21st century writing | 21st century approaches

The Legitimacy of Literary Opinion

Zita Farkas

 

The influences of cyberspace have been decried as the death of literature as we know it, the death of the book, and now also as the death of the critic. The changes introduced by the Internet in the production and reception of literature have led to strongly opposing views. On the one hand the digitalization of cultural artifacts is regarded as creating a more democratic cultural field, giving voice to everybody, at least for those who have the tools and access to the virtual world. On the other hand, within the explosion of opinions published on the net this freedom of expression is viewed as a threat to culture by ‘creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity’ (Keen 3) and producing a ‘karaoke culture' [1] (Ugreŝić n.pag.). According to Andrew Keen, a strong opponent of today’s Internet, blogging is ‘collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything’ (Keen 3). The ‘noble amateur’s’ mediocrity prevails in cyberspace and it undermines ‘the dictatorship of expertise’ (Keen 35).

 

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Blogging is seen by some literary critics as a corrupting and confusing influence on popular opinions

[Image by Rob McDonald under a CC BY-SA license]

 

Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the chair of last year’s Man Booker prize, voiced a concern similar to Keen’s objections against the Internet. In his interviews with The Guardian (Flood n.pag.) and The Independent (Clark n.pag.), Stothard expressed his dislike of the flourishing mass of online book reviews that, according to him, threatens the future of literature. The abundant book blogging leads to the ‘detriment of literature’ as it overshadows the valuable opinions of expert literary critics. Their important role in sustaining the quality of literature should be defended, supported and recognized instead of being diminished and even silenced: ‘Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed’ (Stothard qtd by Flood, The Guardian, 2012). Unfortunately, the Internet makes it possible nowadays for ‘everybody’ to post their book reviews and engage in amateurish literary criticism. In the end, according to Stothard, this process will simply lead to ‘poor’ literature as readers are ‘encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off’ (Stothard qtd by Clark, 2012).

Stothard’s statements partake in the media debate (named by Lionel Shriver as the ‘battle of the book reviews’) on the value of online reviews, particularly those published on Amazon and Goodreads, versus ‘traditional’ reviews that appear in well known magazines specializing in cultural and literary reviews such as Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books. In 2012 several articles in The Guardian engaged in this discussion. Irrespective of one’s position in this debate, it is presupposed that traditional professional reviewing is the prerogative of printed magazines and online is the space where amateurism prevails. Similar to Paul Laity, Shriver assesses the similarities and differences between online and ‘traditional’ reviewing and confirms the importance of reviews ‘executed responsibly’ (Shriver n.pag.). These reviews are built on ‘a more constructive argument than “I don’t like it”’ (Shriver n.pag.) and ‘are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books’ (Laity n.pag.). These are commissioned reviews and thus go through a process of editing that ensures the quality of the piece by demanding a level of expertise from the reviewer. Online reviews, however, cannot guarantee professionalism and due to anonymity the online space can be abused for self-promotion (commissioning a lot of positive reviews) or personal attacks on a certain author.

 

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Online book reviewers and reader communities are threatening the role of the professional literary critic

[Image by Ken Whytock under a CC BY-NC license]

 

Though highly problematic, online reviewing has some advantages. It ensures openness (everybody can participate); allows more books to be reviewed; facilitates the reception of first time authors who may have been overlooked by the TLS or London Review of Books; and may create an immediate virtual connection between readers and authors (through Twitter, for example).  

A comparative analysis between ‘consumers and expert reviewers’ titled ‘What makes a critic tick?’ (Dobrescu, Luca and Motta), shows that consumer reviewers often converge with the professional critics in their opinions. The difference consists in their choice of the author reviewed: ‘professional critics are less favorable to first time authors and more favorable to authors who have garnered attention in the press (as measured by number of media attention outside of the review)’ or ‘have won book prizes’ (Dobrescu 1). This tendency can lead to the reviewing of the same authors again and again creating an enclosed circle of the already established authors. More problematic, however, is the direct connection between the media outlet and the author. According to the study, the chances of an author to be reviewed by a media outlet [2] are higher if s/he writes for the same media outlet. However, the researchers stress that this bias is more likely to be the outcome of ‘taste’ (the media outlet catering to the taste of its audience) than ‘collusion’. Still, collusion is a possible risk in ‘traditional’ expert reviewing.  

Similarly Mary Eagleton indicates the practice of inside literary trading by newspaper reviewing. Invoking Pierre Bourdieu’s observations, Eagleton argues that ‘[t]he practices of newspaper reviewing result in the same books being reviewed by a restricted number of reviewers, often in very similar ways. It produces, as Bourdieu says ‘a formidable effect of mental closure,’ or ‘circular circulation’ (Eagleton 179). Though this ‘circular circulation’ could not account for the inclusion of new authors and changes within the literary field, it still accurately portrays some of the dynamics of reviewing that lead to the creation of enclosed literary circles.

 

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Some of the dynamics of reviewing lead to the creation of enclosed literary circles

[Image by Thomas Hawk under a CC BY-NC license]

 

From this point of view, Stothard’s remarks reflect his dissatisfaction with the diminishing influence of this circle of experts to which he belongs. Thus his insistence on maintaining the influence of the critic and presenting it as essential to a wholesome consumption of (quality) literature can be attributed to the fear of obsolescence. He would like to ensure the cultural capital of his circle of experts. The resistance to new technologies and methodologies can be linked to a kind of anxiety of influence caused by the concern of losing one’s own dominant cultural position. Kathleen Fitzpatrick examines the ideological investments behind the rhetoric of the devastating effects caused by new mediums such as the Internet to foreground how the ‘agonized claims of the death of technologies like print and genres like the novel sometimes function to re-create an elite cadre of cultural producers and consumers’. Thus the defence of these ‘old’ technologies conceals the mission to protect the values of an elite circle ‘once part of a utopian mainstream and now apparently waning’. Surveying the ways the Internet can be beneficial and not detrimental in disseminating information, Cass R. Sunstein observes that ‘[i]n many cases, traditions last not because they are excellent, but because influential people are averse to change and because of the sheer burdens of transition to a better state’. Whether book blogging and the overload of reviews on the net is a ‘better state’ remains debatable. It certainly creates different possibilities leading to newfangled issues.

However, book blogging is not the sole contributor to the anxiety around the role of literary critic as a cultural agent since ‘the critic has long enjoyed a low tradition’ (McDonald vii). The Internet is only a new medium that contributes to this anxiety. The decline of theory; the diminishing value and importance attributed to the Humanities; the increasing influence of marketing in the making of contemporary literature (Squire n.pag.) have all contributed to the extermination of the ‘expert’ literary critic. Ronan McDonald’s rhetorical question, ‘Can the proliferation of blogs and discussion groups be signs of popular empowerment, whereby consumers of arts make their own choices and share their own enthusiasm with their peers? (McDonald vii)’, affirms that the determination of cultural taste is no longer a privilege of experts but rather has been taken over by lay enthusiasts.

 

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The rise of new technologies sparks fear of the death of print and the obliteration of the novel

[Image by Shane Gorski under a CC BY-ND license]

 

Simon Savidge, book blogging at Savidge Reads, is such an ’amateur’. He considers himself a descendant of a long line of avid book lovers and a bookaholic. Besides the blog, he also produces several podcasts (The Readers, Hear …. Read This and You Wrote the Book). In response to Peter Stothard’s statements on book blogging, Savidge denies the necessity to be trained as a literary critic in order to evaluate a book. In his view passionate reading constitutes a valuable basis for literary assessment ‘I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience’ (Savidge qtd by Flood, 2012). Simon Savidge’s passion for books is a characteristic of book bloggers. The conundrum stays thus:  Does avid reading and sharing this experience with other readers provide valuable literary experience? Or, is literary training imperative for evaluating the quality of a book? The long-standing question here is how we know that a literary work is a masterpiece. Critics, according to C.J. Van Rees, ‘do not have at their disposal universal standards enabling them to assess on good grounds the value of a given work […]. But as professional judges of cultural goods they do possess the socially accepted authority to ascribe specific properties to a work’ (Van Rees 179). Thus book blogging does not threaten the value of literature but rather undermines the ‘socially accepted authority’ of the contemporary literary critic. Furthermore, examining the role of literary training on reception, Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon argue that while it ‘provides a crucial component to literary expertise’ (Bortolussi 471), it is not essential to the act of reviewing. One can develop literary expertise ‘merely by reading a large number of literary works, or through informal discussions with other nonexperts’ (Bortolussi 473). As devoted readers, book bloggers gain literary expertise through blogging about their readings and by engaging with other readers.

Since book blogs function as reading diaries, the ‘personal’ connection with a text becomes one of the central elements of reviewing. However, this ‘personal’ connection is not solely a characteristic of book blogging as some journal reviewers apply this approach too. A comparison of the review of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate in the TLS with its review on Savidge Reads and juxtaposing the review of Winterson’s autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? in London Review of Books with its review on Asylum reveal that the site of publication does not predetermine a review’s style and quality. Adam Mars-Jones’ review in LRB combines close textual reading with personal accounts of his relationship with Winterson. In the end the review reads more as a character analysis of Winterson than a review of the book. Blogging about the same book, John Self also personalizes his review. However, in his review the personal element is constituted by the connection between the writer and the reader.

The amount of book reviews and book blogging is overwhelming and one may easily get lost on the digital highway in their search for the ‘right book’. However, once we find the appropriate blogs that guarantee quality, we can encounter interesting book suggestions. Book blogs do not threaten the quality of literature. They threaten inside literary trading and the already obsolete social status of the literary expert. They open up the virtual space for literary discussions.

 

CITATION: Zita Farkas, "The Legitimacy of Literary Opinion," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 February 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.1.01

 

 Dr Zita Farkas Dr. Zita Farkas is a senior lecturer at the Department of Arts, Communication and Education, Luleå University of Technology, Sweden. Her current research focuses on the adaptations of classical literary texts to the digital medium.  

 

Notes:


[1] Dubravka Ugrešić uses ’karaoke’ as a metaphor to illustrate the destructive effects of the Internet upon culture. Karaoke as the activity to sing or mimick the song of a famous singer depicts the way anonymous participants reassemble and re-hash valuable cultural artifacts on the net.

[2] By the term ’media outlet’, the researchers of this article refer to newspapers and magazines since these are ’the primary oulet for expert book reviews’ (Dobrescu, Luca and Motta 7).

 

Works Cited:

Bortolussi, Marisa and Peter Dixon. ‘The Effects of Formal Training on Literary Reception’. Poetics 23 (1996): 471 – 487.

Eagleton, Mary. ‘When Old is New: Diana Athill and Literary Value’.  Contemporary Women’s Writing 5:3 (2011): 172- 187.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of Academy (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture (London: Doubleday/Currency, 2007).

Ronan, McDonald. The Death of the Critic (London: Continuum, 2007).

Squire, Claire. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Sustein, Cass R. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Van Rees, C. J. ‘The Institutional Foundation of a Critic’s Connoisseurship’. Poetics 18 (1998): 179 – 198.

Ugrešić, Dubravka. Karaoke Culture. Trans. David Williams. (Rochester: Open Letter, 2011).

 

 

 

 

 

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