The novelist William Giraldi, who is no stranger to controversy, has kicked up more dust with a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay in which he deplores what has become of literary criticism as it has migrated from “respectable print publications” to “blogs and social media sites.” In yet another enforcement of Gresham’s law, the “online culture of masked assassins” is driving out “serious criticism.” Giraldi’s description of the quality of book discussion to be found online is carefully tailored to offend just about everybody: “If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog,” he says, “you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.”
Ouch. As if on cue, my fellow book bloggers rose up in arms. But I’m not sure why. Giraldi was not questioning their venue, but their credentials. And he was unusually clear—for a writer who prefers a more baroque style, he was shockingly plain—in saying what he meant by the critic’s credentials: “the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition.” What Giraldi expressly did not say is that discrimination and learning can only be exercised in “respectable print publications” and never never never in “someone’s personal blog.”
Indeed, the biggest shortcoming in Giraldi’s essay is not its sweeping condemnation of book bloggers, which is not to be found there, but its short-changing of what I’d call the gatekeeper problem. The editors of print publications, respectable or not, used to supervise the gates of literary criticism. Only the critics they approved of, only the criticism they found acceptable, were allowed to proceed into print. They selected the books for review; they assigned the reviewers. They decided how long the reviews would be and when the reviews would run (if at all). The editor’s judgment, not the critic’s, was final.
Every writer needs an editor, I suppose, but as someone who has written both for “respectable print publications” and on his own blog, I can tell you that the difference is between criticism that is constrained and criticism that is free (in every sense of that word, sadly). To the degree that blogs and social media have broken editors’ power, I am all in favor of them. I’ve had editors who angrily refused to review a writer out of personal malice, who spiked a review because they disagreed with its conclusion, who garbled an argument by cutting it to fit, who botched an allusion by failing to recognize it and recasting it in their own (superior) words, who introduced errors by inserting their own points. Worst of all, in my experience, has been the fundamental difference between editors and critics over the very function of criticism.
Giraldi quotes a wonderful passage from Percy Lubbock’s Craft of Fiction, which gets at the difference:
Here’s a good example of what I mean. Mark Athitakis recently reviewed Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, a study of families with children “whose identities are radically distinct from their parents’,” for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Writing at the top of his game, Athitakis burrows deeply into Solomon’s book:
Perhaps instead of asking about critics’ credentials, Giraldi might have inquired into editors’. If he is right that “readers looking for literary analysis are going to have an increasingly arduous chore of dividing the shit from the serious”—and he is right—the reason is not that Amazon reviewers and chitty chitty bang bang blogs have taken over the field. The reason is that the “long wear and tear of discrimination” has always been in short supply, never more so than at present, and readers who are looking for it can no longer depend upon the venue of criticism for an imprimatur. They will have to exercise their own judgment; they too will have to suffer the “long wear and tear of discrimination.” To a dividing of the shit from the serious there is no end, and no one who cares about literature is excused from it. As with literature so with criticism: the only way to tell whether it is shit is to smell it.
There is, in short, no outside credentialing agency. As the great Ruth R. Wisse once said in reflecting upon her own experience as a critic: