Let me apologize in advance.
Many thanks to the Love of Reading Online Book Fair for including me on their guest blogger list. While my presence tends to pull down the collective reputation of any group, after reading the posts of the other guest bloggers I see there is enough quality to withstand my arrival. As you may have seen, most of the other GBs have written responses to one or more questions from a very loose list we received a couple of weeks ago. I chose the following:
What qualifies someone to be a book critic? Do you think bloggers can be just as insightful as professional reviewers?
When answering any question for which one is abjectly unqualified, it helps to define terms. Terms are seabirds, similar to gulls, found worldwide. Many terms are long distance migrants …
I’m sorry. I’m just nervous. I read somewhere that starting with a joke can be a way of breaking the ice, which was already thin to begin with.
The subject at hand is the qualification of book critics and we are defining terms. The question above implies two types of critic, the professional and the amateur. Beyond saying I think there is a place for both on the Internet, I meant what I said above. I’m not qualified to answer the question. But I know some people who are.
So as my response to the Fair’s questions, let me pose some questions of my own and allow others to answer them both. We’ll call this an eclectic interview.
First, is professional criticism still necessary? I mean, can’t us regular folks just decide what we like and what we don’t? Do we really need someone to tell us what literature means? The answer comes from Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist:
Yes; the critic will be an interpreter, if he chooses. He can pass from his synthetic impression of the work of art as a whole, to an analysis or exposition of the work itself, and in this lower sphere, as I hold it to be, there are many delightful things to be said and done. Yet his object will not always be to explain the work of art. He may seek rather to deepen its mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker, that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers alike. Ordinary people are `terribly at ease in Zion.’ They propose to walk arm in arm with the poets, and have a glib ignorant way of saying, `Why should we read what is written about Shakespeare and Milton? We can read the plays and the poems. That is enough.’ But an appreciation of Milton is, as the late Rector of Lincoln remarked once, the reward of consummate scholarship. And he who desires to understand Shakespeare truly must understand the relations in which Shakespeare stood to the Renaissance and the Reformation, to the age of Elizabeth and the age of James; he must be familiar with the history of the struggle for supremacy between the old classical forms and the new spirit of romance, between the school of Sidney, and Daniel, and Johnson, and the school of Marlowe and Marlowe’s greater son; he must know the materials that were at Shakespeare’s disposal, and the method in which he used them, and the conditions of theatric presentation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, their limitations and their opportunities for freedom, and the literary criticism of Shakespeare’s day, its aims and modes and canons; he must study the English language in its progress, and blank or rhymed verse in its various developments; he must study the Greek drama, and the connection between the art of the creator of the Agamemnon and the art of the creator of Macbeth; in a word, he must be able to bind Elizabethan London to the Athens of Pericles, and to learn Shakespeare’s true position in the history of European drama and the drama of the world. The critic will certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Rather, he will look upon Art as a goddess whose mystery it is his province to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more marvellous in the eyes of men.
And here, Ernest, this strange thing happens. The critic will indeed be an interpreter, but he will not be an interpreter in the sense of one who simply repeats in another form a message that has been put into his lips to say. For, just as it is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality, so, by curious inversion, it is only by intensifying his own personality that the critic can interpret the personality and work of others, and the more strongly this personality enters into the interpretation the more real the interpretation becomes, the more satisfying, the more convincing, and the more true.
Well, if the professional critic is so important, why are there so many amateur book review sites? The answer comes from John Updike in his Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism.
The world craves book reviews far more heartily than it craves books: therein lies the beguilement and the nagging unease of the trade. Unlike the poet and the teller of tales, the reviewer writes by invitation, in near-certainty of his product’s being paid for and printed. He is safe, too, in his tone, which merely has to preserve the grammatical forms and a semblance of sagacity to win his audience to him, in satisfying collusion against the clumsiness, deludedness, and conceit of the book writer. Critical prose, like the prose of business letters, has its set locutions and inevitable rhythms, which begin to wear a drone into even the user’s head. One misses, hugging the shore, the halting mimetic prose of fiction, which seeks to sink itself in the mind of a character or the texture of a moment. What we love about fiction writers is their willingness to dare this submergence, to give up, in behalf of brute reality, the voice of a wise and presentable man. The critic comes to us in a suit and tie. He is a gentleman. He is right. A pox on him, as Goethe said. Among the many pieces of paper I sifted to make this collection I came across the following note, evidently addressed, so sternly, to myself:
An artist mediates between the world and mind; a critic merely between
minds. An artist therefore must even at the price of uncouthness
and alienation from the contemporary cultural scene maintain alle-
giance to the world and a fervent relation to it.
A fervent relation with the world: I suppose this is my critical touchtone, with its old-fashioned savor of reverence and Creation and the truth shall make you free.
So critics and reviewers are still needed, even if one agrees that they should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, where does the Internet fit in? The answer comes from Jane Ciabattari in an interview with Joel Turnipseed at kottke.org.
JT: Finally, I think one thing the blogosphere does extraordinarily well is broaden the base of discussion—while still preserving the idea of the cream rising to the top. It’s just that, on the Web, there are a lot more buckets. As critics and writers, should it matter to us that the “center doesn’t hold?” Is there really anything wrong with there being a large number of different centers—each connected to each, each permeable and in constant flux?
JC: I interviewed Yochai Benkler a number of years ago in a piece for New York Lawyer that predicted that he would be one of the attorneys under forty who would influence the 21st century. I am pleased to see he continues to break new ground, and I found his book fascinating. I see nothing wrong with a large number of different centers, interconnected, permeable, in constant flux: that is the nature of the Internet. Having reported from Cuba, where the flow of information is censored, and China, where the Internet is censored but only partially obstructed because of the various ways one can get around the firewalls, I would not want to see that constant flux impeded. But I also spend enough time in rural areas where broadband Internet connections are either unavailable or too expensive that I’m only too aware that printing is still an important technology—and that it’s important to maintain it for those who read newspaper book reviews, whether at home or in local libraries; whether from desire or necessity. To ignore the needs of this part of the American population would be to undermine our democratic roots—literacy is at the base of an educated citizenry.
That said, for me the ideal is a multi-media approach, with a maximum of choices. A world in which I can listen to public radio, read various newspapers online or in print, watch the BBC and Colbert and John Stewart, catch up with my favorite literary bloggers (chosen because I’ve come to know and love their sensibilities), and continue to have what the MacDowell Colony’s 100th anniversary slogan calls “the freedom to create.”
That pretty much wraps up what I have to say about book critics and the web. Check out the links if you’d like to see more of what each quotee had to say.
I’ll just leave you with one last thought of my own. Wouldn’t it be ironic if this particular critical format ended up replacing or changing the book as we know it today? Books are a static information technology, and I don’t know that a static technology can make it in a kinetic world.
Don’t forget to take your own tern and post a comment. Enjoy the Fair, and good luck at the next book raffle.