid to their books, so that they can find their readers.
But book bloggers are definitely working hard to compensate, and they’re doing a great job, not just filling a niche but creating something new and dynamic on their interactive sites. One of the things that I love about some of the book blogs that I only recently discovered, like Sasha and The Silverfish (http://silverfysh.wordpress.com), and The Constance Reader's Guide to Throwing Books With Great Force (www.constance-reader.com) is that there’s no market-driven pressure behind what they can choose to review, no need to satisfy advertisers or a particular demographic. They can blog about adult and young adult books, literary and genre fiction, just-published novels and classics. They also have space to do interviews or run pieces by guest bloggers. With readers able to leave comments (and authors encouraged to chime in on the comment threads) it fosters a real literary community, and gives me hope that the novel will survive and even thrive, in spite of (or maybe even because of) the changes in publishing.