Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bloggers vs. Critics

Every once in a while, the debate comes up that blogging is going to be the death of literary criticism. With the incredible dearth of book-type blogs in existence, it is an inevitable comparison. As a book blogger myself, I have no delusions of grandeur regarding my reviews. They are for me, and for those who have decided that we enjoy similar books. I am the same: I follow bloggers who have proven to me that his or her tastes are in line with my own. If not, well, it doesn't really matter what the opinion is, does it?

Now, if I seek out information about a specific book, say, Telegraph Road, I will read review sites that I feel will give me objective, thoughtful information regarding the title. I may not base my decision on a casual reviewer with a blog, but I might on what Jennifer Egan thinks.

That is my decision to make. I take it seriously, and if a reviewer (or blogger) is wrong, well, it's a difference of opinion. Books are seldom the same thing to everybody (if ever). Anyone who thinks they can quantify a book's quality clearly has a high opinion of himself/herself.

For instance, I recently read a review of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a book I enjoyed and read very quickly. Now, the author of the review did not enjoy it as much as I did, if at all:
So Beautiful Ruins is a bunch of stereotypes on top of a pile of clich├ęs. While reading, I kept a running count of all the original thoughts and authentic feelings that are contained in Beautiful Ruins. The final count was zero.
It's true, the novel contained several characters that were either underdeveloped or unnecessary to the plot. Even the main characters acted in a cliched fashion. I admit that - despite this, I enjoyed it. Walter's prose is excellent, the story moves quickly and is engaging, and the settings are picturesque. What's not to like?

Now, however, Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the chair of this year's Man Booker Prize judges, decides that book bloggers are going to ruin "good" literature with amateur reviews:
It will be bad for readers; as 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, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off. There are some important issues here. 
Apparently, book bloggers are such persuasive writers that their opinions will determine the buying habits of the masses - pretty good for amateur critics, right? Not only does his argument make very little sense, it is presuming that readers of "good" literature need to be told what to read. If the readers of "good" literature are that gullible, they would not be able to understand what they were reading (have you heard of Will Self yet?).

But why does he bother at all? He argues for good literature but, as a publisher and author himself, he must realize that book sales drive the book industry; without an annual Fifty Shades of Grey there would be no Zadie Smith. He should be thanking those millions of book buyers around the globe who invest in the printed word so that he can read those pieces of fiction he deems excellent. I suppose I agree with Amanda Nelson at Book Riot, who writes,
Sir Peter’s myopic elitism is so tired and recycled that it’s easy to dismiss. You can feel his fingers grasping for the state of literature as he knows it, desperate to keep it out of the hands of the unwashed masses (you know, those folks who actually read the books).
Her opinion is very funny and much angrier than my own, as Sir Peter's claims for proper critics has an implied gender element, as he is "Of The Greying Hair and Smug Expression." However, our opinions arrive at the same conclusion: why bother?

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