In the April 29th issue of the Los Angeles Times, author Michael Connolly wrote a defense of book reviews. It was smart, solid, and thoughtful, and should have made many bottom-line watchers stop and think about whether cutting book reviews was really in their best financial interest.
Now, however, the same Los Angeles Times is trying to undermine that sort of thoughtful analysis with the opinion piece Not Everybody’s A Critic by Richard Schickel. Objecting to an article in the New York Times which said that the disappearance of book reviews might not be a bad thing while literary blogs are part of “an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books”, Schickel fires a sarcastic warning shot: “Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity.” While he concedes that most reviewing is “hack work”, he says, “let’s think about what reviewing ought to be.” And he’s right: let’s think about what reviewing out to be. It ought not to be sarcastic, off-the-cuff, ill-informed ranting about, say, a New York Times article, even if it contains “The most grating words I’ve read in a newspaper lately”. Reviewing ought not to set up a straw man–say, the generic literary blogger–only to bash it with critics such as Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell, without citing any specific examples on either side. Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. After all, Schickel was writing an opinion piece (or “yammering”), so he doesn’t have to hold himself to the same high standards he expects of criticism.
Blogging is also not strictly a democratic activity. It requires access to the Internet, which means a computer, a power supply, and some form of connection, and it requires at least a basic level of literacy. Not all blogs are created equal, either. I could never hope to compete with Bookslut, for instance, or numerous other literary blogs, but that doesn’t keep me from trying to make my own small contribution.
Schickel sets the newspaper critic on a higher level than the blogger by explaining that “The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.”
This is confusing the medium with the message. Is Schickel honestly saying that a blog is “mere yammering”, while writing for a newspaper–a daily publication–has “an implication of permanence”? Is writing on a typewriter superior to writing on a computer? Is writing longhand superior to typing? Maybe we should go back to chiseling words in stone, which certainly concentrates the mind. It’s true that a blog post can be altered after the fact. (I’m not proud of it, but I’ve done it myself.) An article written for a newspaper can be altered by an editor, it can be be cut before publication, and, if the information turns out to be incorrect, the newspaper can print a retraction. Paper is not necessarily more stable than a web page, either. Paper burns, disintegrates, or, in the case of newspaper, simply smudges and can become unreadable. If some writers write only for blogs does that make their writing inherently inferior because the medium doesn’t “concentrate the mind most wonderfully”? Writers who write blogs may hope that their works will achieve permanence; the act of writing, regardless of the medium, is a message to the future, and it’s the message that matters.
Perhaps Schickel should put aside Orwell and Wilson and Sainte-Beuve, briefly, and instead pick up John Milton, who argued, in A Speech For The Liberty Of Unlicensed Printing, that when the powerful silence their subjects they undermine the values they hope to instill. While Milton never had bloggers in mind, and while Schickel wouldn’t say he’s in favor of censorship, he does say criticism should be “an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object).” And he presumes to know better than anyone else, or at least better than most, what sort of individuals deserve the right to undertake the “elite enterprise”. The unwashed masses, he’s suggesting, are free to speak, but only the elite truly contribute to culture.
Milton was speaking in the first-person, but he spoke for everyone–high and low–when he said, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”