A Few Thoughts and Some News…

Tony ReadingIt’s been almost seven years since I started Tony’s Reading List, and the blog (not to mention the blogger) is starting to feel its age.  This year has probably been the most intense one to date, with the strain starting to show in many places, which is why I’m beginning to consider some changes to what I do.  The first one is being announced today, namely that I won’t be running my usual January in Japan event this time around, at least not in the way it’s been organised thus far.  Let me (try to) explain why…

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Over the past few years, as has become increasingly clear, the site has developed into a blog which focuses almost exclusively on literature in translation.  It has become a major review site, with more than 100 reviews of translated fiction each year, which, as it turns out, is a hell of a lot of work (you may not have realised that this isn’t actually my job…).  I’ve been fortunate enough to receive an increasing number of books from publishers over the past couple of years in particular, and this makes up a large part of my reading and reviewing.

However, as gratifying as that all is, it has had the effect of limiting me in my reading and reviewing a little, at times leaving me struggling to get around to older books, library copies and my own purchases.  When you add to that my slightly completist mentality and nature (and a tendency to go overboard), you can see how much time it takes to keep everything running smoothly.  I’m a regular participant in blog events such as German Literature Month, Women in Translation Month and the Shadow IFFP Panel; if you add January in Japan (and then take into account the fact that I feel compelled to spend the whole month on these events), that’s a fair chunk of the year gone already.

This year has also seen a new development as I’ve been lucky enough to have reviews and other pieces appear elsewhere.  My work has been published at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and the European Literature Network (with more to come).  Most of them have been unpaid so far, but I am starting to get more offers, which, while gratifying, entails even more hard work.

What I’ve also noticed, in the midst of all this frantic writing (and by the end of October, I had already posted more than 140 times this year, ignoring my pieces for other publications), is that while the quantity is certainly there, the quality isn’t always what it might be.  One of the challenges I’ve set myself with my foray into commissioned reviews is to give myself more time to work on pieces and not just pump them out.  I do work hard on everything I take on, but there are times when I feel that some of the lower-profile books get slightly more cursory treatment than I’d like.  I haven’t quite reached the stage of phoning it in (for one thing, there’s nobody to phone it in to…), but I have been tempted a couple of times😉

So, what does this mean?  Simply that I’ve been taking far too much on, and that it’s time to take stock and focus on the essentials.  From next year, I’m planning to accept (and ask for) fewer books, enabling me to read more of what I’m truly interested in (not just the latest book to appear in English).  This should also help with maintaining the quality of the reviews I do end up writing.  I also have to step back a little and decide what I want the blog to be, working out a healthy balance between reviews, external pieces and (of course) the rest of my life.  Quite apart from making time for my family (yep, I have one of those too…), there are areas connected with my work I’d like to pursue which I find hard to fit into my schedule because of my literary interests.

As I started the site in 2009 with the new year, a time when most online activity goes unnoticed, my bloggerversary usually passes quietly, so please consider this self-indulgent ramble as my annual moment of reflection on my blogging life, a ‘State of the Blog Address’, if you will.  After the best part of seven years of what has become easily the longest-running project or idea of my adult life, it’s time to decide what direction I want to continue in.  If I plan to go on with the blog (and I definitely do), it’s time to refocus, and simplify; otherwise, there’s a risk of simply throwing in the towel if it all becomes too hard.

So (and this is where we came in), I won’t be hosting January in Japan this year, although I will be reading some Japanese books and encouraging others to do so too.  There may well be a few other changes to the blog, and my blogging, in the near future too.  Whatever happens, though, rest assured that I’ll do my best to stay in touch – and keep reading and reviewing😉

38 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts and Some News…

  1. Hey Tony, I think you are wise to re-evaluate at this point. I have only been seriously blogging about books for a year and I have, over the course of the year moved so heavily into translated and/or indie publishers that I have been amazed at the exciting works I have found. Although it is nice to get books from publishers, one of the joys of blogging is being able to follow your whims a little, read off the back catalogue etc. I occasionally accept books from publishers or request galleys but even there I have ended up with a few things I could not get through. And I don’t want to write negative reviews or force myself to read something I don’t like. For that reason I won’t even consider the IFFP shadow jury again. I just don’t read fast enough and I ended up having to special order books I did not enjoy. I do expect I will try to read off both the IFFP and the BTBA lists but not overstretch myself. After all both lists provided some of my best reads of the year.

    I know many book bloggers do spend a lot of time writing reviews and I think that quality is something to strive for. We are often considered wannabe’s and that is not fair. However writing beyond your blog is an important step and, as you know, it can be a much more demanding exercise. I just wrote my first review for Numero Cinq (for the December issue). I read the better part of the book three times (it was short stories), researched, listened to related podcasts and then, when the editor wanted me to expand on some themes I ended up digging through other works that I haven’t read (or at least not recently) to offer more than an anecdotal support for my argument. I ended up with 2500 words! But it is a terrific opportunity, one where I was approached by the editor, and I think it will be a great fit. I plan to do a review every 2-3 months but it can lead to longer essays and interviews. And of course, none of this pays, it the editor’s labour of love, but the experience is invaluable and helps build the biography (my first is pretty scant). You have such a wealth of experience in the areas of literature that interest you like, say Korean lit, that can be parlayed into larger pieces and maybe be picked up by other online or even print journals. But, like you say, the blogging will have to be scaled back a bit.

    Happy anniversary and best wishes for new and exciting opportunities ahead!

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    1. Joe – Moving into external reviewing is one of the major reasons for stepping back and rethinking what I’m doing. It’s been fascinating to get someone else’s views on what I’m writing (I’ve been my own editor for far too long). I never intended to become a reviewer when I started the blog, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in pursuing now, on a small scale at least. And you’re right that the raeding I’ve done for the blog is the reason I’m able to expand into other areas…

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      1. Tony & Joe –

        Keeping a blog going is definitely hard work, and I think there’s a tipping point for many bloggers when they stop to think about where they want this book review thing to go. I’ve found myself in the same position – reviewing less and less as the actual writing of the reviews takes longer and longer (and somehow has to be fit into other life commitments)… and let’s face it, I was never that prolific to begin with!🙂

        One thing I’ve been struggling with and am curious as to how you both feel is whether or not to give up the blog completely and devote all efforts to being published in other outlets? Being published on sites focused on books (but which don’t necessarily pay) is kind of wonderful – but the reviewer’s name often gets lost in the mix. So there’s the decision as to whether you want to keep the content for your own site or send it out to editors. Like Joe, I am not a fast reader or reviewer, so it’s a real concern.

        Selfishly I hope that you both will continue on with your blogs. In the big scheme of things there’s not that many bloggers with the focus on translation and international lit. It will be interesting to see where this all takes you.

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        1. Tara – It’s an interesting question. I certainly wouldn’t want to walk away from the blog (not at this point in time, anyway); however, I do feel that when you’re asked to review elsewhere, it gives people a slightly different view of your worth, almost as if you’ve received extra validation. Perhaps, I’m just needy, but I do enjoy being asked to contribute elsewhere and seeing myself among the names quoted around the blocks (even if it’s a very small block…). In short, I think I’m moving towards balancing the two acts – whether that’s possible is another matter…

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  2. I completely understand that feeling of taking too much on – and am always surprised myself how long a book review takes (even an apparently cursory one – or is that just our conscience forcing us to do a good job rather than ‘phoning it in’?). I will miss January in Japan, but fully support your decision to refocus on the things you enjoy most and need to do most – and allowing a bit of time for randomness and mood to creep in.

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    1. Marina Sofia – I do wonder if the average reader realises how long these things take; for me, most posts take at least an hour or two (when you add up the editing time), longer if it’s more involved. It all adds up😉 I’m still hoping to encourage people to read for January in Japan, even if it’s far less structured and involved than in recent years.

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  3. From the moment I saw you’d started working full-time, I knew you’d have to scale back somewhere. The important thing to remember is that you need to focus on what gives you pleasure. Once unpaid blogging/reviewing becomes a chore, it’s not worth the effort (unless it’s part of a plan with a destination.)

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    1. Lizzy – For someone with a compulsive nature, it’s sometimes hard to see where the line between pleasure and chore is! It’s certainly time to take a little step back, though, and give myself some boundaries whcih will help me to enjoy my blogging experience🙂

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  4. I think scaling back is probably the only sane thing to do. I’m often amazed at how many books others can read and blog about but I just have to tell myself ‘I am not a reading machine’. I think it’s a good idea not to blog about everything I read; it’s quite nice to let some books slip away without a comment.

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  5. Whatever you do, Tony, thanks for the constant flow of reviews to date. Finding something I would like to read can be difficult, but I have bought many books after reading your reviews, Cheers.

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  6. The pressure to review each book, to take part in challenges and join in with all the online events is immense, and I’ve tried to draw back a little too; now I only go into these things if it fits in with what I’m reading or about to read. The main thing is to enjoy it – after all, that’s why we read, isn’t it?🙂

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  7. This is the reason I don’t ever review outside my blog and won’t be in the future I have had offers in past but always refuse as my solo focus is the blog and translated fiction I spent last few month trying to bring a better routine to mu blog and upping my review rate I will miss January in Japan as just the other day when I got Oe I considered how few japanese books I have under review but this will come in time and as I have managed like you to do 170 posts this year which for me has in the first six months been a joke blog wise but I have manage to review and post as I feel I need to last few months I’m pleased to have done that many

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    1. Stu – There’ll still be some J-Lit around in January, but the focus will be on reading rather than promoting a big event this year – still hoping to get people reading some Japanese books, though😉

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  8. Good luck, a re-evaluation sounds like a good idea. I haven’t been blogging as long as you and already I sometimes feel it begins to take over. I had stopped accepting/asking for review copies but had a couple of weak moments a few weeks ago and ended up with ten within two or three weeks. Some via net galley some via post but I immediately felt under enormous pressure to read them all at once. I don’t react well to pressure. I have learned my lesson. This blogging life has to remain a pleasure.

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  9. I had similar thoughts earlier this year (after a similar length of time blogging), and I’m by no means as prolific as you. But I’m glad to have stepped back and thought through what I wanted to do with the blog. Good luck with whatever you decide!

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  10. Hi Tony, it’s always good to relax a bit. As I’ve said before you have a wonderful blog and it would be a shame if you couldn’t continue with it because you want to do too much. I had the same problem with my own blog. After two months of silence I posted today my first new message. Good luck and greetings, Erik

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  11. Well, I certainly never noticed a reduction in quality!
    It’s important to remind yourself why you do something (and it won’t be the Same for everyone) every so often so you can re-evaluate.
    I rarely get review copies, which sometimes annoys me – but then I remember the pressure I felt to review immediately and also the time I didn’t like the book and had to post a (slightly) negative review – if I’d bought the book, it wouldn’t have bothered
    me.
    It’s not a job – you need to enjoy what you’re doing! Better to scale back than to stop all together.
    Good luck with whatever you decide.

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    1. Grant – No, it’s definitely not a job, even if it can feel that way at times! I think a slight step back will do me the world of good – once I’ve finished replying to all these comments😉

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  12. So many things I’ve been thinking and feeling, so well expressed here! I’m very new to the writing-for-other-outlets thing, but I want to spend a lot more time and energy on that next year, and so have already started to dial back review books and what not (though I was never as prolific as you!)

    I feel a certain “duty” to small press CanLit, probably like you feel towards translation. And I don’t want to get away from that, but I do want more freedom to read what I want, and to get back into classics, which is what I started blogging about in the first place.

    I don’t know if it’s the case with Japan in January, but I find with blog events I host of take part in, there are other bloggers who will take up the torch… even if you’re still there. For example I think there are three separate versions of Novellas in November going on right now!

    Good luck and thanks for this post.

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    1. Laura – Thanks for the kind words🙂 It does feel like you’re taking on a sort of ethical responsibility sometimes with niche literary areas – it’s important to step back and realise that nobody is forcing you to be that ambassador…

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  13. Your plans sound very sensible. I’ve been cutting down on the amount of time I spend blogging too. Producing quality content is a fantastic goal and I often wish I had the time to perfect a review – I can get a draft out very quickly, but could spend hours reworking it. When we do all this for free justifying the time it takes to produce quality is hard. Good luck with your future plans!

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  14. I think you are right. At one point I kept feeling that I wasn’t keeping up with a whole range of interesting books coming out in translation (you pointed out that my Korean section was woefully inadequate, though I think you were politer than that). Moreover, I wanted to read books originally written in English as there was a lot of interesting stuff there. Sadly, as you have pointed out, we have other commitments and blogging takes time. I have decided that there are a whole slew of worthwhile new books that, frankly, I shall never get round to reading. Too bad. I have decided that I want to read what I want to read. I will not take part in challenges, reading months, etc nor review for anyone else because who has the time? I ask for relatively few books to review, because I feel a certain obligation to review them if I do. I shall read lots of old books because there are a lot of old books worth reading that I have not read, both in English and other languages. I hope people like what I review. I am certain that somewhere out there, someone is going to be interested in everything I do and,perhaps, they will read some of the books that I recommend.

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    1. TMN – Yes, far too many good books out there for one person to cover. It’s definitely time for me to step back a little from review copies – I don’t know the exact number for this year, but it’s horrendously high… Like you, I’d prefer to be choosing a wider range, and many more I’ve sourced myself.

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