Blogs Under Fire @ Festival of Books

By Neal Comment

latfobpanel.jpgMy main reason for going to last weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books was to take part in a panel on blogs and book reviewing—of course, since it’s taken me two days to write about it, plenty of other people have already had their say. Fellow panelist Carolyn Kellogg actually started liveblogging during the Q&A period, just after she took the picture at right of Tod Goldberg, Andrew Keen, and me. And I’ve already had to go online and debate what actually happened with other bloggers. But, as all their eyewitness accounts indicate, it was a highly engaging hour of discussion and debate, and I was really glad that we were able to invoke as many issues as we did in just under an hour.

As it happens, Andrew Keen just got reviewed by the Hollywood Reporter, which extracts the thesis of The Cult of the Amateur quite neatly from the opening chapter: “The notion of quality content will be eradicated as the playing field tilts in favor of consumers churning out substandard and erroneous content.”* Andrew Wallenstein pretty much nails the response: “All the book is really doing is applying a fresh coat of paint to the same hobbyhorses media critics have been riding for decades.” (Hell, I was having similar conversations with Sven Birkerts twelve years ago.)

But, as BookFox noted, the panel’s debate was centered around Keen’s book, and in that context all the talking points about the quality of online reviewing compared to traditional media were ultimately distractions for Keen’s main argument that hour: Giving content away for free is a lousy business model. Kellogg raised the best counterargument, observing that she blogs to participate in a community, not to make money. I spent most of my time veering away from the money question (after pointing out that I’d figured out how to get paid) and hammering at the notion that online media is inherently less reliable and more susceptible to corruption than its traditional counterparts, and, in the particular case of book reviewing, the online media were frankly picking up the slack for the dwindling coverage in print. Somewhere along the line, Keen said something like, “I just think we have enough media already.” Frankly, I sorta boggled, and called that an incredibly stagnant notion. “We have enough books already, too, but we keep publishing new ones,” I went on. “We have enough movies to watch… The horse and buggy was a perfectly good way to travel, what do we need cars for?” (I’m slightly paraphrasing here; the transcripts and, with luck, an audio recording of the event should be available online one day from the Times.)

*It was one of the more curious phenomena of the Festival that several people came up to me independent of each other and suggested that Keen couldn’t possibly believe this and was only taking up the position to get a book deal; I wouldn’t claim to know what’s in another man’s heart, but I can’t for the life of me imagine having the endurance to sustain the role of devil’s advocate to such an extent without any satirical intent, which Keen’s book certainly doesn’t seem to have.