The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 14
After nearly two weeks of reflection on book blogging by some of the best bloggers out there, what have we learned? That book blogging expands the range of book discussion. That it is a form of literary criticism, however implicitly. That it is more conversational but also more ephemeral than formal criticism. That it may be cynical, but is always rooted in a love for books. That it is still in its infancy. That the audience for it is small. That it is unpaid.
After reading the symposiasts who participated in The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, I am encouraged by the wit, knowledge, and book sense on exhibition in a few well-tended parks of the literary blogscape. But I am also discouraged about the future of book blogging. I no longer believe, as I once did, that book blogs might revive a free-wheeling and raucous literary culture. The source of my discouragement is our symposiasts’ conception of blogging. Terry Teachout puts it best: blogging is “introspection made public.”
Consider the answers we received to our question about “the vicious nature of the beast”—the ad hominem attacks that the public nature of introspective blogging seems to invite. “I favor shunning,” Frank Wilson says. Mark Athitakis is not so adamant, but is no more hopeful. “Ultimately,” he says, “there are only two ways a conversation can go—either people can find some common ground and room for compromise, or they can keep barking about the points on which they disagree.”
Athitakis goes on to condemn “taking-my-toys-and-going-home behavior: removing somebody’s blog from a blogroll, unfollowing them from Twitter, huffy posts about how you shall never speak of [Blogger X] again.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine John Crowe Ransom’s huffing that he would never mention Yvor Winters again after being attacked at length (fifty-four pages!) in The Anatomy of Nonsense.
But that points to the real problem.
If it is true that “there are only two ways a conversation can go” then the inevitable destination is the very behavior that Athitakis condemns. Compromise entails a surrender of interests, but if a critic is willing to concede a principle that he secretly believes to be true—and only for the sake of keeping the peace—then he was not really engaging in a critical conversation in the first place. He was writing, like Kafka’s hunger artist, to be admired. Or if he keeps barking about the points of disagreement then he is a propagandist; he conceives his role as propagating the faith. A true disagreement obliges a literary critic to rethink his conclusions, to reexamine his premises, to doublecheck his logic, to scour for further evidence, to remain open to correction or even the possibility of being proved wrong.
Every critical position is the implicit denial of other contrary positions. Like most ordinary mortals, however, book bloggers tend not to know how to develop or extend their assertions. When challenged, they repeat their claims, perhaps with a slight variation in phrasing, perhaps with mounting anger. They might benefit from the sort of intellectual training described by John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography:
Because of the popular tendency to confuse all argument with argumentum ad hominem (as Walter Aske observes, only “those who think they’re much more intelligent than they actually are” present this confusion), book bloggers retreat into public introspection. There are, as our symposiasts point out, ample precedents: coffee-house talk, the “personal style of Montaigne,” tracts and pamphlets, diaries and journals by the likes of Kierkegaard, Emerson, and Thoreau, My One Hundred Dearest Poems, “self-produced ’zines with tiny circulations” (think of George Hitchcock’s Kayak, for instance), and “mental rambles.” (Although Michael Gilleland doubts that Dr. Johnson would blog if he were alive today, his Rambler is a distinguished example of introspection made public.) In my own case, the direct antecedent was Ben Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries.
All of these promote a kind of literary eavesdropping. A public is not addressed; it is invited to listen in. Like the culture as a whole, the republic of letters is fragmenting into niche markets—science fiction, mysteries, romance novels, “literary fiction,” metafiction, anything but “domestic fiction,” even poetry. As Ronan McDonald writes in The Death of the Critic:
And this would require book bloggers who are committed to argument—who are sworn to defend the books they cherish from those who would make a hash of them, who understand that the literary heritage can be lost, as most of Sappho’s poetry was lost, when it ceases to be valued. It is not the number of “organs and venues” that must be limited, but the number of books. The function of book blogging at the present time should be to establish those limits.