My previous post on appreciating book bloggers was in progress as the discussion unfolded on Twitter about ‘book bloggers ruining everything’ (via Ron Hogan, for one, who was watching a discussion from earlier this year between Charles McGrath and Daniel Mendelsohn* that involved a fair number of pot shots at book bloggers [see here if you want to watch it for yourself]). I’ve been thinking that one of the reasons these reductive and dismissive attitudes towards bloggers have any traction at all, and come from such otherwise very smart people, is the problem of filtering.
In blogging (as in every medium) there is good stuff (even some great stuff) and bad stuff (even some really truly terrible stuff). It is probably true, just because of the lack of inhibitions on blogging and other forms of self-publication, that the bad-to-terrible stuff outweighs the good-to-great stuff by a larger margin than in old forms of print media. It takes patience, curiosity, time and open-mindedness to trawl the vast array of blogs (even in the subset of book blogs) looking for the good stuff. Lots of us do it, because there are real rewards for lovers of books and criticism and conversation. But it’s vanishingly unlikely that someone who gets all their links from the Big Established Sites, including their blogs, will find most of the sites we write for or read, because they all seem to read and link to exclusively other Big Established Sites. The Book Bench at the New Yorker, for instance, has its own often engaging posts, but it links around pretty much exclusively to places like the Nation, or the Guardian, or the Wall Street Journal, or PEN. These are worthy sites, of course, but anybody who’s interested in the Book Bench is probably already following them, one way or another. At most, all the Book Bench is doing is letting us know which pieces in these esteemed sources were of particular interest to them, or saving us the trouble of sorting through more than a couple of our RSS feeds for the day. The blogroll at the Book Bench has 24 links–not a bad start, but all, again, high profile already (mostly other mainstream media outlets, plus Maud Newton, Sarah Weinman, and a couple of the best-known online book sites–The Millions, The Second Pass). Again, all worthy of our attention–well, there’s one on their list I’m not sure about, actually, and why it’s there and not some of the ones I admire, I have no idea. The Guardian has a smaller and even odder selection; at the TLS, both Peter Stothard and Mary Beard have small blogrolls too, though ones that reflect a bit more idiosyncrasy, which is nice. Still, none of these sites (or a number of other blogs associated with major papers and magazines) seem genuinely bloggish, in that there’s really no sense of the reciprocity I suggested distinguishes blogging as an especially open and generous form. The major aggregator sites (I’m thinking of Arts and Letters Daily, for instance, or Three Quarks Daily) also rarely step outside the rarified world of the ‘top’ sites. It would be refreshing, and good for the general conversation about books (which we’re all passionate about–or at least amateur book bloggers are), if these Big Established Sites would participate in the remarkable opening up of the cultural conversation that the internet has enabled. Right now, I think followers of the big sites are bound to feel a bit claustrophobic after a while, not to mention excluded. The exercise of looking for the good stuff among the bad would be tiring and discouraging some of the time, but acknowledging the smart, articulate blogs that are more than what Mendelsohn calls “unchecked effusions”–and doing so in a forum that already has a little credibility in the world of old media–might help people like McGrath and Mendelsohn stop conflating form and content–or just ignoring content altogether. A good place to start would be with the handful of sites I listed.
*I admit that I was particularly disappointed at the tone of Mendelsohn’s comments (though he does acknowledge that there are some good lit blogs, and his point about chasing ‘hits’ by writing what gets attention is a fair one) because I wrote what I still consider one of my best blog posts about his remarkable book The Lost. What difference does it make that I wrote this sitting in my basement fairly late at night? (I’ll spare you the detail of whether or not I was actually in my pyjamas: the blogger’s wardrobe seems to be an issue of surprising concern to some people.) It’s either good writing and analysis or not. It’s true that I wrote it without the benefit of an editor (well, besides myself–and I’m pretty tough on myself, as I am on others), but the unmediated scrutiny of online readers is another way to test the merits of the result. In my case, I was gratified to be recognized for my work by Three Quarks Daily, where the editors named this post a finalist in their arts and literature blogging contest last year (these contests, by the way, are a great step towards the kind of sorting project I wish sites like this should do–but I don’t notice 3QD linking regularly to the winners or finalists in their regular posts).