Blogging, Criticism, Reviewing

A recent discussion at The Reading Experience raises questions related to some I have raised before here and have been thinking about a lot again as I try to imagine how best to direct the energy I have put into blogging–issues such as whether ‘litblogging’ is at its best when used as a form of literary journalism or reviewing (focusing on the new), what kind of writing about ‘classic’ or old literature has appeal or relevance to modern readers, whether (or how) blogging can also serve as a medium for popularizing or making literary expertise accessible, or whether there really is any comfortable middle ground between academic specialization and standards and the interests and habits of common readers. From Dan’s original post:

What the litblogosphere promises to offer is the possibility of multiple sources of well-supported reviews and commentary (many more than have been available in print publications, whose numbers are only continuing to decline, anyway), which can only enrich the discussion of current fiction (and poetry) and in turn encourage writers to believe their work is getting serious attention.

And from the comments that followed (all are excerpts; other comments also appear in the original thread):

Which is precisely why I grumble over the fact that an awful lot of Litcritbloggage (not the majority, probably, but a worry-worthy chunk) seems wasted on texts long-established in reputation (and thoroughly colonized by academics; in some cases for centuries), not to mention being relatively impervious to casual analysis. (Steve Augustine)

But has it ever occurred to you that people who blog about texts that are “long-established in reputation” do so because they are new to them? Because they didn’t read them in school? And that the odds that they have been exposed to much of the critical apparatus is rather small? Are you suggesting that one should first read all the extant literature before deciding whether something ought to be blogged? (Richard)

Bloggers discover as we discover (not everyone’s put paid to the canon the way you have); their essential charm (I think it’s charming) is that they flatten the mountaintop elevating the critic-priest above the rabble and allow us to watch them form and respond to ideas. In other words, their discovery of Austen or James at the age of X is crucial to *them*, if not to us, it provides answers to questions *they’ve* wondered about, fills holes in *their* knowledge that they (well, some of them) are happy to admit to having had. I don’t think it’s necessarily a critical form, I think it’s often a form of self-expression, and I suppose that to gripe about someone’s preoccupation with Thomas Hardy when there’s so little attention going to Jerome Charyn is to cast that someone in a role they haven’t sought out. (Chris)

I find classics blogging among “serious” litbloggers (ie, those positioning themselves to take the baton when periodical print collapses) relatively useless; not because of the medium, but because there are already metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis of Shakespeare, Homer, you name it, in print. Seeing centuries-old opinions on Hamlet rehashed (or mutilated) online in a not-entirely-serious fashion doesn’t float my boat. If I have to read civilian (non-academic) takes on Hamlet, I prefer to read something that Anthony Burgess or Victor Pritchett or George Steiner sweated over for weeks or months… otherwise, the results are fairly back-to-High-Schoolish…I’d just like to see more critical litbloggers who take themselves seriously step up to the plate and provide more of the kind of content that *really can* give the best of what we called “print” (past tense because I’m thinking of a Golden Age) a run for its money… (Steve Augustine again)

I certainly agree with those who don’t think there’s any call to be prescriptive about these issues: individual motives for writing and reading blogs vary widely, and the distinctive features of the form are precisely its accessibility to all (internet-connected) people and its adaptability to all voices, styles, and agendas. The questions I raise above, then, really have to do with my own interests and aspirations as a blogger and a critic: what can or should I in particular be writing out here, particularly if I want to identify this blog as part of my professional work in more than a very peripheral way? I’m not an expert on, or even an avid reader of, contemporary fiction, particularly of the more experimental kind for which Dan Green is such a persistent advocate. I can contribute only as an amateur reviewer, then, where new releases are concerned, and while I enjoy writing up comments on my recent reading and sometimes feel I have found something of interest to say, I can’t afford the time (and lack much incentive) to turn these posts into genuine thought-pieces. I’m in a better position to talk knowledgeably about Victorian fiction, but Steve is certainly right that there are “metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis” on all the classic texts, including any on which I feel qualified to opine. So here my contributions will be better-informed, but they are not likely to be especially original–meaning the key issue becomes purpose and audience. If I aim for the kind of originality necessary for a scholarly publication, I’ll be back to writing esoterica for fellow academics, and the claustrophobia that practice induced was what drove me to the blogosphere in the first place. But is it any more useful or productive–any more of a contribution to literary understanding–to add my own 2-cents worth to what’s already available to a general reader (including on the internet) about Middlemarch or Jane Eyre? Someone like Michael Dirda or James Wood has the ‘street cred’ (or market appeal) to do this (though I’m currently reading Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure and I think the same questions could quite reasonably be asked about the need for or value of his contribution as well). I think a key point, made by a couple of the comments quoted above, is that the classics are in fact new to everyone at some point, so there is genuine pedagogical value in critical material that helps them make the most of their reading experiences. In the classroom (or in the right internet context) there’s always a good reason to explain (again) ways of reading and thinking about Middlemarch

I realize that this is to put a fairly solipsistic spin on a more abstract discussion. But, hey, this is my blog, after all! Here are earlier some of the versions of this semi-internal debate, showing that, after over a year of blogging (and blog-reading), I have not moved very far ahead on these questions:

Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet…books such as John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one’s experience of reading “the classics.” One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as “Moralist for the 21st Century.” But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast. (“The Occasion for Blogging,” May 24, 2007)

Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there’s presumably no longer any question of reviewing them–or is there? Actually, that’s an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a ‘classic’ be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. (“More on the Purpose of Criticism,” June 20, 2007)

The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen’s account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there’s not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers’ attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can’t find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on ‘writing for readers,’ but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen’s words, “frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value,” I’m going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus–ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation. (“Professors, Start Your Blogs…,” July 18, 2007)

One aspect of this situation that I’ve been thinking about is the tension between generalization and specialization that academic blogs perhaps illustrate. It’s difficult to provoke comments on a specialized topic, except from other specialists. Non-specialists may be interested in reading or using your material, but they are unlikely to add to it. (I’m thinking, for instance, of the posts on The Little Professor about Victorian anti-Catholic texts: this is just not a topic on which many people can, or would, chime in, though now I know where to go if I want to learn something about them.) But if your offerings are general enough to interest a lot of people, they may lose their value in establishing a community of expertise, or in contributing to the development of your professional work. . . . Further to that last point, I’m starting to notice a divide in blogging between two kinds of literary sites, which I would roughly divide into ‘bookish’ and ‘academic’–and the academic ones really don’t seem that literary, in the sense of talking about, well, literature, as opposed to politics, philosophy, theory, and criticism. (I know, I know: talking about literature always involves politics, philosophy, and theory, etc….) I ‘m thinking especially at this point of The Valve, subtitled ‘A Literary Organ,’ after all. The bookish ones seem quite contemporary in their focus, so for those of us who spend most of our time reading loose baggy monsters from the 19th century, well, once again but for different reasons, we aren’t really equipped to jump in–and there too, I don’t see that much discussion, to return to my first point. (“If a Blog Falls in the Forest,” October 22, 2007)

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