It seems blog-based book reviewers and so-called “lit blogs” continue to perceived as threats by print reviewers. The latest example is an essay in today’s Boston Globe Ideas section by Sven Birkerts. Titled “Lost in the Blogosphere,” it makes a couple valid points, such as the fact that reviewing is not the same as criticism (which perhaps should have a capital “c” in this context) or that the web and blogs can lead you on a seemingly never-ending meander through cyberspace. But the essay seems predicated on an elitist approach that seems prevalent among many established print reviewers.
According to Birkerts, a “common ground” is necessary if reviewing or criticism is to “matter.” Who should establish the “shared set of traditions” defining the common ground? Of course, it must be “set out by artists and thinkers, and discussed and debated not just by everyone with an opinion, but also most effectively by the self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so.” (Emphasis added.). In other words, your idea or opinion is meaningless in the marketplace of ideas unless you know the secret handshake and rites of the self-elected print critics and reviewers who shall dictate opinions, tastes and culture.
Birkerts also rubbed a nerve about an approach I feel is too often taken by those in this “self-constituted group.” Here’s how he sets his argument about the need for reviewing to matter:
My impulse is to argue that if the Web at large is the old Freudian “polymorphous perverse,” that libidinally undifferentiated miasma of yearnings and gratifications, unbounded and free, then culture itself — what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.
Since I am evidently culturally deficient, I feel compelled to quote one of the omnipresent GEICO caveman television ads: “What???” I’m not saying I don’t grasp the distinction he is trying to make between the internet as a whole and “culture” as he defines it. (Or perhaps I read too much into it and Birkerts is simply saying lit bloggers — or all bloggers — are blindly grasping anywhere for sexual gratification?) I simply don’t believe reviewing or criticism needs a self-elected group to define culture, particularly if that group demands every reader worry about Freudian theory, miasmas, libidos and emergent maturity.
Maybe I am just too simpleminded. I think people read book reviews to learn about and help decide whether to read a new book. Granted, neither TLS or the NYRB operates on that theory but they focus on cultural and literary criticism, as opposed to simply reviewing books. I still prefer to let the book engage the reader in thought and consideration, not to use a review of it as a vehicle for me to expound and philosophize. Maybe that’s what makes me an illiterati.
In the past I’ve simply made passing note of similar articles and columns. But I looked at this one in more detail because it struck me as particularly ironic. You’ll find it in the online version of the Globe at Boston.com. If you go to the Books section of that site, you will find Globe book reviews and stories, along with something else — reviews from Blogcritics, including two of mine (here and here) in the last couple weeks. Of course, given the fact I have not elected myself as an arbiter of taste, culture or criticism, perhaps they simply prove Birkerts’s point.
I hope he’s not too embarrassed that his piece appears on a site that also has some of the blogosphere’s polymorphous perversity. Then again, maybe I’ve just been so engaged in such activities that I missed the entire point.
Wordsmiths who serve established power . . . are always devoted to obscurity. They castrate the public imagination by subjecting language to a complexity which renders it private. Elitism is always their aim.
John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards