Miami Book Fair

Book reviews and reader comments in the Internet Age: a free-for-all?

Not long ago, book critics held voice-of-God sway over the publishing industry, offering pronouncements about the value of an author’s work from high atop a literary mountain. Then the Internet stripped away much of that framework. Bloggers, never-published authors and readers could now become industry players online in ways they never could before.

But like so many digital changes that happen at the speed of light, there’s a price. The accessibility of such platforms as Amazon for reader reviews, digital self-publishing for instant author status and consumer-driven sites such as Goodreads opened up “a total free-for-all” in online criticism and reviews, said Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.

On Saturday, a Miami Book Fair International panel called “Critics in the Cloud: The State of Literary Criticism in the Internet Age” will tackle some of those issues, although Miller had to cancel her appearance.

The consequences of the new order can be unexpected and damaging. Last month, for example, in a widely publicized incident, young adult novelist Kathleen Hale wrote a startling essay in London’s The Guardian detailing how she tracked down and tried to confront a book blogger she called her No. 1 critic for giving her book a one-star review.

The heated debate in publishing circles that resulted from Hale’s decision — was she bravely confronting a troll or indulging in scary stalking? — is the latest round of growing pains in an industry trying to find its footing and its audience. The online furor drew attention to a mostly off-the-radar battle in the digital world that has sometimes pitted authors and readers or reviewers against each other, said Miller, who wrote about the Hale saga.

“Publishers create a buffer between the author and the publishing process,” she said in an interview last week. “When you pull down all the barriers and you allow direct contact, a lot of times it’s a bloodbath.”

As the publishing industry has cracked open, she said, the medium isn’t the biggest issue. It’s the lack of what she calls the “apparatus of professionalism” — a support staff, an editor, ethical guidelines — that used to help guide interactions between writers, critics and readers, she said.

Now, online reviewers or bloggers or consumers band together in swarms to attack an author or reviewer, she said, likening the mentality to “a gang war.”

She doesn’t point the finger at one group. “Reviewers can be just as crazy as authors.”

But the traditional media have not fully ceded the online book journalism territory to others. The move to digital has cut both ways, notes Ron Hogan, a book reviewer and creator of the literary website, Beatrice.com.

“What are the big online sources for book review information these days? A lot of them are the usual suspects,” he said, such as The New York Times Book Review. “I’ve been at this long enough to remember when the Web was first starting to take off. Everyone was talking about how this was going to open things right up. What we found out instead is that corporate media has an incredible capacity to assimilate challenges to it.”

While the Internet has upended traditional media outlets to a certain extent, he added, “it’s also made it easier for them to reach out to larger audiences.” Readers outside New York once had to find a newsstand that carried out-of-town newspapers to find a copy of the Times’ book review section. Today, that content is available online, from anywhere.

Many in the publishing industry today draw a distinction between criticism and reviews. Critics, they say, are knowledgeable about the author’s body of work, not just the most recent book, and try to determine what the author is trying to say.

On the other end of that equation are reviewers with little insight to offer, such as the person who writes: “This book has a cat and I’m more of a dog person,” said Jenn Risko, publisher of Shelf Awareness. “There’s just so much noise.”

That means the burden shifts to consumers to figure out who to trust, who has sufficient literary “street cred” to make recommendations, Risko added. She described an author friend who has had to cope with criticism from people who hadn’t actually read her book.

“C’mon, there’ve got to be some standards here. ... There are people that review professionally that get vetted by their publications, and there’s some really good reasons for that,” she said. “Whatever it takes to get people reading and talking about books is a good thing. It’s just that the people who consume the comments have to know where it comes from.”

But those sorts of standards are double-edged and, in some ways, create exactly what the Web was supposed to obliterate: gatekeepers.

“The dark side of how the Internet gives everybody a voice is that the Internet gives everybody a voice. I have always been a very vocal opponent to the idea that bloggers are somehow inherently less qualified than people who write for newspapers or magazines,” said Hogan.

But, he said, when “critics talk about these amateur bloggers sniping away at their betters or at real writers or critics, you know exactly what bloggers they’re talking about. ... It’s very easy to say something is stupid. It takes a lot more work to try to figure out why someone is coming from a position and figure out why that doesn’t work for you.”

Where does all of this leave the reader? Bob Minzesheimer, former book critic at USA Today and now a freelancer, can see both sides.

“Newspapers have cut back on traditional print coverage, but if you go online, you can find more about books than ever before. So is that good or bad? I think it’s very mixed. ... When there’s such a chorus of voices and when you’re looking for a book recommendation, you want to know something about the person who is recommending it. There’s a difference between a recommendation on Amazon — or your local bookstore or friend.”

At the moment, he said, the most strident voices seem to be winning, even though they don’t usually represent the whole: “It’s almost the equivalent of our national politics — the extremes get rewarded. You hate or love something.”

And he makes a plea for the well-informed, researched review that is educational, not just opinionated.

“A good review can inform readers about the book. You don’t get that kind of useful information, especially in nonfiction ... in quick reader reviews on Amazon or even, often, in Goodreads.”

In a business that’s sorting itself out, elements such as the all-powerful, elite literary critic were ripe for change, said Hogan.

“At its worst moments, mainstream literary criticism often seems to express this attitude that ‘This is the way things are. This is the way literature operates.’ It expresses a very fixed idea of what is good or bad. My perspective has always been, ‘This is where I’m coming from.’ I don’t claim to speak for the ages or have the final verdict on literary culture. I can tell you what works for me.”

“Critics in the Cloud” is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Room 8503 of Building 8, Miami Dade College.

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