May 21, 2007
Book reviews, the blogosphere and elitism
Echidne of the Snakes pointed me in the direction of this editorial, written by Richard Schickel, who “is a film critic for Time magazine and a frequent book reviewer for The [Los Angeles] Times.” He begins by mentioning a New York Times article that discussed the recent trend in which book reviews are moving away from print publications and onto the internet, specifically blogs. Here’s what Schickel has to say about that:
“Some publishers and literary bloggers,” the article said, viewed this development contentedly, “as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.”
Anyone? Did I read that right?
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.
He goes on to discuss what book reviews have often amounted to in recent history — “Most reviewing, whether written for print or the blogosphere, is hack work, done on the fly for short money” — then describes three book review heroes, if you will. First, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve:
. . .a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I’ll warrant. In the middle of the 19th century, his reviews appeared every Monday for 28 years. He was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: “Just characterization.”
That “just” did not mean “merely.” It meant doing justice to the work at hand and to the culture in which it appeared. Another way of putting that is that he wrote with a blogger’s alacrity but with a thoughtful critic’s sense of responsibility to, yes, “the great tradition” the author aspired to join.
Then on to August Wilson,
the best book reviewer this country ever had — alert to the possibilities, both moral and aesthetic, of the “classics and commercial” (to invoke the title of one of his collections) that passed before him. His method was usually rather reportorial — generally he let his opinions emerge indirectly, not as fiats but as muted implications of the way he read (and quoted) the work at hand.
And then, finally, George Orwell:
He was more pointedly political than Wilson, and more attuned, perhaps, to the vagaries of trash culture, but his defense of honest vernacular prose in the face of bureaucratic (and totalitarian) obfuscation remains a critical beacon.
He goes on to tell us that these men
wrote ceaselessly, against deadlines and under economic pressure, without succumbing to the temptation of merely popping off or showing off. None of these men affected the supercilious high Mandarin manner of, say, George Jean Nathan — as annoying in its way as hairy-chested populism is in its.
Echidne made the following point, with which I very much agree:
I read Schickel’s piece twice. The first time I read it the way he intended: as a defense of elitism based on better knowledge, talent and hard work. The second time I read it the way my inner feminist reads these things and counted exactly zero references to women in the piece. Even populism is hairy-chested.
Try doing a reversal with the story. Give Schickel a female name and change the sexes of all the people he writes about. You might get the feeling I had on my second reading. The point, of course, is that Schickel thinks he is not writing a guy lit piece at all but a piece of general importance to all intelligent and discerning readers.
Absolutely. And furthermore, as a writer, a student of literature, and an avid reader, I think Schickel is insulting those “intelligent and discerning readers” if he thinks that they’re going to be taking every book review they come across at equal value. He makes the following argument in support of his overall point:
I don’t think it’s impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple “love” of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job. That way often leads to cultishness (see the currently inflated reputations of Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, both easy reads for lazy, word-addicted minds).
The problem I have with this is I think he’s overestimating the impact of some reviews. There were reviews up on Amazon.com long before I even knew what a blog was. (Indeed, I wrote my first Amazon.com review in 2001, if I remember correctly.) Sometimes if I’m not sure what to expect from a book, I’ll scan through the Amazon.com reviews. Like most people with half a brain — well, I assume, anyway — I skip over the one-sentence reviews, the ones that range from “ZOMG this book rulez!!!!” to “This is a very well-written book and I loved it!” or “This book SUCKS!!!” (often followed by a rant about the teacher that made the reviewer read said book) to “I hated this book because it made no sense.” I’ve had composition students write book or movie reviews in the past to show them the argumentation involved in reviewing: there’s an overall opinion, judgment or impression (which can be overt, like the Siskel & Ebert (I can’t help continuing to call the show by that name) thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, or much more subtle) supported by at least a couple of concrete reasons. Reviews that lack that reasoning and depth are going to be passed over by intelligent readers.
Also, I feel like Schickel is forgetting a couple of key ideas when it comes to reviews. The first is audience. A LiveJournal entry singing the praises of the latest Philip K. Dick piece is written for a very different audience than reviews published in a major newspaper or newsmagazine — just as reviews published in, say, the New Yorker are written for a different audience than those printed in the New York Post (or, if the Post doesn’t print reviews, then something with an equally conservative slant). I still read book and movie reviews in the same places I always did — it’s just that I tend to encounter more reviews now that I read blogs. The plus side of that is that I know where bloggers-cum-reviewers are coming from. I know the lens through which they’re likely to be viewing a particular topic or character — as a general rule, the blogs I read are liberal/progressive, feminist, socially conscious, and so on, so I can get a feel for how I would react to a book or movie based on how they react. The only individual in the MSM I can say that about is Roger Ebert, and that’s less because I agree with him (I think I might, in fact, disagree with him more than I agree with him) than because he’s been a pop culture fixture since I was a child, and so I have a good feel for how I react to movies and movie elements compared to how he reacts to movies and movie elements. Anyway, my point here is that the glut of reviews in the blogosphere is not going to make a literary snob suddenly run out and buy crates full of popular, commercial fiction. It may well cause readers to venture outside their usual styles or genres, true — and isn’t that generally considered a good thing? — but within obvious limits of reason.
I also think Schickel is forgetting about the power of word-of-mouth reviewing, if you will. By and large reviews in the blogosphere are serving that same purpose. I suspect writers publishing reviews in print haven’t ever felt particularly threatened by word-of-mouth; why start now?
One final bone to pick with Mr. Schickel. The following passage appears close to the end of the editorial:
The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.
“Mere yammering”? Really, Mr. Schickel? There’s plenty of yammering going on over the internet, to be sure, but there’s also a great deal of excellent writing going on, plenty of “logically reasoned discourse” that “invit[es] serious engagement.” I wonder how much time Schickel has actually spent reading blogs.
I think elitism has its place; I very much appreciated what Bill Maher had to say on the subject last month. (On the internet, incidentally.) I’m not by any means saying that Publishers’ Weekly should start publishing reviews by Johnny Doe, the 19-year-old sci fi fanatic who posts reviews on his blog every other day (because it only takes him about a day and a half to tear through the latest Tad Williams tome). I’m simply questioning the idea that the rise of forums where anyone — indeed, anyone — can voice an opinion is necessarily a bad thing.