Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Evolution of a Book Blogger

wave of nostalgia

This week, book bloggers all over the interwebs are participating in #BloggerBlackout to protest not just the actions of Kathleen Hale, but the tacit approval of her trip to crazy town by her publisher and The Guardian after she published her "article," Am I Being Catfished? (the answer to this question, which people have been treating as rhetorical for some reason, is: NO. YOU'RE NOT BEING CATFISHED. Catfishing is where people pretend to be someone/thing they're not in an **online relationship**. The book blogger you stalked was pursuing neither a personal nor a professional relationship with you. She was simply reading your book and offering an opinion about it online to people in general, not even you in particular).

I'm not necessarily participating in #BloggerBlackout (cuz... what exactly am I going to black out around here), but I decided to brave the perils of carpal tunnel syndrome and write about a topic that's been on my mind lately, namely how I got to this place where I spend a major portion of my life blogging about books and other things. I've been thinking about it not just because of Hale, but because in order to know where you're going you need to know where you've been. And it feels as if both this blog and book blogging in general is at a turning point right now. How we move forward will dictate how our community forms in the future.

So, if you can forgive a bit of navel gazing, here's the story of a book blogger (me).

understanding star ratings by xkcd

It all started with reviews, which I began writing in high school. They were ungrammatical and only a few hundred words each, but I was personally quite proud of them. I was obsessed with my Amazon reviewer ranking and would check it on a daily basis (this is where my antipathy for Harriet Klausner started—her reviews were all four or five stars, and sometimes it was obvious she hadn't even read the book. Yet she's Amazon's number one book reviewer?? Enraging).

Anyway, my Amazon review phase didn't last very long. For some reason I lost interest in late 2002. My posted reviews gradually become fewer and far between, until my last Amazon review for a book I read for my thesis.

After 2002, years passed without much online activity on my end. I'd answer e-mail and check my Amazon book recommendations once a day, and that was about it. Then, in 2006, my friend convinced me to join the pretty-much-obsolete site She told me I would love it, and I did. At Xanga I mainly blogged about personal stuff, but also talked about books and movies off and on. I was frustrated by some aspects of Xanga: I really wanted to blog more about art and books, but the interest in those subjects was sparse. However, I did make several very good friends there, some of whom are still blogging today, like Colette from A Buckeye Girl Reads, Anaraug from Adventures in Thing Making, and Ruth from Booktalk and More.

My other major activity online during this time was checking and authors' websites for information about new releases. Yes, it's strange but true: I used to be obsessed with new releases and cover reveals. I even had an elaborate calendar that I kept updated of what books were coming out when, and I'd usually read a book within a week of its release date. I say this was strange not because I consider it odd behavior, but because now I couldn't care less and read maybe one or two new releases a year. It could happen to you!

Anyway, it was through an author's website (I forget whose, but I think it was Anne Stuart's) that I came across the now-defunct Romance Novel TV in early 2008. I loved it. Romance! And TV! The site combined two of my favoritest things. After devouring all the videos, I went to the message boards, where I found something I didn't even realize existed: a community of people who loved discussing, making fun of, and rhapsodizing over romance novels as much as I did. Many of the people I met on the message boards at Romance Novel TV later started their own romance blogs, including Katiebabs from Babbling About Books and More, Kati D (who now writes for Dear Author), Kristie J from Ramblings on Romance, Etc., and Orannia from Walkabout.

One of the stars of Romance Novel TV, Sarah, had her own blog before anyone else. It was a small review site you might still be familiar with called Smart Bitches Trashy Books. SBTB is not a site I frequent a lot anymore, but when I first came across it, it seemed like the most amazing thing since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

See, before the internet, the only critical discourse you could find about romance novels was published in more or less industry controlled magazines. Basically, the reviews were just four or five star pablum—much like Harriet Klausner's—that were NOT TO BE TRUSTED. I mean, there's differences in taste and then there's, "Were you high when you read this novel? Because there's NO WAY someone with an IQ above 90 and a middle school diploma would think this was a good book." My point being, Sarah and Candy at SBTB told it like it was. If something was crap, they mocked the shit out of it. If something was amazing, they cheered for it. And if something was problematic, they discussed it. This was NOT available before the internet, at least not to me.

In the meantime, Ruth on Xanga was linking to these new things called "book blogs," such as Bookish Ruth, and I personally was itching for a place where I could indulge my desire to write about books more in-depth (and get more readers who would care about such a thing) than I could on Xanga. So in late 2008 I bit the bullet, signed up for a blogger account, and started a book blog called Heidenkind's Hideaway, which eventually I retitled Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books. My first post was a five star review of My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne. My second post was about my favorite scary books (in November—timely as always), and I was off and running. Soon I was participating in Twitter hashtag discussions like #RRTheater and blogging events like the 24 Hour Readathon and Bloggiesta.

I take you through this narrative to demonstrate two things: one, book blogging *is* a community. We didn't just pop up out of nowhere. We have a long history with each other, with books, and with critical discourse. At the same time, the community is diverse. We pull from different sources but come together, not just in our love books (because plenty of people who love books don't become book bloggers), but in our desire to talk about them.

Secondly, I wanted to show how my history with book blogging informs my reviews. I grew up out of the romance blogging community, which  in the early years was antagonistic toward the traditional romance review outlets. People may say reviews are for readers and whatnot, but for a long time that wasn't strictly true. I'm guessing more industry professionals than readers subscribed to Romantic Times, so is it any wonder their reviews were more of a feel-good gesture than an accurate representation of what the books were about and how people engaged with them? Sure, your book is a bestseller, but you remain blissfully unaware it's because people think it's a hilarious pile of shit until Goodreads or Twitter status updates come along and rip your illusions to shreds (and not coincidentally, it was actually Harris' GR status updates that set off Hale off, not any review. She didn't write a review of Hale's book, unless you consider a two-word "fuck this" a review... which I guess it is). Reviews are one thing, but the way people engage with your product on a critical or emotional level isn't "for" anyone, whether they be readers or writers.

And that's what book blogging was in the early days. Think of #RRTheater again (which eventually became #romfail), where Jane from Dear Author would download the Friday freebie from Ravenous Romance and then live tweet it. That was critical engagement! And it was freaking hilarious! Reviews on SBTB were fun!

That's why I started writing reviews and why this blog is *still* mainly reviews, despite the fact that popular wisdom says reviews don't get a lot of clicks. My blog isn't about clicks, or getting free books (although that's always nice), or even writing reviews "for readers," for that matter. It's about engaging with books, having fun, and sharing that with other readers. When I stop having fun, when it stops being about something, I'll stop blogging. Until then, I'm not going to let the fuckers bring me down. No one should.

Discus this post with me on Twitter, FaceBook, Google+ or in the comments below.


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