Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Opinionated Speculations | Snob vs. Blog

So I had this whole other post all but good to go, then Mr Mark Charan Newton - author of The Legends of the Red Sun and The Lucan Drakenfeld Mysteries, which I'm awfully excited about - twittered a link to an article from The Guardian. The headline sorta says it all:


So proclaimeth Peter Stothard, lamenting the end of an era in his eyes. Specifically the era of literary criticism... because of bloggers. Because we're idiots and amateurs all!

This is nonsense, obviously. Then again, as one such charlatan, I would say that, wouldn't I?

If you haven't already, off you pop: read Alison Flood's interview in its entirety here — and give the comments a gloss if you have the time to. That's where the actual debate is taking place, after all... though it seems to me somewhat one-sided.

That said, it's easy to see why so many are railing against Stothard's comments. Essentially, his argument is that literary critics are in a sense superhuman; in their knowledge and understanding, in their wit and insight, literary critics, according to Stothard, stand apart and indeed above the opinion of the uninformed, unedited and one presumes unwashed that you and I number amongst. In this way the chair of the Booker Prize momentarily lowers himself to give us the bath we clearly dearly need.

Normal people, in other words, don't know what's good for them. Only literary critics do. Thus we should all shut up.

What whole-hogwash!

Or is it?

This may prove an unpopular opinion, but beneath Stothard's snobbery, I wonder if there isn't a glimmer of sense in his sentiments. Because there is a difference between bloggers and literary critics, isn't there? I don't believe it's half so simple as this old blowhard would have it - that one presents an argument whilst all the other has is an opinion - yet there is a split somewhere, surely.

I mean... take me. You all know I write for a fair few sites outside of The Speculative Scotsman, including Strange Horizons and The Science Fiction Foundation, but I certainly don't consider myself a literary critic, and I sincerely doubt many other bloggers would describe themselves thus.

Though please, feel free to disagree.

So there is, least as I see it, a difference. It's hardly killing literature, as per Stothard's discriminatory silliness, but it is changing it. Unrecognisably in certain respects.

For instance, folks tend to attribute Fifty Shades of Grey's mega-success to the phenomenon of self-publishing, but let's not kid ourselves: without word of mouth - without many millions of us contributing to that word of mouth, by blogging amongst other things - it would have come to nothing. In this case, literary critics can't be blamed. They had next to nothing to do with it.

And perhaps that's emblematic of what's really bothering Stothard. Because in ages past, literary critics did dominate. And now they do not. Now they're made to share the limelight with mere mortals.

How awful!


  1. That's where the actual debate is taking place, after all...

    Sensible comment from AggieH in there:

  2. When it comes to Fifty Shades of Grey, I think its success comes from it already being a popular piece of Twilight fanfic before it was rewritten. It already had hordes of fans before it was published. As far as I know it was never selfpublished, it was published by an e-publisher (, and why that was allowed when it was fanfic at the time is another question).

    As to whether there is a difference between reviewing and critiquing, yes there is. But the biggest difference I think is the intended audience. Critiques seem to be written for other critiquers and academics (,or the "litfic crowd" if you will), wheras reviews are written for the bookbuying public. There's a huge difference, and they serve two completely different purposes.

    There is room for both critiques and reviews. The problem, and what is creating tension, is that those that prefer critiquing sees that as the only valid form of literary criticism. And are (generally) looking at reviewing as something worthy of contempt. Until they stop claiming their view is the only correct one, and that anyone who disagrees is uneducated, we will have these pointless debates.

  3. The way I see it (and I suspect, might have been what Stothard was aiming at, even if he expressed it in what appears an unnecessarily patronising manner) the split where blogs are concerned is not so much between literary criticism and reviews but between reviews and opinion pieces, the former providing an informed analysis of the book they tackle, an argument that can be followed and argued with, while the latter basically consist of many different ways of saying "I liked it" or "I didn't like it."

    I do not think there is anything wrong with opinion pieces per se (it's what my own blog exclusively consists of, after all), but things do get somewhat problematic when the combined noise of all those opinions drowns out the few voices putting forth arguments and offering analysis. And that, in a way, does harm literature, because many of the best works are not immediately accessible but might require some effort and (horribile dictu) thinking on part of the reader to really appreciate them. Great art, to sum it up in a cliché, is not always popular and if people turn habitually towards mere opinion pieces they will likely miss out on a lot.

    Of course, the complaint of the popular being the enemy of the good is not exactly a recent development, and I'm quite confident that literature will survive book blogging, but it can't harm to occasionally pause and reflect on what one is doing.

  4. Absolutely there's a difference between your average book blogger and your average literary critic. We tend to review what we read in different ways, and most book bloggers tends to stick to specific genres while literary critics will usually take on more mainstream fiction, the big works. They often get paid for their efforts, get published in big name papers and magazines, and we don't.

    But that doesn't mean that book bloggers are less worthy of their opinions, and it doesn't mean we don't have our place in the circle.

    If there's one thing I've noticed, it's that people in long-established professions get very nervous when they see a market opening up for what they see as an amateur untrained version of what they do. Why? Because it makes them feel threatened. It gives power that they once held and distributes it to others, others who didn't go through the same rigorous training and screening process that they did. And so, feeling cornered and threatened, they bite back.

    Are book bloggers ruining literature? I doubt it. What we are doing is help spread the word about books that most literature critics wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, though, and from the standpoint of, "I'm the only one worthy," that's also threatening. We're telling people that there's more out there to read than the next attempt at the Great American Novel. And yes, it may mean that there's greater publicity and exposure for utter loads of crap (I won't name names, but I'm sure anyone can think of something they've seen on the shelves and thought, "How in hell did this get published?"), but that's part of the price paid. At least it gets people reading.

    I think there's room for book bloggers and professional lit critics. We just walk different paths in the same territory. One path is not more worthy than the other, and it's snobbery to insist that because one is different that it's therefore somehow inferior by nature.

  5. Bloggers are changing literature, because they are followed by the book-buying public. Let's face it, it's not critical reviews that put food on the table for authors, it's word-of-mouth, hype, Amazon reviews, and reviews on book blogs that are now driving sales. Ultimately authors must consider the populist effect and not critics as the means by which they can make a living.

    Is this for the worst? Based on the depth and quality of some of the better blog reviewers I've seen, I seriously doubt it. This is a man who is about to become irrelevant thanks to technology, and like the death of floppy drives and VHS, you can adapt, or become obsolete. He comes off as sounding like someone living in the past and is unable to adapt, the wail of a banshee that is already gone and knows it, but can't accept it...

  6. I think Stothard has it wrong on a fundamental level, in which he assumes all book bloggers to be exactly the same. The truth is that despite what paid critics would like to tell themselves, book bloggers come in every shape and size. There are those who, like Heloise says, write opinion pieces, but there are also those who thoroughly critique works of fiction, often far more in depth than any newspaper critic ever could.

    In this regard, I have to also strongly disagree with Bibliotropic - not only do I not believe in any kind of "average book blogger", but I certainly don't agree that most limit themselves to certain genres while literary critics follow a broader stream. That just isn't the case. If anything, the situation is entirely flipped, by which many bloggers accept genres in addition to the standard "literary" fiction, while literary critics remain entirely limited to the few big-name titles coming out at the time, that all happen to belong to the same rather narrow genre.

    Stothard is wrong in part because of these generalizations, but also objectively - bloggers have been around for many years, and the state of literature is... fine. Critics, writers and readers have been lamenting the end of the "golden age" of literature literally since the start of the 20th century (and even before that), and yet young people today read significantly more than their parents ever did. And that generation certainly read more than their parents. Stothard is building on a familiar "death of literature" theme, while tossing in that dash of snobbery in an attempt to discredit bloggers... yet who are bloggers? Readers. Some write opinions, some write critiques, but whatever it is, it isn't hurting literature. It's helping it.

    So in answer to your half-question: yes, there is a difference between bloggers and official literary critics. The two are not identical, and never will be. Critics typically get paid, whereas few bloggers make a living off their reviewing. Critics typically have a literary degree and some form of literary educations, while many bloggers (myself included) have no literary background. In terms of quality, however, many bloggers reach - and indeed surpass - the quality of traditional critics, and due to their infinitely more flexible medium, can often more thoroughly critique books than those literary critics Stothard so seems to admire. And since the quality of the critique is really what matters, I can hardly agree with Stothard.