Picking up where I left off in part one…
In my last post, I argued that the literary critics play a crucial role in sizing up, interpreting, and synthesizing books for the reading public.
There are two primary issues here, as I see it: the role of the literary critic, and the role of the Internet. The latter is at the service of the former. But the latter may also blur the definition of the former to the degree that one might think oneself a literary critic when one is in fact simply an amateur book enthusiast.
One of the major themes of this latest polemic over the falling status of books has been the conflict between literary bloggers and book reviewers. Online book reviews and litblogs are proliferating, but while the internet provides a soap box to anyone who wants one, it unfortunately is more difficult to police the quality of the reviews being generated (some of the most successful book blogs feature the most atrocious writing).
Pierre Assouline confessed on his blog that he is critical of journalisme citoyen, a label under which I think we can classify litbloggers : « Inutile de rappeler que c’est un métier, une technique, un savoir-faire, une expérience. Désolé mais non, tout le monde n’est pas journaliste, photographe, cinéaste, professeur, encyclopédiste… »
["There's no use protesting that [being a journalist] is a métier which demands technique, know-how and a certain amount of experience. I’m sorry but no, not everyone in the world can be a journalist, a photographer, a filmmaker, a professor, an encyclopedist…"]
Surely, c’est un métier qui s’apprend, it is a skill which can be learned, given the proper amount of training; book criticism calls for a certain amount of enthusiasm, discernment, and the
capacity to communicate to others the results of his perception. At the very least, a book critic has "to help a reader make free
and independent choices, not confuse fame or popularity with value, and
must present real cultural values: rather than those created by the
market," as Luisa Blanco suggested recently at the London Book Fair.
Still, a hierarchy within the profession must be defended; rising above the occupation of "book critic" to "literary critic" requires a wide breadth and depth of knowledge, along with a keener and innate sense of language and intuitive feeling of the empathetic resonance between texts. But ultimately, a sense of absurdity and a capacity for great sacrifice are indispensable to a life as a book critic. And passion. Lots of passion. Tom Stoppard, in an interview about his trilogy The Coast of Utopia, had the following to say on the character of Belinsky, the literary critic obsessed with Russia’s need for a national literature: “His job was to find artists and encourage them. His was a combination of a noble calling and a pointless one. Whether people can find great artists without the help of any critic I don’t know.”
The problem is, our society seems to be moving into an era when these sensitive souls are becoming superfluous– if books matter less, why should book critics matter at all? And as aboard a ship that’s gone dramatically off-course, there is conflict stirring within the ranks.
Critics of litblogs have accused them of being “parasites to traditional media.” They do not concede that blogs could in fact be forums for literary criticism, and on this point the haters have been roundly chastised.
Except they do sort of have a point, much as it irks me to side with anyone apart from the bloggers. The problem with the democratization brought about by the Internet is that it leads everyone to believe they are worthy of being listened to. I am sorry to say, this is not the case, and I’m not sorry if this sounds elitist. As someone who has exerted considerable time, effort, and financial sacrifice training in university literature departments , I feel entitled to my elitism. It is difficult to get accepted to a PhD program in literature, and even more difficult to stay the course for 8 years. But I believe literature, literary criticism, and academic research to be of crucial importance to our culture and its continuance, so that is how I spend my days.
But PhD or no PhD, blogs are the only place where young critics can make their voices heard, precisely because newspapers and paying outlets have tightened their belts on book coverage. So when I pitch a book review to a place like the Boston Globe, I have no shot of getting my pitch accepted because I’m competing with my elders and betters: seasoned experts who are taken care of by their editors. It’s just not a dynamic sector of journalism or publishing, and no amount of talent, ingenuity, or training will get you in the door. So you try another one, a virtual one, and instead of judging the success of the endeavor by circulation and letters to the editor you talk about hits and comments.
Apart from litblogs, at the same time as newspaper book reviews are disappearing, small literary magazines are cropping up left and right. Certainly there is a reading audience out there, but they are perhaps become fragmented, specialized. It’s the rule of the long tail, essentially– those who want book reviews will go after them.
But this implies two things: one, that book reviews should only be read by a specialized segment of the population, and two, that the mainstream newspaper-reading public should feel no obligation to be interested in books.
Which revisits my initial thesis, which will be further developed (with some help from Nardac, Michael Silverblatt, and Susan Sontag) in part three.