An interesting article at Chekhov's Mistress called to mind a piece I read in Publishers' Weekly over the weekend. Jessa Crispin, the founder of Bookslut was interviewed, and I was impressed with her philosophy about book blogs: excellence will rise to the top. There are good book blogs and bad book blogs, but from the print side, the word is that none of them are up to print standard.
In contrast to book blogs, food blogs have been embraced by print publications. The blogger Molly Wizenberg, behind Orangette, was asked to write a column for Bon Appetite. Heidi Swanson at 100 Cookbooks published a cookbook of recipes originally created for her blog. Clothilde at Chocolate and Zucchini gives talks on NPR. Yet, in the book world, there has been mainly enmity and negativity between the blog and print world. (Though, Jessa Crispin's interview in PW is a great start.)
Print writers argue that book bloggers do not engage in critical debate, and this dearth of substance makes them substandard compared to print. William Skidalsky at Prospect Magazine says "I don’t think the blogosphere comes close to providing such a [critical discussion] space at present, largely because it is completely unregulated." Because book blogs have not been embraced by the print world, there is very little standardization. For food blogs, it's easy to tell which blogs are considered good because, to grab a used example, the good ones end up in Bon Appetite. Other food bloggers have only to look at the aforementioned food blogs to determine a goal. In contrast, book blogs have no such markers for differentiation, beside kudos from other book bloggers and the number of comments under a post.
Book blogs are seeking a form, a standard, to determine excellence. In the wild and woolly world of the internet, where there are no mediators or judges, it might be helpful to have print writers select blogs that provide examples of good reading/criticism/insight into the reading life/experience. As for providing good criticism, some blogs do and some blogs don't, but not all blogs provide great criticism all the time. Blogs are not lit crit journals and they are not the New York Times Review of Books, but that does not mean that they cannot have a separate form that embraces qualities from standard critical sources.
The book blog is still in its infancy, and unlike recipe blogs and political analysis blogs, there is a tremendous range of possibilities for the book blog. It's not as easy to be a great book blog as it is to be a great food blog. Partly that has to do with limited audience and lower barriers to entry: everyone has to eat, not everyone has to read. Also, the range for food blogs is not as broad as the range for book blogs. There are only a few ways to present a recipe, and a myriad ways to present a piece of book analysis. Plus, cooking something takes the fraction of the time of reading a book, so food bloggers are able to post often. In the blogging world, frequency is critical if you want to maintain readers, and the time spent reading a book and preparing a post burdens the book blogger. To maintain readership, the book blogger is forced to post short, "bitty" pieces to keep a daily or multi-day presence over a week.
Yet, none of these issues are insurmountable, and I think the increased number of book blogs will begin to create a place for, as Jessa Crispin says, 'excellence to rise to the top.' Currently, we are still primed to believe that print writing is better; editing and peer mediation has something to do with that, and in general I agree. But there are some wonderful examples of book blogs that are creating a great written product far from the print world: Bookslut (interviews, reviews), So Many Books (reading journal), BookWorld (great writing), and The Reading Experience (sharp analysis). As these blogs continue to grow and become more solid in their form, a general range of book blog excellence will emerge. Perhaps these blogs will be picked up by print, perhaps not, but I think that the print media must start looking to book blogs as a different form of book analysis rather than continuing to whine that they are not up to print standard.