Another print v. “lit blog” spiel

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 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

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4 comments to Another print v. “lit blog” spiel

  • Actually I’d rather read a review (or criticism) on a blog rather than on a magazine. The way some critics praise some books which are just average, always makes me think that they have a vested interest in praising the book.

    Actually reading this has got me in the mood for writing a book review!

  • “To have a sense of where we stand, and to hold not just a number of ideas in common, but also some shared way of presenting those ideas, we continue to need, among many others, The New York Times, the Globe, the Tribune, the LA Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.”

    Corporate America is key to saving and promoting quality, vital literature, the very institutions that led the country so nobly into the invasion and occupation of Iraq, et cetera, ad nauseam? In Iraq, hundreds of thousands dead and dying, hundreds of billions of dollars, several million refugees, and scarcely an explicit antiwar literary peep. These literary bastions?

    If one sees a certain vitality missing in contemporary literature and criticism and commentary on literature, it’s not unlikely that it’s related in part to the fact that such a sweeping and crucial statement as, “antiwar novels are belligerent,” can not only be categorically asserted, let alone with no sense of a need for support, in The New York Times Book section, but also cannot be challenged by a letter to the editor as a matter of course, especially in the time of a highly controversial war.

    In early May 2007 in the NYT, Richard Eder wrote, “‘The Welsh Girl’ is a distinguished, beautifully written example of a small but enduring genre. Call it the counterwar novel. Not antiwar, exactly; it lacks the belligerence.”

    I wonder what a pro-war novel, or a status quo war novel, could then be called? “Compassionate,” I suppose.

    Antiwar like, say, “Homefront”?

    There is scarcely an explicit US antiwar novel about the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why is that? Might it be that the US has a culture a lot like that of Germany of the 1930s and 1940s? Too many “good Germans” and “good Americans”? Too many critics and others who think antiwar novels are “belligerent”? I haven’t seen especially vital novels like Andre Vltchek’s geopolitical epic Point of No Return reviewed anywhere but online, far from the paper pages of the decapitated corporate press. Self-decapitated, that is. The corporate press is rich enough still that it can’t help but be of limited use, but a thinking person with a functioning heart knows to look far and wide from corporate realms for what is most vital in literature today. Such is the result of corporate ideology, often savage, asphyxiating, and blithely belligerent…sometimes unbeknownst to itself, sometimes not. Either way the result is the same.

    Contrary to Andrew Gumbel’s recent article “Hollywood Goes to War,” Hollywood essentially plays one side of the political fence too, that of the status quo, as John Pilger makes clear in “Hollywood Hurrah”.

    “Hollywood Goes to War”
    “Hollywood Hurrah”

  • The only thing that Sven Birkerts is preserving is his job. “I’ve been nibbling at literary web sites and blogs for some time now — out of curiosity, to be sure, but also from a sense of vocational self-preservation.” He wants to blame the fact that newspapers are cutting back on reviewers on literary bloggers. Newspapers are cutting back on everything, especially journalism, because of a decline in advertising revenue. Advertisers are going where the public goes, and have always done so. That is still television but also, increasingly, the internet.

    Newspapers are following the advertising and going online too. Sven Birkerts is just going to have to get used to being a literary blogger.

    The great unwashed.