Blogs and the mainstream media

One part of me says I should leave this alone, but another part of me can’t resist saying something. I’m talking, as you probably guess, about John Sutherland’s article on the sorry state of web reviewing (mainly Amazon reviews but also blogs) and Rachel Cooke’s article on how dull and badly written book blogs are (I came across the links at the Literary Saloon).

It’s the Cooke article that interests me most; she sums up the significance of the disagreements over web reviewing thusly:

The question that Sutherland has raised – what effect is the internet having on criticism? – is not only fair; it is one that no one who cares about art, and especially writing, can ignore.

Cooke says that professional reviewing and book blogging can coexist at present, but she’s worried that someday “serious criticism” might disappear so that we are left with only “the populist warblings of the blogosphere.” She dearly hopes that this will never happen.

At this point, I’m with her — I think it would be a shame to lose the professional criticism we’ve got. I read it and value it.

But then she goes on to attack book blogs, and at this point she loses me. She spends a day reading blogs and comes away very unimpressed, citing examples of blogs she can live without. But I don’t think she’s done her research very well. Anybody can come along and pick a few sentences out of a blog and hold them up for ridicule; I could do it myself with my own blog writing (I can see it now — “she reads a Jane Kenyon poem and all she can say is ‘I like this poem because it reminds me of how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in winter’?”). Many blogs create their effect over time; people find pleasure in them because they get to know the blogger’s voice and sensibility and interests, and if they like those things, they come back day after day, even to read the less-than-stellar posts.

Perhaps Cooke is not interested in spending that much time getting to know a blogger’s voice, but one day’s reading will only give her a taste of all the blogs out there. If she wants high-quality writing all the time, I’m positive she can find it on a blog, if only she would look around a little more. The thing that bothered me most about Cooke’s article was her claim that there’s no good writing on the internet, that good writing must be paid for:

I read and I read; I dutifully followed every link. And come supper time all I could think was that not a sentence I’d read was a millionth as good as anything in The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby’s recently published diary of ‘an exasperated but ever hopeful reader’. Why? Because his words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write. The trouble is, these qualities are exceptional – which is why they must be paid for.

I encounter excellent writing on blogs every day. It’s absurd to believe that one has to pay for good writing; bloggers write for all kinds of reasons and many of them, while being good writers, aren’t interested in making a living from it. It’s possible Cooke and I have radically different ideas of what constitutes good writing, but it’s much more likely she wasn’t really giving bloggers a fair chance.

There are all kinds of blogs — book review blogs, publishing industry gossip sites, reading diaries — and only some of them have the kind of reviews and articles that might get published in the mainstream media. So it strikes me as odd that when criticizing book blogs, people tend to blame them for not living up to the standards of professional reviewing. Why can’t bloggers have different purposes and do radically different things than one finds in newspapers and magazines? If Cooke finds reading diaries dull, which it’s her right to do, then there are plenty of other people who love them. What blogs do so wonderfully is open up the possibility for new kinds of writing, so it makes no sense to me to dismiss blogs for not doing the same old thing.

And I’m not buying the idea that professional writers and reviewers must be at odds with book bloggers. Why the hostility? Will internet book reviewing really place traditional, professional criticism at risk? I don’t know, actually, but what I hope will happen is that the two will exist side by side — ideally without the carping — and that the various types of writing about books will enrich the others. Amateur book bloggers have much to learn from professional critics — and vice versa. And the two categories overlap anyway; some professional writers have their own blogs, some literary critics keep reading diaries online, some people who make a living off one type of writing turn to the internet to produce another. There ought to a fruitful relationship here, not antagonism.

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