Thursday, September 6, 2007

Slouching towards Terre Haute

It appears that the print vs. blog debate is rearing its haggard visage once more in force. A post at The Millions collects a number of recent pieces and vauntingly rails against their doddering ancien-regime-ishness. The panoply of arguments the author, Ben Dooley, lines up is much the same as the battle dress another Millions blogger, Garth Hallberg, donned while correcting the editors of n+1 and their pretty-widely-acknowledged overstatement "The Blog Reflex" from earlier this year. (I would say, however, that Garth's post is a little more nuanced and thoughtful.)

These arguments are almost entertaining simply because of the stultifyingly repetitive form each iteration assumes. The dullness of their regularity nearly transmutes somehow into comedy as each side fumes at how limited its set of arguments are, subtextually but audibly grumbling about how pegged their position is to the progress of a ceremony of sorts—a dialectic which each side wants to tip in its favor, burnishing the alloy of the future with slightly more of their side's mettle/metal.

The old-guard/rear-guard wants to prevent the ceremony from turning into a massive self-immolation, a point which is reached when they start claiming that, though the winds of change may whisk away the chaff of quantity, the hard kernel of quality will yet remain. In this case, we'll probably see a gradual shift of emphasis on the part of the NBCC from defending book reviews as institutions to promoting or glorifying individual literary critics (and, it goes without saying, those writing for the flagship literary publications). Greater emphasis is given to the past and to heritage, saluting the hey-day heroes of the cause. Blame is focused on those who have debased the standards of the institution and left the public unable to appreciate the merits of the true practitioners of the craft. Less is said about large social movements or broad cultural shifts as it becomes evident that the threat is not losing a chimerical vast wavering public but seeing the former faithful falling away.

The young turks want to speed up what they see as a plodding changing of the guard, a turnover delayed not by external forces, but by the resistance of the former powerbrokers. Emphasis will be placed on how structurally sound their outfit is, how consonant with the times, how it really does serve the people what they really want—choice. Of course, the choice that is important to the new kids on the block is not, contrary to their rhetoric, the choice offered among the glorious upstarts, but between the new and the old. Emphasizing choice is really the promotion of the new. To have a choice implies that one should take it, and if that choice is newly created, the choice would obviously be for the new.

Both sides' self-perceptions are hideously blinkered, but that goes without saying. But this blinkering is so severe primarily because each side considers the situation solely from the perspective of a producer, when the consumer is the (obviously) determinant factor. That fact makes certain questions that have come out of these debates (e.g. "Does instant communication encourage combat? If so, why? (Is the media the message?) When does anger work to enrich understanding, and when does it hinder it? Are those even the metrics anymore? How can a medium so bound up with the culture industry manage a critique of that industry? Is the blog-as-antidote-to-ideology itself part of the ideology? Is good writing good for writing? Does mass culture exert a leveling effect? Can highbrow and middlebrow coexist peacefully, and if so under what circumstances? What becomes of critique when words are control x-ed and control v-d and the very idea of context, the context of context, starts to evaporate?") rather pointless or at least very ancillary to the actual question of what literary culture will be like in five or ten years. No one on either side is really asking this question, or at least not directly. (I imagine someone is, but I haven't found any good posts, editorials or monographs on the topic.)

The question that always goes missing in these turf war-cum-pissing contests is, who are the consumers? Are the people commenting on lit-blogs significantly different in occupation, geographical residence, education level, and gender from those who write letters to the NYRB? I think it would be pretty generally agreed upon that lit-blog readers skew younger than those who read book reviews/news in print, but is this a significant fact, or are these people reading blogs at twenty the same type of people who would have grown up to write letters to the NYRB at forty had they lived, say, thirty years ago?

And note that the question isn't "are the producers significantly different in occupation...." I think here is where the blog triumphalists go really wrong when they focus on a supposed democratization of literary critical production. Bloggers seem to have taken up as rallying cries two examples brandished by the guardians-of-taste as evidence of the baseness of literary blogging—the quasi-legendary car mechanic who apparently reads voraciously and posted 200 or something original book reviews last year and the mythical guy "sitting in a basement in Terre Haute" referenced by novelist Richard Ford while attacking lit-blogging. Lit-bloggers try to use these examples to further the case that blogs broaden the national literary discourse. But this argument assumes that such people either had a life without literature before the web or had a very passive relationship with books. What goes unsaid is that literary activity is still defined as publishing on literature, and the many new self-publishers constitute a revolutionary increase in literary activists. I don't think it's that simple; in fact, it's rather condescending.

I would find it rather difficult to believe that the prolix car mechanic never did much about his latent musings on literature, or worse, that he had none before blogging came around and shook him into thinking about books. I would also have trouble imagining that this Terre Haute basement that is now such a hothouse of literary production yielded nothing in the way of speculation on or about books before an internet connection was installed. I find it much easier to imagine that the mechanic has a welter of marginalia scattered across the pages of books he read pre-net, and that the Terre Haute basement often was the scene of people sharing thoughts about literature with one another. Certainly, these thoughts were not available to be shared broadband at however many kilobytes per second, but they were not inert either. Blog triumphalists like Ben Dooley resist having blogging compared to speaking rather than writing, but this resistance is as much about wanting to distance blogging from the supposedly inert practices of these unredeemed, pre-net basement-dwelling car mechanics as it is about defending the quality of blogging as a genre.


JAK said...

as Caroline Kaplan (i.e. daughter of Liz Taylor aka Chicago Book Empress) said to me wisely in Amherst one day: "you read the paper (pointing to the actual, non-digital copy under my arm), you must be OLD! Only old people actually READ the paper."

gary daily said...

Hey jak, slouch toward this:

The first fifty or so posts on this blog implore, cajole, shame people to read . . . a book. These urgings first appeared in, yeah, the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I wrote these thinking that "Only old people actually READ the paper." and that's OK, at least they read print on paper. Was I wrong.