I had an interesting lecture in “Mass Communication and Society” this afternoon that got me thinking about book blogging in a new way. Here’s an abbreviated, and probably over-simplified, version of the lecture I heard today. Back in the day, early 1800s, newspapers in the US cost six cents to buy. Given that a good salary during that time was about $1 per day, asking for six cents was a lot. Newspapers were produced in coffee houses by elite sorts of people, and provided a public forum for debate and discussion on the issues of the day. The scholar we talked about, Habermas, argued that newspapers provided an intellectual space to create the public opinion of the day.
Then, in 1833 The New York Sun became the first member of “the penny press” — newspapers that sold for only a penny. Technology like the steam press and the telegraph allowed newspapers to be more easily produced, and allowed them to put more kinds of news. Penny press papers were sold out on the streets, Newsies style, and appealed to a pretty wide audience. News then shifted from the sort of intellectual articles people were reading in expensive papers to “info-tainment” kinds of news. Essentially, newspapers became commercial.
For people like Habermas, this new idea about newspapers creates a paradox. After 1833 newspapers became more democratic, but the quality of the newspapers went down. Newspapers were no longer a forum for the kind of intellectual reasoning Habermas thought was so important in the earlier newspapers. More people were reading newspapers, but the product they were consuming was of a lower quality than newspapers of yore.
So, my connection to book blogging. For a long time, the only way to read book reviews was through professional reviewing in book sections of newspapers and other such sources. But, with the advent of the internet and book blogging, the whole idea of book reviews has become much more democratic. Book blogs are like the penny press of the book review community — more democratic and more accessible, but perhaps of a lower or different quality? I’m not sure, but the reason I made the connection was a brief return to the Huffington Post article by Lissa Warren back at the end of July.
I’m not trying to say that I think book bloggers are less valid then other book reviewers, and I don’t think Habermas would either if he had an opinion on the topic. The analogy isn’t really a value judgment, simply point out differences. Book blogging, like the penny press, is more democratic. Anyone can make a book blog and form opinions, and anyone can read book blogs and find opinions they like and agree with. This is awesome, and I wouldn’t get rid of it at all. But at the same time, it’s a change from what used to happen. What is the place of the professional critic, do we even need them? I would say yes — professional critics can put books in perspective, place it within a context of literary culture, something I can confidently say I’m not able to do. I value that interpretation, while also appreciating the reviews and opinions of the bloggers I read that I think are more “like me” than any professional reviewer.
I hope this doesn’t sound snobby or overly-academic, because I don’t think the point is to be that way. Like I said, the paradox of being more democratic but being of a different quality isn’t a value judgment, and it doesn’t imply that one is necessarily better than the other. I think all it points out, and what struck me today, is that this is a different way for me to think about the conflict between the idea of book blogging and a professional critic.
What do you guys think? Am I way off base? How does this work as an analogy? How do you see the relationship between book bloggers and professional critics?