Do Book Review Bloggers Need Credentials?

Graffiti Reviews_Courting SamiraThis week, the blogosphere and Twitter have been abuzz about a pompous piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by William Giraldi that likened book bloggers to leeches on literature and our medium—the internet—as “a bog to wiggle around in.” If you want a good laugh, read his description of the current climate of literary criticism as:

a climate in which the Net has spawned a cacophony of gabble impersonating literary comment, palaver and vulgate enough to warp you. Literature has always had its leeches, except now the Net has given every one of them a bog to wiggle around in. This wouldn’t be any more of an issue than it is to ignore the wastrel on the corner dispensing pamphlets on anarchy, but as respectable print publications either prune their space for book commentary or else go extinct altogether, more and more criticism — like more and more of everything else — is migrating to blogs and social media sites. Young or new book readers looking for literary analysis are going to have an increasingly arduous chore of dividing the shit from the serious. Worse, the biddable and ovine will gravitate to the shit because that’s where all the buzzing is. If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog, you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.

Three quick initial points. First, I would think that this diatribe is little more than a writer (one who uses the thesaurus like a child uses a bag of cupcake sprinkles) trolling to bring attention to a relatively new publication, except that this publication has several esteemed contributing editors who presumably would not stand for such a crass marketing effort.  Second, the author of the diatribe uses the words “critic”/”criticism” most frequently, and while there is debate about the differences between criticism and reviews, I tend to think of “critics” as snobby versions of “reviewers,” and so I use the terms interchangeably with a preference for “reviewer.”  Third, it seems that for all of the author’s knowledge of literary criticism, he seems to be quite ignorant of leeches, a worm with a recently rehabilitated image in light of their environmental and medicinal importance.  As a book blogger, I’m not sure that an analogy to such a beneficial species is so offensive.

But I digress.

The point I want to discuss here is whether book reviewers, such as those of us who publish reviews on Amazon or on blogs like this one, should be ignored if we lack certain credentials.  I visited the website of the author of the diatribe, and found his short bio silent on what it is that would make him uniquely qualified to be a critic.  He’s written a book and he is a fiction editor for a journal.   He may have years of English courses, too, but as respectable as all of that is, is it really necessary?  Does it make his reviews necessarily more interesting and informative than reviews by others with different backgrounds?

In my opinion, the only qualification a book reviewer needs to have is the ability to formulate and to convey an opinion about a book they finished.  No English degrees are necessary.  No publishing experience is necessary.  No appointment at a journal is necessary.  It might not be the most erudite review out there, but so what?  If a reader finds it insufficient, he or she is free to Google around for another opinion.

Book reviewers should be like most readers—normal people who may have a better idea of what the public wants to read than someone who uses words like “palaver” and “vulgate.”

This topic reminds me, of course, of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut on the varied backgrounds writers should have:

I’m on the New York State Council for the Arts now, and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, “Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be.” … I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far.

Indeed.  People of many different backgrounds can and should write books, and readers with “something on [their] mind[s] other than the history of literature” should review them for blogs, vendor websites, and/or bathroom stalls.

That’s right—a bathroom stall.  For those of you are unfamiliar with the Twitter “graffiti reviews,” it’s the humorous way some reviewers have responded to the elitist piece in the LA Review of Books.  I learned about it from Melanie at The Indextrious Reader (who learned about if from Juxtabook; and see Literary Omnivore for more), and I participated by tweeting a picture of an post-it note excerpt of my review of Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine in a Philly bathroom.  The image above is my second graffiti review, referencing my comments earlier this year on Amal Awad’s Courting Samira.  Join in with your own #graffitireviews.

Isn’t this “bog” (which normal people call the internet) a fun place to wiggle around in?



  1. I like the mixture of an 18th/19th century high literary pastiche style with schoolboy profanity. Maybe the piece you linked to is intended to make a parodic representation of the bridge between late Eton and graduation into “serious” (!) writing.

  2. I agree. Wikipedia is no less accurate than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. People have the gift to learn from each other and correct themselves. It’s simply wrong that this innate capacity shaped by various pathways through life is handed over to ‘the specialists’.

    1. Yes, there is a communal beauty to Wikipedia, and publications with “credentials” are often no better. That said, it’s concerning when an “expert” in a field relies too heavily on a source like Wikipedia, which I think should be a starting place, not the end of research (I’m thinking about Jane Goodall’s plagiarism of Wikipedia, which I wrote about back in March: Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I can’t remember the last time I was inspired to buy a book after reading long-winded literary criticism (although I do occasionally choose books to read based on short magazine reviews). The rise of book blogs and social networking sites such as Goodreads has changed the coversation around books, I think for the better. Isn’t one of the values of art its effects of the viewer? The internet has allowed for multi-sided commentary on the age-old question “so what did you think?” rather than granting a handful of literary snobs the sole authority.

    1. I love reading book blogs and joining in the discussion–I’ve “met” interesting people and learned of great books to read. I could never say that about literary criticism. I was probably in college the last time I even read any (apart from Giraldi’s piece), and I’m not sure it has ever inspired me to buy a book that wasn’t already required reading for a course.

  4. What an ass! He’s threatened because bloggers are putting him out of business. I see a lot of it from all kinds of journalists. They are scared, with good reason, because newspapers and magazines are losing tons of money from both lost subscribers and less advertising revenue. People are reading blogs instead. They trust our opinions more because they don’t think we have a vested interest. We don’t take ourselves as seriously either. We share our own, personal opinions.

    1. I agree! Readers can relate to bloggers and even become bloggers themselves. The more the merrier! That type of mentality doesn’t sell newspapers and magazines, but neither does elitist, SAT-word laden garbage like Giraldi’s piece.

  5. I love your number 1 response. 😀
    I was surprised this critic knew leeches to be in the same phylum, Annelida, as worms. He obviously knows little else. Are these critics truly objective or is there a little padding of the pockets? This so reminds me of two posts I did, All Tech and Little Talent, and Tough Times to be a Creative. This snobbery is across all professions. Where the net lets everyone play, the amateurs are competing with the pros, and sometimes measuring far ahead. Like photography, writing is getting saturated because everyone can do it, but the work is often fresh and different since they are not necessarily in it for the money. When you have an ‘opinion’ based piece, it is even more game.

      1. Thank you for adding the links. I usually don’t self promote, so I did not include them. It really is amazing how pros in so many fields are getting up in arms over people writing blogs and expressing their own talents and opinions.

  6. I’ve found the book reviews I read on blogs and hear from friends are more valuable than someone who is paid to review. The arrogant blurb in the LA times does not really make a case for me to change my ways anytime soon.

    1. Yeah, that’s what’s really going on here. The fact that anyone can write a review only annoys those who have something to lose now that anyone can write and publish a book.

  7. Wonderful post! Thanks for joining in on #graffitireviews, it is such fun and I hope will surprise some unsuspecting public bathroom users 😉

    It’s true that having an “unregulated” mass of voices can be threatening to the status quo — certainly the subjective quality of said reviews varies, but we’re all in it because we love to read and to talk about our reading to others! That’s the point, I think.

    1. Thank you! Thanks again for bringing this article and #graffitireviews to my attention. Books and book reviews should be accessible to a wide audience. I see little value in arrogant, thesaurus-happy reviews written by critics for critics.

  8. I’m proud to wiggle around in the bog with you! Personally, I read more book blogs than I do national review sites for recommendations. Maybe I’m a snob, but I find most of the “popular fiction” that is covered by the national review sites to be redundant (and they typically fall short of my expectations).

    I would argue book bloggers are both more relevant and honest. The author of that article may think that we aren’t qualified, but we are also independently run and not paid for reviews. That means we can give honest, even scathing, reviews without worrying about losing advertising dollars or publisher support.

    1. I agree! I’m rarely interested in the books reviewed by mainstream literary critics. I’m much happier finding reviews on blogs, which often provide enough information about the blogger for me to know whether I am likely to have a similar taste in books. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Wow, what a pompous article that guy wrote! If you love to read, you can be a reviewer. You made a great point by differentiating critics from reviewers — kudos! Now, if someone *pays* you to write reviews, then yes, you should have *some* sort of expertise … and it’s up to that publication or outlet to determine what qualifications would best represent them. If you’re a critic, obviously you’re getting paid more than even reviewers who do make money for their opinions.

    But book bloggers/reviewers play a very important role in helping authors, especially up-and-coming ones, promote their books. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and no one’s better at it than average people.

    Great post!

    1. “…book bloggers/reviewers play a very important role in helping authors, especially up-and-coming ones, promote their books.” Exactly! That’s what the critic vs. blogger debate is really about: the democratization of publishing and marketing and what it means for the traditional industry. Critics review the books traditional publishing houses push, while book bloggers read and review a wider variety of material. The old guard is losing this battle.

  10. Subective opinions…we all have them. Some are paid to express them. That doesn’t make them right, or better. Vonnegut is right. A homeless person may be the best one to ask about the design of a city intersection…they may cross it hundreds of times per month. Someone just needs to ask…

    1. Yes. Expertise comes from experience–from living it, not just studying it. Books would be pretty boring if only people with English Literature PhDs were allowed to write them.

  11. Ah, to live within our own pretensions is a lonely place. When I was first in college I was taught to believe those “qualified” reviewers were the be all and end all — until I started to follow their suggestions. 😉 Blah….like something that looks delicious on the plate but tastes like cardboard. Well said….{clapping}.

  12. Well that’s ridiculous. When I look for an interview, I seek out book blogs and Goodreads, where I know I’ll find reviews left by people who are more or less like me. A critic may base their opinion on several complicated things that I simply do not care about. I just want to know if the book is good and what are its highlights/downfalls, and as you said, one doesn’t need to be a professional to provide that.

    1. I remember when Stothard made those comments (thanks for adding the link to your well-argued response!). It’s all about control, and who controls reviews has an impact on who controls the publishing industry. Major publishing houses rely on monopolizing the established outlets for literary criticism/reviews and awards. Book bloggers aren’t so pretentious and choose a wider variety of books, not just the ones with beautiful prose and no plot. We also don’t care as much about the path to publication a book took. As a result, we get the word out about a different subset of books–the ones the publishing industry hadn’t been banking on! That’s why we’re so “dangerous” in the minds of the old guard.

  13. Well, I couldn’t agree with you more! I enjoy reviews from actual readers, not people paid to do it. I write for actual readers not big wig critics–the readers are the ones that make your career catch fire, albeit getting a rave review from a big wig helps. As I was reading it, I was thinking what you pointed out with Vonnegut–this guy would hate me. I never went to school for English even though I wanted to be a writer. What would I do with it, teach?? I’ve never wanted to teach! I dream of becoming a writer who can live off of it, but I also dream of being a marketing guru who designs book covers, advertisements and helps small writers go big time without the big 6. I have to do that first myself, but who will get me there? Readers! Real Readers!!!

    1. I agree! As nice as it would be to have a major literary critic review your work, it’s reviews and word-of-mouth from real readers that count. They’re the real audience.

  14. Reblogged this on bearspawprint and commented:
    That quote is a non cohesive clump of blibber blabber (blibber blabber = historical usage Dr Suess FOX IN SOCKS). I don’t use Twitter or Facebook——btw I also have a sister who shares good books with me, and I with her. —— I find your reviews complete enough to know whether, or not, I want to bother finding and purchasing and reading the subject book; when you have critiqued. Most reviewers are gossipy, tacky, devoid of real information, and a bothersome waste of time.——-Thank you for excluding yourself from those insipid biblio-piles (puns intended).——– Granny

    1. Thank you! I agree that some reviews on personal blogs and on Amazon aren’t great, but that’s the beauty of the internet: another review is just one Google search away. 🙂

  15. I agree with you! Book reviewer must only be a wide reader and a person who can express his thoughts and opinions about a novel he has read. There is no need for titles or other credentials.

    1. Exactly! As I said in another response, the old guard in the literary criticism world is simply upset that they’re losing power to a more diverse group of people. It’s harder for the big publishing houses to promote their work when bloggers who read a wider variety of books are drowning out the elitist review journals and awards. I welcome this trend.

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