Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BLOGGY....In a short post today, John Quiggin rips into William Skidelsky, deputy editor of the British Prospect, for saying some negative things about bloggers. The subject is the much-mooted decline of book reviewing, and one of the things Skildesky says is this:

Lively literary websites — or online magazines with literary sections — do exist, especially in the US: Salon, Slate, the Literary Saloon. But blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

This actually piqued my interest enough to read Skildesky's entire essay, and basically I came away wondering, again, if we bloggers are a wee bit too thin-skinned sometimes. As it turns out, literary blogging occupies only a small part of Skildesky's essay, and in any case he has both good and bad things to say about it — along with good and bad things about the rest of the literary criticism community. What's more, regarding the short excerpt John quotes, Skildesky is right, isn't he? There's some good long-form work in the blogosphere, both literary and otherwise, but generally speaking it's hardly an insult to point out that most blogging is reactive and quickly produced.

Endless battles to the contrary, it's never a matter of one medium being better than another, it's a matter of acknowledging and using the strengths and weaknesses of various mediums. TV is good at images; newspapers are good at daily news; magazines are good at long-form journalism; and blogs are good at quick reaction and two-way conversation. In fact, Skildesky himself puts it pretty well:

In the end, though, the squabbles between literary journalists and bloggers miss the point. While both parties have cast themselves as adversaries in a pressing contemporary drama, they really are (or should be) allies in a more important battle — for literature itself, and its right to be taken seriously. The significance of this struggle makes the differences between them trivial.

Quick, chatty reaction to news and books is a specialized form that some people are good at and some people aren't. Ditto for longer form journalism and book reviewing. And both have their place. So what's all the fuss about?

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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I came away wondering, again, if we bloggers are a wee bit too thin-skinned sometimes.

No, and it's an outrage and an insult for you to suggest it.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on February 26, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation.

Lengthy reflection and slow maturation = snoozing at your desk.

Posted by: Bob M on February 26, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I agree, but I'll spell it out a little more than you do: it depends on what kind of criticism I want. Sure, for a certain kind of incisive, expert criticism, you really need a person who has studied and made a life out of scrutinizing that kind of book / medium / whatever. But if I want to read a brief digestion from someone who's more like-minded to me (that is, I'm not an expert on any one medium) and who has similar tastes (that is, I don't have haughty-taughty tastes in a lot of things, at least not to the extent a lot of professional criticizers do) and a brief, report of what's in the book/movie/album whatever without a lot of invective, I'd prefer a blogger-type review.

Then there's the whole criticism of professional critics in general. I find I generally don't like critics, not just because I find some of them to be snobs- I think the adage is true, of which there's a version for a few different mediums- "Those who can't play (an instrument), write" or "Those who can't act, are critics." I'm sure you've heard one of them. I find often I just don't like critics' opinions of things, and don't like hearing their complaints. This turned me into almost critics' contrarian, but at this point in my life, I've got to settle down a little and agree that (especially if you're knew to something) and you want to be steered away from some serious duds and towards the good stuff, it may be a good idea to generally follow a reputable critic's advice, at least until you've learned the ropes and checked out a lot of stuff.

I guess as with political blogging, when I listen to a critic it's more to get a general sense of what's good and bad and to hear their objective report, and less certain that I'm listening to them or reading them for their opinion.

Posted by: Swan on February 26, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Except that one looks at the loss of book review space in daily papers, one reads careless reviews clearly cranked out on deadline, and discovers a portion of the press reviews are by people with axes to grind with the author or their ideology...
It's not the blogs killing the reviewers, it that their medium is dying, of it's own institutional problems.
And when I think of 'slow maturation' I think of cheese, or perhaps wine.

Posted by: MR. Bill on February 26, 2008 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Meh. This whole internet thing is just a fad.

Posted by: cazart on February 26, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

I came away wondering, again, if we bloggers are a wee bit too thin-skinned sometimes.

Yes, they sound like Obama voters. (I am an Obama voter.)

Posted by: Martin on February 26, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Arguments about the merits and roles of non-blog media aside, when was it decreed that all bloggers must think and write in this speedy, quick-reactions-only kind of way? Why should the ability to jot down prima facie observations and make them immediately available to readers preclude the style of literary criticism, and opinion-forming in general, that the print media have relied on? Surely it's possible for a blogger to react to the day-to-day meanderings of the literary/political/feline world while simultaneously mulling over a book or two he or she has read recently, and later put those mullings-over into a coherent piece. Certainly there are a lot of bloggers who don't bother, but there are also a lot who do--Kevin being one of them--and the blame, if it's even deserved, should be placed on the bloggers who choose not to exploit this aspect of the medium.

Posted by: fumphis on February 26, 2008 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

Your larger point in this post is true. Different media have different strengths. And that's... OK.

TV is good at images; newspapers are good at daily news; magazines are good at long-form journalism; and blogs are good at quick reaction and two-way conversation.

Ideally.

However, I think some have made the point lately that TV, newspapers, and magazines aren't actually all that good at informing people.

Posted by: Elvis Elvisberg on February 26, 2008 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

haughty-taughty

Has Swan coined a new phrase? Or is this just a hoity-toity way of spelling an old familiar phrase?

Posted by: rea on February 26, 2008 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

rea, as I understand it, upper-class people write and say 'hoity-toity' and people like me write and say 'haughty-taughty.' I actually almost forget that your spelling/pronounciation of it exists some times. As always, maybe this is just the way we say and write it in Jersey, as I don't travel much.

Posted by: rea on February 26, 2008 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

I have my own book-review website and help commission reviews for another. Both could be considered "blogs" in that entries are presented latest-first and include internal and external links. Neither one publishes peer-reviewed scholarly criticism. On my own site I allow myself the luxury of reviewing books that aren't particularly recent, but on the one I help edit, we assign mostly pieces on brand-new books. Most book reviews, since the genre began, have been timely and brief -- rather like most blog posts since that genre began. Obviously some are good and some are useless, also like blog posts. There's nothing about the Internet medium per se that makes for bad book reviews.

Posted by: Tim Morris on February 26, 2008 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Whoops, brain-fart- I typed in rea's handle at 3:52 PM instead of my own (Swan). Sorry!

Posted by: Swan on February 26, 2008 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Hoity-toity is probably the country-mouse way of spelling it. I think the last thing you people complained about was my using 'guilt' as a noun, as in "Somebody tried to guilt me into doing something..." It's a good thing I come from the heartland of America, New Jersey, where people have been using/speaking English longer, so I know my usages are more correct ;-)

Posted by: Swan on February 26, 2008 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

rea, as I understand it, upper-class people write and say 'hoity-toity' and people like me write and say 'haughty-taughty.'

My dictionary tells me that "hoity-toity" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, "hoit," meaing to act foolishly, and has nothing whatever to do with "haughty."

Posted by: rea (the real one) on February 26, 2008 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

Haughty-taughty? Hoity-toity?

Enough of your arglebargle.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on February 26, 2008 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on February 26, 2008 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

Shouldn't the clauses in this sentence be separated by commas: "TV is good at images; newspapers are good at daily news; magazines are good at long-form journalism; and blogs are good at quick reaction and two-way conversation."

Posted by: Strunk on February 26, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

I do not always read the long book reviews in the New Yorker, but I always read the short ones. I read both the long and the short movie reviews.

I recently switched cable companies just to watch C-SPAN's Book TV though. !@#$%&! Cox.

Posted by: Brojo on February 26, 2008 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

I don't understand why it has to be either/or. There is nothing preventing anyone from carefully reflecting on a book, then writing a thoughtful bit of criticism, and publishing it online instead of in some printed journal. But I also think the writer is over-stating the degree to which most reviewers engage in thoughtful reflection. Most of them are doing it for nothing more than a buck, and churn those things out as quickly as they can, with the least amount of attention they can get away with. I'd prefer, actually, reading a review, or series of reviews, written collectively by a bunch of amateurs who really care about literature than a review written by a hack reviewer, whether those reviews are published online or anywhere else.

Posted by: MG on February 26, 2008 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK
Shouldn't the clauses in this sentence be separated by commas: "TV is good at images; newspapers are good at daily news; magazines are good at long-form journalism; and blogs are good at quick reaction and two-way conversation." Posted by: Strunk on February 26, 2008 at 4:23 PM

No.

(Former English lit major and part time grammar Nazi)

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on February 26, 2008 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

Let me just say to Mr. Skidelsky, having done both professional straight up newspaper reviewing, as well as four years worth of book reviews at my own blog:

FUCK YOU, BUDDY.

This idea that a blog has to be one kind of thing solely because the biggest blogs out there are typically one kind of thing never fails to get under my skin. To say that any one genre of writing or type of art has to be one thing or to categorize it as one thing is the opposite of thinking. It's reflexive pigeonholing. Seriously, is there some kind of overlap you might see between Josh Marshall's style and David Niewert's? Because to me they are night and day different.

While print media journalism is something I don't think we could stand to lose at this stage (the resources and money that news org's have is one of the great means of getting legs under a story), there is no institutional reason to believe that we need the NYT book section more than we need www.someguysbookreviews.com. As long as you can convince a publisher to send you review editions of books (and look for publishers to opt for digital downloads of these to on-the-hoof reviewers) and as long as you can get yourself set up with a website, you have the bare bones basics of a book reviewer. Talent for writing and critical appreciation will make themselves readily apparent in hit counts etc.

All of this is to say that Skidelski is full of hot air. When anyone says that something like that, it's a tacit admission that they don't understand the medium itself.

And that, I think, speaks volumes.

Posted by: The Critic on February 26, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

Uh-oh, rea, sounds like you're getting haughty-taughty on me. I guess my version is more correct as the American, slangy neologism, yours is more correct as the version that people who prefer Old Worldm ancien regime spellings insist on.

Posted by: Swan on February 26, 2008 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

This is exactly why I read this blog. Kevin always does a great job of thinking deeply about the things that he blogs about, while not sitting on them forever or getting so abstracted as to miss the point. So in general your point about many media is well taken, although I am happy to say that I think that this blog gives us the best of both worlds.

-R

Posted by: Ruck on February 26, 2008 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

"I'd prefer, actually, reading a review, or series of reviews, written collectively by a bunch of amateurs who really care about literature than a review written by a hack reviewer, whether those reviews are published online or anywhere else."

In the science fiction community, that's exactly what we've had for over fifty years now. And guess what? Science fiction readers still read book reviews, write book reviews, and care about them.

Posted by: popomo on February 26, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I've got somewhat the same problem with your post as I did with Skidelsky. You don't mention my actual criticism of Skidelsky which was that he didn't mention any actual blogs.

As several commenters have pointed out already, there are lots of blogs doing literary reviews in different ways, not all of them fitting the instant reax stereotype.

A blogger who wrote a post making big claims about literary magazines but didn't give any actual examples would be called out for it, even if the claims could be defended as broad generalizations.

Posted by: John Quiggin on February 26, 2008 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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