As 2019 began, we were informed – with all the unconditional certainty typical of online discourse – that the brief era of literary blogging had come to an end.
The precipitating event for this assertion was the announcement, on January 3, that Publishers Weekly had acquired the popular indie site The Millions. This prompted Kat Rosenfield, writing on the New York magazine blog Vulture, to declare, “The age of book blogging is dead.”
The advent of Web 2.0 in the early years of the new millennium provided a fertile ground for independent voices writing about books and book culture, bypassing the gatekeepers of so-called legacy media to focus on books and authors that might not have had sufficient cachet or connections to make it into the New York Times Book Review. It was precisely its outsider status – along with, as Rosenfield points out, the consistently solid quality of its writers – that made The Millions a go-to stop for literary minded internet denizens.
But it was, paradoxically, this very widespread success and massive popularity that rendered The Millions so attractive to an establishment publication like PW. Adam Boretz, the new editor of The Millions, was quick to assure readers that the site has no plans to change its focus or approach as a result of its new ownership, though as a longtime editor at PW and a former associate editor at The Millions, Boretz maintains a foot in both camps and so doesn’t exactly qualify as a maverick or a renegade.
Still, it would not make a whole lot of sense to change much about the way The Millions approaches book coverage – its focus on literary (as opposed to commercial) work with a pronounced leaning toward independent (i.e. not multinational) publishers and a relatively congenial tone is what drew people to the site in the first place. Sacrificing that on the altar of a consumer impulse would be tantamount to wilfully driving those devotees away.
Regardless, in the current environment of media saturation and corporate consolidation, there is something melancholy about a defiantly independent voice being swallowed up by a legacy publication with an established mandate and long-standing advertising base. Nor is the case of The Millions unique in terms of the way literary discourse is handled online. Amazon owns Goodreads, Penguin Random House runs Hazlitt, and even the Literary Hub – a more idiosyncratic site than either of those two – partners with a large swath of publishers and establishment journals in both the U.S. and Canada. If the indie blog – whether single-authored or produced by a collective – really is dead, where is a reader to find writing about books that is not driven by some profit motive or corporate affiliation rather than a simple love of books and stories?
Granted, the vision of the absolutely pristine indie blogger is something of a chimera in itself. It didn’t take long for publishers to realize that for the price of an ARC and a mailer, they could tap eager amateurs for what was more than likely to be favourable free coverage of new and upcoming books. Some bloggers give preferential treatment to friends or people in their extended social circles and the vast majority confine their focus to current releases or living authors who can be assured of boosting the blogger’s ego by way of effusive public thanks on social media. And the writing on many independent book blogs – those without any sort of editorial oversight or vetting process – is … well, “spotty” is probably a polite way to describe it.
Yet in the antediluvian days of the internet – before the digital world was co-opted by for-profit corporations, partisan propagandists, and trolls – there did exist a utopian ideal that foresaw a multitude of different voices elevating a variety of literary output, answerable to no one, and motivated by a pure devotion to literature. This ideal, to state the obvious, was never truly feasible, human nature being what it is. The constraints of real life also take a toll on the would-be blogger, as does the insidious notion of working for free.
But it is nevertheless worthwhile to wonder whether there still might exist a space for literary writing that does not adhere to any proscribed ideology or corporate impulse, striking out defiantly on its own with little or no interest in the prevailing fashion or the tastes of a mass audience. In other words, is it possible that the independent book blogger might still serve a worthwhile function, even after the declared death of the book blog?