#BEABloggerCon: A (Self-)Critical Review of the “Critical Reviews” Panel

logo of BEA Bloggers Conference 2012

When I was invited to be part of a panel at the 2012 BEA Bloggers Conference, I accepted in the interest of adding one more blogger to the program. Although I didn’t know any of the other panelists, the topic “Critical Reviews: Fine-Tuning Your Craft” sounded like one that belonged at a book-blogging conference–if I hadn’t been asked to participate in the session, I would have been interested in attending it.

(I was asked to join the panel just three weeks before the conference, and I’m quite certain I was at least a second–possibly third, maybe fourth–choice. I learned a few days ago that Jane Litte from Dear Author declined an invitation to speak at this session, and since I’d been watching program announcements for weeks, I’m guessing it took a while for the BEA planners to fill the fourth slot.)

The “Critical Reviews” panel had an excellent moderator in Barbara Hoffert, an editor at Library Journal; she and panelist Janice Harayda of One-Minute Book Reviews both have backgrounds in mainstream-media book criticism. Mark Fowler is an attorney who blogs (although not recently) at Rights of Writers, and seemed there to address the potential legal fallout from negative reviews–an interesting angle that engaged the audience, but one not obviously related to the idea of “fine-tuning your (reviewing) craft.” Having said that, the audience got quite involved with the legal discussion (possibly due to lawsuit anxiety?), and I think there would be interest in a larger focus on those issues in a future conference:

“Overall it was a decent panel, if a little law heavy. But obviously, there are a lot of bloggers interested in the law issues. It would probably be a smart idea to have a panel on blogging & the law at the next BBC.”

I was the only panelist from the “book-blogging community” as many of us define it–a reader first, who writes about what she reads. Unlike my fellow panelists, I wasn’t prepared to make any sort of presentation; to my mind, a panel discussion should be more conversational. However, when you’re not comfortable with public speaking, it’s probably not the best idea to wing it:

“And the only thing I remember about the panel is that Florinda had no prepared notes for the panel and that resulted in several very awkward moments where she was trying to articulate thoughts that just were not making it to the surface.“

The point I was having so much trouble articulating was that “critical” and “negative” aren’t necessarily synonymous–I got that part out, but struggled to elaborate on it, so I’ll try to do it here:

To my mind, an informative, detailed review that gives examples of what works in a book–and what doesn’t–is a “critical” one, whether the verdict is positive, negative, or mixed. One of the great advantages bloggers have over traditional book critics is the freedom to express our subjective response in our reviews, but personally, I like to see that response rationalized at least a little (I need facts in order to make up my own mind), and I try to do that in my own reviewing. (If you don’t see that happening in my “book talk” posts, please let me know and help me do better!) And I guess I didn’t completely fail at expressing that to the audience:

“Florinda…emphasized that critical or negative reviews should be 1) useful for the readers; 2) constructive, letting the author know where one thinks the book falls short; and 3) diplomatic.”

Janice presented some reviewing guidelines that fleshed out those vague statements, and offered them as a handout at the end of the session (you can also find them on her site). Her dozen tips get at what it means to review critically, regardless of whether your opinion of a book is good, bad, or “meh,” and I think these three are especially significant:

  • Aim to be fair rather than “kind.” A kindness to an author (such as failing to mention a serious defect in a book) can be cruel to readers who use reviews as a guide to what to read.
  • Criticize the book, not the author, if you don’t like what you’ve read. Focus on what’s on the page, not a writer’s character defects.
  • Give people enough information about the plot of a novel or the facts in a nonfiction book that they have a context for your opinions. Don’t give so much that your post turns into a book report instead of a review.”

I feel that this session didn’t fully realize its potential to be useful and perhaps could have been structured a little differently, but I think the general topic of review-writing was thoroughly appropriate at a conference for book bloggers. In fact, more technical content focused on the process of blogging might be very well-received.

But me, as a panelist? Maybe not so well-received, and I’m not sure I want another chance. Given my public-speaking issues, that might be best for everyone. There’s a reason I write on the internet, folks. Some of us belong behind the screen.

(My thoughts on the BEA Bloggers Conference as a whole will be ready to publish in another couple of days. I pulled this portion out to go up separately so that the post wouldn’t be ninety miles long!)

(Re-posted with minor edits for phrasing/clarity at 8 AM, 6/14/2012)

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