Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Critical Elitism

There is a much larger context to this article, but it's the same type of turf-war dispute between print journalists and bloggers that has occurred everywhere, and it's really tedious. (If you want to catch up, read this.)

The article's titled "Not Everybody's a Critic," and it's written by Richard Schickel, Time's film critic. His point is that reviewing is not a matter of opinion, but rather of "disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities." He resents the sort of blogger who can brag about reviewing 95 books in a year, working on the side from his job. (By the way, it's interesting how Schickel genders the amateur blogger as excessively virile—"hairy-chested populism"—rather than the typical characterization of being frivolous and feminine, but anyway.)

I agree with Schickel to a very large extent. I do think a reviewer needs to be something more than a quality-control officer (which is why I hate Roger Ebert so much; even when he does write a decent column that says more, that never gets quoted, just his thumbs). It's not just even about writing well or convincingly. I think a reviewer does need to have a deep working knowledge of an author's previous output, his or her sources, the larger literary conversation, and a fair amount of theoretical knowledge, and should aspire to transmitting all of that within most reviews.

Of course, I'm writing this on a blog and have every intention of using this blog to talk about books, so I'm probably either being awfully hypocritical or self-hating or something along those lines. But I don't feel that I am.

Schickel assumes a few things that I feel aren't necessary assumptions, and he says a few things at the end of the column that I think are quite worthwhile and which I think speak to some of the possibilities of blogging that I'm intending to explore on this blog.

First, he assumes that bloggers spend almost no time on their posts and blog only to express a hasty and ostentatious opinion. While empirically this may be quite true, it's not necessarily so. Blogging is merely a technology, just as print is a technology. It can be used in many different ways, and although its natural capacities may direct the uses one makes of it, it does not prevent other ways of employing it. Let me be more direct. There is nothing about Blogger that requires I finish my post in a certain (short) amount of time nor any function that forbids scholarly diligence showing up in my posts.

Secondly, he assumes that anyone who is interested in spending this kind of time educating themselves in all those things necessary to write proper book reviews will want the fruits of their labor to go into the NYRB or The New Yorker or whatever else. Again, this is probably empirically true, but not necessarily so. Sure, it does seem as if many litbloggers are using their blog to get paid gigs at print-based publications or, perhaps, quasi-highbrow online mags—Slate, Salon, etc. But this probably will not always be true. Because in almost all cases those who write reviews seriously do so for money, and not just side-money but as their primary source of income, it is financially necessary to get your content published where it will get you the most money. That may not always be the case—either blogging and self-promotion will start paying more than writing for The New Yorker (fat chance) or people who have steady sources of income apart from reviewing and yet, for some reason or other, have had the kind of education and have developed the kind of reading habits that will allow them to review books in the way Schickel describes, will start putting fingers to keys and posting their thoughts.

But that opens up another question—at least for me. Can blogging be a way of acquiring this education and of developing these reading habits? I hope to make this blog into an easily accessible (public) record of my attempt to become just the kind of person Schickel describes. Having that record will, I think, allow me to refer back to ideas I've previously had and connections I've previously made in ways that mere memory will not. At least, that's my hope.

But Schickel articulates something else that I've been struggling to identify and that encapsulates another ideal use for this blog: Schickel quotes DJ Waldie in saying that "blogging is a form of speech, not of writing."

I participated recently in a panel here at Dartmouth that focused (soft-focused) on the question of how much blogging really has become an alternative to journalism. One guy said that it has, but not in the way everyone believes. It hasn't mounted a challenge to the kind of journalism that the NYTimes specializes in, or that CNN specializes in. Some efforts by Pajamas Media (represented on the panel by its founder, Roger L. Simon) to the contrary, the big-time bloggers (PowerLine, Atrios, or even larger, multi-user outfits like DailyKos or Huffington Post) are not taking over from the Times or CNN in providing on-the-spot, foreign correspondent type reporting. They're opinion-based and comment largely on the MSM's coverage of world or national events. For some reason, bloggers think that criticizing MSM or critiquing their coverage of an issue is the same thing as doing their job for them, but I'll leave that debate alone for the moment. What blogs do threaten is the other opinion-based, news-commentary-focused outlets—things like Time or Newsweek or US News & World Report.

A point that I made pushes that insight farther (I think). Blogs are mostly in the business of personality-formation—either the blogger's (/bloggers') personality or the personalities of a set of targets, either political or cultural. Many blogs are written somewhat anonymously, but are focused on creating a gallery of targets for either obsession or for censure/mockery, but I think this is effectively no different from a Livejournal.

But what this boils down to, then, is that all blogs are gossip blogs. You may be gossiping about yourself or the latest news about some film adaptation of a graphic novel or the NY social scene or celebrity culture or the health of your dog, but it's all gossip. What is the sustaining and defining feature of a blog? The hotlink. And linkage is what gossip is all about. Discrete networks that become more interesting the more internal links there are. That's the same principle that drives blogging and reinforces the idea of blogging as a form of speech rather than writing.

What this means is that I hope people comment on here, not necessarily on-topic, and not necessarily in response to something I've posted. I think gossiping about books and about authors—living or dead—is actually a considerable part of learning how to talk and think about books. Authors, and the books they write, very much exist within these discrete networks, and the more links you can draw among them, the more interesting they—and you—become.

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