Friday, January 30, 2009

The Function of Lit-Blogging at the Present Time

Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBlog recently started thinking out loud about a reading list for the history of the novel and asked for suggestions. Nigel Beale, in his customarily overbearing way, foisted a mammoth list onto Thwaite via RSB's comments section, a list which wasn't so much a response to Thwaite's query as a tangentially-related data dump of names and titles. (Beale's list is about criticism tout court, not the history of the novel, so lobbing it at Thwaite is like throwing a phonebook at someone who asked for a list of people to invite to a party.)

Consisting of, if I counted correctly, 119 different authors and around 150 individual works, I'm not really sure who this helps, or why it's more helpful than telling someone to buy this book and this book and this book. Beale's list is just a hodge-podge with little apparent judgment: you have one essay by T.S. Eliot but three books by James Wood. You also have a number of embarrassing spelling errors, like "Garrick Davis (Ed.) Raising it New The Best of New Criticism," which should be "Praising It New" and Joseph "Brodskey." This strange mixture of haste and (attempted) exhaustiveness fatally undermines its ability to help a curious reader—you'd be much better off ignoring it and searching for a better curated list.

But what am I bothering for? The point of Beale's list wasn't actually about giving curious readers an idea of what criticism they should read. He calls it "Nigel Beale's Comprehensive Literary Criticism Reading List," but it certainly isn't about comprehending anything. It's about a) linkbait for Beale and b) stuffing a lot of names at the reader and letting them sort out the redundancies, the irrelevancies, the errors, and the bores, all the while settling into a smug position that allows him to pose as an authority. Anyone can be this kind of authority—all it takes is a superficial scan of a few tables of contents and the keyboard commands "copy" and "paste."

D.G. Myers also threw a list at Thwaite. His actually seems to have understood the purpose of Thwaite's question, but it is still too cumbersome to be of much use except maybe for someone preparing for orals in grad school. A lot of it is just redundant—critics writing from the same basic milieu with the same basic background of general belle-letristic humanism covering the same set of books. If you're actually interested in more than one tradition of criticism, you might try this set of reading lists that UCLA put together: most lists have criticism as well as primary texts, but the list called simply "Novel" has a very good selection which may be useful in Thwaite's endeavor. Unfortunately, these are also merely lists—just more raw data. They are better data, though.

More generally, however, I'd like to consider what seems to be the consensus view of the purpose and role of lit-blogs, a consensus which I think is exemplified in some way by these lists, but which is readily apparent in nearly every lit-blog's day-to-day operation, including in mine.

It seems to me that lit-blogs are a lot like the Beale and Myers lists: not very concerned about context or redundancy or even error or irrelevance. Those concerns are for the most part outsourced to the reader; it is the reader's responsibility to get something out of a lit-blog.

What the lit-blog is there for is to take part of a great accumulation of choice, a continual aggregation of choice—each entry offering to the potential reader an option for the next book to read or buy or think about. This isn't very different from a book review section—no wonder, since it is the book review sections which the most trafficked lit-blogs seem to emulate and hope to displace or supplement.

The other model for lit-blogs—particularly the less-trafficked ones—is the commonplace book. These blogs prize the epiphanic, the aleatory, the fragmentary, the slow stumble through literature. Again, their purpose is simple aggregation, though in this case it is two-sided. The purpose behind its writing is aggregation-as-retention—the ability to store the ephemeral. The purpose behind its publishing is, like the purpose of the book review-type blogs, the aggregation of choice—the potential reader's choice. The blog acts as a Choose Your Own Adventure of Reading—follow any path, read any book I cover on my blog. How these adventures become anything more than adventitious is totally up to the reader.

Lit-blogs of all kinds are there simply to bring books to the reader's attention; contextualization is a sometimes necessary part of this, but it is a process always subordinated to the simple act of flagging a book as noteworthy. The Beale/Myers lists are good if excessive examples of this prerogative: if the lists were truly meant to educate or inform, I think they'd be both more selective and more descriptive. Shopping lists don't inform, but they do make the shopper aware of his choices, and this is often all that lit-blogs ever do.

Even the efforts of many bloggers to educate and inform more people about literature-in-translation comes off most often as simple cheerleading; noble as its purpose may be, it is advanced primarily through the same kinds of methods that book sections use to cover the newest Pynchon or Roth—reporting on hype and the publishing apparatus as much as or more than demonstrating why the book or author is enjoyable/challenging/worthwhile. "It's worthwhile because it's being covered by us" often seems to be the implicit message, as it is for so much of the newspaper and journal book criticism. Again, the point seems to be attention, not understanding, and the point of attention is the creation of choice—once you've been alerted to something's existence, you can look for it, read it, and move to the next work the blogosphere has flagged for your notice.

The benefits of this system are obvious to a lit-blogger: you really do think the books you flag are worthy of attention and/or are probably being neglected. The variety of interests and tastes within the lit-blogging community truly creates a much broader field of books getting attention, a goal which book-lovers generally approve of. And there is usually enough consensus (which we like to call dialogue) about which books should get the most attention (Bolaño, James Wood, et al.) that it really seems like we're collectively broadening the horizons of our readers and bringing justice to the republic of letters. Our diversity makes it possible to create a massive field of choices, and our "discussions" make sure that this isn't total chaos. Everybody's happy.

This set of circumstances is not confined to the lit-blogosphere: as I've noted, in that the continual aggregation of choice is the purpose of lit-blogs, it is modeled on newspaper book review sections. Yet the same capacities that make the lit-blog such an excellent platform for exponential choice aggregation (the diversity of its members and the diversity of their interests, the ability to stage open-ended dialogues or discussions) make it seem to me that the lit-blog can do and should do a great deal more. Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge; instead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out, an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge.

In that spirit, I'd like to offer Mark and other interested parties a very rough attempt at providing not just names, but some contexts for their inclusion. I don't feel that I can claim any kind of authority on this, since there's a lot of criticism—including some of what I am about to recommend—that I haven't read, but I offer what I have, which is basically how I'm trying to tackle the question of the history of the novel.

It seems to me that one should sort of pursue two different paths simultaneously, as their complexities render truly synthetic analyses impossible in most cases. First, there should be a formalist path which would track the development and diffusion of novelistic forms—and here you would be reading things like D.A. Miller and Nancy Armstrong and Franco Moretti, Bakhtin, some narratologists like Todorov and Peter Brooks. Then, there would be a path that would focus on the communities that create/receive these forms, and here I'd recommend a lot of Marxists, since they have an obvious devotion to big syntheses which cover a lot of ground: Raymond Williams and Jameson and Lukács for sure, but also Lucien Goldmann. Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word would be a kind of model for this path from a non-Marxist background. In the way of a synthesis between these two paths, I would also say that the work of a number of postcolonialists like Bhabha and Saïd and of African-American scholars like Robert Stepto and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would be excellent reading; they are able to bring these two paths together, as they analyze the adaptations the novel form takes as it is taken up by a new culture.

What I don't see much of a point in for this question is the kind of book that simply considers one author after another. D.H. Lawrence's Studies in American Literature, for example, is a fantastic book, but it's not really a book about the history of the novel in America: books like this are really more personality criticism than history—they seek to create a personality for the author or for the book, not an idea of its meaning in history or even its effects on later books. I think a lot of the criticism Myers and Beale recommended are of this type.

But really, what I'm doing right now (thanks to a reminder from a commenter on this blog) is just trying to knock off a couple of essays a week in Franco Moretti's 2 volume magnum opus The Novel. It's really, really good stuff. Moretti is an incredible editor, allowing many different types of analysis, history and criticism—much of which is very unlike his own work. I'm hoping to blog about some of it soon.


Tony Christini said...

"Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge; instead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out, an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge."

With a particular focus on what may be called liberatory literature, this approach above is one of the features of A Practical Policy, given the mainly sociopolitically engaged lists and excerpts of criticism at the Socialit subsite - - and including the periodic analyses and imaginative works (and links) in interplay with such knowledge, and life. The site moves to further understanding, existence, and possibilities of liberatory art (whether in form of novel or otherwise).

EC said...

Re: the function of blogs at the present time:

Take a look at the way this wondrous and unsettling post by Spurious on 2666 questions its own status:

maitresse said...

You raise some good points here (though I think you are a bit hard on Nigel). And I like your rationale for your own choices for Mark's list.

It was sort of a broad question he posed, I think, and it's interesting that everyone has so far understood it to be calling for secondary sources. Why not throw some primary texts on there? Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chaucer, Sterne... all key texts for understanding the history of the novel.

Amateur Reader said...

"Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge; instead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out, an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge"

Like this? Or do you have something else in mind?

Andrew Seal said...

maitresse, you raise a very good point about primary sources. Rabelais would also be very needed, I think, and maybe Boccaccio?

And you're right--I probably am too hard on Beale, though I do think that there is something very frustrating about a list billed as comprehensive and ostensibly for the use of "discovering" new authors and works which doesn't even bother to spell the names or titles correctly. I should have said so a little bit less polemically, though.

"Amateur Reader"--yeah, for sure! And it's personally helpful to me, too. I've been eager to read Sembène since I heard he wrote novels before he became a director--I love his films. So thanks!

Nigel Beale said...

Thank you Andrew for bringing the embarrassing spelling errors to my attention, critiquing my appearance, and spending your valuable time counting up the number of authors and works that appear on my reading list.

I’m flattered and impressed that you would pay such attention to this post. What I’m not impressed with is the manner in which you misrepresent its intent. First of all, no authoritative claims are made. This is my own idiosyncratic list (hence its name), one culled from a variety of different sources, including university course outlines, lit crit bibliographies, books - read and unread - in my library, and friends’ recommendations. I put it together largely because I found what was available on the Internet to be lacking. No, it didn’t take a great deal of time to compile; and I say this with no apologies. In fact here is exactly what I say, and what you have chosen to ignore:
‘This is a work in progress, so please, if you see gaps, and have titles that you think deserve inclusion, let me know...'
My hope was, and continues to be, that visitors might find a title or two of interest and might see fit to assist in making the list more ‘comprehensive.’ It was posted with the intention of adding to it as time goes by, and using it as a personal reading list, to which site visitors might refer as I blog about various titles…purveying what little ‘knowledge’ I may have to purvey.
As for ‘lobbing and foisting’ dumps of data on Mark Thwaite…perhaps you could explain why he thanks me publicly for responding to his question?
That’s it for this comment. Time now foist on the reading public a hasty post in response to your thoughts on lit blogging...

Andrew Seal said...

You call it 'comprehensive' in the title of the post--that is a claim to authority, even if you qualify it later. You're asserting that your list is at least potentially complete, exhaustive, and necessary. I found that the scope of such a claim was simply incommensurate with the lack of care you took to put it together.

Additionally, you also refer to it as a list of "critical works... which explain what we have read and what it means, and tell us what we should read, and why." Who are you, Lionel Trilling? What is this 'we' business? I use 'we' sometimes, but I try to use it with concrete antecedents, as a reference to an obviously limited group of which I am a part--lit-bloggers or readers of a particular novel. I don't understand this use of the magisterial-universal 'we.' Where does it come from? I honestly cannot find an antecedent for it--who are you referring to? Humanity? If it's merely editorial, I don't think I'm alone in finding such a usage enormously arrogant and self-inflating.

NigelBeale said...

Have you heard of Mark Sarvas? He hosts one of the blogosphere's most popular lit blogs. Uses 'we' all the time. I found it rather amusing.

Perhaps you should loosen the cord a turn or two.

Andrew Seal said...

Sorry, I don't think much of Sarvas either.