Are bloggers killing literary criticism? (And: should critics watch films?!)

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and chair of the Man Booker judges this year, talks about ‘bloggers killing literary criticism’ in the Indy.

Now, I think we can cut Peter some slack because the Man Booker judges have selected an interesting shortlist this year. But I wish this article had a bit more substance (we have observed of late that the Indy is getting a bit more like the Daily Mail in its ratio of opinion to fact).

It does make some interesting points, e.g., that criticism is about more than simply sharing one’s taste. And even if blogging is wonderfully democratic, its access for all comers can at times beg the question of how the blogger has earned the right to be heard, and who is even listening; there are a lot of trolls and blowhards in the blogosphere, and I imagine many of their opinings are mostly unread. (Thus he opineth … In creating my own blog, I’ve hoped to avoid too much of that, and my future book reviews shall mostly be a means of making specific recommendations of resources for writers – more of those to come later.)

But the lack in this article of specific examples of both critics and blogs makes me question the basis of his observations. Surely there are many blogs that have been engaged in serious criticism, and in the promotion and discussion of quality writing, e.g., off the top of my head Beatrice, Bookslut, Complete Review, Silliman’s Blog. And what about the blogging that forms an extension of established publications, e.g., the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner, the many contributors to the Guardian‘s Books blog? Okay, there are lots of blowhards in the Guardian comments … but there are great riches there too.

And a lot of books pages and sections (when they have survived) seem just as guilty of the same sorts of gushy, cliquey, and predictable conversations about books that you find in the gushiest, cliquiest, and most predictable blogs. Plus the sort of writing used by publishers to describe themselves and their wares can be worst of all; I’m thinking of the meaningless hyperbole that could be used interchangeably for whichever recent acquisition or staff appointment they are bigging up in The Bookseller this week (‘I started reading this [insert superlative] manuscript on the train home, and was so entranced/mesmerised/captivated that I only finally looked up from it at 2 a.m. to discover I was sitting in an unlit carriage in a siding in Basingstoke’).

So the professionals can’t always be held up as shining examples; their own taste-sharing can sometimes feel quite superficial, insincere, and clich├ęd.

As I think about this some more, I realise that I don’t always want commentary on books to be high-falutin’ criticism anyway. Sometimes simple summaries are all I need. Even a list. I love the Top Ten lists in the Guardian (from Top Ten Literary Otters one week to Top Ten Seventeenth-Century Food Books the next). Give me a few suggestions and impressions, and I’m happy to download a free sample to my Kindle so I can make up my mind for myself.

Surely blogging is just another venue for many of the best features of traditional criticism? With lots of added features on top?

Perhaps the most curious thing to me about this article is that Stothard says he has only ever seen six films! (I wonder which six films they are?)

PS As a side note, it was depressing to note how few visitors there are in fact for the major book blogs. Am sure these are the most intelligent, diligent, and discriminating readers in the whole Interweb, but the numbers still seem disappointingly low.

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