Creating space and finding a voice: on blogging about books in 2019

This is a blog about books and reading.

This is a blog about books and reading.

The simple act of typing those first four words in 2019 feels almost painfully nostalgic: by most reckonings, the golden age of book blogging – assuming such a lofty phrase even applies – occurred somewhere in the years 2009 through 2012. During this period, as mainstream media outlets slashed book coverage, were bought up, or closed, blogs seemed to have an outsize influence in setting the terms of reference for discussions of literature. A medium that critics such as David Carr castigated for being parasitical on establishment organizations managed to reverse the polarities in a time of great cultural upheaval: all of a sudden, those old-guard “gatekeepers” – The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, and others – were taking their cues from writers online, most of whom were in their twenties and not beholden to advertisers or corporate overseers.

Today, the majority of those influential sites are defunct or dormant. Bookslut, a blog run by the American critic and writer Jessa Crispin, shut down in 2016; Crispin is now a traditionally published author of books including the 2017 polemic Why I Am Not a Feminist. Mark Sarvas’s site, The Elegant Variation, still exists online, though it has effectively ceased updating on a regular basis; the most recent post, from February 2018, is an advertisement for Sarvas’s second novel, Memento Park. (Sarvas, who launched a newsletter version of TEV in 2014, was one of the groundbreakers in the area of literary blogging; his original site still carries the early-2000s identifier “a literary weblog.”)

In a sign of the corporate times, The Millions – launched in 2003 by C. Max McGee and called “indispensable” by the NYT – was purchased this year by Publishers Weekly, leading Vulture writer Kat Rosenfield to declare, “The age of book blogging is dead.”

That pronouncement may have been a bit premature: sites like LitHub still exist, and The Millions persists under its new ownership with remarkably little apparent interference in its content or presentation. Dennis Loy Johnson’s Moby Lives has found renewed life as the blog for U.S. independent publisher Melville House.

Here in Canada, meanwhile, novelist Kerry Clare’s blog Pickle Me This has proved remarkably resilient and Clare has recently launched a Blog School. And two weeks ago, Bookninja, a first generation book blog that closed in 2011, was relaunched as a going concern. Originally begun by writers Peter Darbyshire and George Murray, in its current iteration, Bookninja is conceived and written by St. John’s poet Murray as a daily roundup of interesting and amusing links to literary news from here and abroad.

In a post explaining what prompted him to revive Bookninja, Murray writes that one of the inspirations was advice he gives to his children when they ask what they should do any time they feel burdened or silenced by the encroaching world around them: “Recently I realized that when my kids ask me what to do when they feel out of place or under siege by life, I say things like: ‘Well, then create your own space.’ ”

This is not only good advice, it seems like the only sound reason to believe that book blogs retain significance in 2019. One irony of the digital age is that notwithstanding the diminution of book coverage in the mainstream media, more words than ever before in history are currently being expended on the subjects of books and literature as a result of social media and sites like Goodreads and Wattpad. Rather than a drought where book talk is concerned, we as a culture are faced with a veritable monsoon: thousands upon thousands of voices clamouring to be heard across multiple platforms.

In such a crowded environment, what justification could there be for adding yet another voice to the din? Perhaps only this: if there is a noticeable absence of a particular perspective, or slant, or approach – a void that cries out to be filled. Despite the number of people talking about books online, one paradoxical phenomenon is that the same handful of books seem to get covered, and frequently in much the same way. Herd instinct and the marketing clout of the major multinational publishers frequently drives the conversation, such that many worthwhile books and writers are left wanting. And it is almost axiomatic that what gets attention is new: online voices focused on anything beyond the current season’s buzz books are few and far between.

Filling that gap has always been the impetus behind That Shakespearean Rag. The site has gone through numerous iterations and a succession of abortive reboots, but it has always tried to maintain a fidelity to a personal vision of what often goes missing in the culture of book coverage. This does not mean that the big books and brand name authors never appear or get consideration, but it does mean that a concerted effort is made to provide space for other things: poetry, short fiction, small and regional presses, work by writers from earlier decades or centuries, work in translation.

This is a space to indulge the author’s enthusiasms, without recourse to chasing trends or fashion and with no claim to comprehensiveness or universality. In that vein, it tries – as it has always tried – to capture some of the anarchic and utopian spirit of those first generation blogs that followed their own paths, their own interests, their own visions. Whether this results in any kind of cultural relevance or longevity is uncertain, and ultimately unimportant.

This is a blog about books and reading, and the belief that in 2019 those things still matter.

Creating space and finding a voice: on blogging about books in 2019
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