Blogging Reservations

Today’s New York Sun includes a short piece by Adam Kirsh on The Scorn of the Literary Blog. Kirsh is mostly writing about the much-noted rivalry between “professional” reviewers and literary bloggers, in the context of the also much-noted decline of book sections in print journalism. I don’t have much to say about these broader contexts, but I am interested in Kirsh’s remarks on the limitations of blogging as a form of literary criticism:

The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news — it doesn’t offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.

That last bit seems disingenuous, as the links in fact take us to electronic versions of the longer pieces which are themselves seamlessly integrated into the web versions of journals, which include many features typical of blogs, including opportunities to comment and links to other related materials.

I agree that it makes a difference that “literature is not news” and that this distinction has implications for the kind of criticism that works on blogs. Literature can be news, in the sense that new books come out all the time and one function of book reviews is to let readers know about them. But not all kinds of literary criticism serve this market-oriented function. It’s not obvious to me that all blogs do either: many of the ones I’ve been reading don’t aspire to that kind of timeliness, but rather offer commentary on a range of reading material. If a book is not news, does that mean writing about it lacks relevance? It lacks urgency, I suppose, but surely not interest.

It’s also true that “bite-sized commentary” is common, but I’ve been reading a number of blogs that offer more of a mouthful–not in every post, perhaps, but often enough to make it seem unfair to dismiss all blogging as inevitably superficial. The literary posts on Amardeep Singh’s blog, for instance, can be quite extensive and detailed, as can those offered by The Reading Experience or The Little Professor.

Not coincidentally, I’ve used as my examples blogs maintained by writers who are are highly trained as professional readers and writers (two of them are English professors, one is a ‘reformed’ academic). While academic credentials are not the only things that can establish someone’s credibility as a literary critic, it’s hard to argue that the opinions of these three lack “authority,” even when offered in these less formal venues. Further, they set an example of thoughtful, historically-informed commentary that helps expose the inadequacy of the “anyone can say anything” culture of Amazon.Com reviewing and the many more slap-dash reading blogs. It’s hard not to see their efforts as complementary to those of the “professional writers” whose work Kirsh prefers.

And precisely because, as Kirsh says, “the whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly,” surely the bloggers who offer their expertise as generously as the three I’ve mentioned are doing us all a great service by putting their literary encounters out there for the rest of us to learn from and participate in.

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