Like conventional academic criticism, lit-blogging is subject to fits of self-consciousness culminating in metablogging. While a few years ago such posts were likely to be forward-looking and exploratory, about the possibilities of blogging as a new frontier in criticism, the latest round of posts from Dan Green, Scott Esposito, and Steve Mitchelmore are more equivocal. Actually, Dan Green is pretty much just negative:
Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its 15 seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they’ll have the authority to suggest. (read the whole piece here)
Stephen Mitchelmore’s response is almost elegaic, but there’s still a hint of that early utopianism:
I have to admit that for years I was mystified why my blog writings have gone apparently unnoticed, at least in terms of page views. While the most popular blogs were getting thousands a day, I was lucky if This Space gathered 300. I thought, isn’t my review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones better than almost all the others, and didn’t my post on a road traffic accident say more about life’s relation to literature than any journalist’s exposé of an author’s life? Perhaps, however, these explain why it is relatively unpopular. Anyway, I have a difficult relationship with praise and criticism, with self-effacement vying for dominance with aggressive resentment. It is probably best to write, as in those early days of Spike, as if nobody is watching. After having published a dozen or so reviews in print media, I’m nowadays genuinely happier to work for weeks on long reviews or essays and have them disappear into the gaping void. Finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I’ve realised, the greatest pleasure of writing; where it ends is of no importance. Still, over the last fourteen years of online work, I’ve seen the names of my key writers – Thomas Bernhard, Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici – become familiar whereas before they were marginalised. If I have had only a minor role in this, it has made the effort worthwhile.
Yet I still like to imagine an ideal literary website in which the design, the writing and, most of all, the editorial vision offers a unique and dynamic approach to literature and culture in general, countering the banalities of commercial literary sites. So what might it look like? I have an idea but it requires an exceptional amount of work by people who have to earn a living elsewhere. Perhaps such a website is only ever the green ray as the sun sets on one’s hopes. Such a feeling is nothing new and we may learn something from previous attempts in strikingly similar times. (read the whole post here)
Scott Esposito picks up the thread:
I’m not sure how ironic Stephen was being about not understanding why his reviews were lesser-known than those elsewhere (and generally his are of much higher quality that what you’re likely to find in other places), but it’s not too hard to explain. Likewise, the method of building a literary site with high amounts of traffic is not mysterious. Go have a look at the Huffington Post books section, where every week you can find gossip about celebrity memoirs and counter-intuitive lists along the lines of “10 Most Outrageous Outfits From New Book ‘Critical Mass Fashion’ (PHOTOS).” Just make sure to have enough important names within your h1 header, say something contentious but not terribly complex that will generate a billion links, and keep it all short and with a lot of photos. Copy that with your own stable of writers, and you too can build a fairly well-trafficked site. This is not rocket science.
Obviously, some people would shoot for other things in a site besides high traffic, and this points out the problem with focusing on hits as a measure of a website, even though the first question anyone ever asks me about my sites is how many hits they get. But as Stephen’s site demonstrates, you can be influential even without getting major traffic. So choose what you want your site to be, and then do it. (read his whole post here)
“Choose what you want your site to be, and then do it” strikes me as excellent advice. Like every blogger, I wonder at regular intervals what I do this for. I think it’s disingenuous for bloggers to suggest they write purely for themselves: no need to post online, in that case. We all write online in the hope of getting readers. But it doesn’t have to be thousands, or hundreds, to be a satisfying experience (in my case, I average barely 100 hits a day, at least based on the Sitemeter tracking, and we all know that not every hit is an actual reader). If you take Scott’s advice and write what you want–and invest in Mitchelmore’s insight that “finding a way to talk about the reading experience is … the greatest pleasure of writing,” which I think is a large part of the truth–your site will have integrity and reflect your own values as a reader and critic. Then the readers you get will be those you want to enter into conversation with, and the extension to criticism represented by your site will be sincere. I think Dan Green’s disappointment stems from his having had very specific hopes or ambitions for lit blogging. His was one of the first blogs I started reading, and the seriousness with which he took the work and the potential of blogging as an alternative form of criticism was really important to my own developing sense of what the form might allow, what purpose it might serve. While he’s right that there’s a real loss if the overall direction of the ‘litblogosphere’ is towards commercialization and marketing, the form itself remains infinitely malleable. The risk (indeed, the likelihood) is that the good stuff–the thoughtful, independent, eclectic voices–will be drowned out by the louder ones that pander and preen and sell (out). So here I agree with Scott that it’s no good to ‘persist in this “take your ball and go home” attitude.’ The New York Times may not be the be-all-and-end-all of criticism, but it would be nice to be able to harness some of the power of the prestige print publications, now all with notable online presences. If only their blogs and reviewers would play nicely with others and actively seek out interesting independent voices online who represent serious critical alternatives, showcasing them rather than insisting on the tiresomely reductive ‘critics vs. bloggers’ debate. If they really care about the condition of criticism in the present day, they would join in the effort to sustain good discussion, which–whatever its provenance–actually supports their own work by continuing to take books seriously.
Rohan, may I just qualify something? You write: “I think it’s disingenuous for bloggers to suggest they write purely for themselves: no need to post online, in that case.”
You’re quite right of course and my “where it ends is of no importance” suggests I meant that merely writing is the main thing for me. However, in this context I meant where it ends *online or in print* doesn’t matter; seen by many or by relatively few doesn’t matter. It is important to present one’s writings, even if to write anywhere – such as in the most private diary – is already a public act.
I didn’t necessarily think that was what you meant; it’s a line I have sometimes tried out myself, when having that vacillation you mention between self-effacement and resentment. But your qualification is still to the point. I think you are right, too, about the amount of work involved in sustaining a good site for people whose paid work is other. Blogging in itself is challenging enough to sustain, but anything more expansive and elaborate–well, my experiences with Open Letters are teaching me a lot of respect for the labor of love involved there, or at The Quarterly Conversation etc.
I’m very glad to see this conversation so neatly summarised here – so already blogging is providing a space for us to consider a vague unease that is edging towards a tough, difficult question: who wants to read seriously and in depth about literature these days? All of us who lit-blog really want the answer to be: lots of people. It’s a displeasing surprise to find out that in reality, the easy, jokey site, the brief opinionated review, the picture, the popular headline-grabbing book, will lure the bulk of internet readers away. If I post about a book originally in French then my traffic is pretty much non-existent. And yet, with all that’s happening right now, the crisis in the arts in academia, the brute commercialisation of the publishing world, we need to persist in finding ways to draw the attention of blog readers towards all kinds of literature, and literary issues, that might otherwise pass them by.
I wonder whether the long critical piece is always going to be a turn-off online, because reading long pieces on a screen is never comfortable. And I wonder how much more we could achieve with a discussion? I keep toying with ideas for my site at the moment (in my steamingly bad mood about the body blow recently dealt to UK universities) trying to figure out how to get more people involved in thinking about literature. Starting debates, posting discussions, keeping things interactive, is this the way forward perhaps?
Maybe what blogging has done is simply created pathways to connect people with common interests, including people who “want to read seriously and in depth about literature.” That was probably never an overwhelming proportion of the population anyway (how many subscribers does the NYRB have compared to, say, Time, Vogue, or Sports Illustrated?). Blogging is also a way for more of those people to make their own contributions to writing about literature, sometimes seriously and in depth, sometimes casually and in passing. That’s not nothing, anyway.
But I’ve also been thinking that the overlap between people who read blogs and people who read the NYRB (which I’m just using as short-hand for something like ‘high profile, well established, old media book review venue’) may not be extensive, and that the serious reading types who do go online may assume there’s nothing out there for them in the world of unfiltered blogging. Perhaps they come at the internet from a different angle, seeking out what’s already familiar to them. Here’s a very small bit of anecdotal evidence that is partly what got me thinking about this. Recently an essay I wrote for Open Letters Monthly was linked to by Arts & Letters Daily (which was, of course, pretty exciting for me). The essay got a lot of hits–around 5000 the first day or so. In my by-line there’s a link to this blog, which got more hits than usual that first day, but nothing like 5000 (not even double its usual average of 100-ish). And I did not gain one subscriber on Google Reader. In other words, as far as I can tell, most of the people who read the article were simply not interested in looking at my blog writing. Now of course it’s easy to overthink this, but what occurred to me is that A&L Daily is probably the kind of site that people use who want to go right to what they think of as the “good stuff”–and a lot of A&L Daily links go, precisely, to the familiar standby publications (in their web versions, of course). That is, it’s a filter used by a lot of people who probably share common assumptions about blogging, e.g. that it’s not worth looking into.
I think I’m rambling now (sorry–it’s late!) but what I’m trying to say is, perhaps what lit bloggers who want lit blogging to flourish in a serious as well as a fluffy form have not done is reach those other serious readers who think like, say, Daniel Mendelsohn, and probably even take their lead from those like him who speak dismissively of blogging as a form that cannot produce good content. But how can we reach those other readers and form common cause with them, when the people who have their attention refuse to recognize or promote blogging as a potentially valuable way to nourish critical interest in literature?