Monday Morning Stepback: Bloggers vs Critics, Persuasion, the Canon

The Weekly Links, Opinion, and Personal/Blog Updates Post

Links of Interest

NetGalley already has 10,000 people signed up to receive digital ARCs (via PW). I am not one of them, but I am starting to ask myself why the hell not.

Speaking of digital, a new study suggests that folks who use ereaders not only buy more books, we read more books, too.

This post by Karen Marie Moning makes me never want to go to Fevercon or hang out with her fans.

Thanks to @thebookmaven for linking to the wonderful blog of Lisa Bonchek Adams, who blogs about her life, including surviving breast cancer, the sudden untimely death of a family member, and the physical challenges faced by one of her children. Read this post, a poem about the anniversary of her double mastectomy. I’ve decided to teach my senior seminar in the spring on narrative medicine, and I will certainly be pointing my students in the direction of this blog.

Thanks to @avidreaderket for RTing something from The Tomorrow Museum, another wonderful new-to-me blog which explores the impact of technology on the arts. When I saw the latest post is about Paris, Texas, and its connection to social media today, I was hooked.

Prompted by this essay (and hundreds of comments) by author Maureen Johnson, What Kate’s Reading is reflecting on gender and the canon.

Johnson:

So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.

Kate:

Ever since that young age, I’ve always been a proponent of reading what appeals to you, whatever it may be. I still haven’t read Jack London. I still do read romances, biographies, and other good and great literature. I also feel very fortunate that I’ve always been very up front about my reading and have never been called a sissy or whatever for being an avid reader. But it also occurs to me that even at a young age, I was unconsciously realizing, via books, tv, and movies, that we still live in a man’s world, and I was doing my best to reject masculine-centric concepts in my books.

Here’s a different take on this issue, with a focus on race instead of gender, In Praise of Dead White Men by writer, broadcaster and “hip-hop intellectual” Lindsay Johns:

Sadly, the canon has a serious image problem amongst black people, too. Many see it as the preserve of white public schoolboys, taught in fusty classrooms by doddery Oxbridge tutors. We have been led to see it as whitey’s birthright, not ours. Meanwhile anti-racist educationalists and black community leaders rail against a racist curriculum which does not meet the cultural needs of their students, with some calling for “black schools” in which black culture—rather than an elite white culture—can be taught.

But the literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race. As both a writer of colour and an ardent (but not uncritical) devotee of the canon, I have little time for people who say that black people cannot relate to books written 2,000 years ago by a bunch of dead white guys, or that Maya Angelou is better than Shakespeare. This denies us our shared humanity across racial divides.

Interested in the new annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice? Jane Austen World gives you the scoop, complete with review, excerpts, photos and interview with the editor.

Ashlyn Chase talks about dealing with writerly competition at the Casablanca Authors Blog, featuring this choice bit of advice:

Now, here’s a story I heard that made me so mad I’ll have to say my mantra a few times after I type it. I wasn’t there, so I can’t verify its validity, but the woman who told me about it attended this author’s speech and I think she’s a trustworthy source.

She said the author she was listening to was a well-known NY Times best seller. What she said was “If you don’t cut your competition down with rotten anonymous reviews, you don’t care about your career.”

One commenter has the right attitude:

I’m going to put the best possible spin on this and decide that this means all my bad anonymous reviews are from jealous writers and not readers who just think I can’t write!

If creative feminist women like Adrian Piper did not do analytic philosophy, I don’t think I could have stuck with this career. She is one of my inspirations. So thanks to Feministe for pointing me in the direction of her 2003 essay/poem Dear Editor. Read it now.

From critic Jonathan Mayhew (via The Critical Sphere)

Here’s a novel idea: literary works are about exactly what they seem to be about. Wallace Stevens’s poetry is about the relation between the poetic imagination and reality. Ezra Pound’s work is about economics and his own particular view of history. Honor plays are about honor. Homer is about Homeric heroes and their code of behavior. Unamuno’s Abel Sánchez is about its announced and ostensible theme: envy. “Howl” is about how the best minds of his generation have been destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. If I have read any poem or novel I know what it is about.

From the New Yorker’s Book Bench, worries that Amazon is going to start making people pay for previews.

As the chilly time of the year decends for many of us, Pistols and Petticoats is offering a week’s worth of hearty soup recipes starting tomorrow.

I am Late to the Party But It Is Apparently Still Underway, so…

I happened to hear a Cambridge Forum discussion on NPR last week (taped earlier this year, I believe)  featuring literary and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn and former editor of The New York Times Book Review Charles “Chip” McGrath, purportedly examining the ways in which criticism itself is a creative act, but actually slamming bloggers. Click here to watch. I tweeted about it, prompting Ron Hogan to listen in and blog about it here. And we got, at Novel Readings, another great post about it.  If you don’t have time to listen to the 90 minute program, here are some choice selections:

They start out by distinguishing reviews from criticism, which have different aims, forms, and souls — although they seem to think reviewing is a species of criticism, so it’s never clear. Reviews are more immediate and more commercial, for the benefit of an audience of consumers. There is an evaluative, service oriented function of reviewing, but criticism is an “act of dissection that aims to understand what a a work of [art] is.” Reviews tend to be shorter. They note that when it comes to reviewers, you have to agree with them for the review to be useful to you. But you can read a critic with whom you disagree and get a lot out of it. Reviews do not stand the test of time, says McGrath, implying that criticism does. In defense of reviewers, Mendelsohn notes the time pressure reviewers who write for dailies or weeklies are under. They both imply that the greater time and care critics can take with their subjects is more likely to produce a critique that is “right”.

Pretty much every statement begins, either explicitly or implicitly with, “I don’t want to belittle reviewing, but…”

McGrath laments the “thumbs up or thumbs down mentality” of our reviewing culture. He regrets that the Times has more and more influence as other reviewing outlets disappear. And then a long discussion of blogging ensues.

Mendelsohn: “The 800 pound gorilla in the conversation is that there are in fact more venues…than there ever have been in the history of the planet because of the internet. … The official institutional vehicles for expressing opinions … are shrinking and the reason they’re shrinking is that there is a giant technological revolution taking place and that what is replacing those venues are the private expressions of opinions and deliveries of news about cultural production which is the blogosphere, and not just blogs but also smaller online publications that actually have a certain kind of efficiency and mobility that the old behemoths maybe didn’t. So the question that remains is … precisely because of the essentially private quality of 89% of this new “criticism” –  let’s call it for the time being — there aren’t in place the checks and balances and standards and editorial procedures that we are used to because we come from the world of the dinoasaurs.

This was originally my problem with the blog reviews or blogging for which I caught a lot of punishment online when I first questioned this, but it seemed incredible to me that a person could you know [laughing] essentially write a review of something and not be edited, you know, it just seemed extraordinary that you could just say anything about anything and there were no fact checkers, there was nobody like you [Chip] telling someone “Well do you really think it’s fair to say that” and “Aren’t you going overboard?” … that it was just this sort of unchecked effusion and to my mind the problem is that the tone devolves very quickly. … And I’m not saying this is always the case, and as we both know there are excellent blogger-reviewers and litblogs… so I don’t want to get into that because then we won’t get anywhere, but I just do think that when you have a fact checker, and when you have an editor, you stray more seldom into what I see as a kind of snarky ad hominem, vicious tone that I often detect in these new essentially private expressions of opinions about culture.  It’s not always the case, but you could never say, in the New York Times, the kinds of things that you can say sitting in front of your laptop. And that worries me, because it fits into this thing [about thumbs up/thumbs down, and the speed of blogging rendering wrong opinions].

And the instantaneity of so much personal, computer, online writing [smiles] and expression, I think is a problem when what you’re aiming for is either reviewing or criticim. Your first impression, your angry response to somebody, all of that we can’t do because we have to wait…and I think that’s a benefit in terms of criticism.

McGrath: “I tend to agree. The people in the blogosphere — and there are a lot of them, are tickled  — I am speaking now of the literary blogs which are the ones I pay the most attention to — are tickled to see the newspaper reviewing go down because they feel empowered and they feel in fact it is precisely their freedom from these institutional constraints that makes them valuable. These are people that for whatever reason feel that they couldn’t have, or didn’t have the patience, or the connections to [write real reviews for real media outlets] and now they have a pulpit and now they don’t have to tow the institutional line, and now they don’t have to buy into the biases, real or imagined. And there may be some truth to that…

[On] the business of snarkiness. Snark is the lingua franca of the blogosphere. Though I have detected just recently signs that the blogopshere is growing up. There is a growing civility, which can’t come a moment too soon. A lot of what used to pass for critical discourse … was just vitriolic and irresponsible. On the other hand, you could argue that some of it, not all of it, is a breath of fresh air. It’s conversational, and they can say things you can’t say.”

Mendelsohn “This more personal expressionistic approach… obviously does provide a balance to more traditional and more fettered kinds of expression about culture. … I’m not afraid of fisticuffs but there are rules and the ad hominem rule is  one that a lot of these people don’t understand … that you can talk about people’s work, but you cannot talk about people. … And it certainly has … sparked an amazing amount of discussion by all kinds of people about what criticism is and what purposes it serves. And that can’t be bad.”

McGrath: “But you know what is bad, and I have a very specific complaint about the blogosphere  … it doesn’t pay. It’s assumed that the work you do on the blogopshere is for free. To me that’s troubling. But there’s a larger issue here which is that I’m concerned that there is a notion, a kind of critical discourse carried on by people who are rich enough or crazy enough to work for nothing. And it’s also when there are no financial strings attached, that’s also when … some of the things you are talking about … like editing, like responsible reporting, I think they also disappear very quickly and you get … replacing the traditional marketplace where work was rewarded [with pay] for its merit. Now the new marketplace is the marketplace of hits. A piece on the internet is valuable precisely and only in terms of how many people go to it.”

Mendelsohn: “Right, right. It’s a new economy of criticism. It’s exactly the inverse of the old economy, because if what matters is not dollars per word … but hits per piece, then you’re going to write the kinds of pieces that are going to get the most attention, and getting attention … is not necessarily concentric with saying judicious, intelligent, considered things. One would almost say quite the opposite [McGrath sniggers]…. right? …  that the more outrageous and crazy you are, that the more people will go to see what you’ve said. … The new economy, not necessarily, but almost inevitably, encourages the kind of production which is about entertainment rather than criticism, which is … from the Greek word “to judge”, so a faculty of judiciousness at some point in the history of the world was thought to inhere in what criticism should be, and if what you’re trying to get is the most people to look at you, then [judiciousness doesn't matter as much as nastiness].”

[On professionalism:] It’s not so much about money, but the fact that I think that what I do when someone pays me to write criticism or review is qualitatively different because I am being paid by an insittuoon to produce a certain kind of object. It is  a public endeavor … and that is necessarily different from if I were to say the same thing on my blog it would have a different apect and quality and character … I’m not just saying what I think … I’m saying something to the people who are reading the NY Review. It’s a public function. I’m not just sitting there expressing myself. And I think that’s somehow different, and I haven’t exactly worked out why it’s different, but it feels different.”

I’m writing for people … I’m not writing for me. I’m performing a service for an audience of people, and we are engaged in a kind of public exchange, because they have the right to write back and talk about what I wrote…so I just feel if I wrote the same words, and I was just typing on my laptop and posting it on Facebook, the whole activity would be entirely different. And my awareness that I am engaged in a public discourse affects the way I put things. … It’s a civic and civil exercise. I am talking in public about things that are important to the public because it’s part of our about our public culture. …  It’s not just me sitting in my underwear  at 3:00am being pissed off because I didn’t like a movie, which I think is different, and that may be old fashioned, but I don’t care.”

They move on to discussing Twitter — “God help us” –  and “way things are drifting” (not upwards, I assure you), suggesting that it is the brevity of the “thumbs up, thumbs down” culture that’s the problem. But then they turn around and say that bloggers are too wordy and write too reviews that are too long — they need an editor! The whole thing reeked of a conclusion in search of an argument.  35 minutes in and I have learned nothing about criticism as a creative enterprise. I have put up with McGrath saying that bloggers — you know, the guy in his underwear in his basement, writing for free –  are the elite and the New York establishmentarians — you know, the ones with the copy editors and fact checkers and nice offices and salaries and invitations to the Cambridge Forum –  are the proletariat of critical world. I kept listening when he asserted that getting paid for writing reviews (or “criticism”? — it doesn’t matter, as this distinction quickly revealed itself to be code for “print journalism versus bloggers” anyway) makes them better, and somehow less susceptible to corruption of any kind, and I diligently bracketed what I know about the highly trafficked digital presence of all the traditional media outlets, not to mention said traditional media’s own damn blogs (Jacket Copy? Book Bench? Guardian Books Blog? Paper Cuts? Hellooooooo?). I tried not to look at all the draft review posts I — like most book bloggers –  have going, posts which I revisit and revise several times before going live — a process I can take my time with, by the way, because I am NOT ON DEADLINE. I even put aside pesky philosophical questions such as “when is something inevitable but not necessary?” and “under what possible definition of ‘public’ is blogging not a public endeavor?” But I could not, at last, ignore the loud clanging of the hypocrisy bell when Mendelsohn — whose chief complaint against the bloggers is that they are not real critics who want to get it right, but mere “opinionators”  –  could come up with no better justification for that view than “it feels different”. Heck, even a blogger could do better than that.

On the blog this week…maybe

A discussion of Carolyn Crane’s Double Cross

A review of Persuasion — by Thursday

Part One of a summary of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender

A post on nonverbal signaling of the hero in the romance novel

A picture of my kitchen, which should be done done done by midweek *crossing fingers*

HAPPY WEEK!

It Takes A Village to Redo A Blog … some thank yous and an update

Several changes have been made to improve the reading experience since the new layout went live last week. I hope readers experience a clean look and easy interface which puts written content and user friendliness first. And if not, you can just suck it stick to the comfort of your feed reader.

Thanks to Shelley Kay of Webcrafters for the new logo and blog layout. Until I started the process, I did not realize how hard it would be to find an image of a woman reading a book that was neither “librarian sexy”, nor “Bambi sexy”, nor “frumpy/unsexy”.

Thanks to Kenda of Lurv a la Mode and Carolyn Crane –whose second book, Double Cross is coming out this week — for advice on the blog (and logo) before it went live. I never noticed fonts until you guys came into my life.

Thanks to Kristen of Fantasy Cafe and her partner in crime for revising the blog layout this weekend, when they could have been relaxing or doing whatever newlyweds do (the dishes, I think).

Thanks to Ann Somerville and @mcvane who have offered help and advice along the way.

Thanks to all the readers who took the time to make helpful suggestions in this thread.

Thanks to Tess Gerritsen whose blog filled the large hole where my imagination, originality, and creativity should be.

Enjoy your Sunday!

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