I follow manga blogs. I read ANN reviews. I follow communities on LiveJournal and syndicated feeds and follow a few Twitter accounts to keep up with news, reviews and commentary. I’m not writing this because I am a manga blogger or reviewer, I’m doing it as a reader, to make a case for manga bloggers, because I can see, sometimes subtly, somtimes overtly, their desperation to know that what they’re doing is actually making a difference: that it actually has a point. But more importantly, I want to express what I feel that point actually is, because a lot of people have this sort of expectation of what reviewing is supposed to be that simply doesn’t fit with how it is used by myself specifically, but I should think by many others as well. Maybe I’m throwing my hat into a ring that has enough hats in it already, but I do think there is a value in trying.
Why do I read reviews?
In the last few years my disposable income has shrunk by more than half. I spent an entire summer (and a little more) unemployed, eating away at my savings while scraping together enough money to afford a long-in-coming vacation. I have more than one hobby. Many manga readers are also anime fans, myself included, and anime is more expensive (per purchase, anyway) and just as time-consuming as equal-lengthed manga. I also play video games, study martial arts, listen to popular music and buy Domo merchandise like some crazed drug addict. Basically, first and foremost, I simply don’t have the time or money to be out there browsing shrinking anime and manga aisles trying to find things on my own and taking financial risks in doing so.
And believe me, I used to impulse buy all the time (back when I had more money and the economy didn’t suck). I didn’t know what I’d like, so I’d browse, pick something up and run with it (or not if I ended up not liking it). But so many of the titles I was collecting ended in the last couple years (Fruits Basket, Hellsing, Death Note, xxxholic) and the opened slots have been harder to fill these days. Between titles on hold or caught up in Japan (Nana), on (indefinite) hiatus with US Publishers in this terrible economy or lost completely to the shuttering of US imprints (Hotel Africa, I Hate You More Than Anyone) and even just titles on ridiculously slow release schedules it’s painful to wait between volumes (Claymore), there’s just a void where a usual monthly allowance of manga buys and reads used to go.
I know there are plenty of places to find information about titles you might like to buy. Hell, Amazon has a whole page tailored to recommending titles to you based on your purchases, browsing history and ratings of other titles. But it’s the opinions of others that make the most difference. The problem is, as a thirty-something single woman not living in the center of the universe, my options for like-minded peers, ones that even like manga to begin with, are severly limited. So, as I’m sure many manga fans do, I turn to the internet. Online communities are a great place to start. They’ll get you in on the ground floor of whatever is the biggest, hottest title right-this-very-minute. For new fans looking for their niche, this is where you want to be, where you want to talk to other manga fans and get ideas. But I’m not a new manga fan anymore, I found my niche, and I go to my online communities to gab about older titles that I already own, not the next new thing. Sure, sometimes someone is reading something new, something I haven’t read myself yet, and I get interested, but to be honest, I find that my taste in manga and most other people’s taste in manga only coincide in the very few titles that we already share in common and the roundabout conversation that spawns new recommendations is sometimes simply more time-consuming than I care to deal with some days. I want to find out if a title is right for me in 500 words or less and I can’t always rely on my fellow fandomers’ opinions or recommendations because it is too mired within the small niche community of which I am also a part. Just because my friend liked a title doesn’t mean I necessarily will as well. It’s really only a jumping-off point for more research before I commit to buy and that’s where the reviews come in handy.
How to Actually Use Manga Reviews
Now, just because I’ve grown too picky, possibly snobbish, in my manga tastes to rely on one group of opinions and that I know I need to find an “outside” opinion before I buy, doesn’t mean my work is done. Finding reviewers you can work from takes time and effort. The goal isn’t to find someone like-minded, or even opposite-minded. The goal is to find someone who can tell you enough about a title and what they thought of it to make an informed decision about purchasing it. Sure, it’s often easier to use someone you always agree or always disagree with, but the odds of actually finding such a reviewer are near zero. Instead, it is in the detail of the opinion that is the key. If a reviewer didn’t like a book because of a particular over-used manga cliche they have a pet-peeve about, compare that opinion to your own over the same issue. Do this piecemeal for all the little details until you have a good picture of the title and its relation to your tastes. It’s not about high art or literary criticism in most cases. Manga is a commercial medium. It is meant to be consumed and enjoyed, not necessarily appreciated for its intellectual value.
That’s not to say that literary criticism has no place, or that extensive discussion of titles in a more academic environment than your fandom community has no value, but if we’re just talking about reviews, to make an informed decision about purchases, you really don’t need more than this.
The Case for Manga Blogging
I work my ass off at a job that pretty much makes me miserable and like many others who escape into manga and other hobbies, I need these sources of escape– of entertainment– to relax and unwind after yet another day as a slave to the grind. Some nights I get home and all I want to do is watch the last 25 minutes of Bones (because it’s whatever weeknight it’s on and I forgot again, and House ended) and not think about anything. Some nights I get home and I want to chat with my fandom buddies about J-random Yaoi release that’s (hopefully, actually) coming out next week and oh, how excited we all are. Some nights I get home and I spend 3 hours trolling the internet to get the best pre-order price for some Domo merchandise that may or may not ever actually see release (still waiting for that color-changing mug…). But, some nights I want to think, and what I want to think about is not how depressing my job is, or how crappy the economy is, or any of the horrible things going on in other parts of the world. I don’t even want to think about fandom concerns, like the future of anime or piracy. On those nights I want to think, and not about literature I was forced to read in college that bored me to tears. I want to think about something I actually enjoy. I want to think about manga, and in more than a squealy fangirly way. Sure, it’s not “insert high-minded classic literary figure’s name here,” but it’s better than killing brain cells watching yet another crappy reality TV show involving bitter housewives verbally assaulting each other (seriously, turn that shit off).
Very few conversations within fandom focus in on a title in a way that can also be a step back and away from it, drawing comparisons, not only to other titles within its own genre, but to the world around us. Most introspection about how storytelling shapes our lives is done quietly and within us, often subconsciously. It is rare we are given an opportunity to have a discussion about it in a relaxed (usually) and open forum, where not only do we read what other people have to say about the subject, but we as the readers are invited to participate, and not just with each other, with the writer(s) as well. Manga is the right medium, blogging the right format and casual, friendly discussion the right mix of social engagement and intellectual challenge.
Some of the manga I have bought (or put on a wishlist and received as gifts) directly as a result of manga blogs, reviewers and discussions over the last several years: Nana, Hotel Africa, Butterflies Flowers, Emma, Eternal Sabbath, Dramacon, Black Bird, Akihabara@DEEP, Silver Diamond, Bride of the Water God, Solanin, Endless Comfort, Double Cast, Ooku, Afterschool Nightmare and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei. I’m not saying I love all of these titles, or even that I’ve read all of them yet, but I would not have considered them at all had I not read about them in this form first.