Sourcing Reviews

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fRecently I was at an event where an author commented that the only place she could read decent book reviews these days was in the Times Literary Supplement.  As she continued it became apparent that she was talking about book reviews in general and not just fiction, however, it is reviews of fiction that I want to discuss.

I can really sympathise with what this speaker was saying. If it wasn’t for the blogging community I would be hard pressed to find thoughtful assessment of newly published novels.  I rely almost entirely on the opinions and judgements of those bloggers whose posts I read regularly and whose views I have come to respect and value.  Publications like the TLS and The London Review of Books give very little space to fiction and although it’s sometime since I took The Literary Review I seem to remember that the same was true of that as well.  The weekend broadsheets offer some assistance but they seem to be paying less and less attention to the fictional world.  There was a time when I could sit down on a Saturday afternoon with the review section of the Guardian and a whole Times section devoted just to books and seep myself in whatever was going on in fiction land, but the former is not what it was and the latter is now long gone.

When it first came out NewBooks Magazine was very good but I gave up on that when it seemed to lose its independence and became a voice for whatever publisher was prepared to offer books as giveaways.  Perhaps it has found its way back to a more objective stance.  Does anyone know?  Waterstones used to publish a helpful quarterly magazine but that has gone as well.  I find this remarkable, especially given the number of book groups there are out there.  People are reading fiction wherever you turn.  You would have thought there was a real market for a magazine devoted to offering those readers the very best advice going, but unless I’m missing something that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case.

So that is my question to you all.  Am I missing something?  And if so, what?  All suggestions will be very gratefully received.

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41 thoughts on “Sourcing Reviews

  1. Sad to say, Alex, there’s no money for print reviews since the circulation of magazines and newspapers has plummeted. Advertising is migrating to the internet and was also hit by the recession – that’s what pays the bills. I was the reviews editor of the Waterstone’s magazine you mention – I’m very pleased you found it helpful – then of We Love This Book which went the same way. Very sad, but as you say, there are some excellent bloggers out there.

    1. Thank you, Susan – I think 🙂 At least thank you for the Waterstone’s Magazine and We Love This Book, both of which I read avidly when they were available.

      1. It’s a sad thing and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m very pleased you liked WBQ and WLTB. Both great fun to be involved with, and an opportunity to try and do my bit for women writers.

  2. The book review magazines are disappointing when it comes to fiction and poetry both. You’re lucky if you get a review of a new book of poetry once every few months. In the US there is Bookforum that does a pretty good job at reviewing new fiction. There is also Rain Taxi that is great for fiction and poetry and they even do graphic novels. They also tend toward reviewing good books by independent presses and books you might call off the mainstream lit fic pathway. I don’t know if either of these do international subscriptions but both of them have websites.

    1. Oh yes, poetry gets even shorter shrift than fiction here too, although there are one or two very good poetry magazines that review as well as printing new work. I haven’t heard of either of the platforms you mention, Stefanie, so I’m off to investigate the websites now. Thanks.

  3. The online version of We Love This Book is about the only good source I can think of these days. I’ve just resubscribed to the Literary Review, and they do include a little more fiction these days, but it is still mostly weighty history and biography.

    Maybe we should start a bloggers’ fiction quarterly…

    1. Annabel there has to be something in that idea. Maybe we should play around with it for a bit and see what we can come up with. After all, a lot of bloggers do seem to get early copies of new material so there should be no difficulty sourcing the books.

          1. I know! I do have the latest edition of Adobe Creative Suite so could actually put a mag together fairly easily once an identity was established, but it’s getting all the permissions from publishers for pictures and quotes, and getting all the articles in from bloggers that would be difficult!!! What would we call it – BookBloggers Review – New Fiction Quarterly is a mouthful…. etc. etc. etc. Not to mention how to market it (subscription and indie bookshops?) and how many copies you have to sell/print to break even. It’s sounding more and more like a pipedream .. but I do like it. 🙂

            1. Oh go on please do it! It would be loads of work but you would be doing all the hard and boring work, not me! I’d love to read it.

            2. It’s a lovely idea, Litlove, but I for one know that I haven’t the time or the energy. I’m afraid I’m just selfish enough to want someone to do it for me.

  4. I rely on bloggers and reviews on LT and goodreads – I always go straight to LT for reviews – then search blogs and goodreads. I don’t take a regular paper – but used to have NewBooks magazine – I gave up on it after a few months.

    1. That sounds as though renewing my NewBooks subscription is not the way to go. I don’t belong to LT. I need to go and see what is going on over there.

      1. LT is a great resource – but in the Virago group (message board) I have found a wonderful community of like minded readers. I currently have my LT Virago group secret Santa gift (four book shaped gifts) under my tree.

  5. Predictably, I suppose, I have to speak up for Open Letters — though in this context, specifically Open Letters Weekly, where Steve Donoghue (who reads more than any other human being I’ve ever met) keeps up a steady stream of reviews. It’s not just fiction, but the range of fiction he does cover is remarkable. That said, he’s very opinionated and his taste won’t be everyone’s — but that’s true of every reviewer. Otherwise, like others here, I too rely mostly on bloggers, especially because I’m not always looking for the latest book but for a book worth reading, and most review publications are very tilted towards the new.

    1. I couldn’t do without Open Letters, Rohan and I forgive Steve his opinions for the books he introduces me to. However, I do like a review magazine that I can physically hold as well, but it seems I am asking for the moon.

  6. Books seldom get mentioned in the mainstream printed media these days – when they do it’s usually of the ultra hype variety (miles of publicity about the latest in the Bridget Jones series or JK Rowling’s venture into crime fiction). But as for reviews in any meaningful way – forget it. The Review and Culture supplements in The Telegraph and the Sunday Times are the closest I get. Apart from blog sites my only other regular injection of news and comment comes from podcasts like The Guardian Book Club and Book Based Banter.

    1. Yes, Karen, I enjoy the Guardian Book Podcast too. I put it on my iPod and then listen when I’m driving. It’s going over to Stratford with me today. I also like the American podcast Books on the Nightstand. If you haven’t discovered that it’s worth looking out for.

      1. ive listened to some of the Books on the Nightstand episode but for some reason didn’t get as hooked by it as the Guardian one. I listen in the car and also to keep me distracted while I’m in the gym

  7. These days fiction rather struggles to find a place at the table with a very present journalistic condescension towards fiction more and more in evidence. We seem to lack a fiction reviewer with a really high profile.

    1. That’s an interesting thought, Ian. I have been trying to think of really influential fiction reviewers of the past. Going way back there were people like E M Forster and Virginia Woolf, although as most of their reviewing was done for the TLS it was, of course anonymous. Possibly Bernard Levin? I find, though, that i can’t think of great literary reviewers in the same way as I can theatre critics. Levin himself, Harold Hobson, Kenneth Tynan and these days Michael Billington all have or had tremendous power and while perhaps not capable of bringing a show down as the New York critics can are/were capable of making a show that might otherwise have gone unremarked. I would give a lot for a fiction reviewer with the perspicacity and integrity of Michael Billington.

  8. In relation to crime fiction, I find that reviewers can be (not always!) writers who review their friends’ books. Which is why I rely on bloggers for an honest opinion.

  9. I used to read the TLS, but found the fiction section sadly limited. That was why I turned to blogging in the first place and I must say it’s never let me down. Like heavenali I also use LT and Goodreads.

    1. I’m going to have to go and explore LT. I suspect it’s a case of finding a group of people there who are reading the same sort of books you are and getting to know them.

  10. I was hoping to find a well-kept secret of a literary magazine here in the comments but alas it is not to be. I used to read the Guardian books pages avidly before I moved to Belgium, obviously I can’t do that now and while I do read some things online (esp. Nicholas Lezard’s reviews), it’s not the same as a physical copy. I too rely on other bloggers.

    Some might say it’s ironic we’re having this discussion, since we unpaid book bloggers have been blamed as contributing to the demise of print reviews. But I think it has always been more complicated and less antagonistic than that, and it would be nice to think that after the dust has settled from the stampede online, there would be room for one or two good print magazines. Maybe yours and gaskella’s will be one of them? 🙂

    1. Would that I had either the time or the energy, Helen. I do agree with you that there is much more to the issue about the demise of the print review than the presence of book bloggers and I really don’t see why in theory the two can’t exist side by side. However, I also take Susan’s point about the costs involved in the print world these days. Given that I don’t see how that can be related to the presence of bloggers I suppose we should be glad that the blogging world exists to take their place.

  11. One famous reviewer of fiction was Arnold Bennett whose notice certainly could make or break a book – not really a power that any one person should have. John Gross makes quite a good case for Bennett in his Rise And Fall Of the Man Of Letters. I agree with you about the centrality of reviewers like Michael Billington 9that might also have dangers) who are indispenable in a way that no fiction reviewer seems to be just now.

    1. I’d forgotten about Bennett, Ian. Woolf has a lot to say about the influence that he has on the literary world that they shared – very little of it complementary 🙂

    1. Nice to make your acquaintance, Barbara. Yes, I do know Hornby’s work and have a couple of his books which I love. What I as really hankering after, however, is a publication that gives coverage to a wide range of new books rather than just the novels of those writers who have already made their name. Hornby is always interesting but usually about books I already know. If you haven’t got any of the collections I can very much recommend them.

  12. Well, like you I read bloggers and that’s it. There seem to be quite a lot of online reviews for the Guardian/Observer (more than appear in the papers, or so it feels), but otherwise they are few and far between. But I do read a lot of bloggers and, ahem, I have quite a few books on my shelves to read…. so I sort of have enough fiction lined up ahead of me. Not that it stops me finding more new titles! 🙂

    1. I like to know what is coming out as much as anything else. Where the reviews themselves are concerned, while I will take a recommendation from those I trust, I still like to make my own mind up, especially where writers I know are concerned. Where I do find reviews really useful are those that introduce me to an author I might otherwise have missed. It frightens me how many of those there must be.

  13. Perhaps this could be a money maker! A gap in the market! I know exactly what you mean. I have no idea what I would do without the blogging community to guide my reading. I’d have no clue what was up and coming, what hidden classics I needed to read…..I was kindly bought a 6 month subscription to the TLS last Christmas which is beautifully written but, like you say, devotes two pages to what really interests, which is fiction! And isn’t the most readable of supplements…

    1. I’ve tried subscriptions to all the major literary papers, but for the amount I read they simply aren’t worth the expenditure. I’m sure Susan is correct when she says it’s down to the dearth of advertising money going into the print world these days, but it does seem a real shame.

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