Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Old Blogging/Newspaper Chestnut

Dan Green at The Reading Experience, one of our most thoughtful literary bloggers, has understandably taken umbrage at William Skidelsky's portrayal of litbloggers in this month's Prospect magazine. Skidelsky says:
...while blogs make a great deal of fuss about being where the action is, they contain little decent criticism. It is rare to encounter good critical writing on the internet that didn't start life in print form. Lively literary websites—or online magazines with literary sections—do exist, especially in the US: Salon, Slate, the Literary Saloon. But blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.
However, while we can smart at that sidewipe, the real concern of Skidelsky's article is the sorry state of print reviewing. Here are the blows he deals in that direction:
Few reviews buck the critical consensus or challenge long-inflated reputations. Review sections have a tendency to be cliquey ...In most review sections, much less space is given to fiction than to non-fiction, discouraging reviewers from tackling the big questions that novels raise—whether aesthetic or political. Reviewers rarely attempt more than a plot summary and some perfunctory reflections on style. Trends are rarely analysed ...Book reviews often display a certain sloppiness or complacency.
And here's his final note, which echoes my own previously stated view of the matter:
In the end, though, the squabbles between literary journalists and bloggers miss the point. While both parties have cast themselves as adversaries in a pressing contemporary drama, they really are (or should be) allies in a more important battle—for literature itself, and its right to be taken seriously.
He singles out fiction reviewing as the area of criticism where 'aesthetic judgements are not just desirable but necessary', and interestingly yesterday Susan Hill (whom Skidelsky characterizes as championing bloggers) made much the same point and was indeed fiercely critical of those book bloggers who exhibit a herd mentality and eschew independent thought and a concern for aesthetic standards.

Susan Hill is not in fact as combative as her spat with John Sutherland (who so famously appeared to sneer at blook bloggers) made her seem. Recently she said this:
...book-bloggers are word-of-mouthers, amateurs who want to tell not only their friends but a wider circle about what they are reading and enjoying. Their role is different from that of the professional book critic.They are self-appointed and they may not know as much as they think they do. They are also unedited and unregulated.
I don't think all litbloggers would characterize themselves in quite this way - as purely enthusiasts and as amateurs - and many part company from her in her policy of positive reviewing, which she sets out in the same post:
I rarely review in the media now but during the forty years I did so, I often had to be, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about a given title. When I blog about books, I only mention those I admire and have enjoyed. If I can`t praise, I do not write about the book.
Now I know where she's coming from: there's nothing more depressing than having to slate a book - or even, actually, be less than enthusiastic - when as a writer yourself you know how it can spear the heart of the author. (And of course as a blogger she has every right to set her own literary agenda.) But in fact, as I've said before, as an author I wonder if it's a mistaken kindness. Recently Dovegreyreader, who shares this policy, gave my book a glowing review (I'm pleased to say), and told me that if she hadn't liked it she wouldn't have reviewed it but would have discreetly set it aside. I appreciate her sensitivity, but as it happens I'd rather have a negative review and my book be thus a visible part of literary debate than have it buried in silence. Books like mine - short stories, newish independent press - don't get reviews easily in the newspapers (as Sidelsky indicates), or indeed as easily on the much of the web as those hyped by big publishers. A bad review from Dovegrey would at least have made more people aware of its existence than none - and some readers may have chanced their arm with it to see whether or not they disagreed with her.

Or is it exactly as the newspaper critics claim and Susan Hill herself fears - that all independent thought has gone out of the window and the blogosphere is full of literary 'lemmings'?


Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth. Your thoughts on it being better to be reviewed even negatively than not at all is very interesting. This is something we have all been debating over at Vulpes and I wondered if you had seen the recent article on it. http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/02/07/feature-fox-in-the-city/
It's interesting because it has been taken up by the blogging community, although many seem take it as evidence of anti-blogness and yet, in fact, the newspaper reviewers in the article were very positive about bloggers and bookblogs.

Susan Hill kindly answered some questions on just this subject which we also published in its entirety here if you are interested. http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/02/07/interview-with-susan-hill-the-art-of-blogging/

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh hi there - looks as if I'm a bit behind everyone else (too stuck in my own writing!). Thanks so much for alerting me to these - a very interesting debate indeed.

Kate S. said...

Elizabeth, I'm in the same position as you with a collection of short stories recently published by a small press and I completely agree with you about preferring a negative review to no mention at all. Of course, my first preference is for a glowing review! But as a reader, reviewer, bogger, AND writer, lively, thoughtful, honest discussion about literature is what I'm interested in participating in and fostering. On the point about literary lemmings in the blogosphere, I have to say that I haven't seen that in the corner of the litblogosphere that I inhabit. Yes, many of us rush out to read books recommended by fellow bloggers whose opinions we trust. But if those who have done so find that they didn't enjoy the book as much as the recommender did, they don't hesitate to say so, and inevitably an interesting discussion ensues. I fear that if we all did adhere to a "rule" about staying positive we'd be much more likely to develop that lemming mentality.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Kate. I do agree with you on all of this. (I was of course playing devil's advocate re litblog lemmings. Strikes me that there there's so much stuff on the web now, that we each necessarily inhabit our own corner of it, as you say, and people are getting different views of the character of litblogs as a whole.)

However, even Dan Green at the reading experience (whom I consider one of out most thoughtful and academic bloggers) has confessed in response to my post that he's reluctant to be negative about small press authors. I think this comes from an underestimation of the independence of the reader of any review, and also of the effect of bad reviews (they generate discussion, which can in turn provoke differing and positive comment).

It seems to me that the best way that bloggers can be a creative force in our literary culture is to maintain a healthy debate, and this can't be achieved by just responding to those things you like.

Elizabeth Baines said...

PS Kate, Dan Green has asked writers to comment on his post, saying whether or not they agree with me. He says he'll change his reviewing approach if enough do! (Link to The Reading Experience in my sidebar)