Scratching my head

Book bloggers can't 'harm literature'

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged briefly about "A conversation that can't be controlled", a chapter written by Sarah Wendell that appears in Book: A Futurist's Manaifesto. At the time I wrote:

"The co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, a review site for romance novels, Wendell sees the interaction between readers and writers, as well as with other readers and maybe even publishers, as more than healthy. In her view, it is inevitable."

In Wendell's experience, the interaction also helps sell books.

So, when I read that Peter Stothard, chair of this year's Booker prize judges, had criticized book blogging as a threat to the future of literary criticism, I was left scratching my head. Alison Flood of the Guardian reported Stothard's thoughts:

"If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed," Stothard told the Independent. "Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off."

Okay, I'm still scratching my head.

I'm in favor of great literature. I also am in favor of people reading. But the notion that only a select few can engage with a book and adequately position it for posterity (and the rest of us) echoes Philip Roth's recent rants against Wikipedia.

Even with a burst of review sites around the world, there still are special classes of reviewers. But these days, they aren't all chosen by the media elite.

I agree that someone who reads for a living can offer a specific and important perspective, and I hope those jobs continue. But someone who lives to read and write about books can offer an equally important voice as we try to sort through what is great and not so great.

The endurance of great literature depends on more than the elites. It has always had to reflect the judgment of a conversation that can't be controlled.


Posted by Sean Cranbury
Sep 27, 2012  at  08:27 AM

Hi Brian

Thanks for noting Stolthard’s piece in yesterday’s Guardian.

As noted elsewhere, I find this paragraph particularly interesting:

“If we’re going to keep literature and language alive, we have to be alert to the new, the things which aren’t like what’s been before. And as Howard Jacobson said, this may be unpleasant, it may be that we don’t enjoy reading it, but it might matter hugely to the future of literature.”

We are left to wonder what Stolthard means when he deploys the words ‘new’ and ‘unpleasant’.

It would seem to me - someone who blogs and podcasts about books and sees the web as a great ally of literature - that Stolthard is not arguing for the ‘new’ but rather what he is most comfortable with.

I have no doubt that he is a worthy critic and thinker but it would seem that he mgiht benefit from a discussion of your soon to be retired ‘context first’ piece.

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Sep 27, 2012  at  08:46 AM

Some of what was reported suggested that Stolthard was responding to the prior year’s focus on judging “readable” books, which he seemed to equate with “popular”. By extension, a book everyone reads doesn’t need the Booker prize (or serious reviews); it has its own momentum.

If he’d left it at that, I’d not have written a post. A committee awarding prizes to books can pick its own criteria for what it wants to recognize. I might not agree, but it’s just a prize.

Having edited (lightly) Sarah’s piece in “Manifesto”, I was more attuned than I might have been to the argument against the unvetted book blogger. I think it’s wrong-headed to make them a target.

Reviews of all sorts bring books to the attention of communities that otherwise might not have heard about them. Limiting the source of reviews to a select few crimps discovery. No author should support that.

Posted by Sean Cranbury
Sep 27, 2012  at  08:50 AM

I am looking forward to reading the Manifesto as I have just ordered it.

I will be in Montreal in early October and will meet up with Hugh at some point.

Loving the work that you’re doing, Brian. Keep at it.

Commenting is no longer available for this article.