Where Did the Web Go

Stephen Mitchelmore has a very worthwhile post about the direction online literary criticism has taken. This is a great paragraph:

I have to admit that for years I was mystified why my blog writings have gone apparently unnoticed, at least in terms of page views. While the most popular blogs were getting thousands a day, I was lucky if This Space gathered 300. I thought, isn’t my review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones better than almost all the others, and didn’t my post on a road traffic accident say more about life’s relation to literature than any journalist’s exposé of an author’s life? Perhaps, however, these explain why it is relatively unpopular. Anyway, I have a difficult relationship with praise and criticism, with self-effacement vying for dominance with aggressive resentment. It is probably best to write, as in those early days of Spike, as if nobody is watching. After having published a dozen or so reviews in print media, I’m nowadays genuinely happier to work for weeks on long reviews or essays and have them disappear into the gaping void. Finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I’ve realised, the greatest pleasure of writing; where it ends is of no importance. Still, over the last fourteen years of online work, I’ve seen the names of my key writers – Thomas Bernhard, Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici – become familiar whereas before they were marginalised. If I have had only a minor role in this, it has made the effort worthwhile.

My first reaction would be that this is the primary reason anyone should be writing criticism. Of course there are other reasons as well, but your primary one should be “finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I’ve realised, the greatest pleasure of writing.”

Beyond that, I’m not sure how ironic Stephen was being about not understanding why his reviews were lesser-known than those elsewhere (and generally his are of much higher quality that what you’re likely to find in other places), but it’s not too hard to explain. Likewise, the method of building a literary site with high amounts of traffic is not mysterious. Go have a look at the Huffington Post books section, where every week you can find gossip about celebrity memoirs and counter-intuitive lists along the lines of “10 Most Outrageous Outfits From New Book ‘Critical Mass Fashion’ (PHOTOS).” Just make sure to have enough important names within your h1 header, say something contentious but not terribly complex that will generate a billion links, and keep it all short and with a lot of photos. Copy that with your own stable of writers, and you too can build a fairly well-trafficked site. This is not rocket science.

Obviously, some people would shoot for other things in a site besides high traffic, and this points out the problem with focusing on hits as a measure of a website, even though the first question anyone ever asks me about my sites is how many hits they get. But as Stephen’s site demonstrates, you can be influential even without getting major traffic. So choose what you want your site to be, and then do it.

Stephen also quotes Dan Green, who makes a lot of sense, even if I have to disagree with some of what he says:

Mostly devoted to superficial appraisals of potboilers and best-sellers, these blogs actively seek to be conduits of publishing propaganda (in the guise of “promoting” books). They have apparently become the most popular type of “literary” blog, and if “book blog” eventually becomes the name applied mostly to such weblogs, the future of literary criticism online is bleak indeed. But even those still self-identifying as “literary blogs” have settled in to an overly cozy relationship with both publishers and the print reviewing media. (Many of the bloggers have themselves sought out reviewing opportunities in the print media, as if the ultimate purpose of creating a literary blog was after all to attract enough attention to catch on as a newspaper reviewer).

My main difference would be with that last parenthetical. There are lots of things wrong with that statement, but what I feel is the worst about it is its self-marginalizing nature: we’re going to ignore newspapers because we’re better them, and thus we are going to continue talking to ourselves and never exert any influence outside of our own community. True, a lot of print venues frustrate me, but lots of them don’t–you can’t just tar the whole enterprise as philistines any more than you can tar all bloggers as gossip-peddlers.

But more importantly, you’ll never get anywhere if you persist in this “take your ball and go home” attitude. Like it or not, newspapers are what a hell of a lot of people read. If you don’t push the books you think are important in the papers that are willing to listen to you, then you’re ignoring a great chance to get your message out there. I write for various newspapers, and more than once people have told me what a good thing it is to see so-and-so author in a major newspaper because I pitched a review.

Let me put it all like this: I just got back from a conference of literary translators, a marginalized subgroup if ever there was one, and one of the big issues at hand was how to push literary translation more strongly in this country. Lawrence Venuti, whose dedication to great literature and translation is beyond reproach, publicly exhorted his fellow translators to start pitching reviews like mad to print publications. Blogs and emergent web magazines are great, and I think they’ve done a huge amount in a very short time, but I’m not going to complain if the people behind those sites start writing for print media. That only means that we’re getting our message out there.

I’ll just finish this post off by recommending that anyone interested in seriously thinking about these issues should have a look at the essays by Theodor Adorno collected in The Culture Industry. Despite writing most of these 50 or so years ago, much of what he says is still relevant, as we’re still fighting many of the same battles, just in different ways.

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I don’t know what this does for a site’s numbers, but in the case of This Space, it isn’t accessible for me at work. Something about the page – probably something social-network related – gets picked up by the firewall. I don’t know how many other people make the rounds of sites during a break at work. I’d love to see the article you linked to – but I can’t.

Matt, I suppose the Shelfari bookcase on This Space causes the firewall issue. It would be a shame to lose it as it breaks up the page with something to look at rather than read. And I imagine I get many unseen readers through blog aggregators. You could always use Google Reader…

Scott, thanks for the nice words. I appreciate them. To answer you: I’m not being ironic at all! Perhaps a little disingenuous. I suppose I expect new idea and unusual angles would draw more people than HuffPost-type articles, just as I expect the political landscape to change once everyone knows about the Wikileaks documents. Some hope.

Like you, I don’t agree with Dan Green’s attitude toward print media. Contrary to what he assumes, many bloggers are sought out to write print reviews. Writing for a blog is slightly different however, and I prefer the medium because it allows spontaneity and digression based on a familiar critical presence. The two forms meet if one imagines James Wood as a blogger who has passed over. Perhaps I’m his mad, deformed brother held in a cell somewhere. It could be worse: I could be Ed Champion.

Still, I share Dan’s irritation with the cultural cringe toward online criticism. In 3AM Magazine’s review of What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Max Dunbar sneered at Josipovici’s admirers: “exclusively online writers (their writing is so tedious that no editor would commit it to print)”, as if that proved anything except the author’s deceitfulness, self-loathing and cowardice (i.e. compare how many times the people he doesn’t mention or hyperlink to have appeared in the TLS compared to him).

The only way we can get the message out there is having confidence in what we say and how we say it. My hope is that print criticism can develop these qualities rather than online critics mimicking their house styles.

Thanks for showing me how to drive eyeballs to my site. {snark}

Writing about the reading experience, reviewing and critiquing books on-line, is, for me more about my growth as a writer. My acknowledging and analyzing something I might call a ‘tradition’—mine. Or my influences. It is a way of teaching myself, and hopefully my readers (such as they are), how to write. What works and what doesn’t from a working, emerging writer’s perspective. It is, in effect, my journal.

Indeed, putting up a lengthy look at a single book in serial posts book is something I can do on my site that no newspaper writer can do, and few can do it and do do it in NYRB and LRB because of their format.

The fact that I go places other than “lit” or “crit” is because I am who I am. And I don’t fit in a neat box.

I blog ergo I blog. No more, no less.

Steve: Thanks for the thoughtful remarks. I agree wholeheartedly with “The only way we can get the message out there is having confidence in what we say and how we say it.” I think every critic worth reading makes his or her own personal journey from a place of lesser confidence to more, and, indeed, earning that confidence (in one’s own eyes and the eyes of those who matter) is a mark of having arrived, fully formed, as a critic.


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