Overthrow: Peter Stothard and Why Blogging is Valuable

Urch. So, the Chair of this year’s Booker Prize has made a contentious statement to the media about book bloggers – just as the Booker winner is due to be announced.  Right on cue, really. It’s almost as if he made the decision to declare his controversial opinions just as he’s about to enjoy his big Booker-judging moment in the sun, to ensure a couple of extra column inches are dedicated to a prize that many argue is becoming less and less relevant year on year. Almost.

I say “almost”, in fact I have very little doubt that his comments (or the timing of them, at least) don’t constitute a PR strategy to get his name and his prize into the papers and onto blogs.  This being the case, I really shouldn’t rise to the bait and write about what he’s said. But fuck it; I’ve been so irked by this guy this week that I just can’t help myself.

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In case you’ve not read or heard what it is that Peter Stothard has to say about bloggers, you can find the original Independent article here, and a shortened version from the Guardian here (complete with a response from mega-popular (and mega-good) book blogger Simon Savidge, who’s having his own discussion on this over at Savidge Reads (to which I’ve contributed, and which was the kernel of this post – so thank you Simon)).  To précis Stothard’s remarks: he argues that book bloggers “are harming literature”, that they offer “unreasoned opinions” instead of “literary criticism”, and that bloggers will damage “the future of writing”.

Quite. So where to start a rebuttal?  Peter Stothard seems to be suggesting that there’s a qualitative problem with book blogs.  Firstly, he hides his cowardice behind misguided propriety by not actually name-checking any of the blogs he so casually and caustically dismisses, so I can’t suss out for myself any of the internet reviewers with whom he has such a problem. While nobody would argue against the idea that the occasional poor-quality or misleading sites do pepper the blogosphere, I could point Mr Stothard to a whole host of blogs that are far more theoretically well-versed, critically astute, eloquent and funny than much of the hack in his TLS (did I mention he’s the editor there? No? Well, he is).  There’s some really high-level academic stuff going on in the blogosphere.

But, of course, that *isn’t* the point, is it? He’s not talking about those blogs, he’s talking about, you know, the blogs that have, like, opinions and stuff in them. Apparently. The problem with his argument is that drawing a distinction between subjective “opinions” and objective “literary criticism” is to establish a false binary.  In fact, Stothard’s comments seem almost to hark back to the Russian school of literary Formalisms from the 1920s, with their attempts to advocate a “scientific” approach to the study of poetics.  But let’s face it, literary criticism is a long way from being anything like an exact science – and, in my experience, lit crit is just as influenced by individual opinions and psychological, cultural and historical contexts as any other form of writing.    Literary analysis is not objective on any level: two Marxist critics may produce radically different readings of the same text – so where does that leave Stothard’s criticism vs. opinion binary?

A bit later on, Stothard adds the qualifier ‘reasoned opinion’ to his rant (“not everyone’s opinion is worth the same”), but again he fails to define his terms. What constitutes ‘reasoned’ opinion?  I wonder where he draws the line. Is there a certain number of critical terms from the dictionary of literary theory that a blogger has to use before he stops being a writer of ‘opinions’ and starts being a writer of ‘criticism’?  By his argument, then, the only person fit to review books is the hypothetical individual who knows the most about critical theory, or has read the most novels in the world (reductio ad absurdum etc.)  He states that literary criticism is all about “identifying the good”, as if literary “goodness” is some objective quality that “reasoned” critics are especially positioned and privileged to recognise. Which, of course, is absolute bullshit. Perhaps one needs a specific degree from a specific university before one’s opinions make the transcendental leap from internet hackery to valuable criticism? Maybe you need to have read Finnegan’s Wake ten times before Stothard will pay any heed to your book reviews? Who knows? I know some bookish autodidacts who’re more well read than many people with degrees, Masters, Phd’s – you name it. Stothard’s idea about what makes a person suitably positioned to review books is so nebulous and vague that it doesn’t really need me to deconstruct it…

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But let’s be honest. Stothard’s vile, poorly articulated and disgusting opinions have absolutely nothing to do with quality of writing or insight, and absolutely everything to do with snobbery, elitism and supercilious pretentions to intellectual privilege.  The subtext to everything he’s said is this: how dare the plebs review books; how dare they impinge on my domain, how dare they enter a sphere of debate heretofore reserved for an elite minority?  Before the rise of the blogosphere, Stothard and co. were part of a cosy clique of intellectuals whose elevated sense of self-worth came from a misguided notion that what they were doing (reviewing books) was somehow theirs; they’d earned it, and he doesn’t like the fact that we, the uninitiated, are now impinging on his privileged place in the culture.  And so there’s a snobbery of medium going on here too, with Stothard’s words implying a hierarchy of cultural value: the printed word being at the top, and the electronically represented word at the bottom.  There’s been a lot of debate recently about the blogosphere “killing” the printed word, and maybe it’s true, but my message to any technophobic luddites who challenge the value of blogging would be this: bring it on. It’s your responsibility to print material that people want to read; to use your medium to the best of its potential.  The fact that more and more people are turning to blogs to find reviews of books doesn’t just demonstrate the cultural significance of blogging, but speaks to the quality of printed literary journalism, too.

His implied assertions that printed book reviews by professional critics are de facto better than the opinions of the public are not just bizarre, but laced with a malicious snobbery – directed at both the messenger and the medium.  And his strange insistence that popular internet book reviews aren’t a valid and important part of critical discourse is nothing but a great big cultural fallacy.  Mainstream opinions influence art in myriad complex and unknowable ways.  I love the diversity of bloggers: internet book reviewers are a diaspora community,  with access to the kinds of social and cultural contexts that produce incredibly fruitful readings of texts: far more varied, passionate, unusual and creative interpretations of literature than anything you’re likely to see in printed newspaper journalism.  Of course authors read our reviews, of course they seep into the culture, and so of course they influence the literature of the time.  This community isn’t hurting the future of literature: it’s shaping it.  To say popular or mainstream (or whatever) book reviews damage literature is crude, short-sighted and, ultimately, wrong. Books and book criticism don’t exist in isolation of everything around them.  Stothard says he’s only ever seen six films in his life (an obvious lie, but let’s go with it), and so completely misses the point that art, literature, cinema, music etc. don’t exist in remote bubbles unaffected by one another.  How, for example, could a reader of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash ever hope to fully understand the book’s aesthetic identity without at least a rudimentary understanding of Hollywood action films?  Frankly, I wouldn’t be interested in the book reviews of a man who’s only ever seen six films.

He goes on to argue that popular writers such as Ian Rankin aren’t worthy of critical analysis (he’s wrong): another of his false oppositions: popularity isn’t adversative to quality.  And as for his statement that critics need to be “alert to what’s new”: I’ll take him more seriously when TLS stops giving so much attention to Dickens and Byron or Jacobson or McEwan, Mantel, Faulks etc. and starts reviewing the truly avant-garde, boundary pushing “new” fiction that’s out there: Michael Cisco, Mark Danielewski, Lydia Davis etc. etc.

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How should I finish this? Of course I believe that book blogs are valuable; a wonderful, nay extraordinary addition to literary culture.  To suggest that the act of blogging is somehow damaging to literature is dunderheaded in the extreme (and I might add that the blogosphere is probably the most active platform of debate over the Booker Prize, and likely contributes to a large percentage of Booker nominee sales).  Peter Stothard’s contention that literary criticism is only valid when certain (nebulously defined) social and cultural conditions are met is nothing more than the most appalling snobbery.  Maybe he’s just afraid that, with the rise of blogging, he’s witnessing an unstoppable sea change, an opening up of what was once an elitism and is now a socialism. Blogging can’t be stopped: it’s in the Zeitgeist now. Of course printed and blogged book reviews can co-exist; but if Stothard is the voice of professional literary journalism, maybe a sea change is a good thing. I wouldn’t want to be associated with him and his ilk.  Maybe printed book reviews *have* had their time. Maybe this is an overthrow.

Tomcat

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19 responses to “Overthrow: Peter Stothard and Why Blogging is Valuable

    • Many thanks. I’ve been overwhelmed by the poisitive response I’ve had to this post. Indeed, this is the first time I’ve ever been “re-blogged”. 🙂

  1. Reblogged this on Cecile's Writers and commented:
    With all the hoopla following Peter Stothard’s comments about bloggers destroying literature and ruining literary criticism, Tomcat offers an excellent counter argument and explains further the fallacies of Stothard’s viewpoint.

    • Hi Naomi, nice to see you again 😉
      This post was written by Tomcat so all the credit goes to him (this is his blog). And yes, it is indeed impassioned and well said!

  2. It might well be a publicity stunt, I thought the same thing, but I have to wonder if it has backfired. This type of publicity might be good for awareness of the sponsor, but I certainly don’t feel any more inclined to read the books on the shortlist, it leaves a kind of bad taste and one has to feel a little sorry for the writers of the books, like the innocent victims of a bad-mouthed parent, listening to their valiant supporters being abused. Their judgement still to come.

    Perhaps Mr Stothard has a narrow definition of literature, in which case the damage might not be so great, I mean hasn’t it already happened in literature history, that certain books fall out of favour, writers stop writing – didn’t it happen to a whole swathe of women writers, now being resurrected by Persephone books, isn’t there criticism of the Western literary canon for being so exclusive, reminiscent of a much less democratic age.

    Today readers have much greater access to information and shared opinion and they quickly discern whose views and opinions they respect, they don’t have to wait long for their favourite reviewers to generate opinions or informed criticism because they are constantly reading and reviewing with a complete freedom that is appreciated by its audience, because they write when they are driven to do so and not because they are chasing a deadline or bowing to an authority or thinking about what’s appropriate.

    It’s basic economics, there is a shift in demand away from the traditional and the new offerings are much more specialised and niche oriented, we don’t just read from one publication anymore, we read from multiple sources, we comment across sources and in a much more encouraging, supportive, humorous and entertaining way. The more analytical literary criticism is part of it; and I don’t agree that any blog diminishes or harms literature.

    Trends change, interests change, literature perhaps is also changing and in my mind, that’s a good thing and I enjoy so much more being a more active participant, and connecting with like minded readers across the globe.

    • I agree, I know it’s petulant of me, but Stothard’s rant has likewise put me off reading any of the Booker nominees. At least for a while; which is, of course, a big shame, as his horrible ideas have nothing whatsoever to do with the individual books nominated – but there’s a kind of stigma via association that I can’t get over, at the moment.

      I have no doubt that Stothard has a very narrow definition of literature. I’d love to know what he thinks of writers like China Mieville or Michael Cisco – writers who work in genre spaces that, until recently, were never considered especially valuable or literary but which now (at least in some circles) are being evaluated as among the deepest, most original writing that’s out there.

      Excellent comments about reader access to information: there most definitely is a sort of intellectual snobbery around blogs and sites like wikipedia, which gives free unrestricted access to information that was heretofore contained in books and libraries that only a minority have access to.

      I also agree that literature is changing. E-books, e-readers, blogs etc. will undoubtedly have an effect on the literature that’s being produced, not just the ways the public think and access that literature. Who knows, in 10 years time maybe some kind will have manipulated the e-book format to invent a new kind of literariness that we can’t even imagine! 🙂 Pretty exciting times, I think.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting, as always.
      Tom.

  3. Pingback: Book Bloggers Strike Back Against Naysayer! | Publishing Perspectives

  4. Well, it came to my mind that something similar happened (is happening?) to photography: namely, with the dawn of the digital photo, the art has been available to us – the plebes you mentioned. The result – the so-called “pros” scorned everyone with a digital camera. Nowadays the haughty attitude, IMHO, is directed towards those with amateur point-and-shoot cameras.
    But the main outcome of that, despite the pros’ effort to discredit other non-pro photogs, has been that the real pros became even better. The competition has been so overwhelming that only the truly creative remained on top and those whiners still keep complaining – as this constitutes most of their present business, I suppose. 🙂
    Hope it contributed to your train of thoughts,
    Thanks for inspiration,
    Norbert

  5. Hi…
    i stumbled across your site after googling t.f.powys’ “unclay” and finding your comments on that book i love….
    anyway…
    after reading the original article that inspired your “overthrow” piece above, i was surprised how relatively mild it was and couldn’t see why you called it “disgusting” or a rant.
    i am with you on the value of book blogs or any other form of discussing books and literature, but professional critics have always been pretty snooty, and that’s just what we would expect of them.
    let’s remember hemingway’s view of critics:
    “Critics are men who watch the battle from a high place, then come down and shoot the survivors.”
    as regards popularity not meaning inferiority and the fact that all genres should be considered when giving out literary prizes – i would agree with all that…
    i don’t know why Ian Rankin always gets mentioned in such arguments though.
    maybe it’s because he has often expressed his view that “crime” ficiton should be taken more seriously when giving out prizes etc.
    he’s probably right about that, but the problem is that then his own books are often held up as examples of popular writing that is not taken seriously enough,
    this is a pity for the argument, i think, as i have never found any of rankin’s books to be particularly interesting except as rather two-dimensional crime-novels with very little style or particularly good writing in them.
    there is powerful and what you might call “literary” crime writing though: going back to raymond chandler – although no doubt he would have shivered at the description – but in my opinion, Ian Rankin isn’t of that, well, rankin’.

  6. Ever since there have been books people have been talking about them with their friends and family, passing on “uninformed” opinions. Blogging has just given readers the opportunity to share their opinions with a wider community, a community that cares a lot about books, and often has smart and funny things to say about them. There can’t be anything wrong with that! Popular opinion and literary criticism have always coexisted, critics are just going to have to get comfortable with the idea that now popular opinion is gaining influence.

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