Monday, October 01, 2012

Book Bloggers Harming Literature?

Last week, Peter Stothard--chair of this year's Man Booker prize judges--wrote an article in The Guardian on how he thinks book bloggers are harming literature. He says more on this in an interview with The Independent.

Basically, he's concerned that literature will be swallowed up by mainstream fiction, because that's what most bloggers talk about.
"If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed."
The problem is that literature isn't so easy to define. For example, Shakespeare is considered literature today, but when these plays were new they were written for the masses. I.E., mainstream. So who is to say that some mainstream fiction of today won't be considered the literature of the future? There are plenty of books out there that are good, page-turning stories that also have deep and important themes running through them.

He also said some pretty, erm, inflammatory things:

"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."
" 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."

I'm not going to touch the 'not everyone's opinion is worth the same' because that's so obviously narrow-minded that nothing more needs to be said. That also comes through with the comment about books that are no good--this is another opinion, and people should be able to read whatever books they want to read. Not what critics dictate that they should read.

But this is what really puzzles me. He's saying here that the role of a critic and the role of a blogger are one and the same. I don't agree. Sure, some book bloggers might be trying to take on the role of critic, but that doesn't mean everyone is. I mean, I write book reviews and I try to critique the work in a diplomatic and professional manner, but that doesn't make me a critic. He says "literary criticism, a technique, a skill." EXACTLY. I have not been trained to be a critic, and don't consider myself to be. I think most bloggers probably share this opinion.

Mostly, I think we set out to just talk about the books we've read. It's the same as having a conversation with a friend about books we've loved or hated--it just so happens that the 'friend' is everyone in the blogosphere. :) Since when is a conversation about books a bad thing? 


Unknown said...

I agree that it is narrow minded to say that bloggers are damaging literature. Every reader's voice matters. This seems like an issue of control. Big publishers are unhappy that they are no longer in control of what books are published, and critics are unhappy that they no longer control people's opinions of books. Book bloggers have much more sway because they are consumers, not just critics. It's demeaning to say that you have to be a trained critic to spot good literature. Remember your high school English teachers? They knew literature without being professional critics.

Unpublished Life said...

This is a really interesting article. I have never thought about book bloggers as critics and I don't think people who read book blogs read them in the same way they would a critic writing for the Guardian or the Telegraph etc.

I think you point about it being more of a discussion, like a virtual book club is pretty accurate.

What I do think, though, is that book bloggers have a powerful impact on what people read i.e. the type of literature, so we owe it to our readers to not only focus on commercial fiction, and main-stream fiction, but also more nitty-gritty novels.

Thanks for sharing!

Kelly Hashway said...

Tabitha, I agree with you. Being a critic and being a book blogger aren't the same thing. I'm glad they're not.

Marja said...

I've spent a lifetime reading all kinds of books, including what's considered literature. However, at this point in my life, I prefer light reading, and all the better if it contains some humor. I do review books I enjoy, and I don't believe for one minute that I'm hurting literature. If someone reads my review, then they're already interested in a particular book. Terrific post, and thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

I totally agree. I like to review/critique books on my blog but I do not consider myself a critic in any way, shape, or form.

Unknown said...

I agree. I do not consider myself a critic. I simply write about what I liked and what I didn't like. I'm a consumer of books, so I have that right. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a professional book reviewer (Philadelphia Inquirer) and aside from the fact that it's totally cool be paid ANYTHING to write about what I most love to do (stay up too late reading), the best thing is that in the reviews I can play Critic AND Booklover. Bloggers offer a great service--they describe how they experience books. But the truth is, Mr. Stothard, book reviewers, even in the most august publications, throw in their own personal POV. That's why it's so much fun to watch them fight over the way books "should" be. (Mr. Stothard makes me smile. Intellectuals always need something to grouse about.)

Also, this is a timely post, Tabitha--today, Kiersi Burkhart and I exchanged blog posts on a similar topic--Entertainment vs. Literature. Check 'em out!

Catherine Stine said...

Literary critics most definitely reveal their own POVs. So do book bloggers. In that regard, I don't think there is an enormous difference. I think it's pompous of Stothard to say that "professionals" don't ooze bias, or, for that matter, to put down bloggers by suggesting that they can't do a stellar job of analyzing a novel. Bah, humbug!

Anonymous said...

I think that bloggers who critique like you reflect what our readers think of our books much more than those trained to be critical of our work. They have become jaded. You, on the other hand, review books you love to read, and that goes a long way toward helping readers find what they'll enjoy. Just a thought.

D.G. Hudson said...

As Michelle said, it's an issue of control, and protecting your own job.

I review books which I feel comfortable recommending. Some of the books are literary, some non-fiction (about Paris). I also review those in the genres I write.

Are bloggers a threat to the hierarchy? I don't think so, perhaps an adjunct to highlight those books that other venues snub.

Komal Kant said...

Ugh. I saw this last week and it made me so mad! Book reviewers opinions are extremely valuable among the blogging community. No one is trying to be a critic, we are all just trying to share the books we loved and didn't love.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I think he has correctly identified a loss (a dwindling spotlight on literary criticism), but incorrectly identified the source.

Newspapers and magazines were already slashing their arts and literature sections well before book bloggers came along. That's a problem more directly associated with the decline of paid professional journalism in general and newspapers in particular.

But book bloggers aren't edging out literary critics. First of all, readers who are not professional literary critics have always judged books and talked about them to their friends, family members, students, library and bookstore patrons, book clubs, etc. Now some of those conversations have moved online. But they're not really competing with the literary critic who publishes in a formal venue and dissects symbolism or does a comparative thematic analysis of several works. The audience for such a rigorous analysis of artwork has always been relatively small. People have been drawing cultural lines for decades, and calling one side high culture and the other pop culture, and moaning that one side will smother the other, but I don't see it happening.

For one thing, there's enough room on the internet for everybody. You could even argue that literary criticism may thrive when it's less constrained by column inches, circulation statistics, and a paper delivery system.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Oh, and I want to add--I find it tremendously exciting that so many people are talking about books online. Not only do they blog about books, they seek out review copies, run contests, go to trade shows and book festivals and author events. That kind of enthusiasm helps keeps books alive, and I am very glad and grateful for it. Isn't this the kind of excitement we *want* to inspire?

D.G. Hudson said...

Bravo, Jennifer, bravo!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this--lots to think about. I agree blogging about books not the same as professionally critiquing them and tht some expertise in the art of critiquing is needed to do so. But literary criticism also is not the same as as writing professional book reviews as we find in the New York Times, for instance. The purpose and intent and audience of each is distinct. So I'd disagree with his assertion that blogging about books is hurting literature.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Beautifully said, Tabitha.
The world is changing and some folks have trouble with that. Now people can access many opinions online, not just those of critics, and that isn't going to go away.
I take all opinion, even that of critics, as what it is--one person's take on the book or film or art.