Monday, May 21, 2007

An Elite Enterprise

Richard Schickel, a book critic for Time magazine, tells us what is wrong with blogs:

THE MOST grating words I've read in a newspaper recently were in a New York Times report on the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation's leading newspapers.

The piece suggested that this might not be an entirely bad thing. Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.

"Some publishers and literary bloggers," the article said, viewed this development contentedly, "as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books."

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Later in the piece Schickel compares blogging to finger-painting, but mostly he focuses on the Great Man Ideal of book reviewing:

But instead, let's think about what reviewing ought to be. For example, French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant. In the middle of the 19th century, his reviews appeared every Monday for 28 years. He was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: "Just characterization."

That "just" did not mean "merely." It meant doing justice to the work at hand and to the culture in which it appeared. Another way of putting that is that he wrote with a blogger's alacrity but with a thoughtful critic's sense of responsibility to, yes, "the great tradition" the author aspired to join.

Think also of Edmund Wilson, the best book reviewer this country ever had — alert to the possibilities, both moral and aesthetic, of the "classics and commercial" (to invoke the title of one of his collections) that passed before him. His method was usually rather reportorial — generally he let his opinions emerge indirectly, not as fiats but as muted implications of the way he read (and quoted) the work at hand. He was not a showy, or even particularly quotable, critic. But the clarity of his prose remains exemplary.

Finally, there was George Orwell, scrambling to make a living by writing reviews for London's intellectual press for maybe $20 or $30 a piece. He was more pointedly political than Wilson, and more attuned, perhaps, to the vagaries of trash culture, but his defense of honest vernacular prose in the face of bureaucratic (and totalitarian) obfuscation remains a critical beacon.

All of these men wrote ceaselessly, against deadlines and under economic pressure, without succumbing to the temptation of merely popping off or showing off. None of these men affected the supercilious high Mandarin manner of, say, George Jean Nathan — as annoying in its way as hairy-chested populism is in its.

I read Schickel's piece twice. The first time I read it the way he intended: as a defense of elitism based on better knowledge, talent and hard work. The second time I read it the way my inner feminist reads these things and counted exactly zero references to women in the piece. Even populism is hairy-chested.

Try doing a reversal with the story. Give Schickel a female name and change the sexes of all the people he writes about. You might get the feeling I had on my second reading. The point, of course, is that Schickel thinks he is not writing a guy lit piece at all but a piece of general importance to all intelligent and discerning readers.