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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