Bloggers and Critics: Everything new is old again

My previous post on appreciating book bloggers was in progress as the discussion unfolded on Twitter about ‘book bloggers ruining everything’ (via Ron Hogan, for one, who was watching a discussion from earlier this year between Charles McGrath and Daniel Mendelsohn* that involved a fair number of pot shots at book bloggers [see here if you want to watch it for yourself]). I’ve been thinking that one of the reasons these reductive and dismissive attitudes towards bloggers have any traction at all, and come from such otherwise very smart people, is the problem of filtering.

In blogging (as in every medium) there is good stuff (even some great stuff) and bad stuff (even some really truly terrible stuff). It is probably true, just because of the lack of inhibitions on blogging and other forms of self-publication, that the bad-to-terrible stuff  outweighs the good-to-great stuff by a larger margin than in old forms of print media. It takes patience, curiosity, time and open-mindedness to trawl the vast array of blogs (even in the subset of book blogs) looking for the good stuff. Lots of us do it, because there are real rewards for lovers of books and criticism and conversation. But it’s vanishingly unlikely that someone who gets all their links from the Big Established Sites, including their blogs, will find most of the sites we write for or read, because they all seem to read and link to exclusively other Big Established Sites. The Book Bench at the New Yorker, for instance, has its own often engaging posts, but it links around pretty much exclusively to places like the Nation, or the Guardian, or the Wall Street Journal, or PEN. These are worthy sites, of course, but anybody who’s interested in the Book Bench is probably already following them, one way or another. At most, all the Book Bench is doing is letting us know which pieces in these esteemed sources were of particular interest to them, or saving us the trouble of sorting through more than a couple of our RSS feeds for the day. The blogroll at the Book Bench has 24 links–not a bad start, but all, again, high profile already (mostly other mainstream media outlets, plus Maud Newton, Sarah Weinman, and a couple of the best-known online book sites–The Millions, The Second Pass). Again, all worthy of our attention–well, there’s one on their list I’m not sure about, actually, and why it’s there and not some of the ones I admire, I have no idea.  The Guardian has a smaller and even odder selection; at the TLS, both Peter Stothard and Mary Beard have small blogrolls too, though ones that reflect a bit more idiosyncrasy, which is nice. Still, none of these sites (or a number of other blogs associated with major papers and magazines) seem genuinely bloggish, in that there’s really no sense of the reciprocity I suggested distinguishes blogging as an especially open and generous form. The major aggregator sites (I’m thinking of Arts and Letters Daily, for instance, or Three Quarks Daily) also rarely step outside the rarified world of the ‘top’ sites. It would be refreshing, and good for the general conversation about books (which we’re all passionate about–or at least amateur book bloggers are), if these Big Established Sites would participate in the remarkable opening up of the cultural conversation that the internet has enabled.  Right now, I think  followers of the big sites are bound to feel a bit claustrophobic after a while, not to mention excluded. The exercise of looking for the good stuff among the bad would be tiring and discouraging some of the time, but acknowledging the smart, articulate blogs that are more than what Mendelsohn calls “unchecked effusions”–and doing so in a forum that already has  a little credibility in the world of old media–might help people like McGrath and Mendelsohn stop conflating form and content–or just ignoring content altogether. A good place to start would be with the handful of sites I listed.

*I admit that I was particularly disappointed at the tone of Mendelsohn’s comments (though he does acknowledge that there are some good lit blogs, and his point about chasing ‘hits’ by writing what gets attention is a fair one) because I wrote what I still consider one of my best blog posts about his remarkable book The Lost. What difference does it make that I wrote this sitting in my basement fairly late at night? (I’ll spare you the detail of whether or not I was actually in my pyjamas: the blogger’s wardrobe seems to be an issue of surprising concern to some people.) It’s either good writing and analysis or not. It’s true that I wrote it without the benefit of an editor (well, besides myself–and I’m pretty tough on myself, as I am on others), but the unmediated scrutiny of online readers is another way to test the merits of the result. In my case, I was gratified to be recognized for my work by Three Quarks Daily, where the editors named this post a finalist in their arts and literature blogging contest last year (these contests, by the way, are a great step towards the kind of sorting project I wish sites like this should do–but I don’t notice 3QD linking regularly to the winners or finalists in their regular posts).

7 thoughts on “Bloggers and Critics: Everything new is old again

  1. Maire September 24, 2010 / 2:51 pm

    I agree with much of this! I kept thinking about the exact same thing when the Franzen tempest was (is?) occurring. So many people were/are sick of hearing about it, mainly because the top dozen sites all gushed about it and then linked to the other 11 top sites’ gushing reviews. Boring! But if you’re reading a bunch of blogs, then of course you get your daily Franzen dose, but you also get a bit of Dickens or Heyer or Paretskey or who knows who else I read about this month on the blogs. It seems like tempests get started much easier when your teapot is too small.

  2. Amateur Reader September 24, 2010 / 9:05 pm

    The odd thing about the Book Bench blogroll is it look so, I don’t know, old, like it was assembled a couple of years ago and not really touched since. Just an afterthought. Not that mine is exactly up to date. Somebody at Book Bench, though, is presumably being paid to dust and prune. It looks incurious.

  3. steve September 24, 2010 / 11:34 pm

    “Incurious” is gold! And really, shame on Daniel Mendelsohn for knocking ‘unchecked effusions’! Such effusions are the heart and soul – the transmission vector – of all real enthusiasm about anything. He himself has benefited personally from such ‘effusions’ countless times in his reading life, and every single time he did, there wasn’t a New York Review of Books editor within earshot. The sheer joy I feel when I come across a great book blog – its author crying out in the wilderness, without an audience, for the sheer love of producing articulated responses to what he’s reading – entirely compensates me for the effort I needed to expend to find that blog in the first place. Rearguard actions like the ones discussed here are the worst possible reaction to the ‘remarkable opening up of the cultural conversation’ Rohan mentions – they throw the brilliance out with the bathwater. What I look for first in any book-discussion hasn’t changed: the unfeigned passion of the people doing the discussing. There’s more of it now than there’s ever been, in the history of the world. I’m extremely happy about that, and Mendelsohn should be too.

  4. litlove September 25, 2010 / 5:09 am

    Blogs represent a huge challenge to ‘authority’, to people who figure they have worked hard to get paid employment in a certain field and resent having the ground cut away underneath their feet. To have both paid and unpaid writers together in one blogroll would be to overcome a new kind of apartheid, and one that is particularly fierce and tenacious because it is fueled by issues of both capitalism and personal self-esteem. It would be great to see these big sites favour a more eclectic approach, but I will eat my copy of In Search of Lost Time if they do.

    No, what we need is more diversity, more ground covered, by the next rung of blogs – the ones that are genuine bloggers who do it for love not cash but who have highly respected sites. But even they tend to stick to their own ghetto of people who do similar things, or people whom they know or whose paper qualifications mark them out as noteworthy in one way or another. In fact it’s a fascinating society forming in the mixed media at the moment, one dominated by class and hierarchy. We could do with an anthropologist or two to have a look at it…..

  5. Rohan September 25, 2010 / 1:11 pm

    Maire: I’m completely with you about that Franzen discussion: circular, repetitive, self-perpetuating. That doesn’t mean some important issues weren’t involved, but there wasn’t a new voice to be heard.

    Steve: Yes, yes, yes: if he’s actually a book lover, Mendelsohn should be beside himself with happiness that the many, many smart and articulate readers who don’t get to write for the NYRB can contribute as public critics. Is the problem one of credentials? But Mendelsohn, as a classicist, does not limit his public criticism to writing about Euripedes, nor should he. So what does he think gives someone the authority to be a critic? Having an editor? But editorial constraints of the kind they discuss can be limiting as well as improving: they create the homogeneous world Maire is describing and drive out idiosyncrasy and variety. Being a good writer? But many bloggers are good writers–even without the help of the NYRB editorial staff. I wish that instead of using his bully pulpit to snark about bloggers who sit around at 3 a.m. in their underwear whining, he’d get more specific about the blog sites he thinks are good, and why.

    Litlove: You’re right that even the “genuine bloggers” with high profile sites don’t do much to seek out or link to the big array of other bloggers. I agree with Amateur Reader that it all seems so “incurious.” It’s true that a blogroll of hundreds isn’t really that helpful, and most of us realistically can’t track more than a few other sites very closely. And people get busy, and they like the sites they know. But it’s a bit depressing how the blog world (despite the anxieties of people like McGrath and Mendelsohn) seems in fact to be replicating the hierarchies already in place in old media. Look at how many followers something like the NYRB has on Twitter and how few feeds they follow themselves, by comparison. And as AR says, presumably these folks are being paid to do their blogging and social networking. That they do it with less curiosity and originality than the little guys is … interesting.

  6. Shelley September 28, 2010 / 2:47 pm

    As someone whose work relies on Internet enthusiasm, I have trouble seeing book bloggers as any kind of a problem–surely even the least skilled are no more a problem than some of the professional reviewers who are locked into ego-bound categories.

    Book bloggers are a blessing, to writers and to readers.

  7. Danielle September 29, 2010 / 2:24 pm

    Hi Rohan, Litlove asked me to send an invite to you so you can join the Slaves and take part in our book discussions. I would be happy to send you one, only I can’t find your email address. Could you please email me with it when you have a chance? So glad you are going to join in! Thanks, Danielle.

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