Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Reviewing is NOT the Same as Sitting on the Couch Watching Bad TV

Earlier this week, Jason Boog reported on Arianna Huffington's keynote speech at the "Tools of Change" conference. As I read the summary, I thought: Hey, Arianna! I'm with you! Especially when I read: "Huffington also explored the idea behind The Huffington Post books section, rejecting 'this magical pub date'-- the traditional time-period for scheduling book reviews and running book tours. 'Forget about it--the idea that you have three weeks between pub date and oblivion. It doesn't have to be like that,' she said, earning a smattering of applause." (A smattering of applause? I should think she would have received a standing ovation, at least from the writers and publishing professionals in the room.)

Anyway, as I say, I was with her--until I read this:

"Finally, she addressed the perennial criticism that many writers on the site don't get paid. 'Self expression is the new entertainment,' she explained. 'We never used to question why people sit on the couch for seven hours a day watching bad TV. Nobody ever asked, 'Why are they doing that for free?' We need to celebrate that moment rather than question it.'"

(Spoken like someone who might have both a huge divorce settlement AND a slew of advertisers and may not exactly depend on income generated by her own writing to pay her bills.)

Now, it may surprise some of you to learn that I'm just as capable of sitting on the couch for seven hours (when I have seven hours to spare) watching bad TV as the next person. (While I'm in confession mode, I may as well tell you that last weekend my sister and I went to see Kathy Griffin perform here New York. She--Kathy Griffin-- was hilarious. There. By the way, if you don't watch television, don't bother going to see Kathy Griffin. Whenever she's not imitating her mother, she's talking about various reality shows and "characters. Or Anderson Cooper. Or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.)

But I digress.

When I write, the "entertainment" factor differs significantly from what results when I stare at my TV. Any "entertainment" that comes from reviewing, for instance, is pure pleasure from the work, satisfaction from reading a book I (hopefully) want to tell others about (for that matter, reading it at least twice), thinking about that book, rechecking everything from the list price to the page count, and writing and crafting a text that will make sense and perhaps even resonate with readers. It's work. It may be absorbing, self-expressive, and even entertaining work. But even if we choose not to be paid for it--as we might when writing for a particular cause/organization--it's still work.

It's not sitting on a couch watching bad TV.

3 comments:

Theresa Milstein said...

When I've seen Arriana Huffington interviewed, she always seems levelheaded. I agree with you that this a woman out of touch. Unlike most of us, she's probably not fretting over paying her bills.

Erika D. said...

You're right, Theresa--there was something uncharacteristically un-levelheaded about this speech.

JBranch said...

I agree: writing is certainly work, whether or not we're paid for it. BUT... the sharing of unpaid written material on blogs (and the HuffPost is in large part a group blog, isn't it?) has a big similarity to the shareware movement in computer programming. (And probably to other things I'm forgetting.) Shareware and freeware are essentially the product of programming work done for free. A text-editing program I use, called Scrivener, is available as shareware in a time-limited trial; a highly capable graphics program, called GraphicConverter, is full-fledged shareware (users can pay if they want). I could pursue this line but won't.

Remember the notion of "amateur" as one who pursues an activity out of love, rather than as a profession. No doubt most of us would like to be paid for writing, but there has long been a certain distinction between how one uses one's skills and how one gets food, housing, money (as the varieties of patronage in the old days attest).

One big issue with the HuffPost and other large-scale group websites is that, when they start to sell advertising and/or resemble a traditional publication in other respects, their contributors are apt to want some of the spoils, because it looks like a newspaper or magazine to them.