OMG I Loved That Book!

In providing a space for literary discussion beyond the hallowed pages of old media, book blogs made it possible to chat with strangers who shared the same taste. Now those venerable publications have their own blogs and bloggers’ bylines are appearing in print.

There have been quite a few changes, one might say, since the advent of the Gutenberg printing press back in the 1440s and up until the days of online book blogging, tweeting and Tumblr-ing we live in today. The five and a half intervening centuries have been filled with inventions and innovations from the steam printing press and paper mill to photography, typewriters, computers, home printers, digital multimedia, the Internet, of course, and mobile devices all of which have affected and shaped what and how we read.

But some things never change: Human beings, so it seems, not only like telling and hearing stories, they also like to share and discuss them.

JIBF 2013 – Latest news and reviews from Jerusalem International Book Fair

The question of where and how we talk about books today will be the topic of Literary Criticism.com, a bloggers panel to be held February 12 as part of this year’s Jerusalem International Book Fair. The panel, which will be held in English and will take place at 6 P.M. in Dulzin Hall B in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, will feature two American literary blogger-writers, Rebecca Newton and Mark Sarvas; one British one, Naomi Alderman; and Israeli Boaz Cohen.

Haaretz spoke with some of the panel’s participants, to learn about their own evolving relationships with the Internet and blogging, to hear what they think about the differences between traditional and new-media venues for literary criticism, and to try to understand how we got to a point where book lovers today are having serious conversations about literature in 140 characters or less.

Once upon a time, not much more than a decade ago, anyone interested in learning about new books and authors would head for the classics: The New York Times Book Review and other books sections at major newspapers, or stand-alone journals like The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. For readers who wanted to weigh in and discuss books, the options were pretty much limited to book readings at the library or a bookstore, book fairs, or maybe, a local book club.

All that has changed. Rebecca Newton, one of the two American panelists, who will be visiting Israel for the first time to take part in the book fair, was at the forefront of that change. Born in Dallas, Texas, 42 years ago, Maud Newton, as she calls herself, was raised in Miami, Florida, in a fundamentalist Pentecostal household, and was, she says, “that nerdy kid who would walk about reading between classes.” She read her way through high school, and then through college (she studied English literature) and law school, both at the University of Florida.

She read her way through the few years she practiced law for a state taxing agency in North Florida, and then through her move to Brooklyn, where she got a job which she still holds today at a legal publishing house. These days, Newton is still reading her way through life, typically juggling several books at the same time, and sneaking in a few pages, or, if she is reading digitally, a few clicks, whenever she can at night before she goes to sleep, on weekends, and on the train back and forth to work.

She started “messing around,” as she calls it, with a blog in 2002, mainly as a way to connect to people who, like her, just liked to read books. “My friends didn’t feel like talking about books, or at least, not the same books I did. I felt there had to be other people out there who were interested though, and I wanted to find a way to connect to them. This was the venue.”

Once she started, she says, she blogged “incessantly,” and over time MaudNewton.com evolved from a collection of personal insights about books and culture into a wildly popular literary site with book excerpts, intelligent interviews conducted by Newton, as well as occasional contributions from guest writers, and a weekly calendar of New York literary events.

Newton, meanwhile, found herself part of a whole new community of book-loving bloggers. Mark Sarvas, 49, another panelist making his first trip to Israel to participate in the book fair, is one of Newton’s new book-blogging friends.

The Manhattan-born son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Sarvas also grew up devouring books, reading everything from Tintin comics to murder mysteries to the classics: over meals, in the mornings, in the afternoons, in the park, at friends’ houses and late at night.

Sarvas not only read a lot, he also wrote a lot, trying out all sorts of formats. He majored in journalism at New York University and was managing editor of the college paper; he wrote short stories and, after moving to Los Angeles in 1986, tried his hand at writing for TV and the movies. But books were and remained his greatest love; he would often take a beach chair down to the coast, turn off his phone and spend a few hours reading away always, he adds, a “physical book,” never a digital one to this very day. “I am a pathetic old dinosaur in that way,” he said.

But Sarvas is no dinosaur when it comes to blogging, which he began doing way back in 2003. That was year when as an early admirer of book blogs, among them Newton’s, and feeling the need to distract himself during his divorce he started his own. Called The Elegant Variation, Sarvas’ blog features everything from short newsy items about publishing and books to comments about new books, interviews, obits and information about literary prizes.

Meanwhile, while writing about book authors, Sarvas also became one. His first book, “Harry, Revised,” a comic novel about a young widower and cad who’s decided the time has come to better himself, was published by Bloomsbury in 2008, and was translated into more than a dozen languages, including Hebrew.

Those who sneer

At first, there was a tendency among some in the business of publishing and writing about books to view bloggers like Newton and Sarvas who are not commissioned, edited or paid by media publications for their efforts as the enemies of informed, nuanced, thorough, professional criticism, and to see their websites as unworthy competition to existing print publications and literary critics.

Even now, there are some who sneer. Just last year, Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the venerated Times Literary Supplement, and a Man Booker Prize judge, said book blogs were “to the detriment of literature,” and would lead to “people [being] encouraged to buy and read books that are no good ... The good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.”

But for the most part, such skepticism faded, as it became clear that book lovers, by the thousands and then hundreds of thousands, were turning to these and other bloggers to inform, advise, guide and challenge them and that many of the bloggers were proving themselves worthy of that attention.

“The role of an editor, who can improve one’s work, as well as those levels of expertise and knowledge at a place like The New York Review of Books, are something that social media is lacking,” admits Sarvas. “But I also see fresh voices and original coverage in blogs that can be as good as anything you read in the ‘traditional’ press.”

Within a few years of launching her blog, Newton was getting about 150,000 visitors per month, she says. That’s more than the number of subscribers to The New York Review of Books. Sarvas was getting 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors, about the same as the number of subscribers to The London Review of Books.

Bloggers are more trusted

In much smaller Israel, meanwhile, one of the country’s most popular literary bloggers, Boaz Cohen, 49, a music editor and host on Radio 88FM, whose first book, about growing up with music in the 1970s, will be published shortly (in Hebrew), attracts 5,000 regular readers to his Hebrew-language literature and culture blog “London Calling,” with his most popular posts getting tens of thousands of hits.

Cohen, who will also be speaking on the book fair panel, believes that in Israel, blogs have more influence over people’s book-buying habits than do reviews in print publications or promotional efforts by publishers. “Israel is a place where a lot of people are suspicious of the traditional media and their suggestions and also where word-of-mouth is a common way to get tips and information,” he said. Bloggers who come to be trusted wield great power, he added: “If you like or follow a certain blogger, you come to trust their judgment and follow their advice.”

When he was approached in 2003 by the Reshimot blog-hosting site, to write a blog for free, Cohen himself was a little skeptical of the whole thing, and for a while mainly posted old material he had lying around. But he soon became a convert to the form. “I quickly realized the potential,” he said. “It became a place for me to express myself and talk about personal things as well as films, music and, especially, books I loved.”

 Like Sarvas and Newton, Cohen discovered a whole new community through blogging. “Blogs give people the feeling that they’re not alone,” he says. “For example, you might think you’re the only person who likes science fiction from the 1950s. Then suddenly, through a blog, you connect and realize there are 1,000 more people like you.”

The first Book Blogger Convention took place in New York in 2010, as a side show to one of publishing’s biggest conventions, BookExpo America. Bloggers, just like the traditional book critics and journalists who came before them, were courted by publishers, given free books and encouraged to browse and participate in the main event.

More and more bloggers were joining the conversation. If in the early 2000s there were about a dozen bloggers around the U.S., say both Sarvas and Newton, by the end of the decade, this had mushroomed into a scene with hundreds of thousands of bloggers in that country. There are book-related blogs dedicated to every genre one can imagine, from horror to romance to fantasy. In Israel, Cohen says there are about 50,000 blogs of all kinds. There is minimal interaction, the three writer-bloggers concur, between Israeli, U.S. or most other foreign blogs, if only because they are written in different languages.

Meanwhile, even as their influence grew and their numbers increased, many bloggers were already moving on, looking elsewhere to express themselves.

Naomi Alderman, who is also scheduled to join the panel, is not, for example, really considered a blogger at all. The U.K.-based Alderman, 38, who has scooped up such titles as Young Writer of the Year (The Sunday Times, in 2007), and the Orange Award for New Writers (also in 2007), teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University. Her fiction includes “Disobedience,” a well-received if controversial novel about the lesbian daughter of a North London rabbi. She also writes videogames and alternative-reality games.

‘The landscape has changed’

For her part, said Maud Newton, “I barely even think in terms of being a ‘book blogger’ anymore. I don’t update my traditional blog so often. Ten years ago, book blogging was exciting and new. Now the landscape has changed, and there are different ways for those of us who love books to interact with each other and I do.”

Today, you are just as likely to find long-time literary bloggers like Newton and Sarvas (Naomi Alderman was traveling and unavailable to talk) disseminating news and opinion on books in quick bursts on Facebook, or using microblogging platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. In Israel, Cohen said, Facebook is a tremendously popular way to share and discuss ideas, but the other two social media sites are not used as much for that purpose.

In addition, the distinction between traditional media and new media is fading fast, in literary criticism as in other fields of interest. In the U.S., literate and interesting websites like Full Stop, The Millions, The New Inquiry and The Awl have sprung up to offer venues for smart, long-form literary, cultural and political criticism. And traditional print publications, including The New Yorker, The London Review of Books and The New Republic have jumped on the bandwagon and have their own literature blogs, some of them featuring longer-form writing exclusively for their Internet audience.

At the same time, some of the writers who started out posting their reviews on their own blogs are now writing for print publications that might not have given them the time of day if they hadn’t had the name recognition acquired in the online world. Newton, for instance, is writing reviews and literary opinion pieces these days that are as likely to be found in Barnes and Noble Review, The New York Times Book Review or The American Prospect as on her blog. Her essays and fiction have been published in Granta Magazine, Eyeshot and dozens of other print publications, and she is working on a novel called “Fervor,” about extremism and how it is passed down in families.

As for Sarvas, he’s been so busy he hasn’t had much time to be updating his blog or even reading those of other writers. These days he’s busy finishing his second novel, to be called “Memento Park,” is about a man trying to reconnect to his Jewish heritage. He is also teaching writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, writing book reviews (for pay) for various print and online publications, and spending a lot of time being a dad to his 3-year-old daughter. With all the demands on his time, Sarvas has become increasingly likely to turn to quicker platforms like Twitter, where less is more. “It’s not a place for sustained conversations, but it is a good place to have a series of back and forth conversations like a volley in a tennis match about a book or an idea,” said Sarvas. But whether he’s writing a book or a 140-character tweet is less important than the fact that he is inspiring people to talk, in some form, about literature.

“The term I use is ‘widening the conversation,’” said Sarvas. “To a certain extent, the platforms are irrelevant. We have no idea what platform will be used in two years, but we know there will be a conversation.”

Danna Harman is a correspondent for Haaretz English Edition, where she writes features and a column about love.

Ilan Basor
Sara Corwin