Are book blogs killing off literary criticism?

Last updated 08:28 23/10/2012

I had coffee with an old colleague a few weeks ago, in which he (intelligent, street-smart, well-read, politically lefty, opinionated journo) said he liked my blog. His assessment of it was that it was aimed at bored housewives with Master's degrees in lit, looking for an outlet for their repressed creativity.

I would argue that the comments section alone - and yes, I do read every single comment, I figure it's the least I can do for my readers - suggests otherwise. There are men, women, housewives, librarians, students, engineers, writers and architects who read my blog. In other words, a typical cross-section of society. Blog

I was still thinking about this when I read this Guardian piece about how book bloggers are supposedly harming literature. Apparently Sir Peter Stothard, the chair of this year's Booker prize judges, argues that "the mass of online opinion about books could kill off literary criticism".

Stothard says in an Independent feature that "there is a widespread sense...that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline". He goes on to say that "not everyone's opinion is worth the same" and that readers may somehow be persuaded by bloggers into reading books that "are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off".

Now, I happen to think that's a stunningly pessimistic, and frankly quite snobbish, view of book bloggers in general. It's as if he's saying that there are two types of critics in this world: those who are "qualified", by whatever criteria deemed appropriate by people like Stothard, and the rest of us, who should shut up and leave our opinions to be dictated by the professionals.

I don't know about you, but there's something about the whole debate that smacks of "let the peasants eat cake"...except that they can't possibly know what flavour cake is best, so someone with a PhD in literature should step in and tell them, after first bashing them figuratively over the head with some BS about post-structuralist this, and post-modernist that. My short response to that is probably unpublishable, hence my longer reply in the form of this post.

I had a chat to James George, chair of the Auckland branch of the NZ Society of Authors and creative writing lecturer at AUT, about the issue. Disclaimer: he's been one of my professors at uni this year, and an all-round, genuinely cool guy who is stupendously good at what he does.

George takes a more balanced view of the whole "book blogs killing off literary criticism" idea, and says he thinks that literary criticism is also moving online, and that book blogs are aimed at different audiences anyway.

"Book blogs, the ones I've read, are more aimed at ordinary readers - rather than people looking for academic literary criticism. So they're really using it as the next stage on from the traditional book review, rather than an academic text about post-culturalist philosophy or whatever."

The beauty of book blogs, he says, is that they have infinite space compared to print publications.

"You're not dominated by how many words you have available to you and how much page space. A book blog can do an in-depth analysis in a way that's just not possible in print. Blogging in general is aimed at the midpoint - not the absolute pointy-heads and not the idiots, but all of us who are in the middle who want an analysis of a book.

"Someone who wants to read a full-on literary critic will likely stay with people like Harold Bloom, they're not gonna want to 'dumb' themselves down. But book bloggers are finding audiences who haven't had a home before, people who read, but don't just want a superficial analysis, and before this, they've not had a really great outlet to go to."

George thinks that talking about the "mass of online opinion" is also a non-issue, because "a poorly constructed blog will vanish because no one's gonna read it" - it's a process of natural attrition.

"The kind of person who wants a piece of academic literary analysis is probably always going to go to a library or bookstore to find it. You've only changed the format, not the content."

In my opinion, book bloggers, like bloggers of any other kind - are generally not doing it for money. Most are unpaid, and are simply writing about subjects they are truly passionate about. At the end of the day, like magazines, newspapers and literary journals, it's the reader who determines the worth of the blog, and as George has pointed out, if the blog is truly no good, then people will stop reading.

What do you think of book blogs in general? Do you think it's killing off well-considered, intelligent literary criticism?

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