Tuesday, May 22, 2007

critics at large

A little less than a month ago, Michael Connelly--an author of mass market detective mysteries, the likes of which you'll find sandwiched between the 99 cent birthday cards and the frozen food section in your local Safeway--wrote a piece for the L.A. Times lamenting the recession of book reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines. Connelly contends that the publications' decision to print fewer reviews is masochistic, claiming that it contributes to the growing threat of obscurity that print media faces today. "The publishing industry has always relied on reviews and on the commentary of great critics in newspapers to champion the new voices of literature as well as regional and genre writing," he writes. "The reading public has gone to these venues to make discoveries. Now where will new voices be discovered?"

A few weeks later, the Times printed another piece about the "war of words" between established book reviewers and bloggers, a critical fracas arising from verbal blows between Michael Dirda, a "Pulitzer-Prize winning book critic" for the Washington Post and lit-blogger Edward Champion (with a name like that, one can only assume that he's also a lit-porn star).
"If you were an author," remarked Dirda, "would you want your book reviewed in the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books, or on a web site written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biogafriend?"

Finally, a couple of days ago, The Times--seriously, someone at this newspaper must have been moved from the Colin Farrell beat to this story--printed a horrible op-ed by RIchard Schickel, who is, in addition to being a professional critic, a professional a-hole: In an elitist tone, his article whines about the democratization of book reviewing (readers may remember erc whining about the democratization of television), claiming that the shift from printing critical analysis by writers with theoretical backgrounds to the academic "wasteland" of the blogosphere will engender the elimination of standards, and the death of intellectual literary reviewing. "
We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credential," he writes.

The principal trait shared by Connelly, Dirda, and Schickel, besides self-importance and an obvious hatred of this gosh-darn-newfangled technology, is a sense of paranoia--a fear of the effects that the changing shape of media will have on their work's relevance. Attributing the demise of reading to the rise of online media and blogging invokes a false relationship of causality: People will continue to write, and people will continue to read, but the way we write and read and think about books will change.

In evolutionary terms, those who adapt to this transformation (novelists who--like Connelly--take advantage of podcasts, web-based publicity, book clubs, etc) will benefit, and those critics who refuse to justify or modify their contributions to literary culture will face the big cut. Good, in-depth book reviews, ones that are additive rather than merely derivative, will still find an audience--erc, for example, regularly reads print content for the new york review of books, etc., only online. The only reviews that will be "replaced" by blogs will be those that fail to contribute anything that isn't offered by concise, smart blog posts.

As my friend Matt pointed out, Schickel's piece does touch on a legitimate problem that faces the democratization of publishing, an issue that I've taken to calling "the right to review." Possessing this right, however, seems to transcend categorical differences; a reviewer for salon.com probably offers more insight than a reporter for my home state's newspaper, the Arizona Republic. The dichotomy of standards, then, is not between diverse media, but between intelligent and unintelligent criticism. While I worried that youtube was lowering the standards for television, permitting unintelligent programming to filter into our brains, I don't think that book-blogging poses the same threat; because reading requires more cognitive effort than drooling in front of a fuzzy television screen, most people won't wend through bad criticism simply because it's online.

So when it comes to reviewing, the strongest--the most clearly written, the most interesting, and, in some cases, the more web-friendly--will survive unscathed. But the real winner is, of course, the reader, who emerges with a greater diversity of options, and a broader gateway to new and different types of fiction. In the evolutionary analogy, I guess erc is Darwin, the reader is DNA, and Richard Schickel is a dodo bird.


harlan said...

I prefer the online edition of newspapers, and so for me there is a lot less difference between blogs and newspapers...

Times Select is one big private blog that frankly has content that is inferior to what one finds in the rest of the blogosphere... I'll take Wonkette, Joshua Micah Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, and Camille Paglia over the Times' wind factory any day.

Newspapers and traditional media still has the advantage of having broad, consistently pretty good converage. Blogs are spotty and often rely on traditional media coverage for a source of commentary.

Nick said...

Michael Connelly is actually a very skilled writer. His prose is mostly utilitarian but his novels are frequently structurally ingenious. (The Poet, for example.)

And Edward Champion's site, in addition to criticism, has some of the best author interviews around. I like his site. I have been guest blogging there lately.

elmrockcity said...

After interning in mass market publishing (for Connelly's publisher, actually) a couple of summers ago, I understand. The unedited copy for such writers is often atrocious (grammatical errors, etc), but they know how to tell a story, whereas submissions from Iowa MFA students et al were frequently well-written but poorly crafted and less engaging. Props to the pot boilers.

With the exception of a few famous/particularly brilliant writers, I generally find author interviews boring.