Sunday, September 30, 2012

Do more voices drown expert voices, and does it matter?

The chair of this year's Booker Prize judging panel, Peter Stothard, was reported in The Guardian this week as sounding a cautionary note regarding the impact of book bloggers on literary criticism. You can read the article to get the full argument and its context,but, in essence, Stothard is making the case that people who blog about books who are just regular people (producing, as he puts it rather snarkily, "a mass of unargued opinion") reduce the reach, influence, and ultimately traction of serious literary criticsm, as produced by, well, Serious Literary Critics.

It may not come as a major surprise to hear that I, as a card-carrying member of the unwashed masses who has the temerity to blog about books, don't agree with most of Stothard's argument. I think it's tired, old, and elitist. Pretending that the medium (online vs print) of publication, or the vehicle (Old Guard literary pages vs blogs and new media) is the gold standard for quality writing is, I think, highly disingenuous these days. Serious, intelligent, complex literary argument is found on blogs - not on every blog, granted, but I'd contend, not in every literary section either. It seems to me that what Stothard's arguing for is a canonisation of certain opinions / expertise; that those who have always been "authorities" continue to be accorded a special status, an automatic signal boost, simply because they are part of an existing tradition of literary criticism.

More, he seems to feel that those who write about books from outside the dominant tradition - and, often, in very different language - are an active threat to the cultural power and employability of the literary critic, and that this matters in some important way. In this area I both agree and disagree. I think he is quite right in asserting that the plethora of voices about books and literature makes literary critics' voices less privileged and less marketable, and that some publications may see a reduction in the influence of their book pages, and, perhaps as a result, less people will be paid to wrte literary criticism.

I disagree, though, that this is necessarily a bad thing, or that literature and literary debate will be the worse for it. I think democratising the process opens the door to a richer, deeper literary discussion than has ever been had by the limited number of literary critics who are "allowed" to have mainstream voices. Bloggers, being a far wider and more diverse pool than traditional literary critics, write about a wider array of books and genres, and with a far more differentiated range of style, background, depth and voice, than do literary critics. Bloggers are often iconoclastic in ways that literary critics aren't (I'd point out the number of high quality, influential book bloggers who were unafraid to label Will Self's shortlisted novel, Umbrella, as pretentious, unpleasant and ultimately unsuccessful - and could justify why - as opposed to the fairly anodyne praise offered by the mainstreams).

Some bloggers do, indeed, write what amounts to personal reflections on their experiences with a book, without much (or any) critical context to their analysis. Some write in emotive, un-nuanced language, and do not hesitate to shitcan work that doesn't appeal to them without trying to understand the work on its own merits. I would contend that those sorts of reviews have a value of their own, too - there are many readers who actually want the personal touch, the how-this-made-me-feel, and there is nothing at all wrong with providing this kind of review. That's the basis on which many a book purchasing decision is made, after all.

Some bloggers, though, engage in thoughtful, complex and very well informed literary criticism. They understand literary history and theory every bit as well as the people being paid to write up reviews in the main literary papers do. They provide analyses that are equal to, if not better than, anything you'd read in the print journals. Their work isn't worse because it's unpaid and uncredentialled, although, without question, that makes it more threatening to many in the establishment.

That's one of the great strengths of the Internet, at the end of the day - there are apples for those who want apples, and oranges for the citrus fanciers. If lighthearted reviews are what you want, you can find aplenty; if you're looking for serious critical debate, that's there too. One does not preclude or damage the other.

So, in short, I do not think book bloggers are a bad thing for quality literary debate overall. I concede they may be a very bad thing for the financial future of some individual literary critics, but perhaps not, if adaptation leads those people or publications to finding creative and inspiring ways to assert their uniqueness and value on a stage with more players.

For me, I am a personal blogger who often blogs about books. I refer to literary traditions sometimes, I understand the basics of narrative theory, and I write reviews that are perhaps a little more than "I liked / didn't like this." Deep literary criticism, however, it ain't, and I am contented that it should be so.

And in celebration of my right to have a voice about books - and as a little bit of a nose-thumb, too - I'm going to post a book review EVERY DAY this week. Three are new, two older; there's sci fi, YA and children's fiction in with "serious" books. I do not expect the fabric of Western literary tradition to crumble as a result :-)

Books to be reviewed will be:
Monday - Only Ever Always (Penni Russon)
Tuesday - The Garden of Evening Mists(Tan Twan Eng)
Wednesday - Robot trilogy (Isaac Asimov)
Thursday - NW (Zadie Smith)
Friday - Silver Brumby books (Elyne Mitchell)

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