Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Evolution of the Book Review (part one)

The book review's evolution reveals key changes to literacy in the digital age. What has the book review been? How is it being adapted to the new media? What is its future? I want my students to wrestle with these questions by writing a conventional book review (about an individually assigned book in the field of digital culture) and by producing a video book review.  I will give some explanation and guidelines for how they should think about and carry out those assignments. But first, some contexts.

Context #1: The Digital Humanities
A central concern to the emerging field of Digital Humanities is reconsidering the basic objects of study that are the subject of humanistic inquiry: the book or manuscript, the work of art, the musical performance, etc.  These components must be reconsidered because they are newly mediated: the eBook is not the book; the virtual tour of the Louvre is not the same as visiting the Paris museum; the musical performance is a creature quite different than ever before when one can capture, sample, and remix various recordings. Even so late a comer to the humanities as the motion picture is no longer the same cultural artifact or experience it was in the 20th century -- not when one can experience films on a mobile device, on demand, and in computing contexts where audiences are as much creators as viewers.
Is this the Mona Lisa? This is the way it appears on the
official website of the Louvre. Studying a painting becomes
studying digital ways of manipulating its presentation.
(Image credit: Musée du Louvre, used by permission)

What is more, the sense-making frameworks that have been the staples of humanistic study are equally at risk. By such frameworks I mean physical locations (the museum, the classroom); methods of publication; methods of inquiry and expertise; theoretical premises; and finally, the very rhetoric of critique. People discover, learn about, make use of, comment upon, disseminate, and build upon art and literature in far different ways than they did back when we had fixed institutions and clear lines of expertise.

Context #2: A New Abundance
We have abundant access to traditional works of art and literature. We have abundant production of independently produced books, movies, and works of art, and in an abundance of new forms and formats (such as hypertext fiction, fanfiction, twitterature, book apps, etc.). We are also aswim in the abundance of data now available about content -- data that includes reviews.

In addition to all kinds of data about a book, Amazon
provides a system to review books and rank others' reviews.

There are abundant responses (and types of responses) to both traditional and new genres of art and literature. The long tail applies to types of works, to types of ways of encountering or experiencing those works, and to types of ways that such works are produced, consumed, analyzed, and discussed.

As "the people formerly known as the audience" begin interacting with media rather than passively consuming it, all of this Web 2.0 "user-generated content" becomes both a cavalcade of new content to be studied, and a torrent of secondary commentary in which people respond to the maelstrom of media in which we are inundated.

In short, there are more things to be studied than ever before; and this superabundance has called forth the need for critical response, a stopping of the flux and a sorting of the flow. How do we find and experience what is most worthwhile? Critical discernment is needed more than ever. Rhetorical skills are needed as never before so that we can mediate the media meaningfully. We need more than machines to help us to filter, to curate, and to critique. There is a critical need for critical voices.

Context #3: A Changed Rhetorical Approach
However, there is criticism and there is criticism. If we put the new wine of new media into the old bottles of traditional literary criticism, they will burst. Our rhetoric must change -- the way we form our responses, how we connect with audiences, the media through which we communicate criticism. Online one finds much of traditional literary criticism, but much more of a less formal variety. If we want to join the conversation, that's the conversation of consequence today.

Jeff Swift analyzes digital rhetoric, as in this post
discussing commenting genres and various commenting platforms

We are no longer in a world of fixed and finished knowledge, the sort of knowledge a printed book symbolized (and which print culture naturalized over several centuries). What is new outpaces our existing tools for even naming the novelties, let alone grappling with them critically as we have been accustomed to through long, studied, textually discursive means.

In other words, as much as we might admire the level of studied attention provided by a traditional book review, that sort of thing isn't calibrated very closely to the speed with which content is produced and the breadth of its dissemination. If we take months and several thousand words to evaluate a given work, we have let pass by the larger part of the conversation. Responses today happen in minutes or days, not weeks or months. They are often textual but rarely highly developed or edited; moreover, they are increasingly accompanied by images or they take place in video format.

In short, if we are to make meaningful critical contributions in today's fast and abundant flow of culture, we have to make our criticism match the medium: we must be more brief, more casual, more social, and more visual. 

This does not mean that critical discourse is being dumbed down, or that we must lower ourselves to the shallow attention spans of a hypermediated culture. Not at all. What it means is that we have to marry old and new, finding ways to bridge the immediacy and the hypermediated nature of online content with the more traditional kinds of reflective thought and accompanying discussion that has been valued in traditional book reviewing or analysis.

And so, a starting point in the evolution of the book review is to adapt it to the new media, adding to a traditional review the power and immediacy of social media.

The Traditional Book Review, Socially Mediated
I am asking my students first to write a traditional book review, though they are to circulate this through social platforms that transcend traditional publication of reviews. A traditional book review follows a formula:

  1. introducing the book
  2. outlining its plot or contents
  3. quoting and analyzing segments of the work
  4. providing an evaluation by applying criteria

In this traditional review, the reviewer uses nothing but text -- no images or video. That review is then submitted for approval or editing to an editor at a publication, and the review comes out many weeks or months later.

My students will follow this same rhetorical approach for their book review as enumerated above, though they will write more succinctly -- from 200 to 500 words instead of 1,000 or more. Another key difference is that they will circulate their reviews immediately over social media, with no delay (and with no editorial oversight, for better or worse).

Here is an example from a past student, +Allie Crafton. She read The Wisdom of Crowds and circulated her review in three different ways: 1) On Goodreads; 2) on her blog; and 3) on Google+. Note how in each instance her review reached a different social graph and invited different kinds of response.

First, she set up an account on Goodreads. The process of doing invites you to become friends on Goodreads with any existing friends who have accounts, or to invite friends not on Goodreads to join you there. This is a good idea to take advantage of. This service gains value for you personally the more you can connect with others. Another way to think of this is that friends are more likely to pay close attention to your book reviews than the general public (though the public will also be able to see and comment on your Goodreads reviews).

Once Allie signed up, she rated and reviewed the book and posted this review. (By the way, there is an option to simultaneously publish notice of the review to one's Facebook page. A good idea to involve another part of your social graph in your reading life).

Allie Crafton posted this review on Goodreads
and a longer version on her student blog.

Below is a screenshot from my Goodreads account. It shows Allie's review next to my review of the book and alongside reviews by some of my other Goodreads friends. Her review is more powerful in this social context. I see her review as part of a set of reviews by people whose opinions I value:

Posting it on her blog led to some good back and forth with a fellow student:

Next, note how on Google+ Allie got some conversation going by naming specific people. On Google+, this means those people would get notified that they were mentioned in her post (just as Allie is going to get a notice that I mentioned her in this Blogger post because I used the + sign in front of her name, a feature of Google integration):

Book reviewing is alive and well in the digital age. But it has evolved, importantly, to be integrated with the social media. In this way, books become a way of confirming and creating human connections. The socially mediated book review gives attention and authority to one's writing. Friends may like or share one's reviews, and then books become woven into your social and online identity. Not a bad thing.

I have seen some students really take to Goodreads, and I've learned a lot from them and appreciated the books they recommend. One student, +Emily Coleman, keeps a book blog, "Classics and Beyond" where she has over 100 posts (mostly book reviews). She's smart to post links to each review by way of her Google+ profile.

In the second part of "Evolution of the Book Review" I will discuss the video book review as an important alternative format for literary criticism today.