Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
masthead

"Adapt or die, young Jedi"

Steven W. Beattie & George Murray on book blogging
Share |

Writer Steven W. Beattie, whose literary website is That Shakespearean Rag, and writer George Murray, founding editor of the book blog Bookninja, interview each other about "the rise of the digital world" and the future of print and online journalism. The interview was conducted via e-mail.

SWB:

Hey, George (or should I call you my "rival" book blogger?). There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about the rise of the digital world and what this will do to the culture of book coverage. I recently co-moderated a session at BookCamp Toronto on the future of book reviewing, and one of our main concerns (okay, one of my main concerns) involved the disappearance of long-form book reviews and literary criticism. The New York Review of Books, TLS and Bookforum are all online, but I wonder how many people read them digitally? I've read studies that suggest the majority of people who spend time online rarely get past the first paragraph of an article (which means that these people probably won't stay put for your response to this opening salvo: my apologies). As a book blogger who is also a writer, do you share these concerns? What kind of traffic do you get for the longer essays in the Magazine section of Bookninja, as opposed to the daily aggregates of links?

GM:

Hi Steve, you can call me whatever you want. I prefer "Your Lord Honour." But, hey.

I know that one of the reasons we started the Magazine at Bookninja was because we thought the web was a medium in which the economics of length (i.e., cost to print publications) wasn't going to be a consideration. So long as the piece remained interesting there should be no real cap on its size.

We've been successful with two kinds of longer pieces: ones that survey a range of sources to investigate industry/artistic practices (e.g., articles on things like hardcover books vs. trade paperbacks, the idea of living in isolation vs. living in a literary "scene," etc.) and ones in which we get several opinionated folks to discuss one topic (kind of like this, but with actually famous authors discussing things like "Empathy in Fiction" or "Sex in Fiction" or "The Ideal Reader," etc.). These articles will go on sometimes for thousands of words, all of which are edited for interest, style and brevity -- but there's so much to cover that holding it back would do the subject and the authors a disservice. That said, on the odd occasion that the Magazine has been criticized by those linking in, it's about the length of the pieces. Even the most interested readers really do seem to cap out at 2,500 words, regardless.

If there's one thing I've learned in six years of blogging it's that the internet reader who will attach him/herself to your site and stay loyal isn't someone who's settling in for a long gawk at a good book or magazine. S/he's an information addict who wants to pick and choose among info bits (what I call infochum) and meatier pieces. I've always done the blog side of Bookninja as a kind of newslog, in which I make brief, pointed commentary on news items and link out to longer articles. The Magazine allows for longer, in-depth forms.

However, it's the blog that's the real bread and butter of the site. The front page receives thousands and thousands of unique daily readers. People return every day because they know the content will update and yet retain a certain calibre and sense of humour. The Magazine pieces get a good spike when first published and then trail off into what I call a "long dragon's tail," wherein an occasional pick up or link in by another market will create a mini-spike in the stats so the graph looks like a set of waves or the serrated spikes on a dragon's back.

So, long story short: I'm not really concerned about the long form. People who like it will write it, publish it and find it. Bookninja will be part of that. What I'm concerned about is that major mainstream institutions (read: big papers, magazines, etc.) that are trying desperately to develop online followings haven't figured out that the audience online doesn't read the same way as the audience for print does. So you get these magazines and newspapers writing longish articles for blog posts, and people don't get past the first paragraph. No wonder. If they wanted to read the paper, they'd go to the paper, online or in print. If you want an audience to read you daily for your blog, you have to write for a blog-reading audience. Seems like a no-brainer, but I've even tried to hand-hold some big markets through doing it and they just can't seem to get away from writing journalism. Guess what? This isn't journalism.

What about you? You write longer pieces on your Shakespearean Rag blog. Why? And what's the response?

SWB:

The response, even (perhaps especially) from industry insiders is that my posts are too long. Which surprises me, first because the average length of a TSR post is in the neighbourhood of 800-1,000 words, which I don't consider long by any means, and second because these are people who are putatively invested in discussing and promoting books. These are the very people one would think could sit still for a longer review or essay, which leads me to believe, as you suggest, that the medium is to blame.

That's right, YLH, I said "blame." I do worry that the "infochum" culture that the Internet propagates is doing a disservice to readers, to people who used to be able to sit comfortably with Canadian Notes and Queries or Harper's and read a piece of 10,000 words or more. These days, if there's not a hyperlink in the first two sentences, people get bored. I think the argument that this is not going to have an adverse effect on our literary culture is disingenuous at best.

You suggest that people who want the more in-depth articles and essays will search them out, but I'd argue that the evidence proves otherwise. Those of us who care about such things -- yourself included -- are currently embroiled in a battle to prevent the government from removing funding for magazines with circulations of less than 5,000 copies. That would include practically every literary magazine in the country. I'm not sure that it's sufficient (or accurate) to say that these magazines have low readership levels because of the limited number of readers in Canada (which is kind of a self-defeating argument, in any case).

Last year, The Atlantic published an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid," which quoted Maryanne Wolf, among others, suggesting that the Internet changes not only what we read but how we read. We read horizontally online, we "power browse," but we don't allow for a deep immersion in content, and our sense of nuance and ambiguity is affected. Nicholas Carr, the author of the article, writes, "Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged."

For someone who cares deeply about the power of literature to convey this kind of deep content, the migration to an online environment seems fraught with potential peril. (And yes, I do recognize the irony of making that argument in an e-mail exchange.) Then again, maybe I'm just being a paranoid Luddite.

GM:

Adapt or die, young Jedi. Or, for a third option, carve out your niche. There are plenty of long-form bloggers who have good followings, and you are one of them. But if you're seeking large numbers of readers, the short form with links to longer work is the way to go.

I'm not worried about the long form, the same way I'm not worried about the supposed "death of print" or "death of poetry." These things won't go away. And they've always been in jeopardy. They change, they go through cycles of popularity, but they don't go. Print will evolve as "print" into print-like electronic devices (such as we now see) and poetry will shift its focus and styles with the times (beat to hip hop and back to formalist). The long-form essay or article will adapt as well, or find new places to hide itself until it's popular again.

That said, I truly do believe the medium isn't a problem. Various media come about in response to underlying issues or structures. In this case, Western ADD didn't pop into existence when the graphic element of the Web came online in 1992. The advent and development of a medium given to visuals over text was a response to something already happening.

We're a culture heavily invested in distraction. At Bookninja, part of what I hope to do, besides give people a laugh, is collate, curate and analyse these distractions to cut through spin and corporate media obfuscation and thereby produce a place of some order, rather than disorder. A writer friend of mine says he reads Bookninja because he knows he won't miss anything important. I couldn't cover everything if I wrote in depth about it all. But I can provide some connective context between longer pieces at various media outlets.

The forms won't change, but how we consume them will. Right now, we're in a chaotic place, figuring out how familiar modes of thought fit into new forms of delivery. So, I ask, What's changing here? Are you worried about the loss of physical ink on paper or the loss of space for ideas? Or is it that you think the new medium will forever change and restrict how the mind generates ideas? 'Cause I don't see that happening.

SWB:

The question of curation is an interesting one, since you bring it up. Do you see your role as that of a tastemaker or a gatekeeper for our cultural conversation?

GM:

I think "tastemaking" is an activity people with resources can do. Some people have money and the machinery of capitalism as their primary resources, while others, like us, have the ears of a certain segment of society as our main resource. Yet I don't really think we make taste on any grand scale. I try to point readers towards things I find interesting, and if business flows from it, bully for those involved. I know of at least two Canadian novels that were sold to American publishers because the Yanks saw them featured on Bookninja and got curious. Is that making taste or is that just being a cog in the gears of the entire process of cultural industry? I think it's silly to conflate the two, even though it makes a better story to highlight one person in an arts page profile article as a "tastemaker," when they really just provide a vehicle.
As for gatekeepers, this might not be a popular opinion, but I believe cultural gatekeepers perform an important service for society. I just don't typically like the kinds of people inclined to think of themselves as such. So no, I wouldn't consider myself a gatekeeper. I do curate and choose what goes on at Bookninja, but excluding a book or story is not so much an editorial decision as it is a necessity of volume. I get about 100 e-mails a day from authors, editors and publicists looking to promote their work. Undoubtedly entire lives have been put on the line here. Just because I can't cover every one of them doesn't mean I am keeping them out of the conversation. The creative author or publicist will either find a way in at another blog or will start some kind of grassroots movement of their own.

Also, for the record: I hate the word "conversation" in this context. What I do on Bookninja is closer to "cultural monologue" or "cultural stand-up routine" than conversation. That said, I provide a departure point and place for conversation and rely on my readers to take it from there. That works best, I think. If I were to get involved with the conversation, I'd probably just run off at the mouth like I do in real life... and here, apparently.

SWB:

I kind of feel the same way about "conversing" with readers. On my site, I tend to talk at people rather than to them, which I suppose is closer to traditional journalism (sorry, YLH) than the supposed "democracy" of Web 2.0. Personally, I've always been suspicious of this kind of democracy, for the same reason I'm suspicious of talk radio: just because someone has a voice doesn't necessarily mean (s)he should be allowed to use it.

As far as gatekeeping and curating goes, I do appreciate the freedom that the blog format allows to set one's own agenda. At Quill & Quire, where I spend my days, I'm forced to keep ahead of the curve, because we're an industry journal, and because we're competing with other newspapers and magazines for readers. At TSR, on the other hand, I don't feel that kind of pressure. If I want to talk about Ray Smith's novel Century, which is over 20 years old, I can do so. It's also nice to hear from readers who pick up a book based on what they read on my site. This has happened with several titles, including Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything, Catherine Hanrahan's Lost Girls and Love Hotels and Stacey May Fowles's Be Good. These authors and titles aren't household names, and it's nice to be able to provide a venue for worthwhile work that might otherwise fly under the radar.

GM:

I think the reason blogs like ours resonate with some readers is because we stick true to our interests. If I were trying to push an agenda outside my own interest, it would start to sound like editorial or persuasion. As it is, what I hope comes across is a general enthusiasm (or disdain, depending) for the issue or book at hand.

The mistake some blogs and mainstream outlets make is that they think blogs are a place to advance an editorial perspective, when really I see them more as a place to house a voice. I suppose one might consider that semantics, but it's about as close as I can get to explaining it right now. Even though I play up the cynicism and sarcasm on Bookninja, really what I'm doing is linking to what interests me. And I think readers pick up on the honesty of that and come back for more -- in part because it's also what interests them, and in part because my list of neat things each day helps organize what's out there into something more digestible.

The same goes for books and authors. Some will be unknown, because that is often where I find the literature that interests me most -- on the edges of the establishment -- but some will be big books by big authors. The agenda is my own interest, not a romanticised ideal of a literary scene. But I agree that there's a certain pleasure in pressing a good, but unknown, book into the hands of someone who might not otherwise ever find it.

Steven W. Beattie

Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine. His reviews and criticism have appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Edmonton Journal, and Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places. A juror for this year's Trillium Book Award, Beattie has also appeared on CBC Radio One, Bravo! TV's Arts & Minds, and CIUT FM 89.5's morning show, Take 5. He administers the literary website That Shakespearean Rag.

George Murray

George Murray is the author of four books of poetry, including The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007) and The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003,), and has had his creative work appear in journals, magazines, and anthologies around the world. Besides running Canada's most popular book blog, Bookninja.com, he occasionally publishes journalism in mainstream print markets such as, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Toronto Star, CBC and others. A native of small town Ontario, he now finds himself in St. John's, by way of Toronto and Manhattan.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007