Editorial: A Window into the World of the Critic

When I read this article, I could feel myself wanting to hate it based on the title alone. I was fully seething before the page even loaded. Bloggers are harming literature by their opinions and limited education? How dare this ivory-tower academic peer through a window into the world of blogging and proclaim it wanting? And then I thought: Yes, this could simply be snobbery of the worst kind, or maybe Sir Peter just doesn’t understand the point of blogging at all.

But the situation is not so coarse or simple.

Peter Stothard is the editor who shepherded The Times through a noisy price war, changing the face of popular British journalism. He documented Tony Blair’s political battles during the Iraq war. He’s also a published author. The man is also a bit of a blogger: His articles at the Times Literary Supplement blog range from the straightforward to the slightly opaque, with some reasonably personal posts in the mix–such as this obituary of a Times colleague.

It’d be worth your time to read the original article, but here’s the money quote:

“It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”

It’d be far too simple to label this as snobbery, as blogger Simon Savidge did, or see it as a desire to maintain the old status quo. But it’s worth remembering this quote is from a man whose home is lined with bookshelves, whose life is dedicated to reading and judging what be considers to be important books. His devotion to the written word is no less real than that of any bibliophilic blogger. His writing style is formal but far from stuffy. His memoir, On the Spartacus Road, is steeped in Roman history. Peter Stothard is clearly not an unintelligent man grumpy at the changes brought about by the intertubes, or a defensive critic looking to protect his job. He simply is concerned that the public get their opinions from what he sees as the proper sources.

Photo by mpclemens

But here he misses out on something vital: The situation is not one of simply gleaning opinions from the web. Not only are readers reading blog posts about books, but these bloggers are having an effect on the books they read. And authors don’t just read these blogs, they are frequently part of this community, and their feedback matters. Even published authors are now taking feedback from the web quite seriously. Writers cultivate relationships with their online readers, attempting to ingratiate themselves into this network of readers and writers.

And how does all this affect how a review is written? For some writers, fellow bloggers are closer to being peers than they are critics. In this regard, the detached critic has a clear advantage over the book blogger.

With older works, critics will bring the vast history of antiquity into the mix, the viewpoint of a reader contemporary to the work. Some books can stand up to this kind of scrutiny, some cannot. Those that can bear the weight of critical analysis are sometimes called “classics”. Sometimes when a classic becomes difficult to read, it’s re-published with annotations and notes.

Sir Peter recognizes that the situation is not a simple one of blogs versus the literary establishment. Words are words, no matter if they’re in ink or on a phone screen. Blogging can become sophisticated indeed, but the odds are against the lone blogger who has no gatekeeper, no editor. There are no peers or coworkers around the espresso machine in the lounge, and there are no researchers down the hall in the fact-checking department to keep the words honest. (Even a blog like this, with an editor assigning stories, is an exception and a small-time operation run between internet colleagues.)

Maybe, in Peter Stothard’s opinion, the masses of readers will tend to conflate unreasoned gut reactions with opinions built upon a structure of logic and history. But I just don’t know. It’d be helpful to read the complete interview and not just the small window into it that the article provides.

While I don’t have any easy answers to Sir Peter’s assertions, I think that this lack of clear expectations is important. Is a random book review headline in my WordPress feed attempting serious criticism? Is it tossing out opinions on the latest beach read? Most likely it’s a mix of these, with no differentiation between the extremes. But simply reading the article will solve the problem if putting it into perspective.

Seeing all of this as “critics versus bloggers” does a disservice to both sorts of writers. I think that blogging and the critics can happily coexist, serving their own purposes. An article in The Times and a Goodreads review serve very different functions, and we would all do well to remember that.

This article would be much poorer without the help of Julie Goldberg and Leanne Yong.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry.

His other band, The Trouvères, is currently on tour and can be seen at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire through the end of October.