“Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing?”: On Audiences and Serendipity

Bonnard The Letter

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? (Middlemarch, Ch. XLI)

One of the things I always emphasize to my students is the importance of considering your audience when you are writing. Knowing your intended audience settles a lot of questions about tone as well as style and content: formal or informal, colloquial or specialized, anecdotal or analytical. I usually recommend that they not think of me as their primary audience but aim their writing at another member of the class — a really top-notch, well-informed one who knows the readings and has followed our discussions closely.  You know you don’t have to summarize the plot for this reader. What you can do that such a reader will appreciate is draw attention to a pattern or idea or formal issue that deserves more sustained attention. And so on.

One of the unsettling things about writing a blog is that you can’t be certain who your audience is or will be. Given the competition for readers’ attention, you can’t be sure you even have an audience, much of the time, and most of us will never have a big one. And one of the questions every blogger surely confronts at some point is: how much should I care about this?

I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question is “do I care?” Of course we care. If we really didn’t care about anyone ever reading what we write, we’d use old-fashioned notebooks — the kind you write in with pens! Writing in public is a symptom of a desire for readers, not because we’re egomaniacs or narcissists (though all writers, no matter their platform, surely need to have a bit of the egomaniac in them, enough to make them believe they have something worth writing down) but because we want to be part of the larger conversation about whatever it is that we are passionate about.

But the fact remains that readers are scarce, and attention (the currency of the internet) is hard to get. If you feel, as you are bound to sometimes, that the big conversation is going on somewhere else, without you, you can start thinking that you should do something, change something, write something, to get attention. You should write deliberately for an audience, and not the audience you actually do have of people who care about you and the writing you’re actually doing, but some imagined audience that would care if only you did something different. And yet, as Kerry  Clare eloquently explains in her recent post “Blogging Like No One Is Reading,” this is a bad idea:

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

You need to write as who you really are, so that you will want to do the writing, and so that you will be pleased about the conversations you do get into, whether with your readers or just with yourself in a follow-up post. As Kerry says, there’s a strange serendipity to it all, and not only would you go crazy trying to orchestrate it, but you can go kind of nuts trying to figure it out when it does happen. Why my most-read post of all time is “How to Read a Victorian Novel” is puzzling to me; that it is my most-read post of all time is, if I think too hard about it, kind of annoying, considering it’s not by any means the best writing I’ve ever done here…but I had a great time writing it, so if it had stayed in peaceful obscurity, I would have had no regrets, and since I believe every word of it, I can only find its popularity cheering.

anthologyI mostly don’t fret too much about the audience for this blog: it’s my space, and I just do my thing, at my own pace. But when I write for Open Letters Monthly, I often struggle more with how to write or who to write for — or just what to write, since there are no limits and no imperatives, thanks to the deliberate breadth of the journal itself and the latitude my colleagues allow their co-editors. Though there have certainly been pieces I have been invited or urged or even pressured to write, I can’t imagine the topic I could propose that they would actively discourage! In puzzling out what project to take on next for Open Letters, I sometimes get caught up in questions about who would want to read what I have to say on a particular book or subject. What audience would I be writing for? Is there an audience I should be deliberately aiming for? Because of my own training and pedagogy, these have always seemed reasonable questions. But to my surprise, the most vehement advice I got from my most ruthless and motivating mentor was: never, ever, think about your audience! That’s the one thing you must put entirely out of your mind!

But how could this be? why is this wrong? I have always wondered. I’m coming to realize that the reason it’s wrong in that case is the same as the reason it’s wrong in blogging: if you’re hoping to second-guess the erratic interests of an amorphous online readership, you’ll end up endlessly second-guessing yourself, and you won’t write well (or, at least, you won’t write your best) or write things you believe in absolutely. Forget the timely hook, the link-bait trend, the ambulance-chasing review. If you have the luxury I have of not having to write anything in particular, then write what you know, write what you care about, write what you’d love to talk about if you got the chance, and write as well as you possibly can. That way if you do get the chance to join in a bigger conversation, it will be one you’re excited to be in. And in the meantime, you’re being your best, and also your unique, writing self — who else would you want to be, and who else, really, would anyone want to read?

I’m feeling buoyed about this perspective on writing because I’ve been caught up in a bit of that strange serendipity Kerry talks about as a result of the essay about Richard III mentioned in this recent post. It’s an essay that had no extrinsic reason at all to get written. My only justification for writing it was that the topic has been dear to my heart since childhood and then turned out to be intertwined with many intellectual strands from my later life as a scholar. It had its roots in a blog post prompted by one of my very earliest encounters with Open Letters. I began working up notes for an essay on this material in the summer of 2011 and got all excited about it (and wrote about it here and here) and then, as I later explained to Steve, “lost faith in the project: it seemed too esoteric to be of general interest.” Obviously, he talked me back into it, and it was great fun (if also a fair amount of work!) getting it into shape and finally published in May 2012. After all that time I had made something I was proud of from an unlikely but, to me, fascinating combination of elements.  That was that, and that was enough! Nobody commented on it, it didn’t get any external links, I doubt it reached a very wide audience — but there it was.

AlltheworldThen last fall they started digging up the skeleton that turns out almost certainly to be Richard III’s. Suddenly there’s a surge of interest in his story, and when people go looking for something to read about it, one of the pieces they find is mine. It hasn’t gone viral or anything, but it has found a new audience, including the author of this Globe and Mail story, and also a producer for CBC who contacted me to confer about ways I might contribute to a potential documentary about the discovery of his remains. I don’t know yet what, if anything, will come of the proposal, but no matter what, that’s twice in a week I’ve had a chance to talk with curious people about one of my pet subjects, and, through them, to share my enthusiasm and my ideas with others. Once again, I’m immensely cheered by the whole process, even as I’m amused at its unpredictability. Fond as I am of the Richard III essay, I don’t consider it the best writing I’ve done for Open Letters. It is among the more personal pieces I’ve done. If I’d really thought about who might read it, maybe I would not have included the hopelessly nerdy picture of my younger self beside Richard’s statue in Leicester! I’m glad I didn’t worry about that, though. Another piece of advice I often give my students is that your writing represents you. It might as well represent the whole you, warts (or 80’s glasses) and all.

One final thought about audiences. Academic prestige (not to mention professional advancement)  is strongly tied to writing for academic audiences. Sure, there’s rhetoric about outreach and “knowledge dissemination” and so on, but my experience is that most academics don’t take writing and publishing outside conventional academic channels very seriously: it doesn’t really count. Just recently a colleague praised my Open Letters essay on Anne Brontë for its interest and originality, then spoiled the nice moment by adding “You should really publish it sometime.” I was genuinely pleased that a specialist found the essay valuable, but I did already “really” publish it. I just placed it — and wrote it — so that it would be accessible to non-specialists as well. I have persisted with this kind of writing and publishing, despite the likely professional disadvantages, because I believe  in it: I believe that one thing (not the only thing) we should do with our expertise is share it widely and show people why we’re excited about it. The CBC producer was explicit that her interest in contacting me came from her reading of the essay, which she described as “fun academic writing” — not, that is, the kind of academic writing she usually runs into, but nonetheless writing she recognized as expert. As I told her, that was music to my ears! The specific attention to Richard III that drew her to this piece was certainly serendipitous, but the existence of the piece in the first place, and its presence out in the open where she could find it, was not, and it’s not just cheering but gratifying to have the value of writing for a different audience affirmed in this way.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

This book has a simple premise–that the best way for aspiring writers to learn their craft is to read (closely, attentively, alertly, appreciatively) the work of other novelists. Prose proceeds to elaborate on what she sees as the pedagogical benefit of close reading by moving through a sequence of chapters addressing specific aspects of novel-writing, each illustrated with examples from writers she admires. Her intended audience is primarily creative writing students; she offers her close-reading approach as a counter-balance to what she describes as the fundamentally negative tactics of writing workshops: “Though it also doles out praise, the writing workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong, what needs to be fixed, cut, or augmented. Whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11). I’m not in a position to evaluate how well either strategy would work for someone trying to produce an original work of fiction, though it does seem to me that Prose’s emphasis on writing as a craft that presents technical challenges needing to be acknowledged and worked through intellectually (rather than transcended through inspiration) is probably useful.

Prose’s subtitle (“A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them”) suggests that she also hopes to appeal to and help out avid readers (the same ones who might pick up Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel or Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel. It may be this hope that leads Prose to avoid most specialized vocabulary. For instance, in her chapter on narration, she acknowledges briefly that there are types of narrators (“should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?” [85]) but does not explain in any systematic way just what these options are or that they are not exhaustive. As a result, her discussion of examples tends towards the impressionistic, rather than the analytical; she often seems to take for granted, too, that her reader will recognize the qualities she admires or finds effective, that she does not need to explain or justify her praise or her interpretation. Here is some of her commentary on a long quotation from Richard Price’s Freedomland:

Everything in the paragraph contributes to the speaker’s credibility, as a fictional character and as an honest human being: the diction, the rhythms, the slight repetitions for emphasis, the way that the tenses keep shifting from present to past and back. The choice of words and phrases (“used to like his cocktails,” “never raised a hand,” “passed on”) make us feel that this is how this woman might really recount an incident from her life. The language, the story itself, the specificity of the details (Jimmy Durante singing “September Song”) convince us that the woman is telling the truth. (91)

I can tell that she is convinced, but she has not explained the basis of her conviction to me in a persuasive or useful way. What aspects of the speaker’s diction are indicative of credibility and honesty? Why should including specific details convince us that someone is telling the truth? What are the signposts of unreliability?

I was also concerned at times about the qualities of Prose’s own reading. In some cases, she seemed to me an unduly trusting reader. Here’s some of her commentary on the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice, for example:

Lest we receive a skewed or harsh impression of the Bennets’ own marriage, Mr. Bennet compliments his wife by suggesting that she is as handsome as their daughters. In fact, as we are discovering, theirs is a harmonious union, and indeed the whole conversation, with its intimacy, its gentle teasing, and with Mr. Bennet’s joking reference to his old friendship with his wife’s nerves, is a double portrait of a happy couple. (127)

Well, maybe, and the same needs to be said about her confidence in Nelly Dean as “the most credible witness” in Wuthering Heights. But she writes well about the significance of details (they “aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they’re also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment” [207].

I think that what struck me as weaknesses in the book, particularly in its analysis of particular examples, come at least in part from Prose’s own deliberate distancing of herself from academic approaches to literature. “Only once,” she tells us in her account of her own development as a writer,

did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written. (8)

I have written before on this blog about my own frustrations with aspects of “literary academia,” but I have also resisted (even resented) this kind of dismissive attitude to scholarly and theoretical expertise. It is possible to turn such expertise (including attention to ideas and politics) precisely to understanding “what the writer had actually written,” and the result will be a better, fuller reading–and thus, if Prose’s own pedagogical theory is correct, better new books.

 

Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)

[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism.

I was interested in the ethical aspects of Smiley’s readings for my own reasons, but her larger goal is to argue in favour of the novel as perhaps the ultimate expression of freedom, not just artistic but also personal and political. At several points, she makes claims about the benevolent effects of the combination of analysis and empathy demanded of novel readers:

Pride, arrogance, moral blindness, and narcissism are endemic among humans, especially humans who occupy positions of power, either in society or in the family. But when I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, the author’s or a character’s, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end I will be a degree less self-centered than I was at the beginning, that I will be a degree more able to see the world as another sees it. And there is the possibility that I will be able to reason about my own emotions. . . . When I’ve read lots of long novels, I will be trained in thinking about the world in many sometimes conflicting ways. . . . Perched on the cusp between the particular and the general, between expertise and common sense, the novel promotes compromise, and especially promotes the idea that lessons can be learned, if not by the characters, then by the author and the reader. (175-6)

These are familiar arguments but important and eloquently made. Perhaps the finest quality of the book, though, is that Smiley not only makes such a case but enacts it through her rigorous, intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic engagement with the novels she writes about. Probably the main reason a reader turns to criticism at all, instead of resting content with having read the novel itself, is to carry on the conversations the book begins. Smiley’s manifest love of fiction and its possibilities (aesthetic, social, and political), together with her expertise as both novelist and student of the novel, make her someone I’d like to talk to, even about our disagreements. Though very different in approach, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is as good a book as David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction as a guide and introduction for avid readers looking to broaden and improve their reading experiences with some expert help.

I do think Smiley is disingenuous, though, when she justifies her own decision to avoid “theorists of the novel . . . even though there is an entire academic industry based on theorizing about the novel”–“I preferred,” she says, “to glean my ideas about the novel from the books themselves. My justification for this . . . is that novels were invented to be accessible”:

Specialized knowledge about the novel is something the reader may engage in for added pleasure, but doesn’t need to engage in merely to understand what she has read. (278-9)

That Smiley is as good at gleaning ideas from novels as she is, is the result, surely, of her exposure to a wide range of specialized knowledge about the form, including (as displayed continually in her introductory chapters) historical and contextual knowledge, awareness of different genres and forms, attention to ideological implications, and so on. One of the reasons her book strikes me as valuable is precisely that it mobilizes this kind of specialized knowledge in an accessible way and shows that having it makes reading novels a richer, more rewarding experience. Though she’s right that “the authors and books on [her] list constitute a treasure available to all” (279) in the sense that anyone who is motivated to do so can read them, for many, without some kind of preparation or education (of the sort, for instance, supplied by Smiley’s book) the experience might yield little pleasure or insight. (There are lots of books I don’t feel prepared enough to read–or at least to read and enjoy–and I study novels for a living!) Smiley is an expert, but she wears her erudition stylishly, and we, her readers, are its beneficiaries.

Kermode, The Art of Telling

Today again, I have time only to post a couple of short excerpts from my current reading:

Their [‘licensed practitioners’] right to practise is indicated by arbitrary signs, not only certificates, robes, and titles, but also professional jargons. The activities of such persons, whether diagnostic or exegetical, are privileged, and they have access to senses that do not declare themselves to the laity. Moreover they are subject, in professional matters, to no censure but that of other licensed practitioners acting as a body; the opinion of the laity is of no consequence whatever, a state of affairs which did not exist before the institution now under consideration firmly established itself–as anyone may see by looking with a layman’s eye on the prose its members habitually write, and comparing it with the prose of critics who still thought of themselves as writing for an educated general public, for la cour et la ville. (170)

We wean candidates from the habit of literal reading. Like the masters who reserved secret senses in the second century, we are in the business of conducting readers out of the sphere of the manifest. Our institutional readings are not those of the outsiders, so much is self-evident; though it is only when we see some intelligent non-professional confronted by a critical essay from our side of the fence that we see how esoteric we are. (182)

The Occasion for Blogging

There has been a lot of public discussion recently about blogs in the context of the decline of book sections and book reviews in newspapers; much of it has consisted of attacks on literary blogs from more traditional writers and sources and defensive responses from bloggers (see, for instance, this response on The Reading Experience to an LA Times column that promised contemptuously to write “in language even a busy blogger can understand”). I have sympathies on both sides of this fence, as I agree that while anyone can write a book review or literary commentary, not anyone can write one that has interest and merit. In general, my position is simply the more people out there reading books and writing about them, the better all round. The more specific issue I’ve been wondering about is whether blogging is really only suited to be a form of literary journalism, focused on new releases and current authors in the way that book reviews are, or whether it is possible or useful for blogs also to write more in the spirit of literary scholarship or criticism of past literature. I’m also thinking more about the nature of literary blogs more generally, while well aware that so far I have still become aware of only a fraction of the options and styles out there.

One typical feature of successful blogging is apparently that it is incessant: unless they are constantly updated, it seems blogs lose their currency, their momentum and, presumably, their readers. I have already found that, at least for someone with other work to do, the rapidity of thinking and writing required to put up new posts even once or twice a week makes drafting and polishing impossible, which inevitably affects the kind and quality of writing you can do. This situation would differ, of course, for someone working full-time on a blog. It could also be overcome, or ameliorated, by writing off-line and not posting anything until it has been tidied up, though this too assumes that blogging is not a sideline to a “real” job. It may be as well that depending on the kind of site and voice you are trying to establish, you can take your time and post longer, more thoughtful pieces. It’s not as if there are deadlines, after all, and besides, who’s really reading most blogs all that frequently anyway, much less one like mine that hardly anyone even knows about? I started quite deliberately writing without a lot of second thoughts, to free myself up from academic hyper-self-consciousness, but all those first impressions are starting to seem inadequate, especially when the book at issue (The Map of Love, for instance) is quite complex, formally and thematically. I’m reaching a point at which I need to consider what I hope to accomplish by writing my posts in the first place and maybe experiment with some more in-depth analyses. But to do that, I would have to take the time and justify it professionally.

Another notable feature of the blogs I am most familiar with so far is their focus on fairly new releases and on the state of the current book and literary worlds. A next step for me will be looking around for people who write about the literature of the past. Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet…books such as John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one’s experience of reading “the classics.” One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as “Moralist for the 21st Century.” But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast.

A number of my posts have been in the spirit of “work in progress” notes, thinking aloud though (maybe oddly) in public–partly in the hopes, of course, of eventually getting some input (a fading hope). At this point, especially with my sabbatical coming to an end, I need to start putting my thoughts together about what I’ve been learning by reading and (in this modest way) writing outside the academic box.

Thoughts on This Project–and a Question for You

I began writing up my quick ‘notes on current reading’ about a year ago , partly for fun, partly as a way to answer questions from friends and family about what I’d been reading lately and what I’d thought about it, partly as an exercise in non-academic writing about books. I didn’t (couldn’t) take a lot of time over my comments, and indeed I decided not to allow myself to rethink and revise, to free myself from the many forms of self-consciousness endemic in professional criticism. For some years, though, in my professional capacity, I have also been brooding about the nature and purpose of that professional criticism. I wanted to increase the value and relevance of the research I was doing, and to bring to my scholarship the kind of excitement and motivation I feel about my teaching. On my sabbatical this term, I have been continuing to think about this issue, and trying to imagine an alternative form of literary writing that might be of interest and use to a wider audience than the narrow readership of a typical academic article or monograph. As my previous posts here indicate, one way I have been pursuing this question is through reading books about books aimed at general audiences. I have also begun exploring web resources, including online magazines and literary blogs. Of course, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of such sites now; every one I arrive at points me towards more and more.

On one hand I have been finding all of this very stimulating. It’s wonderful to see how lively and widespread the virtual conversation about books is, as well as to see that there is a big market for intelligent books about reading. It is also a salutary reminder, as if I needed one, of how small the academic literary world is, or can be, and how specialization works against the kind of general knowledge and broad cultural awareness that characterize the best of the sites and books I’ve looked at so far. It’s even a bit shaming to realize how oblivious I was to all this activity.

On the other hand, I am starting to get something of the same sense of futility here as I did with academic criticism, though for different reasons. If academic criticism fails to engage a wide audience because it is too specialized, too professionalized, too removed from the interests of ‘common’ readers, all this other material seems unlikely to engage a wide audience because there’s just too much of it. How can someone filter through it all, especially when much of it is updated daily? While the academic peer review system serves very different purposes than those embraced by reviews and blogs, out in cyberspace it’s an intellectual free-for-all, and the ease of setting up a place to comment (even I could do it!) makes it possible for anyone to put forward an opinion as if it should be considered on an equal footing with anyone else’s. Further, even supposing someone has the smarts and the training to offer insightful commentaries, how likely is it that blogging is the best way to express them, given the apparent pressure to say something pretty much every day? What really are the expectations here? What is the purpose of all this chatter?

I’m not about to retreat to my Ivory Tower, but I do feel a certain queasiness setting in. I’ve found a number of sites that strike me as worth keeping an eye on, but it’s hard for me right now to imagine making a great effort on, say, my own blog–because it’s hard to imagine it standing out, whatever approach I took, among all the others.

One other note here: In my reading around, I have noticed that my own impatience with literary criticism is echoed emphatically by a lot of writers out there, many of whom are not just impatient but positively vitriolic about English professors. Daniel Green of the blog The Reading Experience, for instance, writes about “academic schoolmasters, who now only serve to inflict the miseries behind the thick walls of their suffocating scholastic prisons” (see his article “Critical Conditions” at the Center for Book Culture). Ouch. While I find a lot of lit crit dreary to read, I do think there’s something to be said for expertise. Green talks about seeking a middle ground for “sustained and careful, but also lively and accessible criticism,” to which I say “hear hear” and let’s not underestimate the training and education it takes to be truly “careful.”

This post actually represents a break from another resolution I had made, which was to keep my blog about books, not about me. I’m curious though, in case anyone does read these pages: what does a widely read, intellectually serious lover of literature want from literary criticism? What makes a review, or a blog, or any commentary interesting and useful to you?