Thursday, June 14, 2007

The scorn of the literary critic

I have the highest respect for the work of Adam Kirsch, and read him every week on the website of the New York Sun. But a recent piece by him attacking literary blogs on the Sun website ("The Scorn of the Literary Blog") seems to me so ill-informed and tackily written that I've left a long comment beneath it taking issue with some of the points he makes.

Kirsch has some good thoughts about what reviewing should be about ("The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama"), but then turns to literary blogs and makes several arguments for why they are a force for the bad.

One of the errors he makes is to assume that lots of writers and reviewers aren't also bloggers. If he'd accounted for this, he'd have seen that the blog-form allows for a different kind of literary criticism from that found in newspaper review sections, and wouldn't have made the slipshod arguments that he does ("bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books").

It seems to me that Kirsch has fallen into the common trap of those writers who, working in the mainstream media and under some kind of editorial control, turn up their nose at what they feel is the say-what-you-like-and self-publish world of blogging. They are of course right to insist that bloggers should aspire towards higher standards (everybody should), but certainly wrong to assume that bloggers have no standards, or, even worse, that the form itself has no potential. It may have been true of the early days of the Internet, but now newspapers no longer have a monopoly on quality content online. It doesn't look like Kirsch has taken the time to look at - by whichever standard - the best of the literary weblogs out there, which are really what he should be comparing the newspaper book-review sections with if he wanted to be fair.

As someone who writes for the papers and my blog - mostly now for the papers - I know I couldn't do without this website. I've learnt lots of things by working on it, and even today it often gives me greater satisfaction to put pieces up here, without contraints of space and limits on quotation, than to see their shorter versions in the newspapers. Some of the literary blogs on The Middle Stage blogroll feature, day after day, week after week, exceptionally good commentary, links, and notes on unusual or neglected works (such as books from small publishers or the university presses).

In a way literary blogs are like a good opposition party in parliament, keeping the establishment on its toes, and often catering to niche interests. In fact, on the Indian scene - where a great range of books are published but the economics of newspaper publishing has marginalised books coverage, and most newspapers carry only a perfunctory one-page review section on Sundays - literary blogs probably have a more central role to play than elsewhere in the shaping of a robust literary culture, although I concede that this is the analysis of an interested party. But even in America and the UK, which have a healthier books culture, literary blogs have become an essential part of the scene. Blogs even link to the best of the newspaper reviews and essays, but instead of thinking in turn about what the best literary blogs have to offer, Kirsch seems fairly content to believe that the traffic deserves to be only one-way.

Just as there really isn't any competition in the world of literature - every essential poem, play or novel has its own specific luminosity - so too the newspaper review sections, literary journals, and litblogs can usefully complement each other. To argue that "the ethical and intellectual crotchets of the bloggers represent a dead end", as Kirsch does, is a mistake on not one but several levels. Wake up and smell the coffee, Mr.Kirsch.

5 comments:

D.Balakrishnan said...

I,a regular reader of your blog, fully endorse your views on Kirsch's opinion of literary blogs.I have gained a good amount of knowledge from your blog,which is unthinkable from the print material I have access to, that for somebody to view literary blogs in bad taste is something not acceptable and wholly incomprehensible. There is room for improvement in all aspects of life, why single out blogs.

Dave said...

I just read Kirsch's piece half an hour ago, and a friend sent me here before I got myself into too much of a lather over it. Good work.

"Just as there really isn't any competition in the world of literature - every essential poem, play or novel has its own specific luminosity - so too the newspaper review sections, literary journals, and litblogs can usefully complement each other."
Thanks for making this point, though it's a shame it needs to be said. I also liked your dig about university press books.

Anil P said...

In a crowd when two shine out, either you remember the crowd or just the two. But both lead to the same conclusion - (1) So many of the out there, and so banal and sloppy or (2) Just two are good from so many . . . .

So how can we then expect Kirch or for that matter anyone else to turn a blind eye to the sea out there for two fishes?

DarkoV said...

Read the Kirsch piece elsewhere and also read your well-constructed comment which lead me to your outstanding book review blog.
So, while I may disagree with Mr. Kirsch, all in all, it was a pleasant read as now I have a chance to read your postings.

words are lost on me said...

Well, I agree with you for once. I enjoy the space and leisure that literary blog gives to its reader. I sometimes revisit the review after I have read the book and then tend to agree and disagree with many its point, but take comfort in the fact that I can enjoy it again and again at my convenience unlike a newspaper which comes with a word count and an even worse edit job.
Smita
PS And,do come to our new home. It is minus leakages and a nagging landlord, but has lovely windows and a terrace which is always locked