Friday, October 20, 2006

New York Times, 18.12.05: What Are the Blogs Saying About Me?


ALMOST every author I know with a new book does it - the embarrassing, nearly irresistible, ritualistic dip into Internet-assisted narcissism. I know I do. Prodded by a combination of curiosity and dread, I'll scour the Web not just to ascertain sales (impossible) or check out the press coverage, but to get a sense of what ordinary readers are saying about my book when they think I'm not listening.

Thanks to blog search engines like Technorati, IceRocket and Feedster, writers have easy access to the latest entries, where bloggers and their readers post both in-depth and off-the-cuff reactions to the books they're reading. Some readers expound on books on their pages on MySpace, a social networking site popular among younger people. From near-professional literary sites like Beatrice and MaudNewton to rough online diaries, blogs offer insight into what readers are thinking in a way that Amazon, with its simplistic star spectrum and short (and often manipulated) reviews, does not.

For some authors, blogs provide the first indication that someone other than family members and people who owe them favors are reading their books. "Blogs are like reports from a far-flung world," said Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of "Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness." "It's the first evidence that there's a conversation out there about my book I wasn't aware of," he said. "My instinct is enormous curiosity about who these people are."
That interest, oddly, isn't always reciprocated. A. J. Jacobs, author of "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World," was miffed to find a blogger who described his own efforts to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z, just as Jacobs did for his book. But after seeing that the blogger credited him, Jacobs e-mailed him compliments and an offer of support. The blogger never wrote back. "I guess he's too busy reading the encyclopedia," Jacobs said.

Of course, the blogosphere can also be a rough place for fragile egos. Rick Moody, a self-described "suppurating wound of vulnerability," admits to having plugged his name into Technorati on several occasions. "I can graph it onto my serotonin levels," said Moody, whose new novel is "The Diviners." "It's like taking a pill to enhance suicidal ideation. Even the good ones make me want to kill myself."
Years ago, after someone sent Amy Tan a link to a Web site where one anti-fan declared "Amy Tan must die," Tan fired off a prophylactic e-mail message asking friends and colleagues not to forward comments culled from the Internet. "I think it's great that readers are having spontaneous dialogues about my work online," she said, "but I don't think I should necessarily listen in." She likens looking herself up online to overhearing gossip at a cocktail party. "You might hear some good things about yourself, but you may also hear something devastating."

Also among the blogophobic is Maureen Dowd. "I'm super sensitive and I think I'd get too depressed," said Dowd, whose new book is "Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide." Instead, she employs proxy searchers. "It seems narcissistic to be trolling around looking for mentions of yourself, though I am thrilled to be blogged about," she said. "My sister and my assistant show me things they think I need to see. But I don't want to get too caught up in it myself."

While the temptation to correct errors - which often reverberate from blog to blog - can be strong, counterblogging can be counterproductive. Authors report sad tales of the flaming feedback loops that follow such confrontations. David Marcus, author of "What it Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out," discovered a blog insinuating he had been paid off by one of the schools he profiled. "My gut was to dash out a denial, but then I checked myself," he recalled. "I realized that all a response would do is spread this untruth from one electronic forum to another and give substance to the accusation."

Occasionally, however, authors' interactions with their bloggers prove fruitful. Cass Sunstein read a discussion of one of his articles about conservative judicial radicalism on The Volokh Conspiracy, a group blog organized by Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in which Sunstein was invited to respond. "We had an interesting exchange and there were a lot of comments," said Sunstein, who teaches law at the University of Chicago. The discussion even spurred him to make changes to "Radicals in Robes," the book he was writing at the time. "There's no question that 'Radicals in Robes' was affected by a kind of pre-publication review on a blog," he said.

But unlike formal reviewers, bloggers aren't inhibited by the fact-checker's pencil or concern for professional reputation. Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of "Freakonomics" and an avid blog reader, happened upon the blog of someone who had given "Freakonomics" a middling review in a major newspaper. On his blog, however, the reviewer let loose, saying in less than delicate language that he thought the book really stank.

At best, blogs can be the electronic version of word-of-mouth selling. Luis Alberto Urrea has written more than 10 books, but it wasn't until he published his novel "The Hummingbird's Daughter" earlier this year that he experienced the joys of being blogged (sympathetically) on sites like Bookslut and La Bloga. "I had never paid attention to that whole world before," said Urrea. Now, he has his wife comb the Web every morning, filtering out anything too harsh. "You're always braced for bad news," he said, "but blogs have been so friendly." Urrea (who said he responded to every e-mail message he got) compares the blog world to a country store with a cracker barrel, where he and his readers are playing checkers. "It's so immediate and informal."

Diana Abu-Jaber, whose recent memoir "The Language of Baklava" became a staple on food blogs this year, takes a similarly rosy view. "It's wonderful when people send me e-mails and letters, but when you read a blog, about your book, you feel like you're entering into a conversation," she said. "People develop ideas and apply your book to their lives in a very immediate way." After uncovering a community of cooking blogs where readers exchange recipes and stories, Abu-Jaber responded to a number of bloggers, eager to share recipes. "They seemed shocked when I wrote," she said. "I have the feeling they weren't sure people actually were reading them."

But at least one author who has spent time on both sides of a blog takes a more mixed view. "Blogs can hurt because they're so personal," said Julie Powell, who turned her popular blog about cooking her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" into the book "Julie and Julia." "Nobody's getting paid, there's a lot of invective." Powell's own experience as a blogger has inured her to some of the more vicious comments, including the torrent of abuse directed at her after she said something "very ill-considered" about food bloggers in an interview with Salon (which was also host to her blog). "An author who writes his book in solitude is protected from reader responses along the way. Whereas as a blogger, you're used to hearing those responses, good and bad."

Having gone from blog to book, Powell says she's turned into a bad citizen of the blogosphere, no longer regularly checking herself out on blogs. "To me," she said, "seeing myself in print media is the fascinating thing."

Pamela Paul is the author, most recently, of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families."


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