Thursday, May 24, 2007

Critic On A Very High Horse

Wow, talk about condescension. In response to the recent closing or downsizing of various newspaper book review sections--and to refute the notion that commentary about books in the blogosphere could help fill the gap--Richard Schickel offers this haughty rebuke to those of us who would dare to express opinions about literature from our living-room sofas:
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. . . .

At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, there was a fascinating panel featuring writers whose books were written in what time they could spare from their day jobs. Inevitably, blogging was presented as an attractive alternative--it doesn't take much time, and it is a method of publicly expressing oneself (like finger-painting, I thought to myself, but never mind).

D.J. Waldie, among the finest of our part-time scriveners, in effect said "fine." But remember, he added, blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.

I thought it was a wonderful point. The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Maybe most reviewing, whatever its venue, fails that ideal. But a purely "democratic literary landscape" is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.
Of course, Schickel knows enough to admit that not every newspaper or magazine book critic writes the sort of elevated, elegant prose dripping with insight that Schickel apparently believes he himself writes. That's all right. To prove his point about the nobility of the traditional book critic--and the unworthiness of us yammering, finger-painting bloggers--he devotes the rest of his column to adulating the criticism of Sainte-Beuve ("a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant"), Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell.

Funny, I don't remember seeing any reviews by Sainte-Beuve in the New York Times lately. But it is certainly very fair and thoughtful to comdemn the blogosphere by comparing the typical blogger to Sainte-Beuve, Wilson, and Orwell. In much the same way, I can prove that the contemporary artists whose work is for sale in galleries all over America today should throw out their paints and brushes--because after all they are not as accomplished as Velazquez, Monet, and Matisse. How dare they debase the notion of "painting" with their pitiful daubings!

But more seriously, Schickel's elitist attitude is exactly the opposite of what a healthy literary scene needs. Those of us who love books and writing ought to want millions of people across the country to be reading books, thinking about them, writing about them, and arguing about them. These millions of amateurs will generate not only book sales but also intellectual ferment, a sense of connection between art and the real world, and a restoration of the feeling that literature actually matters.

What's more, by trying their own hand at writing, all these passionate amateurs will also gain a deeper sense of how difficult writing is, as well as a more intense appreciation for the achievements of the few really great writers among us--just as the amateur tenor in the church choir or the weekend softball player understands the incredible abilities of the professional singer or major league player far better than the person who has never even tried to perform. The bloggers Schickel sneers at may not be tomorrow's Sainte-Beuves or Edmund Wilsons, but they constitute an engaged, caring audience for literature, something our culture needs at least as much as it needs high-toned critics armed with graduate-school credentials.

And, of course, it's also true that a handful of those amateurs--including some with unlikely, unimpressive backgrounds--will actually turn out to be gifted observers and writers, worthy--dare I say it?--of a broader audience. Even without the prior approval of Richard Schickel from Mount Olympus.

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