Blogging is Detrimental to Literature? Make Him Stop Saying That!

Just when you thought maybe, just maybe, the worst was over when it came to casually dismissive generalizations about blogging–you know, of the kind that used to get us all riled up way back in 2008, and that still irked us in 2010–we get this, from the editor of the TLS:

The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, [Stothard] says. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers [sic] opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”

Yes, that’s right: he’s worried that if readers stop tagging along after the “traditional, confident” critics who occupy the literary high ground, they will end up (lemmings that they are) following bloggers over the cliff into the slough of mediocrity, and then they will be worse off! He’s right: there are some important issues here. They just aren’t quite the ones he’s talking about…

Is there really no way we can put an end to this kind of pompous and insulting pronouncement? Can’t we flood the comments with links to book blogs that inspire and excite us as readers and do more than the TLS ever does to bring us to books we would otherwise not discover? Can’t we explain that the world of  “traditional, confident” criticism often seems hopelessly circular and self-referential–that it can only be good for literature to have a variety of voices and perspectives and tastes in play? Can’t we remind him that people have always bought books that others thought were “no good,” and that the process of sorting and judging is always a fraught one? Can’t we get across the basic point that blogging is a form that can hold as great a variety of content as a newspaper (imagine dismissing the TLS because of the existence of the Sun or the Mirror) and that the problem continues to be one of filtering–a problem the TLS could help with by actually reading a wide range of bloggers and encouraging (maybe even engaging with!) those that offer the most informed and provocative and original commentary? Can’t we … Oh, never mind. It’s hopeless.

But actually, no it’s not. Here’s Daniel Mendelsohn,  in his recent ‘Critic’s Manifesto,’ discussing how the “the advent of the Internet [has] transformed our thinking about reviewing and criticism in particular”: “First, there has been the explosion of criticism and reviews by ordinary readers, in forums ranging from the simple rating (by means of stars, or whatever) of books on sites such as to serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” It’s true he sees this in terms of “ordinary readers” finally going public, not as his having discovered critical peers online, but he certainly acknowledges that there’s more to blogging than seems to be dreamt of in Stothard’s philosophy: he even gives the impression that he might actually have read some book blogs (and not just those run under the aegis of “traditional, confident” publications). Mind you, Mendelsohn (surely someone whose opinion is worth something even to Stothard) has been making more carefully qualified statements like this for years: apparently Peter Stothard doesn’t listen to him either. So, maybe it is hopeless–for Sir Peter.

And for the rest of us? Well, I’m not worried. We’ll just keep reading and writing, and somehow I’m confident nobody will be worse off because of it.

11 thoughts on “Blogging is Detrimental to Literature? Make Him Stop Saying That!

  1. nicole September 25, 2012 / 10:06 pm

    Can’t we flood the comments with links to book blogs that inspire and excite us as readers and do more than the TLS ever does to bring us to books we would otherwise not discover?

    I have to say, the most disappointing thing about this whole mess was that it was the editor of the TLS, one of the only old-media book publications I find worth reading. I have discovered so much in its pages, and learned so much from it over many years. This will not drive me away, but that such a thoughtful publication in many ways could prove so unthoughtful in others (or at least, that its representative could so prove) was less than heartening.


  2. Kim September 26, 2012 / 5:43 am

    I can’t help but thinking he’s just worried about the ‘real’ critics becoming redundant. it’s just too childish to be anything else..


  3. Teresa September 26, 2012 / 9:28 am

    I had a similar thought to Nicole’s. I don’t happen to read the TLS, but I know bloggers who do, and it seems like bloggers (i.e., passionate readers) would be a huge potential audience, and it’s short-sighted to alienate us with such a broad-brush statement. There’s good and bad in traditional and new media, and to dismiss an entire medium for expression because some of the expression within it is bad is, frankly, intellectually lazy.


  4. Rohan September 26, 2012 / 10:45 am

    Nicole, your point is well taken: I don’t mean to slight the TLS, of course–but I admit I am rarely much surprised at what they cover, and I can’t think of the last time I got excited to buy a book just because I’d read about it there (or in the LRB or the NYRB). What I value is the quality of the writing and analysis, and these journals don’t by any means have a monopoly on that. There’s a range and idiosyncrasy to the blogging world that is entirely salutary, I think, and complementary to the narrower scope of those who dominate the world of elite reviewing.

    Kim, I agree that he makes it sound like a turf war–which of course is absurd. As at least one other blogger has pointed out, book bloggers hugely extend the conversation about good and bad books–and often amplify the influence of other review sites.

    Teresa, I completely agree that book bloggers (passionate readers all!) are great potential allies of the TLS in its mission. Sure, the quality of blogs varies enormously: whatever we might think of individual examples in the big established review journals, we’re unlikely to read just plain bad writing there (bad thinking, though? they aren’t immune!). Book coverage in mainstream newspapers and magazines, though, is routinely disappointing — superficial, market-driven, uninteresting stuff — again, not always, but often enough that I wonder more ire isn’t directed against that kind of dull professional book ‘coverage’ than against people who write what they think just because they care.


  5. Alex September 26, 2012 / 2:16 pm

    I haven’t read the actual article which I must find time to do, but the Independent quotes Sothard as having said, “to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.” For those of us in the UK this smacks of someone who holds similar opinions to those of the Government’s Chief Whip, who last week made it very clear that as far as he is concerned some are born great and the rest of us are just plebs. (Although he denies this, thus implying that the police he was addressing are liars as well.) What happens to people’s minds when they reach positions of power?


  6. Susan Messer September 27, 2012 / 9:09 pm

    Go, Rohan. So refreshing. I’ve been away for a couple weeks. Just trying to catch up now on your posts. Thanks, as always, for doing what you do.


  7. Susan Messer September 27, 2012 / 11:04 pm

    Me again. It looks like the comments close on your posts after a time, so I can no longer comment on some of your earlier posts. I wanted to say, however, how much I appreciated the personal voice and revelations at the end of your post on summer reading. The range in your posts is so satisfyingly broad. Maybe next summer (if you don’t teach), you’ll make a trip to Chicago, and we can find some literary activities to immerse in together.


  8. Rohan September 28, 2012 / 8:10 am

    Susan, that would be such a treat! I’ll keep my eyes open for good opportunities / excuses to get there. Also, thanks for the heads up about the problem with posting comments. I’m not aware of any setting that would block them, but perhaps it’s automated somewhere in WordPress, so I’ll poke around.


  9. Heather September 28, 2012 / 9:30 am

    While I’ll admit that not all blogs are critically acclaimed, they do offer other things like humor or a different view on a subject that you might not have been thinking of. There’s enough room in the expansive universe to be able to share mind space with readers.


  10. Min November 7, 2012 / 5:23 am

    Hello again, Rohan – so good to see you thriving, and in excellent company, too. Have enjoyed catching up a little, and shall be back for more.
    The Peter Stothard post caught my eye, as I also found his outburst curiously intemperate. Daniel Mendelsohn – far more thoughtful, reflective and generally civilised – contributes to the debate rather than attempts to stifle it. Can’t resist commenting, even when late to the party (seem to have spent past decade trying to cherche midi à quatorze heures!).
    I suspect PS, being a journo (we’re a dying breed y’know), foresees increasing precarity ahead, consequence of falling circulation, management-driven dumbing-down of editorial policy and the – perfectly understandable – resentment of a skilled, experienced tradesman when faced with what must seem to him like crowds of cheerfully sociable, bodging amateurs. So, bingo, yer man hits out at what he perceives as the lumpen mass of book bloggers, and does so in nastily patronising terms (pomposity, don’t ye know, is the Englishperson-at-bay’s deafult mode!).
    In fairness, an awful lot of book blogs have vapid voices – and are just as unhelpful as many Amazon reviews, There are very few book blogs which are well-written, cogently argued and enlightening. Even fewer invite debate, with the tired, old ultimate response-seeker at the conclusion of ‘what did you think of X?’ really a form of telling the follower to agree or else, in practice!
    As an ex-ex-journo/person/homeowner/etc., I have some sympathy with the professional writer. Grub Street has never been a kindly, welcoming place – and, once finally ‘established’ there, finding yourself assailed on all sides by people-who-call-themselves-writers must be irritating and, in the case of the superior book blogger (stand up, Rohan!), downright threatening. Thus, in effect, there are ‘amateur’ critics out there in the blogosphere who are so deeply insightful and illuminating that they really do pose a threat to the professional critic, with his/her short-term contract and life on a knife-edge. So spare a bit of sympathy for the devilish PS: he may actually be on your side, in a sense. Even if his form of flattery comes disguised by disdain and lurks behind a barrage of bluster.
    Bon courage, Rohan.


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