Friday, May 07, 2010

The regular and responsible gig

“The book critic with a desire to form himself in the older tradition,” John W. Aldridge said half a century ago, is faced “with a choice between occasional reviewing and even more occasional quarterly publication, but if he wishes to concern himself frequently and at length with contempo­rary work, to discharge in full his responsibilities to new writers and publications, neither will afford him the space he needs.”

How much has changed! Whether critics and writers realize it, this is one possible function of the book blog. For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves “fre­quently and at length with contemporary work”: to provide a running total of “new writers and publications.” For the first time, the book critic can accept a regular gig that, like the movie critic at a weekly magazine, allows him to keep up. If he has long coveted such a gig he has now the opportunity to assign it to himself. Motivated neither by whimsy nor program, but by a sense of responsibility to contemporary writing, he might produce a first draft of literary history in the form, not yet widely recognized in the literary world, of the book blog.

7 comments:

R. T. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin said...

Roger Ebert makes a very similar point in "The Golden Age of Film Critics" on his incomparable blog, which can be chased down here, if you care to read the piece: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/. Of course, the copper lining is that it's more difficult than ever for film (and book) critics to ply a living at their respective trades. Best, K

Denver Bibliophile said...

The joy of writing is its own reward.

Claudius Vandermeer said...

The idea of the first draft for real scholarship and the first wave of primary source material for later retrospective--filling the role that newspaper criticism did back when people read newspapers--is a good one. Possibly.

What's worrisome is the decay to which online brain work is particularly susceptible--case in point, I often find that upwards of half the pages Rotten Tomatoes references are dead by the time I try to investigate some little-known film. But this is a mass media-based agglomerate! How much more fragile is the work we do?

If human lives as thoughts held in the mind of G-d, our blogs are thoughts in the mind of Google. The amazing thing is just how easy it is to snuff out data--totally abstract stuff that it is, infinitely copyable, upload-download-and-sideways-able; but if bit.ly terminated operations, huge swaths of Twitter would turn into meaningless noise.

You're probably smart enough to back up your blog. I'm not. But even if the data is preserved, what about access? Even on unified providers like blogger there's no effective indexing or cross-indexing within the site, so in an absolutely staggeringly large and diverse community of active writers we're still operating on a very haphazard hit-or-miss-or-word-of-mouth basis.

The nice thing about 20th century ephemera is the shaggy persistence of the hard copy. If I want to go back and dig up the poems Auden thought were too rotten to collect but not too bad for newspapers, I can find them on somebody's microfiche--well, this was recently done, but you get the idea.

Denver Bibliophile said...

Thanks to Lulu.com you can create a printed version of your blog. Nice volumes containing original posts and further elaborations of them could make a new genre.

Claudius Vandermeer said...

I think that's a very engaging idea, D. B. A few things come to mind, though.

1. Lulu (and sites like it) are still gallopingly disreputable, and not just on the account of ancien régime snobbery--cf. eg. Kings may be Zeus', but a good editor has more in common with a certain later divinity. Salve OUP, redemptor omnium.

2. Circulation is bad as it is; in self-publishing you can't even find a vein. What I mean is that having a hard copy is only lit-historically useful if someone knows the copies exist, someone else had the whimsical notion of putting them into archives and the person who knows that they exist knows that the archivers archived them.

3. Unless either the kindle revolution dramatically changes this, especially if we see the rise of professional e-publishing houses (yet still the problem of evanescent data), or else if self-publishing elevates itself perhaps through the activity of high-quality secessionist literary circles (the first part at least is preposterously unlikely), I'm not sure we have a solution to the basic problems of longevity, distribution and credibility.

4. There's the old nostrum that journalism embalms poorly, and I have an ill feeling this may also be true of blogs.

However, one way you may be spot-on is through the activity of micro-houses who use print-on-demand publishers like Lulu but select, edit, promote and distribute the texts themselves, for instance The Hoover Hog's Nine Banded Books. (One I happen to know about. I don't vouch for the cultural politics.) There's also the interesting fact that the mechanical apparatus for making flimsy paperbacks is becoming more and more affordable every day, which I think bodes well for micropublishers of this kind.

I admire your blog, by the way.

amy said...

Sure, but when do you find time to read the damn things? I wanted to run a book blog, but I decided my life was too short to read every crappy novel that gets released. But I'm very appreciative when others do it!