Book Bloggers vs. Literary Critics: A Response

There's something rather satisfying about using the Huffington Post, a venue built on blogging, to respond to Peter Stothard's alarmist claim that book bloggers are ruining literature.
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There's something rather satisfying about using the Huffington Post, a venue built on blogging, to respond to Peter Stothard's alarmist claim that book bloggers are ruining literature. Rather than being hypocritical, the fact that Stothard is himself a blogger actually serves to underline the true clannish elitism of his point: it's the democratic accessibility of blogging as a platform that distresses him, not the platform itself, and though he makes a pass at arguing in favour of literary change -- "If we're going to keep literature and language alive, we have to be alert to the new, the things which aren't like what's been before" -- it's clear that this is not a sentiment he's willing to extend beyond the parameters of his existing taste, let alone to new methods of criticism.

Because despite his assertion that "to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste," Stothard's taste in both literature and criticism -- and, by extension, the traditional taste of the literary establishment -- is exactly what's being discussed. Exalting the necessity of exploring books which "may be unpleasant... that we don't enjoy reading," for instance, is not the denial of taste that Stothard seems to think it is, but rather an assertion that a particular taste should be cultivated even against our initial inclinations; or, read differently, an exhortation to readers to persist with books they might otherwise disdain, provided those books are deemed to be of literary merit. Couple his belief that "great art for the most part resists [readability]," with his fear that "literature will be harmed" if "good page-turning stories" are deemed literary, and his anxiety over book blogging is made all too plain: that literary criticism and the taste it serves will somehow be overrun by the sudden, unregulated influx of plebian preferences into the literary world.

Which strikes me as being rather akin to the homophobe's fear that, if legalized, the very presence of gay marriage will somehow threaten its heterosexual equivalent, as though the happy coexistence of the two is somehow impossible. Nobody is trying to take Stothard's taste away from him, and judging by the tone of his remarks, it seems clear that the sort of page-turning, blogger-endorsed novels he's complaining about are exactly the sort of thing that he and the other antiquated guardians of high literature wouldn't let near the Booker with a 40-foot pole. Popular fiction, which is arguably his nemesis here, would seem to appeal to a very different reader than the one whose critical primacy he's defending; and if that's the case, then the two sorts of book were never in competition to begin with. Thus, his concern that "people will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off" is rendered hopelessly paternalistic: Stothard wants the general public to read, not for enjoyment, but for their own good as determined by literary critics, and therefore resents the ability of book bloggers to influence the reading tastes of the masses without reference to his preferred species of wisdom.

It's telling, too, that he defers to Booker winner Howard Jacobsen's thoughts on the matter, Jacobsen having recently ticked all the requisite boxes for Pretentious Supporter of the Literary Establishment by not only declaring himself to be "contemptuous of genre things," but demonstrating his apparent possession of the sort of tortured, Nicholas Sparks-style ego that allows one to say things like "I write fiction. The others write crap," without even the least little glimmer of self-awareness. (Ironically, this remark was made in response to a question asking what Jacobsen thought of literary fiction as a term.)

What Stothard's really concerned about, then, is literary influence; or, more specifically, the question of how to keep it away from anyone who writes or reads the sort of novels he takes to be unworthy. His issue with book bloggers isn't that they're threatening to eradicate "old-fashioned, argued criticism," but that "the role and the art of the critic... will just be drowned -- overwhelmed" by their presence -- meaning, literally, that their voices won't be heard, or heard as loudly. And yet all this concern over popular reading habits is almost painfully ironic when you consider the extent to which the literary establishment prides itself on being distinct from popular taste -- exclusive, exceptional and elite, rather than common and well-known. As much as the comparison would doubtless send Stothard into apoplexy, there's something fervently hipsterish about the penchant of literary critics to turn snobbish at the first mention of popularity, as though widespread acclaim (or at least, acclaim from the wrong sort of people) is poison to merit. Indeed, this is part of what Stothard is objecting to when he talks about page-turning and readability as negatives; literature, it seems, should be defined at least in part by its inaccessibility to anyone unwilling to work for it, and while that's not an inherently objectionable definition per se, it immediately becomes so when contextualized by the tacit assertion that only a certain type of book should have its impenetrability vaunted.

By which I mean: reading outside one's comfort zone -- even unto consideration of (comic shudder) genre novels -- will always be somewhat challenging, and as much due to taste as topic: those who feed on dense, intricate prose, for instance, will always have less difficulty with labyrinthine texts than whose who don't, but that says nothing about the quality of the books themselves or the critical worth of the reader. Acknowledging such subjectivity, however, is seemingly beyond the scope of literary critics like Stothard -- which is why, when it comes to the question of book blogging, his concern defaults to fear, not of new vehicles for opinion, but of a sudden wealth of opinions with which he disagrees.

In defending his notion of literary criticism, Stothard gives the following example of critical purpose: "You don't read a literary critic to explain why a new Ian Rankin is any good -- the people who know about him don't need that explaining." Well, yes; but that goes for any known author -- or, arguably, for any first-time author writing a traditionally structured story -- and as criticism neither is nor should be exclusively concerned with debuts, the assertion boils down to something far more intriguing: that critics don't exist to pass comment on popular, established things. Which seems to me -- a blogger and pop culture critic -- to be thoroughly wrongheaded: culture both shapes and is shaped by the mainstream, and analyzing the various mechanisms through which that process occurs is vital to understanding not only art, but society. Proper criticism should embrace that discourse, not reject it; and yet Stothard seems to be claiming the opposite. The cognitive dissonance here should be obvious: On the one hand, he seems to be arguing that popular works aren't literature, let alone the province of proper literary criticism; yet on the other, he's lamenting the inability of literary criticism to dictate popular taste. Presumably then, if he were to get his wish and literary taste suddenly became the mainstream, literary criticism as an institution would either implode or somehow transfer its properties to other, less popular areas. (Like genre, perhaps? Or maybe not. Either way, one wonders.)

Ultimately, popularity should be no more antithetical to the bestowal of literary merit than genre, readability, paciness or anything else the literary establishment has generally set its face against; and yet it is, because the acknowledgement that taste has anything to do with criticism (it does, no matter what size pedestal you're standing on) comes too close to admitting that, while worth and success are two different things, they're both inherently subjective measurements. Literary criticism as described by Stothard is no more inherently right and objective about what constitutes good literature than criticism as practiced by the book bloggers he decries: yes, it's true that "not everyone's opinion is worth the same," but the question of why and how still varies in accordance with what we actually want an opinion for. Stothard is worried there's "not much space" for the sort of criticism he desires, but it's a complaint predicated on a mindset of physical, pre-Internet column inches -- an interpretation supported by his complaint that newspaper editors are giving too few printed pages to book reviews now that so much is online. At base, then, he's worried that the world is changing, and yet is unwilling to change with it, preferring to lament the lack of traditional critical space while complaining about the digital bounty of book blogs. But as Stothard himself says, we have to be alert to the new, even if we find it unpleasant at first -- and that's just as true of modes of criticism as it is of literary taste.

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