Metablogging: Three Interesting Posts

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.

More on the Purpose of Criticism

Some time ago I posted some thoughts on Cynthia Ozick’s Harper’s essay “Literary Entrails” (see “Academic Criticism Criticized”). Belatedly, I notice that there was a good posting in response to it at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading which concludes that “Ozick’s better criticism . . . would add another reason to read, a further way to engage a book once it had been closed and to continually re-think and re-evaluate books that have been around for a while. This might not bring any new readers into the fold, but it might make better readers out of those who already do so. Over time, I think that would make books better for everyone.” I like the idea that the critic’s role is to keep us engaged and to encourage us to “re-think and re-evaluate” what we have read; as both this author and Ozick emphasize, the pace of reviewing can be too hasty to allow for a “slower, more contemplative critical approach to literature.” For myself, I have been finding it exhausting trying to keep pace at all with the texts and topics addressed in litblogs and literary journals: I’m starting to look forward to the start of the teaching term in September because I will be back to worrying obsessively over a small handful of books, and to feel grateful for “the canon,” however unstable or elastic its definition, if only because the very idea of a canon implies that there is no obligation to pay attention to everything!

Meanwhile, at The Reading Experience, Dan Green has some good things to say about the distinction between reviewing and criticism: “The essential task of criticism is not to evaluate fiction. It is an essential task of reviewing, but criticism can take place entirely outside the context of judgment and evaluation, or at least it can take place in a context that assumes evaluation and judgment have already taken place. Some of the best criticism attempts not to argue for the merits of a particular work but to describe and analyze a work the critic already values and wants to “read” more closely. Sometimes this results in convincing readers of the quality of the work, but doing that has not been the critic’s primary task.” I like to think in terms of appreciation rather than evaluation, because it sidelines the issue of taste. I can appreciate a work of fiction for being artful, well-crafted, original, historically significant, etc. without actually liking it (Pamela, anyone?). Yet I am unlikely to devote a lot of critical time (or classroom time) to any text that I am not personally convinced has value, whether artistic, intellectual, social, or some combination. We value different books for different reasons, after all. I’m not sure I’d want to convince anyone of the quality of, say, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, though I enjoy reading and teaching it and consider it an important example of Victorian social problem fiction. On the other hand, I find I am prepared to expend a great deal of energy convincing people of the value of Bleak House or Middlemarch! Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there’s presumably no longer any question of reviewing them–or is there? Actually, that’s an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a ‘classic’ be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. In any case, I like Green’s comment that criticism is “a way of paying attention and of perhaps assisting others in the effort to pay closer attention.” Like the comments at Conversational Reading, this one reminds me of Booth’s idea of “coduction,” which seems to me an excellent model of the way our judgments of literature are in fact formed and reformed.