I don’t teach creative writing classes or attend MFA workshops or writers’ conferences, so I have no first-hand experience of the lamentable species William Giraldi is so annoyed about in his recent essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books: wannabe writers with “no usable knowledge of literary tradition [who] are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books.” For all I know, his generalizations are entirely accurate, and speaking as someone who will almost certainly never write any novels but certainly does love reading them, it does seem wrong to assume (if anyone does assume this) that “writing doesn’t demand special skills” and right to urge (or even demand, if you’re in a position to) that aspiring authors read both widely and deeply.
I’m not quite so sure that I would second Giraldi’s specific prescription, however: “decades [of] training … in canonical literature” and “an unflagging religious immersion in the great books.” As Giraldi’s own examples show, there has always been disagreement about which books are “great” or what literature is or should be “canonical.” He is confident that Henry James underestimated Middlemarch (and I, obviously, concur entirely), and it’s obvious to him that the key to writing “the next great social novel” is to study “Stendhal, James, and Austen’s half-dozen” and that Keats represents “the perfection of craft.” But these are evaluative claims to be debated, not absolutes to be declared. Moreover, the ideal of the “important writer” as one who ”kneels at the altar of literature” has its conservative as well as its elevating aspect. That the many names he drops are so predictable seems to me a symptom of the limits of his own approach: he’s so much a product of his own canonical literary education (as, of course, we all are) that it doesn’t occur to him to mention Scott, Pope, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or to mention Elizabeth Gaskell or Winifred Holtby as great social novelists. Which is fine in a way, as of course he can’t mention everybody, but he also should not imply that we all know just what books really deserve our attention. And this is all before we even get into the discussion about whether someone aspiring to write about contemporary society might not learn something from the novels of Jodi Picoult. Giraldi apparently reads Jeffrey Eugenides without regret (at any rate, he quotes from The Marriage Plot): who is he to turn his nose up at other people’s choices? (And if people want to write like Dan Brown, well, neither Giraldi nor I will buy their books, but not all bestsellers are “lobotomized,” and before we conflate “popular” and “worthless” let’s pause to think about Dickens for a moment.)
Still, I think that discussions about which books we value and why are important ones to have. I feel fortunate to have had some very stimulating conversations about this kind of thing here at Novel Readings, usually to my own edification. Giraldi’s tone strongly suggests he isn’t interested in having a conversation – his piece is a polemic. However, it does quite rightly, if only implicitly, challenge us to think about how far we agree with him, who we might rather, or also, cite, and what we think books are for anyway. That’s all good, then. The bone I really want to pick with him is about something else – something tangential, it seems to me, to his main purpose, and gratuitously insulting to a lot of people who actually share his evident passion for reading and writing about literature.
You see, among his litany of complaints about “troubled twenty-somethings who have been bamboozled by second-raters such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and have arrived to molest you with spontaneous prose which ought to remain incarcerated inside their diaries” (see, I told you it was a polemic!) he includes swipes at things I do have first-hand experience of and indeed invest a good deal of my own time and energy on: blogs and “‘literary’ websites” (his ‘scare quotes’). “The abracadabra of the internet,” he explains,
has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say.
Seriously, William: why did you have to go there? The whole ‘bloggers are ruining everything’ trope is so old, for one thing (see, just for instance, here, here, and here). If the best you have to bring to this particular game is “blog is just one letter away from bog,” it’s actually hard to know how to respond – some old line about “what’s in a name” comes to mind. But of course it’s easier to spew hasty generalizations than to explore the literary blogosphere with an open mind and rejoice that so many people care enough about books to write about them (or to write their own). Sure, some book blogs are middling or worse, but I have always found the same to be true of an awful lot of more formally published writing in forms ranging from peer-reviewed academic journals to the pages of mainstream newspapers. For range, originality, and enthusiasm, blogs can’t be beat: if you want to read about something more than “in-vogue books,” you’re much better off exploring some of the sites on my blogroll, for instance, than reading the New York Times Book Review, and if you enjoy hearing from different voices and getting surprised by what you read, well, you’re better off reading a lot of those “literary” websites than New York Review of Books. Further, as an editor at one of those literary websites (and I’ll abandon those condescending scare quotes now!), I feel pretty good about our “hold on actual literature,” and I feel very proud of what we accomplish every month with no resources but our own deep commitment to just what Giraldi claims to be defending — that is, the art of taking literature seriously.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not countering Giraldi’s sweeping dismissal with a blanket endorsement. The challenge of the internet, as I’ve often said, is filtering. But it’s not an impossible task, and I genuinely believe it is a worthwhile one. I just wish more professional critics would not just follow Daniel Mendelsohn’s lead and acknowledge the presence of “serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers” but also curate blogrolls of their own. And since it seems that Giraldi exempts the Los Angeles Review of Books from his indictment of online inanity (else why publish in it?), wouldn’t it do more for the cause of literature to find and encourage and promote other sites (or at least individual pieces) that live up to his standards, instead of ranting about kids these days and their dang computers?
I actually hesitated to write any kind of response to Giraldi. When I mentioned his essay on Twitter, a wise friend counselled me to “skip it, not worth the stress!” And in some ways he was right. Whenever someone goes off on an anti-blogging, anti-internet rant on the internet, you know you’re being trolled, and “don’t feed the trolls” is almost as important an online rule as “don’t read the comments” (though happily that last rule mostly doesn’t apply in my corner of the blogosphere, where the comments make the whole exercise worthwhile!). Giraldi has just enough qualifiers (“largely a harvest of inanity”), too, that he can shield himself from the fall-out (“hey, I didn’t mean you guys! some of my best friends are bloggers / run ‘literary’ websites!”).
But I guess I’m just a slow learner. I don’t see why things have to be this way: I don’t see why slagging off about bloggers has to be part of anybody’s defense of criticism or literature, or why people who should know better insist on conflating form (or platform) with content…except that it’s more work to draw finer distinctions. Giraldi has said this kind of thing before (worse, really):
If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog, you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.
The bottom line is that I don’t think he should be able to get away with it. Frankly, I don’t think his editors should let it go by either: though I’m sure they appreciate the link-bait, they might keep in mind that some of their other contributors write “personal blogs” — or, to take it less personally, they might at least insist on some specifics and some qualifying nuances. I happen to agree with Giraldi’s summary of a critic’s ideal credentials: “the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition.” He just needs to stop belligerently proclaiming that these qualities aren’t to be found “on the Net.” He needn’t become one of the “online coddlers” he so despises, but there’s no special virtue in being sloppily vitriolic either. He could at least take his own advice and read widely before writing.