Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Striking a balance between old and new books

This is the latest debate to be doing the rounds, courtesy of Mark Charan Newton:
"Blog reviews are great. Reviewers do a great job at publicising great numbers of new titles. Where there were once gatekeepers to determining what a good genre book was, there are now hundreds of people all championing whatever worth they wish to.

But there is a fetish for frontlist titles. Frontlist – those books which are going on sale now, the ones hitting the shelves this year. The Next Big Thing. (And no I don’t mean all of you reviewers; I’m prodding the general culture, not individuals.)
What about the backlist, the great books from four or five years ago, the ones that no longer sit on table displays or promotions. What about classic genre literature? How do novels compare over time? What lineage do certain novels take, and to what do they owe their inspiration?
Questions that will largely go unnoticed, especially if bloggers are entranced on a) finding the next big thing and b) free review copies (because these will be the titles the publishers want you to read)."
This is an issue I've been aware of in the blogosphere for quite a while. Personally, I try to read and review both old novels and newer releases, as I appreciate that focusing purely on recent and upcoming releases doesn't give a decent portrayal of the genre. Then again, it's only natural for bloggers to focus on new books - by and large, these are the books we're sent to review.

Furthermore, fans are always looking for the next big thing - it's easier to get excited by a new book than an old one, as there's more buzz, more debate. To an extent, it's important as a blogger to have your finger on the pulse of the genre (although few of us can match Werthead for being first on the scene - sometimes I almost feel that he is the pulse, and the rest of us are actually just standing there touching him. Actually, scratch that - the mental picture is too disturbing).

 But older works are hugely important to the genre. And I don't mean the usual suspects like The Lord of the Rings or Ghormenghast, but books like The Book of the New Sun, The First Book of Lankhamar and Viriconium (I'm using examples that you might have heard of - there's far more examples out there that are perhaps more pertinent, such as The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick). These are books that often had a big impact on more modern writers, and to varying degrees have helped shape the genre we know today. It would be a huge mistake to ignore them in favour of newer releases.

It ought to be pointed out though, that this lack of "backlist action" is not the fault of bloggers, and is not even a recent problem: before the rise of the online book review blog, we had forums (as we still do) and the conversation on these (as it still is) is geared almost entirely around new/recent books. So to put in into perspective, blogs haven't caused this problem so much as highlighted it.

While I'd like to see more blogs reviewing older books, I don't expect to see it happen. Heck, I don't even read enough older books myself (even though I want and try to) - too many shiny ARCs on my bookshelf pouting and winking at me. And make no mistake, these new books are the lifeblood of the genre, so it's hard to ignore them. Overall, I think the best policy is one of balance. Or perhaps not even that; maybe a 70/30 split in favour of new books. Still, it's a policy that I don't expect to see implemented any time soon, though I might try and give it a go.

Anyway, enough rambling. What do you all think? Are you interested in discovering older books and reading reviews of them on blogs, or are you only interested in the here and now? Or is a book a book, and its age of no importance? Interested to hear people's thoughts.

Be sure to check out the comments section on Mark's post - plenty of good debate there as always.


Cara said...

Great post... you have given me a few ideas to run with :-)

Mimouille said...

I thing he's totally right. And that is why I review whatever I read and find interesting, old and new books alike (I always alternate between old and new in my readings).

Bloody Savage said...

Interesting points, and I agree that the classics of the genre are often neglected.
I for one would like to see more respect paid to Robert E. Howard, my all-time favourite author. That wildly creative man, his reputation and his great characters have been consistently shat upon by authors, ill-informed journalists and Hollywood hacks since 1940.
Without him, I doubt we'd have had David Gemmell, another perennial favourite, or Fritz Leiber for that matter. At least not in the ways we know and love them for.
Anyway, great blog dude, and keep up the good work.

Todd Newton said...

I'm always interested in "new to me" books, constantly in search of new book and new music recommendations. I guess maybe my only point against the "backlist" is that perhaps people assume the books have already been viewed/reviewed?

Aarti said...

This is something that has often worried me about blogging. That's why I started a feature on my blog called With Reverent Hands that highlights books that are often overlooked in the "new book" rush. I also plan to severely limit my intake of review copies starting in the next few months which will allow me to read more backlist titles.

James said...

Bloody Savage - funny you should mention Robert E. Howard, as since watching 'Solomon Kane' the other day, I've had an urge to check his stuff out. Must do so.

T.D - yeah, it's possible people think that because a book is 30 years old that it's already been reviewed to death, though this is usually not at all the case.

Aarti - sounds like a really good idea!

Neth said...

Travelling and working so I'm a bit out of pocket and haven't really followed this discussion much. But I'll throw in a few words.

My first reaction is 'oh please, stop your bitchin' to any who complain about what blogs cover and don't cover. Sure, there is a lot more room for discusson/reviews of older books, and it could make for a great blog, but so what. Bloggers read what they want, and it's no surprise that that we want to latest and greatest. I mean, how many posts do you see about how great the Commodore 64 is? (Sure, it's poor metaphore, but it works well enough).

I try to read a few older books every year, but really, I stick with what I want to read.

Dan Smyth said...

From what I can tell it pretty much comes down to a balance between number of reviewers contributing to a site and the number of books reviewed.

You made a great point, James, about how you'd like to review some older books but there are just so many dang new books coming out that are clamoring for your attention that the time is simply not available. A split between old and new would be nice, but to do such a thing AND still keep up with all of the new stuff coming out, you'd have to either give up your dreams of sleep and sanity or add more reviewers to your "staff".

The problem that I've seen with multiple-reviewer sites though is that each reviewer has his/her own likes/dislikes, and so instead of a "review site" that I can go to for a good recommendation, such a conglomeration of reviewers results in a conglomeration of separate reviews instead, and destroys the point of the exercise in the first place--that being to allow the public to come to one site and get good, comprehensive reviews from "one viewpoint" such that I can learn what the reviewer likes/dislikes and thus learn to trust them or go find someone else that I agree with more. The trick then, seems to be finding a group of reviewers with similar tastes. Not identical ones (good grief, I can't even fathom trying to pull that off) but ones that are similar enough that the reading public could learn to trust "the group" and not just "the individual". That then, is the goal.

The second big problem that I see with large-group review sites is when the idea of the blog turns from "giving a truthful review" to "giving a good review", for whatever purposes there might be for that. I stopped reading the reviews over at Fantasy Book Critic for exactly this reason. It seems like every review that they give makes the most recent book the hottest thing since the discovery of the nuclear bomb. The lack of this kind of review is one of the things that I truly enjoy about this site, James. The fact that I can read one of your reviews and get an honest opinion. You didn't hold back the punches when it came to Best Served Cold, though you did indeed enjoy the read. Abercrombie is one of the biggest names in the fantasy genre right now, and after reading the book you told it how it was. I respect that. And so I read your blog.

So, is putting together such a review site possible? Finding enough reviewers to keep up with the "new" while still dabbling in the "old"? Limiting the number and type of reviewers so that you never feel the need to "give a good review", and yet still allow for a common "viewpoint"? I don't know. But I can tell you this, if such could be done (and it hasn't yet to my knowledge) I'd read it. Especially if you were on the "staff". :)

My two cents.

Adam Whitehead said...

An interesting point. When I did the WHEEL OF TIME reread I actually had comments asking why I was rereading the books when there was plenty of new material to read? It's a good point, but you can't rely on new material forever. Going back and revisiting older books can be equally or more rewarding, and there is of course the fact that when you cover an older book it's more likely that lots of people will have read it and some good discussion can get underway. With new books there sometimes isn't much to say apart from, "Sounds good, will give it a look when it comes out,", especially if you are reviewing a pre-release ARC.

That said, my recent slew of re-reads has led to the ARC and new release pile building up, which I now need to work my way through before I can, for example, resume the DISCWORLD re-read project. At the moment I'm doing both, re-reading Daniel Abraham's first two LONG PRICE books which I read three years ago before tackling the last two, which I haven't read before.

michelle said...

I read a lot of older books, I am talking HG Wells, Ursula K Le Guin, Frank Herbert, John Wyndham, Judith Tarr, (not SF I know, but I read a LOT of non-SF!) but there are some incredible writers out there who are either not writing any more, or dead! And the ONLY reason I am reading them is that I can buy their books for 50cents at my Friends of the Library Book Store. Sad but true. If I could afford a shiny new book every few days I wouldn't be reading these older authors, so just as well I ain't rich!

Jebus said...

I think I tend to mix it up quite well. I've been reading the SFF genre since I was 9 years old (so that's, um... 23 years!) and occasionally re-read favourites.

I have absolutely no qualms about blogs or discussion boards mostly reading new material as it gives me a great resource to discover new works. Older authors I have mostly either heard of or read before and I know already if I do or will like them. There are just so many books out there, old and new, that getting to them all is impossible so having the discerning reviews online or old reviews from magazines or recommendations on discussion boards and comment sections is a very handy resource.

My recent reading history is a relatively good mix I'd like to think. I don't base my next book on whether it is old or new but mainly on whether I think I am in the mood to read it.

Here are my last ten reads in order, and it just so happens they are mostly new:
Ken Grimwood - Replay
Chelsea Cain - Sweetheart
Peter F Hamilton - A Second Chance At Eden
Ursula K Le Guin - The Dispossessed
Daniel Abraham - A Shadow In Summer (The Long Price 1)
Daniel Abraham - A Betrayal In Winter (The Long Price 2)
Daniel Abraham - An Autumn War (The Long Price 3)
Daniel Abraham - The Price Of Spring (The Long Price 4)
Steven Erikson - Crack'd Pot Trail (Bauchelain & Korbal Broach 4)
Adrian Tchaikovsky - Salute The Dark (Shadows of the Apt 4)

On my shelf and likely to be read in the next few months are "Book of the New Sun", "Gormenghast", "Paksenarrion", new Feist, David J Williams' "Mirrorred Heavens" and I am determined to re-read the classic "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" again sometime soon.

In the end it's all "to each their own" in my eyes and I really couldn't give a damn what anyone else is reading unless they recommend it to me 'cause they think I'll like it.

Anonymous said...

I think it’s interesting if a new book can be put in context – i.e. if the reviewer could relate it to what’s been before, its influences, thematic relationships etc. But I tend to pick up that sort of discussion from author interviews: they’re usually a good place for book recommendations. Perhaps full reviews of older books aren’t necessary, but the occasional post looking at the history of a particular movement or theme in the genre (or even outside it) might be a good way of summarising what’s out there and alerting readers to things they might otherwise not pick up. Over at the Guardian they're doing a read through of all the Hugo award winners which makes for quite an interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

I wish there were more backlist reviews. Maybe there actually need to be some dedicated backlist reviewing blogs...?

Basil said...

Being faaaairly young, I've never even heard of most of the backlist titles that a lot of people regard as staples of the genre. So I find it interesting to see what older books are out there rather than the next great debut.

Mostly I read reviews of new books only to notice that the reviewers are reading ARCs, which means the rest of us won't get them for ages! When I see a backlist book reviewed, I know I can get my mitts on it straight away.

Like everyone else mentioned, balance of new and old is a good thing, but considering that there are so many more backlist books out there, maybe it should be a 50-50 thing?

Elfy said...

This is a fairly topical article for me really. A couple of months back I read this list of 100 Must Read Fantasy novels and realised I'd only read a 3rd of them. Because a lot of them are considered classics of the genre they were published a while back. I decided to read and review everything on the list on my blog. I've already got Watership Down and The Malacia Tapestry up there and hope to have Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword up this weekend. Not one of these books was published after the mid 70's and they still read really well now. I wish I'd done this years ago.

Karen said...

Heck yeah, I read new and old. In fact, I have trouble keeping up with the new because my to-read shelf is full of older stuff. I'd say I'm running about 2.5 - 30 years behind at any given moment. ;)

Space Canon (http://www.urbanhonking.com/spacecanon/) consistently reviews "lost" SF classics--sort of like Tin House's "Lost and Found" section (which is awesome.)

Cara Powers said...

I have this problem to some extent. I'm trying this year to keep up with the new books so I can have an educated opinion on the British Fantasy Awards, the Hugos, and the Nebulas. So, I have to read the new stuff. I also have to read what's already been short-listed this year. (So far I've only read two - Boneshaker and The Windup Girl. Plus I'm on a mission to read all the past short lists. Unfortunately that goal often gets pushed aside with all the bright and shinies and the review copies. I haven't read the classics of the epic fantasy genre you've mentioned. I'll need to remedy that, too.