Every so often, when he’s sufficiently stuffed with greasy calzones and cheap red wine, my Open Letters colleague Greg Waldmann will urge me to venture out into the wilds of the blogosphere, see what arguments are raging, and join in a few. He’ll remind me that Stevereads is fairly well-established (six years and several thousand entries!) as a blog, and he’ll point out that blogs tend to blog about other blogs – that it’s very nearly a characteristic of the breed. I usually just let his comments subside – a little more wine and he invariably reverts to his crackpot conviction that there’s something redeeming about democracy, or equal rights, or civilian rule. Familiar ground.
But sometimes I wonder. How could I not? I am a blogger, after all, and I spend a chunk of every day roaming around online – not only checking Internet places I already know I like (the YouTube channel of those adorable mooks at Pretty Much It, for example, or Brandon’s bookcase-porn at Shields of Paper, or the inexhaustible good judgement of the Well-Read Naturalist) but also looking for new places to like, new islands of creativity or opinion, new little enclaves where somebody I’ve never met is pursuing the public expression of their passion – the crux of what makes the Internet the single most liberating creation of mankind. I’m already connected to all that activity simply by virtue of the fact that I eagerly consume it – how could I not occasionally be tempted to even stronger connections, to even more participation?
The problem isn’t those creative, passionate people doing what they love, however. The problem with Greg’s idea (and he’s by no means the only person to suggest it in the last six years) is that the ‘blogosphere,’ like every other arena of aesthetic discourse, is eight-tenths populated by feces-hurling macaques. And those macaques are so popular (in a medium where popularity is synonymous with notoriety) that even the remaining two-tenths of the Internet’s bloggers, the ones with the aforementioned creativity and passion, are compelled to throw a little poop just to stay in the game.
Take – as just one example in a surging sea of them – the quick little post James W. Hall did for today’s Wall Street Journal blog, something called “Beware Literary Snobbery: Why We Should Read Bestsellers.” Hall starts off the piece by introducing himself as a professor of American literature who teaches a course on bestsellers, and then he goes on to hurl a veritable Augean Stable of poo. He implies that people who dislike bestseller fiction are snobs, confesses that he was once such a snob himself, and tells us that he eventually changed his ways when he created a college course on the bestseller and was ‘gobsmacked’ by the likes of Margaret Mitchell and Grace Metalious. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, his snobbery vanished and he re-dedicated himself to the simple joys of reading. In this age of infinite electronic distraction, he argues, how can we begrudge any book, however wan or moronic, that manages to capture the attention of young readers? Especially since it might lead to something more:
… maybe when the millions reading “The Hunger Games” have finished the trilogy and are searching the shelves for their next foray into a dystopian universe, they will discover another great bestseller of the past, perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four.” You never know – it could happen.
… which is the equivalent of a safari guide saying maybe some of the Minnesota dentists he’s supposed to be safeguarding will manage to avoid the lions and make it back to the bungalow on their own. You never know – it could happen. Any teacher who seriously believes that has abrogated his most fundamental responsibility and should be ashamed of himself.
But that’s the essential fraud at the heart of this kind of feces-hurling: Hall doesn’t mean any of it – it’s done to generate controversy. Not in a genuine way (as if, to take a wildly improbable example, a blogger were to opine that nine-tenths of all young female writers in America today are hugely less talented than their male counterparts because they’ve been consistently coddled by craven teachers afraid of being labelled sexist – if that hypothetical blogger actually believed such a claim, he’d be genuinely controversial), but in the ginned-up practice of red-flag blogging.
Hall knows perfectly well that most bestsellers are cheap, easy, bad writing. He knows perfectly well the rot such writing can produce, and he knows how fake it is to draw artificial distinctions between ‘bestseller’ and ‘literary’ fiction, as though we’re supposed to root for the underdog or some such nonsense. He would no more seriously prescribe a diet of bestsellers to young readers than he’d prescribe a diet of birthday cake to young eaters – he knows as well as anybody the sheer joys that can only come from fiction that’s been carefully and intelligently wrought, and he knows as well as anybody that such fiction can be thrilling to all, not just to the academics who make a living ‘deconstructing’ it.
In fact, Hall knows all this better than most people, not because he teaches a course in the bestseller but because he himself is a writer of exactly that kind of careful and intelligently wrought prose (the fact he doesn’t mention this in his blog-post is the single charming thing about it); his Southern Florida stories may be marketed as crime thrillers, but in their gritty, lyrical brilliance they’re the true heirs to Tom McGuane – and you don’t get to the point where you can write such prose without understanding the worth of such prose in ways that would have made a more honest WSJ blog-post but, I’m guessing, a less-trafficked one.
In other words, he knows you’re not automatically a ‘literary snob’ if you can’t stomach the plain-and-simple bad writing of Twilight, or The Art of Racing in the Rain, or the latest Harlan Coben. He knows there can be enormous, irreplaceable worth in ‘difficult’ books. He knows there’s no shame in deconstruction. And he knew all that before he typed one word of his fecally-playful piece this morning. Which makes the idea of responding to it seem not only futile but vaguely narcissistic. Is it any wonder, then, that I tend to stick to old friends who never heard of the blogosphere? It seems more honest – and there’s less to clean up afterwards.