Monday, September 14, 2009

Summing up

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:

The first intellectual operation in which I arrived at any proficiency, was dissecting a bad argument, and finding in what part the fallacy lay.  . . . I am persuaded that nothing, in modern education, tends so much, when properly used, to form exact thinkers, who attach a precise meaning to words and propositions, and are not imposed on by vague, loose, or ambiguous terms.  . . . [By this means students] may become capable of disentangling the intricacies of confused and self-contradictory thought, before their own thinking faculties are much advanced; a power which, for want of some such discipline, many otherwise able men altogether lack; and when they have to answer opponents, only endeavour, by such arguments as they can command, to support the opposite conclusion, scarcely even attempting to confute the reasonings of their antagonists; and, therefore, at the utmost, leaving the question, as far as it depends on argument, a balanced one.On second thought, they will only get themselves removed from his blogroll if they dissect another blogger’s bad argument.

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:The danger . . . is that while everybody's interests are catered for, nobody’s are challenged or expanded. The sheer size of the internet is, then, part of this problem. In order for there to be a public sphere, an arena for the sharing of ideas and cultural critique, the organs and venues of communication need to be limited. There need to be some voices heard above the din. The number of arenas the internet provides for criticism and reviewing counterpoints the contraction of academic criticism. But dilation, so far as an arena for public discussion is concerned, is also dilution.I do not agree with McDonald that “the organs and venues of communication need to be limited.” But I do think that any revival of literary culture will demand the mutual allegiance to a common pursuit. Mark Athitakis theorizes that literary disputes in book blogs quickly go up in flames because “the stakes are low and the environment of one-upmanship is high.” Nicely said, but what is needed are more book bloggers for whom the stakes are high and for whom personal dignity and reputation take a back seat to the advancement of literature.

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.


jseliger said...

Every critical position is the implicit denial of other contrary positions.

To some extent that's true, but I also think some critics (like readers and writers) are able to dwell with Keats' negative capabilities and thus be able to recognize that two contrary positions might be reconcilable, or they might both have some truth to them or utility in the critical enterprise. In general, I try to read a critic in the most favorable possible light before I look for flaws, contradictions, or problems, in the hopes of finding something useful or interesting.

(I realize that your post doesn't explicitly state otherwise, but I would nonetheless point this out.)

D. G. Myers said...

Interesting, Jake.

My strategy is the reverse. It is, as I describe it (memorably, I hope) to my students, the strategy of reading with hate in the heart.

I read criticism with the presumption that the critic is farkakte, as the French say, and demand that he prove otherwise. Even with my friends I do this.

Not so much perhaps with myself.

americanfiction said...

You write:

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.

Am I reading this right? Do you believe the goal of book blogging is to limit the number of books worth discussing? Is it our job to establish a canon? (Lots to say about that point, but I don't want to respond to an argument that you're not actually making.)

Art Durkee said...

Well, what you put out is what you get back. (Seems to be a law of the universe, according to every single spiritual tradition I've ever read, including the Talmud). (Currently reading "God Is a Verb" by Rabbi David Cooper; excellent book.)

My tendency is usually to do as Jake suggests, read with in a favorable light to begin with, and subtract points as they come up. I suppose that assuming the worst is a safer road, in many instances, but it carries its own assumptions.

And then there's the middle road of approaching with no a priori assumptions or attitudes or expectations, keeping an open mind, waiting to see, reserving judgment until later. Which is what I usually strive to do, unless experience has taught me that certain writers or critics are more likely than not to disappoint. But you never know.

I could argue about the commitment to argument, but that would arguing, which is something I'm not committed to. Frankly, I find book blogs that aren't attack dogs at heart to be far more pleasant reading; then, when they do take a committed stand (as some of your symposiasts have indeed done, on certain books, at certain times, even against the general tide), it stands out even more. Life, as Deborah Tannen ably pointed out not long ago, consists of much more than just argument culture. Or ought to, probably.

Just a thought or two.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, canon is a fighting word. And it’s usually thrown in utter ignorance of its history and provenance.

But—basically—yeah. Not to limit the books under discussion, because you have to discuss books to reject them. But, yes, I propose that our common goal should be to establish the limits of literature where Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

Jeff said...

"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."

Didn't this happen more than 80 years ago, when critics started drawing distinctions that kept the genres popularized in pulp magazines and dime novel out of the "republic of letters"? It seems strange to bemoan this now at a time when, I think, genre boundaries are the most porous they've been since Henry James wrote to H.G. Wells offering to help him write a book about Mars.

James and Wells fundamentally disagreed about what a novel was supposed to do, but for a while at least, they debated the question. Their successors are beginning to have that discussion again, sometimes even without flinging charges of "snob!" and "hack!" at each other, but I don't think genre writers can be blamed for settling comfortably into their niches during the decades when they weren't generally invited to the debate in the first place.

D. G. Myers said...


You are right in one important respect. Genres we have always had with us.

And if you add the favorites of what my friend Paul Hedeen calls Pariah Studies, clamoring for attention since the ’sixties, you get even more niches: women’s literature, Jewish literature, black literature, Hispanic literature, gay literature, immigrant literature, what have you.

The difference, I think, is this. And please remember that I am describing a cultural ideal. The reality, as I suggest elsewhere, has never been so simple.

The difference, as you point out, is that James once offered to help Wells write a novel about Mars. Now, however, subcommunities of literature take novels about Mars with complete seriousness (which many of them deserve, don’t get me wrong), treating science fiction as a distinct and autonomous universe of discourse—a separate world.

That there is a coherent tradition to which both Jamesian “domestic fiction” and the most other-worldish science fiction contribute and belong—well, that is an ideal that is mouldering in the grave along with James and Wells.

Amateur Reader said...

Mark, every time any of us write about a book, we are contributing to the establishment of a canon, right? Possibly every time we read one.

The canon is like a market, or an election. The actions of millions of autonomous actors are somehow channeled into a result - this book is stil read, that one is not. Some actors (Warren Buffett, Harold Bloom) have more influence than others, but everyone has a vote. Book bloggers have more influence than book readers.

I'm one to talk, since I almost mostly read around within the Firmly Canonical. My "vote" is pretty weak.

On the other hand, an explicit canonization feature is forthcoming on Wuthering Expectations: two weeks of argument for the novels of the great John Galt. The actual Scottish writer, not the fictional propagandist.

Still, I'm no controversialist. It's a matter of temperament. I have made my peace with it.

The Denver Bibliophle said...

But—basically—yeah. Not to limit the books under discussion, because you have to discuss books to reject them. But, yes, I propose that our common goal should be to establish the limits of literature where

Bloggers then would have to read books that others blogged about and offer their own thoughts about those books thereby creating a debate. I'd like to try this. Which book do you propose for me to read?

D. G. Myers said...

What do you consider the most overrated novel of all time?

The Denver Bibliophile said...

I would like to know your answer to that question.

The Denver Bibliophile said...

I would say The Lord of the Rings is the most overrated novel of recent memory. There are many others that fint the cathegory.

The most overrated novel of all time? I would have to say Ulysses.

D. G. Myers said...

Going by the Modern Library list of 100 Best Novels, there are several that don’t belong in the top twenty-five:

• Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
• Joseph Heller, Catch-22
• D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
• John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
• Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter [ahead of every other Faulkner novel except for The Sound and the Fury, and ahead of anything by Eudora Welty? C’mon]
• Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five [doesn’t belong in the top one thousand]
• John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra
• Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

And probably Dos Passos’s U.S.A. too, although I have a sentimental attachment to it.

The Denver Bibliophile said...

Why don't you like Brave New World?

D. G. Myers said...

Ah, to answer that would require an entire post. And here it is nearly Rosh Hashanah.