Facebook, Twitter, and blogs have made authors and book reviewers more visible—but have they also suppressed genuine literary criticism? Several book bloggers gathered at the New York Public Library September 29 for a KidLitCon 2012 panel discussion entitled “How Nice is Too Nice?: Critical Book Reviewing in the Age of Twitter” to explore the impact of social media on the book industry.
Moderator Jen Hubert-Swan, a blogger at ReadingRants and middle school librarian at New York’s Little Red School House, began the conversation by bringing up a recent Slate.com article, “Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture, ” which took aim at online book culture for creating an atmosphere in which “retweets, likes, favorites…make any critique stick out sorely” and which has resulted in bloggers who are reluctant to negatively review novels.
Although the panelists agreed that reviewers should honestly critique novels, Betsy Bird, a youth materials specialist at New York Public Library, pointed to a few who would rather limit themselves to writing about titles they enjoyed. Bird, who blogs for SLJ at Fuse #8, says she considers them cheerleaders rather than reviewers. However, Bird cautioned against writing nasty or mean-spirited reviews.
Similarly, Liz Burns, a librarian at New Jersey’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and who blogs for SLJ at A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy, advised that a critical review should be supported by quotes or references to the text. She also stated that a reviewer can apply critical analysis to books they appreciate as well as to those they dislike.
Monica Edinger, fourth grade teacher at the Dalton School, a private school in New York, and who blogs at Educating Alice, put the conversation into historical context. She brought up past authors and literary critics, such as E.B. White and Dorothy Parker, who regularly reviewed each other’s work—and often resulted in feuds and arguments. Edinger believes that the world of social media is simply making the relationships between authors and reviewers more public.
Hubert-Swan questioned whether a blogger can have a friendship with a writer and still review their work. Freelance writer Marjorie Ingall, who also writes at her self-titled blog, doesn’t “friend” or follow any authors because her journalism background makes her more sensitive to potential conflicts of interest.
On the other hand, Burns distinguished between knowing an author personally and following them on Twitter, stressing that a relationship based only on social media wouldn’t affect reviews. Above all, she emphasized the importance of transparency and stated that if she’s reviewing a book written by a friend, she always discloses their relationship in the blog-post.
Bird said she often receives responses from authors or editors who take issue with her negative reviews of their work. Similarly, Hubert-Swan talked about her experience writing critical commentary of books on Goodreads. She said she removes her negative comments if contacted by authors because she would rather not start a debate in a public forum.
The panelists concluded that many authors dealing with Internet commentary need more guidance from publishers. Sheila Barry, blogger at Making Books for Children and co-publisher of Groundwood, said that as an editor, she’s often had to reassure authors who were unhappy at receiving negative reviews. As both a blogger and a young adult author, Maureen Johnson finds herself in a unique position. She drew upon her personal experience, stating that confronting the world of online reviews is incredibly daunting for a first-time author. However, she emphasized that authors must refrain from replying to negative responses to their work to ensure that reviewers feel comfortable voicing their opinions.