A Literary Rorschach Test: Thoughts on Peter Stothard’s Recent Comments
September 26, 2012 § 9 Comments
The first thought that occurred to me is that I could not find a transcript of his comments. That is understandable, as newspapers do edit their interviewees’ comments into the space of a small column. But here is the offending part of The Independent’s column, at least for some:
The 61-year-old says: “There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. Quite unnecessarily.”
“Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition,” the former editor of The Times says. “It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”
The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, he says. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”
When I read that piece yesterday, before the flood of blog responses began in earnest, I thought he had a valid point. A critic is not the same as someone who goes on Goodreads or Amazon and leaves a star rating. A critic is not someone who expresses his/her liking/disliking of a book. A critic is not someone who describes how a book unfolds. No, a critic is something different. To me at least, a critic is someone who delves into the “whys” of a story, teasing out elements that bear further consideration (or in some cases, dismissal). A good critic gives a reader a chance to (re)evaluate his/her own stances regarding the act of reading.
Yet in these type of reactions, you don’t see the critic being portrayed as anything valuable. Oh, no. There is an underlying sense that one feels “attacked” when Stothard bemoans the apparent collapse of literary criticism beneath the sheer weight of other forms of literary discourse. Let me turn this issue around and try and see this from Stothard’s perspective. I would imagine that he would probably counter some of the comments by asking simply, what reviews, blog-originated or otherwise, have you read lately that made you re-evaluate your position on what constitutes a “worthy” or “good” book? I know for myself, it is increasingly difficult to find a review that does little more than just provide the reviewer’s likes/dislikes, take them as you please. Although there is some value, I suppose, in that style of review essay, is there really anything gained other than the reader finding someone who may confirm his/her already-held opinion on what types of works are worth reading? I don’t think one reads Goodreads reviews or those of several genre blogs (to use examples with which many readers here would be familiar) to learn anything about the art of writing or reading comprehension, but for those (such as myself) who do occasionally want something more, where do we turn?
The answers to that question are not pretty. Newspapers and magazines traditionally have been the source for literary criticism that is more than two paragraphs long. Yet over the past quarter-century, their coverage has been slashed in the US and likely elsewhere. True, there are isolated blogs that do provide these voices (and Stothard is well aware of them, based on later comments), but how do you go about discovering them when you want something more than a review ending in 7.5/10? From blogrolls and others’ recs? Sure, that’ll work to a degree (this blog’s blogroll does link to several who provide lit criticism), but it’s hard to discover them on Google or elsewhere without wading through a lot of dreck.
Acknowledging this is not “being a snob.” One can find oneself longing for certain forms of literary review/criticism without dismissing out-of-hand newer media. Stothard, I believe, is not dismissing blogging or online reviewing as much as he’s expressing a fear that in this still-maturing online age, that certain voices that dare to dig deeper and to unearth things that are overlooked by the majority because they have chosen/are not capable of investing the time to explore why such a work is worth considering, that those voices will be drowned out by white noise. I look at my shelves and I wonder if authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Delany, or Flannery O’Connor, just to name a few, would have achieved any sort of wide readership today if there were not critics as well as general readers praising their works and exploring just why their writings bear a closer examination.
It is too easy to get caught up in the rhetoric associated with “snob” or “elitist” and presume that the one expressing an opinion that runs counter to popular opinion is just fighting against an inexorable tide. Perhaps that is so. However, popular opinion does not mean that a work is good or that it will endure (true, the inverse is also correct). But if those so-called “elitists” are dismissed with finality, who then will dare to go against populist takes? That is the lingering question.