Last week, I attended the Book Expo of America’s Bloggers Conference in New York. It was wonderful to connect with so many other people with similar interests. I felt a little out of place at times, though. I used to keep a book blog when I was the assistant manager at a library. However, I seemed to be the only person at the conference also approaching blogs from a theoretical point of view. Everyone that I met works in the book industry.
I went to the conference because I’m interested in the impact of book bloggers on the literary canon. Many lament the rise of book blogs because they are less formal and anyone can write a review. However, this is exactly why people read book blogs. They make you feel like you’re having a conversation with other readers. In addition, literary gatekeepers have narrow ideas of what reading should entail, often ignoring genres such as romance and science-fiction. Book bloggers don’t have much incentive to follow these rules, though
So are book bloggers helping to change our ideas about the literary canon? Before we can attempt to answer this question, we first have to ask: how are book blogs similar to/different from literary gatekeepers? I don’t believe that they have completely abandoned traditional ideas of cultural capital. This was clear in many of the panels that I attended. One really stuck out to me, though. Will Schwalbe, a former editor at Hyperion, gave the opening speech. He talked about how book blogs have “liberated” readers from the “artificial tyranny” of front lists. In other words, many bloggers work outside of the book industry. As a result, they have the freedom to focus on “back lists” or potential classics instead of bestsellers.
Instead, I believe that book bloggers just take a different path than gatekeepers. Rebecca Schinsky, one of the editors at Book Riot, stated: “If i write something that’s really intimate, readers respect it. It builds trust.” In other words, readers of her blog care more about making a personal connection--with the title, each other, etc.
Furthermore, the personal is a great way to build community, one of the major themes at the BEA Bloggers Conference. For example, Schwalbe gave six tips on how to get started with reviewing books online. He warned book bloggers to stop policing each other, stating that “snarkiness” might garner more page views but does little to build community.
The idea of community also extends offline. Another panel that I attended looked at how book bloggers can collaborate with others. Jenn of Jenn’s Bookshelves explained that she donates many of the galleys that she receives to area schools and women’s shelters. She also works with an indie bookstore to promote titles and author signings.
However, there have always been alternative literary communities. Book clubs are one example. Like blogs, they are often criticized for being too personal. This was emphasized by Elizabeth Long in her study Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. It looks at several reading groups in Texas and how members used their personal lives as lenses for examining titles. Long also describes how this method of reading has traditionally been looked down upon by society as less rigorous.
So what does all of this mean for the future of the literary canon? Are book blogs really as liberating as Schwalbe wants us to believe? I don't know if I have any more answers than before I attended the conference. I'd like to hear your thoughts, though.