Friday, June 15, 2007

In defense of blogs

We interrupt our regular, spunky programming for some serious debate. Comments and counterarguments are quite welcome.

Recently it seems everywhere I turn, bookblogs are discussing some rather mean-spirited articles from literary critics. There are several such articles out there, but I’ve chosen to focus on only two, those of The Sun’s Adam Kirsch and The Guardian's Rachel Cooke, both of whom downplay the importance of bookblogs, arguing that they are untrustworthy, poorly written, and entirely too personal. Both seem to agree that while bloggers have a right to write about books, they should not be taken seriously but instead ignored on the whole. Just for fun, and because I do feel as though I’m doing meaningful work here, I’ll try to argue in my defense and in the defense of all bookblogs.

Let me be clear that it is not my intention to besmirch the importance of serious book reviews or literary criticism in general; rather my aim is to prove that both are absolutely necessary to foster a love of reading in a society that desperately needs its attention redirected to more important, more intellectual pursuits. However, I cannot help but notice that denunciations of the bookblog come after many newspapers have decided to cut their book coverage; can it be possible that such condemnation is more akin to a literary death howl, the last bitter stand of a dying and wounded animal? One has to admit the possibility.

Do I believe literary criticism should die? Again, absolutely not, but I do believe that it is too stuffy and impersonal for the everyday reader and generates no enthusiasm for reading outside the small sphere of professionals who make literature the focus of their lives. While that in my opinion is certainly a glorious way to live, such is not the way for the everyday citizen -- the exact person who needs to feel more passionate about reading. Because the bookblog is exactly the vehicle by which to inspire this enthusiasm, I believe that it is just as important to the literary world as is serious literary criticism.

Why? Well let’s see. My main priority in writing my blog is to get people excited about reading. No matter what the book, I want to be moved by it — for better or for worse. My reviews are never objective, never “serious,” because rarely does such discussion provoke passionate debate, and such passion is absolutely necessary in a society in which books are rarely the focus of mainstream attention (unless, of course, you happen to be a certain boy wizard). My aim is to get people talking about books, about reading – to remove one's attention from the vapidities that often fritter away our time and attention. It is a sad world indeed when we are more concerned with scrutinizing rehabbing celebrities than with following political leaders. If people talked about books like they talked about television and movies, the world would be a different place. The bookblog allows for this form of discussion among (if you will) the proles in a way that more serious criticism does not. In other words, the blog is the best place for enthusiastic, democratic dialogue about books.

The first general argument against bookblogs is that they are badly written and therefore lack any merit whatsoever. Style is, of course, a matter of taste. Admittedly, some are badly written; however, to say that all are badly written is an assertion only too easy to knock down, even though what constitutes good style varies from reader to reader. It may be possible that Ms. Cooke didn’t find any blogs to her liking, but even she can’t deny her bias against the bookblog to begin with. At any rate, just because bookblogs might be badly written does not bring shame on the entire bookblogging world. There are many badly written books, songs, movies, you name it; of course, it then stands to reason that badly written blogs exist as well. We do not have to pay attention to them, but they do no harm in existing. Hell, there are many ugly children out there in the world, but they have a right to life just as their prettier counterparts do. I mean, really, must we start picking on ugly babies now? Let’s leave the little beasts alone.

The second general argument against bookblogs is that they are untrustworthy, which is interesting coming from critics clearly biased in their own right. That’s not a bad thing, though: literature is intensely subjective, intensely personal – can a truly trustworthy review be written? I submit that no review is entirely trustworthy: “real” critics can have as much of an agenda as a blogger. I’ve read many an awful book praised, and I’ve read many excellent books panned in the press as well. That's okay, though: reading is an intensely personal act, and reviews will vary to fit the tastes and perceptions of the reader. To say that bookblogs are untrustworthy because bloggers feel disenfranchised and resentful is such a glaring generality, however, that it cannot possibly be true. Certainly some are, but an always/never argument is simply too easy to disprove.

I don’t mind if Mr. Kirsch prefers to believe that bloggers feel disenfranchised and resentful (I certainly don’t but I can admit that others might) or that “those who can, do, while those who can't, blog” (although that’s kind of a low blow), but it does seem downright silly to claim that “the blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature.” Why not? Because “it doesn't offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on”? Sure it does – if you’re constantly reading. The experience of reading is multi-faceted and affects all areas of one’s life; if one is immersed in books on a daily basis, there is always something to talk about. Only one who does not live a daily life of reading would have trouble writing daily about books. Interestingly enough, I believe newspapers include only a weekly literature supplement; does that mean they too lack material to fill a daily column about literature? Apparently. But saying the newspaper is therefore “not well-suited to writing about literature” sounds as silly as saying that the blog is ill-suited for the same reasons.

The final gripe against book blogs involves their highly personal nature. I cannot agree that personal reflection is a negative when it comes to reviewing books. As I’ve already noted, the great thing about literature is that it is personal; it allows an individual to reflect on her life and the world around her – she internalizes it, using it as a mirror by which to reflect her own experiences. If one’s experience of literature is deeply personal, why shouldn’t reviews be? Why is it wrong to say that you’ve been meaning to read a given book for some time or that you bought it discounted? Do not all of these experiences factor into one’s subconscious experience of the work? Should we not appreciate and even celebrate all aspects of reading? The bookblog is just the thing to allow for the every day reflection of literature and not the newspaper or magazine, both of which cannot maintain daily (with exceptions like The New York Times, of course) lit discussion.

To reiterate: literary criticism is all well and good; I read it often and find it necessary to the discussion of serious literature. It is not, however, something the everyday reader wants to read and it is exactly that sort of person who needs to get excited about literature and who will benefit from bookblogs. It is inconceivable that the validity of one is antithetical to the validity of the other. Generating literary conversation and writing about literature is what is ultimately important.

As I’ve said many times before – in fact, my whole blog is centered around this idea – I believe that reading enables one to live better. Reading enriches our experiences and opens minds. If we propagate the idea that a valid discussion of literature comes only from the elite, we are alienating the large part of society who wants no part of literary criticism. A passionate discussion of books must be praised wherever it is found; doing so will hopefully generate more readers, more people living better because of being richly-read.

Perhaps then I have argued that I am not writing so much about books as I am about the experiences my reading occasions. So be it. But such passionate discussion (whether prompted by books or the life that is affected by them) is something I see daily on this and several other bookblogs, and it has got to be better than remaining silent, analyzing instead the latest celebrity baby bump.


Sean said...

I think that people in the print medium suffer from an incurable superiority complex. They always believe that they are much smarter than those who work in other media and are also certain that their work is better, more important even.

I also think they are worried about losing their jobs.

Bloggers have opened the door to a national (international, too) discourse on nearly everything. No longer can book critics merely hand down their pronouncements from on high and expect the unwashed masses to accept them without argument (I notice the Guardian article did not allow comments. Hmm.). It takes courage to post something that you have written and be willing to face anonymous criticism. It takes even more courage to respond to your critics.

The Internet (if you can get past all the porn) has really become the marketplace of ideas. Some people just aren't comfortable with the fact that this may devalue their own worth.

Keep doing what you do.

Marva said...

Yeah! What he said! Okay, that was erudite and clearly probing into the mystery of life and death.

Everybody keep blogging. The good blogs will live, the bad blogs will die. Survival of the fittest and it's finest.

Marva said...

Damn! I meant 'its finest.'

Kimber An said...

Hi, Marva! Thanks for the heads-up.

I say ignore the naysayers and let's just go on our merry way. Happiness is the best revenge.

The Bloggers I interact with do so because we've developed a relationship. We've visited each other's blogs so much that we've learned each other's tastes and come to trust each other's feedback. It's mutual respect.

Kristin Dodge said...

I hadn't heard about this, but it doesn't surprise me. As Sean noted, they have a superiority complex. I think they must feel threatened to come out with "dem fightin' words."

Your arguments deserve a rousing "huzzah." Brilliant and critically mastered.

I've never aimed for liter-ahry criticism. The blood alcohol level of the blog proves that.

CK said...

Speaking from the point-of-view of a publisher -- we need book blogs! We need discussion, debate, reviews - on paper, on radio, on television - on the web. Times change and we need to change along with it. If we don't keep up with how people communicate, then I'm afraid we're sunk. So please, keep doing what you are doing - and we will be forever supportive.

Stephanie said...

Wow. What a great arguement!! I agree with everything you said! As you know, I blogged on this myself a few days ago. I think the one thing that gets me the most is that Kirsch (I haven't read the other article yet!) is alienating his AUDIENCE! It's my opinion that the people who read literary criticisms are a lot of the same people that blog about it. Book People! Seems silly to knock down your audience!

GREAT BLog!! I'll definitely be back!

chepierre said...

Many good points here -- without being too cynical, I'd say you're giving the lit crits a little too much credit -- part of their attack is no doubt a worry about job security, as any sort of sour grapes argument from them, is the pot calling the kettle black -- disenfranchisement is a charge that's been levelled at all kinds of critics for years.

that the debate over types of media in which to PRESENT literature has now fallen to the level of arguing about which type of media is appropriate to DISCUSS literature is ridiculous -- even more ridiculous, I should say.

Anyway, nice deconstruction of their argument, and the only thing I'd argue with you about is parallels -- i have no doubt you as a blogger wish to discuss literature for its own sake and make people excited about reading -- I have every doubt that the motivation of literary critics in newspapers is the same. far from it. :)

Chris said...

Excellent post! It should be in a newspaper!

I agree, especially about litblogs being personal. They should be. Reading is a personal experience. It's intimate- people read in bed, the bathroom. It's not confined to the classroom to be picked apart. I really don't care what the leaf falling from the tree in Ch 10 means. I want someone to say, "Chapter 10 gave me chills!"

If the pros' reviews were more passionate, maybe someone would read them.

paradoxgrl said...

audience and being read by many. And for the record, I absolutely love your writing style. And you couldn't be more on the money when you say that of course reviews will vary by reviewer. What we think of a book, whether we like it or not, or want to admit it or not, will to some extent be affected by our own personal taste in writing styles, plot, past experiences and so on. I might read something and adore it, while someone else might slam it. We've all seen it happen. That is precisely why I actually prefer book blogging sites...there is more interaction on the "why's" surrounding what makes someone like or not like a for suggestions and feedback. Keep up the fantastic job! *many kudos*

Edwin Hesselthwite said...


Not sure what I think on this one... It strikes me as the insurgents not realising they aren't insurgents anymore...

No one, in the history of the world, has every grown up thinking "I want to be a book reviewer", historically its been the home of writers with writer's block as they try to make a living when they cant produce. That's Graham Greene, Theodore Sturgeon, George Orwell and Julian McClaren Ross if you needed some examples.

You guys are unquestionably putting them out of business, and to be honest its kinda sad, because we will now need another way to throw money at our writers when trouble comes their way.

Book bloggers have gained a lot of power, fast. And I dont think all of you realise quite how much. But you dont review books as they emerge (you are never news) so you don't feed the publishing industry to produce good stuff.

Your revolution has already taken place, and your kicking the shit out of something you've already killed. Leave it alone, i've been seeing this a lot on the internet this year (i've seen it amongst published to free short fiction in the SF market), and it isn't right. This meme has considerably more power behind it that the initial Guardian article.

The boot is on your foot, not some poor hack trying to get inspiration for his next work.

Bibliolatrist said...

Thanks for all the great feedback, everyone - while this "debate" has apparently been raging for awhile now, I'd been unaware of it until last week.

But Edwin, I must say your compassion surprises me; I hope this isn't a sign you're going soft on us! I kid, I kid.

I do see your point, although I don't see myself as "kicking" anyone here, just rather making a case for both of us. I'd hate to see serious critics go anywhere - as I said, I think both are absolutely necessary to the literary world.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Hey biblio,

Yes, excuse me if that was a little on the hard side, you know I love your blog here...

The thing is, internet hububs make a lot of storm and noise, and it doesn't really matter what the people say... Snakes On Plane - you know? I realise you're putting out a reasoned discussion on that guardian writer's piece.. But...

Ok, lets demonstrate: I just googled +"Rachel Cooke" and +"Book Blogs". I got 175 hits, 175 hits. So while I really liked your piece (and I do think its a strong argument), what comes out is another brick in the "Rachel Cooke done us wrong" wall...

Still, I dont think lit-crit is dead yet - as you say, we need both.

Lesley said...

Hear, hear!

Honestly, I think this should be the last word on the subject (although I know it won't be). I haven't seen a more articulate response to this brouhaha - and quite frankly, I'm sick to death of the whole drama.