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Book Blogging and the Penny Press

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?

Photo by flickr users wili_hybrid (newspapers) and Wyetha (typing).

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • theexile September 16, 2008, 10:56 pm

    I think your analogy is right on target: book blogging is more democratic in the sense that anyone may set up a blog and write about books if that person so chooses, and then there are comments and links, which allow the conversation about books to carry on like a free-for-all discussion at a cafe table. At the same time the quality of what’s written can vary. Professional critics generally are well read, well educated writers and scholars who have an extensive knowledge of the subject they’re writing about. However, I think blogging and professional criticism can be complimentary, working in hand to deepen the conversation about books and writing. There was a panel on this at last year’s Texas Book Festival in Austin, moderated by Jerome Weeks, former book critic for the Dallas Morning News; I wrote a freelance piece on the festival and specifically that panel.

    In general, I think the analogy works for journalism in general. Again, anyone can start a blog and report on current events, but journalists are generally well trained and well educated, or have learned on the job how to report and write. Of course the question of quality comes up in journalism — are, say, reporters for the New York Times better than the beat writers? Sometimes it’s a matter of taste and interest.


  • Kim September 17, 2008, 1:17 pm

    Todd: Good, I’m glad the analogy is working for someone! You’re right, blogging and professional criticism aren’t really in conflict, more two different ways to look at the same subject. I’d be interested to read the panel article you wrote — is it online anywhere?

  • theexile September 17, 2008, 3:02 pm

    I have it posted on my professional site http://toddglasscock.wordpress.com under published works.

  • Kim L September 19, 2008, 3:31 am

    A valid analogy, and I think the reason why that article got some heated responses (myself included) is because the author kept wanting book bloggers to write at the same level as a professional book critic, when the whole point is that book bloggers aren’t professional book critics, nor do they want to be. The purpose is different, and it isn’t good or bad, it simply is. The world has become more flat, where an average person can participate in an amazingly large online community, unlimited by actual physical location. Not everyone can understand or accept the new democratic society.

  • Kim September 21, 2008, 12:32 am

    Kim L: I like that phrase – “The purpose is different, and it isn’t good or bad, it simply is” — because that sums up the differences perfectly!

  • alirambles September 21, 2008, 4:36 pm

    Great post. Like you, I read and appreciate both professional reviews and blog reviews. Wouldn’t want one without the other.

    I didn’t interpret Warren’s article quite the same way Kim L. did–I thought she was saying that book bloggers can’t replace professional book reviewers, not that they ought to be like them (though her remark about our use of the first person was a little snide). In fact, if we were more like professional reviewers the danger of us replacing them would be greater.

  • Kim September 21, 2008, 6:41 pm

    alirambles: Good point too — it will be interesting to see how the relationship between professionals and book bloggers goes, whether or not they work well together or not. One thing I didn’t really think about much yet are the industry blogs — sort of a mixing of the two kinds of book critiquing?