The litblog, short for literary blog, is a rising force, not just in the blogosphere and on the internet as a whole, but as part of a diverse multimedia landscape. They may be written by individuals or groups, but generally focus on literature, books, writing, publishing and associated events and issues. But beyond this, litblogs vary significantly in many ways: their intended audience, their writing style, design, layout, and what sort of literature they focus on. They offer a community hub for those enthusiastic about literature and a choice of alternative news, reviews and opinion from that of traditional media. They recognise their differentiation from traditional media outlets and embrace the online medium in myriad ways. As I will explore, litblogs range from the well-established to the emerging, but they all have their own strengths and weaknesses as individual websites.
LiteraryMinded is the online presence for Melbourne writer Angela Meyer, or Miss LiteraryMinded. It is one of the many blogs on the Crikey blog network and although the blog previously existed on Blogspot (it migrated to a WordPress platform when adopted by Crikey) it retains its individuality; beyond some links on the edges of the website, one could quite easily read the blog without ever reading about Crikey’s other content. Its focus is of course largely on Angela’ news, reviews, interviews and musings on literature, books, writing and publishing, with a particular emphasis on Melbourne and Australian events, authors and the like. True to the flexibility of the format, her blog often contains other styles of posts, such as book excerpts, poetry, competitions, ‘confessionals’ and periodically a ‘guest author’ post. She embraces the online medium in posts such as her ‘responsive interviews’, where she will email an author a series of questions in the form of a word, phrase, hyperlink, picture, audio file or YouTube video, and the author then responds, with the same multimedia freedom.
The main page, topped by the LiteraryMinded masthead, shows the ten most recent blog posts in their entirety. Beyond external ads, and ads for Crikey, the side panel contains numerous navigation tools: an About page link, links to her Twitter account and Shelfari page, her blogroll, recommended links and RSS feeds. Navigation to other parts of the website is fairly straightforward: there is an archive, a short list of categories and a list archived posts. Each post also has extensive tags, but these can strangely only be read once reading posts in the archives, not current posts. It seems to be only through the archives that one can browse by tags, which could be off-putting to some users. The Google search box is also somewhat out-of-the-way and tiny, but works well. Beyond the aforementioned external and social media links, community interaction is encouraged. Each post has the opportunity for readers to comment, and discuss with Angela and others readers.
Overall, the main page is well-designed and easy to navigate in a number of ways, but perhaps rather long and text-heavy to an unfamiliar reader. The writing for her posts is often long-form, divided into a number of different topics. The option to view a ‘summary’ or ‘list’ view of more of the most recent posts could be beneficial, containing just a headline, kicker (currently not used), categories and the under-utilised tags. As it stands though, readers can scan the page fairly easily, as while the text is rarely in very small chunks, there are descriptive headlines, bolded keywords, regular use of images and clear division between different topics.
In one recent post, ‘Queensland Poetry Festival special: Elizabeth Bachinsky’, the content is well-balanced and optimised for the web, although it is perhaps more concise and focussed than other posts. She uses an introduction (highlighted in blue), to provide context and link this post to other related posts in the series. She gives a brief outline of an author and a short interview/bio, interspersed with a picture, an embedded video and further related external links. The text is fairly well chunked and uses bold highlighting of key words to aid in scannable, easy-to-read text. The focus is on giving the reader all the information they may want on the topic, quickly but in an erudite fashion, utilising multimedia and linking freely. As a representative example of her posts, this is very well-optimised web content. She is not afraid of long-form writing, but generally understands the benefits of hyperlinking and multimedia content, presented in an easily scannable form.
3000 Books is one of the newer litblogs, started in 2007 and run by another Melbourne writer, Estelle Tang. Its main focus is book reviews: roughly one a week, but it also covers general and related literary news. It is based in a Blogspot platform and has a comparatively simple design. The main page is the seven most recent blog posts, again not summarised or in an immediately scannable form. While this may be an issue, it’s not so much of a problem as the posts tend to be quite short, and even those are chunked into small paragraphs. Those posts that aren’t short are single book reviews, identified by a single book cover photograph.
The side panel features a quick description of the site and author, what she’s currently reading, archive of previous posts, RSS feed, blogroll/recommendations and a very extensive list of tags used on the website. The site is very uncluttered-looking, with lots of white space (or yellow and pink space, in this case). She uses labels for most posts and this, paired with the search box at the top, make the site fairly easy to navigate. The use of general post categories could be beneficial though, as there is no way to sort between review posts and other types of posts. Additionally, although she utilises linking fairly extensively, she does not frequently link to other reviews or additional information on the books she reviews. More use of multimedia content beyond the occasional picture could also be beneficial to the site, but perhaps suits the intended bookish audience that may not mind reading mostly text. Speaking of audience, the blog of course has the option for comments.
As an example of a typical post, a recent review post ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned / Wells Tower’, contains a picture of the book, a link to a related review of hers and the review text. While other posts contain more extensive linking, it shows that she divides her posts into two general categories: miscellaneous news and reviews, with the latter being fairly similar in form to a print review, without utilising any of the potential of the online medium. This isn’t too much of a problem though, as she never lets her paragraphs or posts get too long-winded.
Overall, 3000 Books is somewhat plain and simple, but clean in presentation and reasonably easy to navigate. However, the non-review posts are not clearly headlined or tagged. But for a standalone website, it links quite extensively to others in the blogosphere, the writing and publishing community and broadly online. A very solid website, but some improvements could be made.
The Bookslut blog is part of the broader Bookslut website, a monthly web magazine and one of the older and more well-established of the litblogs. It was started in Texas in 2002 by Jessa Crispin, and while she is still the editor-in-chief, the website features a host of staff writers, columnists and occasional reviewers. The blog, however, is largely maintained by Jessa and Michael Schaub.
While the main website is updated monthly with features, columns and reviews, the blog is updated daily and accessible by one link on the homepage. Each post contains the date for a headline and a handful of short paragraphs of literary news, usually linking to a number of other related literary websites.
For such a well-established website and blog, it seems to be hesitant to emerge into the world of Web 2.0. The posts do not have space for comments, although there is a link to email the contributing author. But this lessens the strong sense of community this website could foster. Tags and categories are not used, so searching on a particular topic is left to the search bar. However, this seems to only search for things posted in the webzine, not the blog. I could find no sign of anything resembling an RSS feed for the blog either. Posts older than a week or so seem to disappear at the bottom of the page, with no apparent archive of old posts. A Google search revealed such an archive, but I could find no link to this myself. Finally, there are no pictures or any other multimedia in the blog posts. I would point out most of these issues if I were to suggest improvements, but for a dedicated reader, the site works well enough. As this is an old site for dedicated literary types, this probably partly explains the lack of all these features.
On the plus side, the blog posts are short and punchy enough to be easily scannable. They rarely go beyond a paragraph or two and are usually well-written and witty, which is an achievement for such short posts. It’s just a shame that any posts older than a week are hard to find. As it is, the blog may as well be just the one page, changing daily. Having said that, their content would be useful and interesting to their intended literary audience.
As I have explored, litblogs are as varied as any other website. All of them, from the most well-established to the freshest, have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s important for them to remember their audience, keep their content interesting, accessible and navigable and to remain up-to-date with online developments. If they do, literary aficionados will continue to happily frequent their websites, and they can stand as examples for web users in general of what makes good web content.
3000 Books. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website 3000books.blogspot.com
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned / Wells Tower. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via 3000 Books website 3000books.blogspot.com/2009/08/everything-ravaged-everything-burned.html
Bookslut. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website bookslut.com
Bookslut Blog. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website bookslut.com/blog/
LiteraryMinded. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded
Queensland Poetry Festival special: Elizabeth Bachinsky. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via LiteraryMinded website: blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2009/08/20/queensland-poetry-festival-special-elizabeth-bachinsky/