The Irrelevance of Book Blogs and the Significance of Jessa Crispin: An Essay

A provocative title, even a misleading one, but it got your interest. So:

A commonplace causal connection made by many bloggers has been the decline (and, of course, predicted demise) of mainstream print media because of the rise of blogs. Specifically, book blogs exist (and are booming) and their coming supremacy come at the expense of the dying Sunday book pages in newspapers.

This has been an abiding assumption -- if not an excited anticipation -- behind many arguments about diminished print coverage of books. We bloggers are the outsider-independents and underdog-alternatives who, at last, have begun to overturn the hegemony of the Mainstream Media Book Reviewers.

I've provisionally responded to this argument with the rock-solid declaration, um, maybe, gee, I don't think so, or at least perhaps not yet. But since then, I've decided that "Blogs Triumph Over Print Reviews" is a basic misreading of what has been happening.

To be clear: The decline of book pages has not been caused by the rise of book blogs. Not one bit. On the other hand, a case can certainly be made for the reverse. That is, the cutbacks (or more accurately, the long-term failures and middle-brow limitations) in newsprint books coverage have certainly helped inspire some book bloggers. As Jessa Crispin of Bookslut said during the panel on literary criticism that book/daddy moderated at the Texas Book Fesival in Austin over the weekend, the major review outlets keep reviewing all of the same authors, and few of the kinds of books and authors she likes were getting attention, so she started writing about them on her website.

But again, the claim that, subsequently, because hordes of people like Ms. Crispin or Mark Savras or even -- blush -- book/daddy went to their computers and blogged away, the Sunday book pages and magazine book reviews have all started to gasp for air, such a claim is groundless.

What first bothered me about this claim is that it's more or less derived from a leftist critique of conservative corporate-media hegemony. Mainstream book reviewers chase after those authors whom publishers deem important, while publishers push those authors who find reviewers' favor, and everyone is rewarded (prestige, sales, promotions) in a kind of closed-circuit, corporate-cultural circle jerk.

Yet the same claim is being made, more or less, by right-wing politcal blogs about liberal media hegemony.

For conservative-libertarian bloggers, mainstream news outlets are doomed because the bloggers have seized the New Media, the future of technology, and the zeitgeist, the popular will, will no longer be stifled by the oppressive media elitists who have promoted their own kind and their own socialist agendas, etc.

Let a hundred thousand blogs bloom -- and let the gatekeepers be sent to re-education camps.

It should be plain that there's something seriously unexamined when both the left and the right see themselves as the vanguard of a populist/technological rebellion against mainstream media. It's always a reassuring argument when you're on the side of the people, the future, technological change, freedom, artistic expression -- until you find your political opponents on the same side of the barricades. Hey, who let those bastards over here?

When it comes to the current financial troubles of mainstream print meda, all of this really isn't pertinent. Neither book blogs nor right-wing political websites have been striking significant blows against the empire. book/daddy figured all this out while driving down to Austin -- by performing the following mental experiment.

Imagine if the internet existed just as it does today -- with Google and YouTube and e-mail and RSS feeds and MySpace and your cousin's plumbing supply website. But for some reason, there are no book blogs at all. Never got invented. For that matter, let's also do away with political blogs or partisan websites of any kind.

So: no book blogs, no partisan shouting. Otherwise, it's the same internet. Yet in this hypothetical world, the Sunday book pages and magazine book reviews and the mainstream print media in general would be suffering the exact same troubles they are today.

That's because the plight of Sunday book pages has not come from a widespread desire among web users for more literary opinion, different literary opinions, more diverse literary opinions or right-wing political opinions. (I'm not saying there aren't such desires, only that they've had little direct negative effect on newpaper pages and especially Sunday book pages.)

The plight of book pages has come from the loss of overall newspaper ad revenue, plain and simple. And most of that lost revenue has been in classified ads (particularly employment ads).

For the most part, department store ads, car lot ads, foodstore ads -- these have not left newspapers in huge numbers because no one on the internet has effectively devised a way to get a 10 percent off coupon good for this weekend only into the hands of the majority of households in the immediate shopping area. So if every book blog and political blog went away tomorrow while Craigslist and eBay and remained, newspapers would still be struggling with their lower profit margins. And therefore, they'd still be cutting their cultural coverage, along with other high-esteem, high-cost endeavors such as maintaining foreign bureaus and pursuing investigative reporting.

It is, of course, true that because hordes of young people are off driving cars while text-messaging and squinting at widescreen movies on their cell phones, advertisers have been dumping print media in favor anything bright and shiny on the web. And insofar as book blogs and their ilk have drawn the young'uns away to 'alternative' media, causing ad revenue to follow, one can make the case that book blogs have hurt book pages. But the fact is most of that ad revenue has always chased the young and reckless -- meaning, it never went to book pages. The loss of that ad revenue has indeed affected book pages, but only as it's part of the general loss of ad revenue that has hurt book pages.

In fact, the publishing industry could pull absolutely all of its ads back from websites and return them to newspapers and journals, and those print outlets would still be hurting. Publishing industry advertising is a pindrop compared to, say, movie ads. Or used car lot ads. It just doesn't matter that much -- financially, anyway, to the recipient media.

It doesn't matter, that is, except for one development. Jessa Crispin. And what she represents.

For the past two years or so, Ms. Crispin has been making a living with Bookslut, her combo blog and webzine. This fact is usually mentioned in passing in interviews with her or in articles about the site, but its real significance is never fully grasped except in a kind of envious, "hey, good luck to you" manner. It seems like a nice development for her, pretty small potatoes for the moment, but probably inevitable.

Well, no, it's not inevitable. Remember: Publishing industry advertising is a pindrop. But while it hasn't supported Sunday book pages worth a damn, perhaps it can support a number of book bloggers.

To put this achievement in perspective, consider Douglas Wolk's marvelous new book, Reading Comics. In his first chapter, Mr. Wolk makes the case that we are currently living through a new Golden Age of comic books. With the explosion of brilliantly inventive work such as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Epileptic by Davd B., we are seeing comic books being extended, re-invented, explored in ways far beyond anything since the vaunted, original Golden Age of superhero comics in the '30s and '40s.

What's more, one development has made Mr. Wolk optimistic that all of this artistic energy and invention won't turn out to be just a pretty bubble, a hipster trend with no lasting impact. No one has ever really gotten rich drawing independent comics. They've often had to make a living by making some accomodation with the Big Commercial Caped Superhero Guys, Marvel or DC. Yet today, Mr. Wolk notes happily, several of the best graphic novelists around are making careers out of it. It's touch and go, but they're doing it.

This is good -- indeed, this is vital for the future of the form -- because it means such artists can continue to do their work full-time. And just as importantly, it means other artists will be drawn to it. People can make a living at it.

So we return to Ms. Crispin: By combining a blog with a literary journal (interviews, feature profiles, etc.) and, admittedly, by getting friends and contacts to write for her website without pay, she is succeeding at what 99.999 percent of litbloggers have not: She's found a way to make a living from writing about books on the web.

And to put this in an even larger context, just so we can fully grasp its significance: It has been fairly rare in the history of American literature that anyone has made a living writing about books in any medium, in print, online, on air, whatever. Not to put too fine a point on it: I certainly am not. It's been said of Edgar Allan Poe that he was the first American to try to make a living as an editor-critic-poet, as a literary intellectual, in short -- and he was the first American to go broke and die from the effort.

This isn't to say that book/daddy doesn't often disagree with Ms. Crispin's opinions. Indeed, my point is this: If Ms. Crispin continues to make a go at this game -- despite her miserably cold Chicago apartment -- her achievement may well be more important than anything she actually says about books.

ELABORATE CLARIFICATION: C. Max Magee of The Millions book blog correctly noted that there are other book bloggers making a go of it. And some, ahem, actually pay their contributors. Perfectly true, and my essay does mention that perhaps the shift in book publicity money could support "a number of bloggers."

But yes, the overall implication of my essay is that Ms. Crispin is sui generis. My apologies. I didn't want to get into definitional differences about who was first and whatnot. The fact that Ms. Crispin, for instance, has a literary journal attached to her blog could, in a sense, "disqualify" her as a book blogger who's making a career of it. On the other hand, she told me she's not writing for print anymore (reviewing books for newspapers or magazines). So in that sense, she's more "purely online" than people who blog but actually make their income freelancing.

None of which, as Mr. Magee also notes, doesn't detract from the point that finally earning a living wage from literary blogging may be a significant direction for the future of books coverage. Mr. Magee also points out that one function that blogs have performed already -- as an influence on careers in criticism -- is prepping bloggers, if need be, for writing print reviews. The "out-of-town tryout," as it were. Quite a few, like Maud Newton have already been hired to write for major print outlets.

Not only that, there's also Dzanc Books, a tiny (but expanding) press that started life as a book blog. By now, I'm getting off-topic here, but all of this does reveal a much more complex, shifting, symbiotic relationship between print and online than the "winner takes all-death to print" techno revolution model that has dominated so much of the discussion.

(Image from: Litchfield MN Public Library)

November 8, 2007 7:23 PM |



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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on November 8, 2007 7:23 PM.

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