Tuesday, August 29, 2006

OK, folks ...

... since Laurie Mason has graciously seconded the proposal I made in this post, why don't some more of you weigh in. If enough comments appear, I certainly won't mind passing them along.

Update: In the comments attached to this post so far, I think Trav comes nearest to what I had in mind: "... the 'bells and whistles' should wrap all of the available technology around the book review, which is key and placed at the center."
But the other suggestions fit well into this.
I would raise one caveat about Gene's suggestion regarding length. I know for a fact that giving a reviewer more space frequently results in a less focused review. Check out the TLS and see how many of those long, long reviews are really flaccid, providing not context for the book under consideration, but a soapbox for the reviewer. That said, space not being a problem online, a reviewer would be able to write as long as necessary. The problem would be avoiding self-indulgence and unnecessary digression.

But keep the suggestions coming. More in this case is definitely better.


  1. Anonymous10:35 PM

    My imagination fails me in trying to think what would be the "bells and whistles" of an online book section. Many more reviews, of course. Columns on specialized or timely topics. Space for genre books (though not ghettoized, just more space). Discussions or renewed evaluations of old books. Highlighting an author periodically, whether contemporary or defunct. "Fun" things like favorite first lines or last lines or favorite "comfort" books. Are those bells and whistles?

  2. If by bells and whistles you mean enough space given a book review to flesh out a proper thesis and to approach the critical task as a creative one in its own right, I'm all for that. I think in general, the present state of criticism in the MSM to be fairly pathetic, and would welcome a venue that opened itself up to criticism that does not make the word count the final measure of the quality of a book review.

  3. Anonymous12:44 AM

    I think the "bells and whistles" should wrap all of the available technology around the book review, which is key and placed at the center.

    Write a review, link to author bio, link to sales data, link to publisher, have video of author interview/signing, discuss how book stacks up in genre, calendar of upcoming author appearances, links to "if you liked this review then you'll like", etc.

    I've seen some books that now come with recommended soundtracks (which just seems odd to me), but it's this approach that can keep folks hanging around a site exploring.

    I realize all this might sound a bit Amazon.com-ish, but with video, tunes, pictures and your crew's unique (and much appreciated) viewpoints, I think you could produce a very individualized online review model.

    just my 2 cents...

  4. Literary contests that let you win sets of books, like the Booker longlist, much like Guardian does. That is one way of definitely pulling eyeballs to the website.

  5. Hm. Fair play and all that, and the editors I have come in contact with (limited, admittedly) are generally people who are interested in seeing a story/review become better, so point taken on length not being the sole requisite (whether the call is for more space or less). Brevity's not the enemy, and snap is a good thing. That said, logical progression is a good thing, and when that logical sequence is truncated in deference to an artificially imposed word count, rather than giving a reviewer the space to develop a proper thesis, the book review suffers. Just my opinion, I know, and probably already over the word count.

    That said, the primary thing that finds me rejecting much of what the MSM has to offer is the 'sound bite culture' that comes with the assumption that audiences cannot handle more than about three seconds of the same image, and one of the things that intrigues me about online publishing is the fact that this limitation is simply not in place re: financial considerations (space denied advertisers, cost of printing, etc.). Instead, the test of a work lies in whether it holds the audience's attention to the end--regardless of length. I guess I'm just optimist enough to believe the average book-reader's attention span is a bit longer than the 1,000 word mark.

    Enough space...not too much.

    Just a quiet--and typically windy--defense.

  6. I couldn't agree with you more regarding the sound-bite mentality and the assumption that the reading public suffers from a short attention span. There may be people with short attention spans, but one shouldn't bother to write for them. The audience for reading matter is made up of people who like to read and they deserve a quality product.

  7. Each review should include links to other reviews and criticism of the work under review and of its author's oeuvre.

  8. Anonymous2:34 PM

    Well, this is certainly an interesting prospect. If you were to provide "bells and whistles" in the form of a video blog component (say the book review equivalent of ZeFrank or Rocket Boom), then why not have something involving two people: (1) the reviewer presenting his points and (2) when citing a quote, have an actor reading the book in a visual setting? Of course, one of the inherent problems of book-related video coverage (which is why I've abstained from a Segundo video blog) is that it's difficult to make an author standing there giving a reading visually compelling (and this really isn't fair to the writers; I think Jonathan Coe said it best in LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT when he pointed out how difficult it was to portray writing in dramaturgical form and that this was, after all, what made B.S. Johnson happy).

    If you do an interview show, you run the risk of resorting to talking heads. So why not go all Errol Morris and do some kind of crazed mish-mash?

  9. I lean naturally toward the crazed mish-mash approach, actually. Online should not simply duplicate print, for the simple reason that it offers more possibilities than print. I like dramatic readings by actors (many writers do not read well).

  10. Hi Frank,

    It's really about not accepting mediocrity, which is knowing a better way and settling for the lesser way. Call it the expedient way. But it's the frustrating way if you know better.

    You are well aware that I do the weekly Poetry & Poets in Rags. The first section is called News at Eleven. This is comprised of the top eleven stories on poetry and poets in the past week, outside the Great Regulars. On Monday nights and Tuesdays, I am cutting the select 50 or so articles I found on poetry down to the final selection. I then choose one to be the headliner.

    This week's top article is a book review from The Age, Life and a Maiden, wherein Jason Steger reviews the poet Jennifer Maiden's latest book Friendly Fire. It wasn't the bells and whistles so much that got this one the top spot, but the dimensions to it, the philosophy, the sales pitch, the honor of the award, the photo even, the seamless way Steger makes his thought organization meld with Maiden's ideas and approach, and the bell dimension, the poem. What would have been better? Maiden reading her poem, or even a different one, the audio, even a video.

    Last week while in Oslo, I got to hear the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra play. For the number Banjo and Fiddle, Catharina Chen came out and played so well, it brought tears to my eyes that I could be there. I went online when I got home, looking for the recording. Here's what I found: Catharina Chen's Music World. Click on the Windows Media Player rendition of Banjo and Fiddle, and get the video. That's the best. What's better? A better resolution video.

    A close second to the article in The Age was Nextbook's American Iconoclast, about the poet Emma Lazarus, which goes to show that just being a well-done piece about just about anyone can make an article vie as the best in the entire world on a given day, in a given week. It has bells. Listen to the terrific podcast, which is not a broadcast of the article, but a complement to it. There is a whistle, a comment area--makes you stop and think, even if you don't comment. There are the pictures. There is Jennifer Weisberg interviewing Esther Schor, the author and expert, bringing Lazarus to life for the reader. What's missing? The poem, the video.

    What I hear you talking about is someone, and how about The Philadelphia Inquirer?, bringing excellence to the internet by conscious decision, by knowing what is the best way, and doing it.


  11. I think an online book review section with the 'bells and whistles' would be a fabulous idea. One of the problems I have is in seeing a review, wanting to read the book, then promptly forgetting the information when I recycle the paper.

    Having the information on line would let readers bookmark the information. Perhaps even have the option to select books and generate a reading list (a la pub med where you can select articles from a list and have a text file generated).

    Direct links to author's websites, online retailers (and my plea for local, independent bookstores!) a plus.

    I love the idea of aggregating all similar reviews, or all other reviews by the same reviewer, by genre, etc. That's something you can't do in print, but can given the database technology on line today.

    I agree that longer reviews are not necessarily better, but there is often more a reporter or reviewer wants to say--online you could have an extension to the story.

    Also links to the paper at large, particularly if the book cites something in the news, a la wikipedia's hyperlinks.

    I don't see writing on the net taking advantage of hyperlinks.

    More ideas as they come.


  12. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I like this idea. A few suggestions from what other folks do:

    My favorite book website is www.bookslut.com. They have the right mix of reviews, columns, book stories and author Q&As.

    Bells & whistles? How about a podcast with authors? Drexel does an interesting series called The Drexel InterView (hosted by Inky review contributor Paula Marantz Cohen) about all kinds of artists. It's online at http://www.drexel.edu/univrel/events/drexel_interview.html

    I think this is a great idea, as long as people are paid for their writing. I see too many instances where publications expect writers to take a pay hit because it's online or *gasp* write for free for "exposure." You want exposure, see the flasher in Fairmount Park. But as long as writers are compensated properly for their online work, I'm for it.

  13. Hi, Frank—

    The obvious bells an whistles of an online book section are hyperlinks galore, including multimedia resources such as recorded readings, video, etc. You already sort of do that, with all the useful links on this blog.

    The philosophy behind hypertext from its inception has been "rich media," an expanded reading/audience experience for the reader/viewer/listener. It takes some time to program all the links, of course, but its just nuts and bolts programming, and nothing new. The philosophy of hypertext owes much to McLuhan and his ilk, with their ideas of multi-channel, multi-sensory mediated experience in the global village. (The mere existence of the Internet itself is an argument McLuhan was right on target all along.) If you want a good philosophical inspiration for what bells and whistles are acheivable, re-read McLuhan, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller, among others. As immersed in those authors as I have been for a long time, I confess I sort of view this whole idea as 1. nothing new, and 2, overdue. LOL

    The chief advantage of paperless media such as the Internet is that there is no limitation on column inches. Things can be as long as they need or want to be. (Which of course is no excuse for padded verbiage, slack essay construction, pointlessly wandering monologue, etc. But these are basic essay [and poetry] construction issues, even in print media, such as the TLS, as has already been mentioned.)

    So many online poetry/essay/prose journals already do this, that the model is already in place. Avatar Review is only one of many that come to mind. The chief argument to be made then, might be to convince the print editorial Powers That Be that the model already exists, so they don't have to reinvent the wheel (and look at all these fine examples over here!) but can just borrow good ideas from pre-existing templates.

    As someone already mentioned, the main thing that avid readers want to do is read: so the audience WILL read longer essays, and if they're available, all the better.

    One bit of hypertext that I haven't heard anyone mention yet, but which I think would be very relevant is the expanded sidebar on topics raised in the body of an essay or review, expanded into longer length over on its own. Sort of like when you read a scholarly work and they go off on three-pages footnotes about interesting side-topics. It all relates to the main essay's main topic, but it is contextual parallel data. An example that comes to mind is when I read some essays by John McPhee or Barry Lopez, and they go off on apparent side-topics, which all do relate in the end back to the original topic, but provide an enriched context, and make for a deeper, more satisfying understanding of the main subject at hand. more of this sort of thing would be fantastic on an enriched online book section. It could also be fueled by multiple contributors with varying expertise–sort of along the Wikipedia lines, but of course edited and solicited rather than randomly open.

    I also agree that I would love to see much more space given to "genre books," because, frankly, in my humble opinion, a lot of the reason I read adventurous SF and mystery authors is that their writing styles are so much better than your mainstream "no-style" style fiction. I'd rather Samuel R. Delany than most literary darlings any day. Why? Because too much mainstream fiction is bland and boring, and suffers from the same terminal narcissism as so much poetry these days. Confession may be good for the soul, but it is not necesarily good for literature. Tony Hillerman trumps most of the New York fiction writers any day, in my book. So, yeah, more availability AND recognition of these "genre" contributions to the strength and health of Literature, overall, would be most welcome.

    I strongly agree with the actors doing dramatic readings approach, as many writers (dare we say, especially poets) simply do not read well. As a group few of them have yet to understand that reading IS performing.

    Robert Pinsky being one of the only high-profile exceptions to this lack of understanding; his "Favorite Poems" series, in which ordinary folk read their favorite poems into a video kiosk, was a big success, and proved once and for that many Average Joes know quite well how to perform a poem.

    I do a podcast of reading my Road Journal, my poems by others, and original music. It is a fairly big success, much to my astonishment. Then again, I studied enough acting, decades ago, that maybe I read a decent poem. Regardless, the literary podcast model is also a good bit of hypertext for the bells and whistles. And MP3s to download of readings from the book at hand (excerpts rather than whole works, in almost all cases), would also be a terrific idea. Again, the model is already in place, it just needs to be sold and refined.

  14. Hmmm. At the risk of sounding completely ordinary here, I have some suggestions.

    Let the design and approach reflect that of movie reviews. Great graphics, small sidebar with highlights and 'grade', maybe a focus on book characters or historic environment or whatever, colorful photos of related subject matter, a lively reviewer who is willing to do more than show off his/her own writing ability - research, study, do a little digging. Have excerpts. Hire a professional reader and have audio samples. The music choice idea is good, kinda funky. Let readers add their own reviews, maybe their own music choices or tea, or scents, or wine, whatever. And a special author section, pictures, bios, and list of other works. And finally, some area where style or technique is discussed, even if just briefly. Something 'educational'. Hey, they do it in sport all the time!

    I have a hard time finding books I want to read. I pick in one of two ways - 1) a review either from a friend or in print and 2) an author I've already read.

    Problem is, I forget the names of authors and of books so a nice list will help trigger my memory. And it's really hard to find good book reviews so a good online site that is fun and graphic and not messed up with a lot of blinking ads would work for me. And if I can come away feeling a bit smarter too, that's great.


  15. Got this link through Rus at The Writers Block Poetry Board - Palaver and Natter section.
    Truth is you'll get as many ideas here as there are people posting comments...
    However having scanned through them all very quickly you can see
    1 - I'm a quick scanner
    2 - I love hyperlinks
    3 - I'm a screen-hungry person yet forgetful and have a busy life/home bla bla bla and a poetry site to edit and poetry to write (in no particular order)
    so anything which reinforces my busy yet eager mind will get my attention
    4 - currently am into Podcast as well as links
    AnnMarie on MipoRadio
    5 - sorry about the very obvious self-promotion but see - it's nuts not to be and links just really really work - put that in with audio and it's almost irresistible
    6 - finally some of the best promotion simply goes along with Google - so the more there's clicks the more something gets not only read but remembered too