Blogs, papers

I have a difficult task for you. I want you to try to imagine a world where your opinion only had weight, validity and interest if Robert McCrum were willing to pay for it.

Some of you are laughing at the madness of this fantasy. ‘Lunacy,’ you cry,”tis surely Saturnalia, for the fools are kings!’ Others may see this as an admonitory vision: we must keep a careful eye on our liberties and intellectual independence if we are not to fall into this Gehenna of the mind.

Reader, what if I told you many people today live in this world?

Are these Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’?

Y’know, I very much think they are.

So, obviously, very late on this terrific pop at the newspapers’ literary sections and the rest of the fuss. And I’m even belated on the house comeback (best line – “Would they really be without[…] Nick Hornby?” How I laughed. Short answer is ‘yes’. Long answer involves language, amusing analogies, violence. Certificate AA. But we’ll come back to Cooke’s article, since her point isn’t a bad one, and she makes it using Didion and Empson, who don’t immediately inspire oh-my-sides. Except for the neckbeard, of course.)

I should say at the off that I barely feel like a book blog any more – I don’t review, or post much and I have little to say about new releases. Frankly, I live in my own little world and I’m quite happy there, thank you very much. This of course makes me an examplar of one of the important points in this discussion – the litbloggers aren’t homogenous.

I’m wholly with Susan Hill here. Though I haven’t seen the Sutherland article, it sounds like he’s basically being a dick. (It’s a shame – I remember fondly his discussion of Scruton’s dopiness in everyone’s favourite 90s farce).

Hill’s basic point is absolutely right: anyone can now write criticism and be heard; it’s possible to find people with similar tastes to you, so you can construct a better trust network than is possible just reading the broadsheets, who have limited space and erratic reviewer selection; so, this democratic criticism combined with these networks of trust allow the reader to make better decisions about what to read. Everyone wins.

Now, I’m bothered by this from another angle. Why is Sutherland saying we’re letting literary standards slip? What does this mean?

The first level on which I don’t understand this idea: how will standards slip below the current level of broadsheet criticism? These institutions seem to believe that getting a 26-year-old English graduate to review five paperbacks for a hundred and fifty quid is the optimal way to build up a healthy relationship with the reading public. Why am I respecting the opinion of the papers? Of their critics?

If I want to read about people attempting art, then the papers just aren’t the first place I’d stop. I’d look in at RSB and This Space and see what they’re reading, and I’d see what Waggish had to say recently, and so on and so on. I’m a fully qualified Eng Lit gatekeeper – the right qualifications from the right university – and I just don’t think the broadsheets are any good at the job they claim to do when asserting ownership of literary standards or style. I no longer give a fuck about what the papers have to say about books. It has mostly nothing to with the world of reading and writing, which is all I care about.

It has more to do with publishing. Wait. I know…

Let’s play a game.

Will any bloggers married to Ian McEwan please put your hands up.

Okay. Now the Literary Editors of major newspapers or their book supplements – same question. Hands up.


Now, this is the most obvious illustration of that cosiness afflicting this literary world. I’m actually, genuinely not saying it’s corrupt, just comfortable. This is a congeries, not a conspiracy: literary people like to hang out with literary people, and who can blame them? if you want to have a conversation about Broch and shit when sipping on a hot nesquik, then it makes sense to hook up with a booko. A publisher is a pretty sensible person to have lunch with if you’re a lit editor. And what self-respecting drunk turns down a party invite? Not me! But the cosiness is likely to be sometimes inimical to interesting things happening. Literary standards start to look a lot like a club; publishing like a pleasant game for gentlemen and well-brought-up girls; few music editors are signed to a major record label, or realistically aspire to making a record. The papers simply don’t have any real need to rock the boat (why should they? There’s that old, handy idea that Oxbridge deradicalizes the English ruling classes (take ‘ruling’ broadly to include cultural hegemony) by getting them used to comfort.)

How is this environment likely to take care of literary standards? It’s more likely to breed drones trained to clap and bray whenever William Boyd releases a new novel.

What paid literary journalism seems to me to be best at is what the TLS and LRB (and US equivs), and to a lesser extent Saturday Guardian manage: long articles which show expertise, thought and style. Or at least two of those. Sometimes 0.5–1

The bloggers are better at helping you find a good or interesting book, I think; also faster, and the debate buzzes a bit more quickly. That’s fun. There’s a lot of style and knowledge there too; however, there’s the funny thing that you can’t just hire the bloggers as reviewers and get the magic of the web: the medium offers real advantages which are directly opposed to those offered by newspapers: no editor to tone down individual mania (yes, this is sometimes an advantage), and no length restriction, and a better connection to the wider world of thought (If you head to that link bar down the side there’s music, linguistics, philosophy, etc).

Writing for print does make people up their game, no doubt; but you’re letting go of fun, of going out on a limb, of not needing a hook. You can start in the middle of the conversation, which is a fabulous advantage: you don’t have to explain that Thomas Pynchon last released a book a decade ago, don’t have to explain he’s a ‘recluse’ (which I don’t really believe – I think he just likes his privacy, which is his right; doesn’t want to play a stupid advertising promotional game; and disagrees with an intensely intrusive media which is destroying freedom. He’s got friends and a publisher and has appeared on the Simpsons and writes sleeve notes for Lotion and intros for Jim Dodge. These are not the actions of a recluse! Stop this cliché now! I think he’s probably an okay guy, and if he’s ever in England and wants to get a drink, he should be in touch. Salinger – there’s a recluse. Nuts I tell you. Wouldn’t let him in the house); you don’t have to explain everything. It’s fun rattling away, and assuming that your reader is either with you, or able to get themselves there quickly, under their own steam.

And we can link quickly to things, and put up pictures if we like, and laugh at the pretensions and pomposity of the papers, and make stupid jokes that don’t have to be Lowest Common D., and switch between personal chat and literary analysis, and we can assume that there’s a world of music writers and theorists and essayists and pictures that we can point at and praise. Literature isn’t self-contained: it doesn’t just sit in a supplement; it links.

This isn’t going to produce things that look like journalism; but it can make new and great things. I’m not wholly sure it has yet. But it will.

Which sort of brings me to that Rachel Cooke piece.

Guy here nails a lot of it – and respect to the Guardian for running it – but I don’t think he entirely gets why this section:

Would they really be without Nick Hornby (or, in different times and places, William Empson, Claire Tomalin, Hilary Mantel, Joan Didion, Cyril Connolly, and Kenneth Tynan)?

is either thick or dishonest.

(Just quickly, the misleading pomp of this is great – like the Observer features a review by Joan Didion and an essay by Empson every week. Roffles, as we say out here on the stupid tubes.)

She’s saying, I think, that she wants critics who are serious thinkers and good writers. Cool. I’m with her all the way. Style ftw. But I can’t see the point she’s making as regards broadsheet criticism, or even literary journalism. Looking at that list, you’re sort of tricked into nodding by Empson, since he’s maybe the greatest critic of the last century – but he’s an academic, and his books are the meat of it. Argufying is a bit patchy; I’m not sure he’s a great reviewer for the popular press. Connolly isn’t that interesting when writing for the papers – Enemies of Promise, The Rock Pool, yay X 2, but it’s not like the shorter essays are all that. He’s so weird to read – the alacrity with which a paragraph can switch from elegance to drunken hackwork is something to behold. Rote reviewing rarely brings out the best in the serious writers (a notable exception – Marianne Moore’s work for The Dial. She can do amazing stuff over a hundred words)

The Joan Didion point is just weird. She’s an essayist more than a critic, no? In fact, I’m struggling to think about Didion writing on another writer; I’m sure she did, but the 60s memoirs & the novels are blocking the way in my brain. One of the all-timers as far as essays go, maybe, but that doesn’t make it criticism. Did she mean Susan Sontag?

But this is nit-picking. The real problem with the statement is that the point it thinks it’s making is muddleheaded: if we take a run through the history of criticism, it’s not like it’s sponsored by the papers. Let’s just go back a couple of hundred more – we’ve got some of the roots of the critical tradition in Dryden’s prefaces, then there’s Addison’s papers in The Spectator, then there’s the Lives of the Poets of course, Coleridge’s Biographia, Hazlitt, Bradley, Henry James, then tack on the list she gives if you like, drop in Kermode, Ricks, Christopher Hitchens, whoever you fancy.

It’s a dull and obvious selection, but the point, if you took a look at it, would surely seem to be that good, well-written criticism – even of the sort that she wants, belonging to the English trad, and removed from Continental difficult thorts – isn’t monopolised by the newspapers. In fact, if we look at that list, we see interesting criticism in English moving from book prefaces, to periodicals as they’re invented, to prefaces for new cheaper editions of the just-forming canon, to academia when that allows English as a subject (I’m being a little slippery on the Edinburgh, Blackwood’s, all that, but I don’t really know to say. Is it just a continuation of the Addison-emergent bourgeois public sphere culture or something technologically/socially new?). Then come the papers and, if she wants to bring Didion types into it (which is weird, as we’ve said), then that brings us to post-war colour magazine culture.

Wait! It’s almost as though as technology and society transform media, good criticism turns up and uses the newly available form. HOW CAN SUCH SORCERY BE????

Note also that the older forms don’t die out. The long periodical essay is especially enduring.

Some more notes on the Cooke craziness:

Love the bizarro statement about reading a few blogs and finding out about a book she liked the sound of – but she has friends to recommend detective novels to her, so that doesn’t count. As though one criterion of a succesful review section – ‘find me a book to read’ – actually turns out to be less important because it is met by the bloggers. I mean if she had found good lit crit, then the equivalent response would be ‘it did provide a sophisticated analysis of the work’s structure and language, but I have a brain to do that for me anyway’

And, if Steve at This Space writes for the TLS, does that mean a) he no longer counts as a pooter because he is proper or b) the TLS is a pooterish journal? And what the hell does she mean by Pooterish anyway? I look around the lit blogs, I see people who like writing about books, many of them enjoying the conversation in the comments, displaying enthusiasm for titles, having a chat about the news. Surely the Pooters are the ones who occupy a few hundred words of newsprint telling a world that doesn’t give a shit what the hell they’re thinking about the latest Helen Simpson?

Look, that’s quite enough of me. Sorry it’s been a ramble, and there is more to say – god, I forgot to mention that it’s a false dichotomy, and that long essays will turn up in web magazines and elsewhere, and that Salon and Slate can do free-voiced stuff which newsprint can’t, and there will be pay for some of this stuff, but live with it if there isn’t, because good-amateurism is back, and I haven’t touched on my own contradictions (obvious attachment to ‘standards’ vs. cheerleading vox populi) – but in summary, the following:

Are you fuck in charge of literature, the papers