May 17, 2008

Blogging, Criticism, Reviewing

A recent discussion at The Reading Experience raises questions related to some I have raised before here and have been thinking about a lot again as I try to imagine how best to direct the energy I have put into blogging--issues such as whether 'litblogging' is at its best when used as a form of literary journalism or reviewing (focusing on the new), what kind of writing about 'classic' or old literature has appeal or relevance to modern readers, whether (or how) blogging can also serve as a medium for popularizing or making literary expertise accessible, or whether there really is any comfortable middle ground between academic specialization and standards and the interests and habits of common readers. From Dan's original post:
What the litblogosphere promises to offer is the possibility of multiple sources of well-supported reviews and commentary (many more than have been available in print publications, whose numbers are only continuing to decline, anyway), which can only enrich the discussion of current fiction (and poetry) and in turn encourage writers to believe their work is getting serious attention.
And from the comments that followed (all are excerpts; other comments also appear in the original thread):
Which is precisely why I grumble over the fact that an awful lot of Litcritbloggage (not the majority, probably, but a worry-worthy chunk) seems wasted on texts long-established in reputation (and thoroughly colonized by academics; in some cases for centuries), not to mention being relatively impervious to casual analysis. (Steve Augustine)

But has it ever occurred to you that people who blog about texts that are "long-established in reputation" do so because they are new to them? Because they didn't read them in school? And that the odds that they have been exposed to much of the critical apparatus is rather small? Are you suggesting that one should first read all the extant literature before deciding whether something ought to be blogged? (Richard)

Bloggers discover as we discover (not everyone's put paid to the canon the way you have); their essential charm (I think it's charming) is that they flatten the mountaintop elevating the critic-priest above the rabble and allow us to watch them form and respond to ideas. In other words, their discovery of Austen or James at the age of X is crucial to *them*, if not to us, it provides answers to questions *they've* wondered about, fills holes in *their* knowledge that they (well, some of them) are happy to admit to having had. I don't think it's necessarily a critical form, I think it's often a form of self-expression, and I suppose that to gripe about someone's preoccupation with Thomas Hardy when there's so little attention going to Jerome Charyn is to cast that someone in a role they haven't sought out. (Chris)

I find classics blogging among "serious" litbloggers (ie, those positioning themselves to take the baton when periodical print collapses) relatively useless; not because of the medium, but because there are already metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis of Shakespeare, Homer, you name it, in print. Seeing centuries-old opinions on Hamlet rehashed (or mutilated) online in a not-entirely-serious fashion doesn't float my boat. If I have to read civilian (non-academic) takes on Hamlet, I prefer to read something that Anthony Burgess or Victor Pritchett or George Steiner sweated over for weeks or months... otherwise, the results are fairly back-to-High-Schoolish...I'd just like to see more critical litbloggers who take themselves seriously step up to the plate and provide more of the kind of content that *really can* give the best of what we called "print" (past tense because I'm thinking of a Golden Age) a run for its money... (Steve Augustine again)
I certainly agree with those who don't think there's any call to be prescriptive about these issues: individual motives for writing and reading blogs vary widely, and the distinctive features of the form are precisely its accessibility to all (internet-connected) people and its adaptability to all voices, styles, and agendas. The questions I raise above, then, really have to do with my own interests and aspirations as a blogger and a critic: what can or should I in particular be writing out here, particularly if I want to identify this blog as part of my professional work in more than a very peripheral way? I'm not an expert on, or even an avid reader of, contemporary fiction, particularly of the more experimental kind for which Dan Green is such a persistent advocate. I can contribute only as an amateur reviewer, then, where new releases are concerned, and while I enjoy writing up comments on my recent reading and sometimes feel I have found something of interest to say, I can't afford the time (and lack much incentive) to turn these posts into genuine thought-pieces. I'm in a better position to talk knowledgeably about Victorian fiction, but Steve is certainly right that there are "metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis" on all the classic texts, including any on which I feel qualified to opine. So here my contributions will be better-informed, but they are not likely to be especially original--meaning the key issue becomes purpose and audience. If I aim for the kind of originality necessary for a scholarly publication, I'll be back to writing esoterica for fellow academics, and the claustrophobia that practice induced was what drove me to the blogosphere in the first place. But is it any more useful or productive--any more of a contribution to literary understanding--to add my own 2-cents worth to what's already available to a general reader (including on the internet) about Middlemarch or Jane Eyre? Someone like Michael Dirda or James Wood has the 'street cred' (or market appeal) to do this (though I'm currently reading Dirda's Classics for Pleasure and I think the same questions could quite reasonably be asked about the need for or value of his contribution as well). I think a key point, made by a couple of the comments quoted above, is that the classics are in fact new to everyone at some point, so there is genuine pedagogical value in critical material that helps them make the most of their reading experiences. In the classroom (or in the right internet context) there's always a good reason to explain (again) ways of reading and thinking about Middlemarch...

I realize that this is to put a fairly solipsistic spin on a more abstract discussion. But, hey, this is my blog, after all! Here are earlier some of the versions of this semi-internal debate, showing that, after over a year of blogging (and blog-reading), I have not moved very far ahead on these questions:
Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet...books such as John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one's experience of reading "the classics." One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as "Moralist for the 21st Century." But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast. ("The Occasion for Blogging," May 24, 2007)

Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there's presumably no longer any question of reviewing them--or is there? Actually, that's an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a 'classic' be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. ("More on the Purpose of Criticism," June 20, 2007)

The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen's account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there's not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers' attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can't find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on 'writing for readers,' but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen's words, "frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value," I'm going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus--ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation. ("Professors, Start Your Blogs...," July 18, 2007)

One aspect of this situation that I've been thinking about is the tension between generalization and specialization that academic blogs perhaps illustrate. It's difficult to provoke comments on a specialized topic, except from other specialists. Non-specialists may be interested in reading or using your material, but they are unlikely to add to it. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the posts on The Little Professor about Victorian anti-Catholic texts: this is just not a topic on which many people can, or would, chime in, though now I know where to go if I want to learn something about them.) But if your offerings are general enough to interest a lot of people, they may lose their value in establishing a community of expertise, or in contributing to the development of your professional work. . . . Further to that last point, I'm starting to notice a divide in blogging between two kinds of literary sites, which I would roughly divide into 'bookish' and 'academic'--and the academic ones really don't seem that literary, in the sense of talking about, well, literature, as opposed to politics, philosophy, theory, and criticism. (I know, I know: talking about literature always involves politics, philosophy, and theory, etc....) I 'm thinking especially at this point of The Valve, subtitled 'A Literary Organ,' after all. The bookish ones seem quite contemporary in their focus, so for those of us who spend most of our time reading loose baggy monsters from the 19th century, well, once again but for different reasons, we aren't really equipped to jump in--and there too, I don't see that much discussion, to return to my first point. ("If a Blog Falls in the Forest," October 22, 2007)


praymont said...

I didn't agree with Steve Augustine's point. He assumes that there's no point to writing about a classic unless one has read everything that has already been written about it. But surely for some classics not even the most studious grad student can do this. Why shouldn't it suffice to have familiarized oneself with some of the main reflections about a classic work? Also, his claims (in a comment on an earlier post at Reading Experience) about 'high-brow' vs. 'middle-brow' imply that there can be new high-brow reflections only about new work.

Selfishly, I write short posts on books (inc. classics) because I think better when I write out my thoughts, esp. if I know that others might read what I write. Less selfishly, I blog because it makes it possible to have a dialogue with others who have similar tastes and whose opinions I've come to respect. Blogging is educational.

Finally, I don't like Augustine's implication that a discussion of the classics can be closed. There's always more that can be said about a true classic, and the new reflections needn't be of a rarefied, academic nature.

Justin Hamm said...

What I'm attempting to do with my blog is only this: to chronicle my own personal attempt to read great literature.

If there's any novelty to what I say about these works, it comes from the fact that I'm applying what I read to my own life and my own views of the world. Like Montaigne, whose words sit atop my blog, I embrace subjectivity. My writing, then, is less criticism and more personal essay sparked by the literature. That doesn't mean I don't believe I might have something worthwhile to say.

Our world is constantly changing --so there must be new ways to look at a piece of classic literature. My life circumstances, the combination of books I read and when I read them in relation to one another, the invention or refinement of new forms of media (the internet, email, youtube, et cetera) -- all these can lead to new ideas and perspectives on the classics.

I guess I'm just self-absorbed enough to think someone wants to read my thoughts on how The Nibelungenlied would make a great gangster flick or how reading St. Augustine helped me cope with my rather nasty break with religion earlier in my life.

I'm not trying to produce scholarly work; I'm trying to show you why the stuff matters to one person -- and to say some thought-provoking things here and there.

Honestly: Even if I end up recycling old ideas, what's so wrong with writing about how those old ideas affect me personally--especially since they're new ideas to me?

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I'll chime in, too. Then we'll have a quorum of bloggers insulted by Steven Augustine. But I'll restrain myself to my answers to some questions I thought you raised.

First, legions of ordinary readers are curious about classics, but scared of them. I've met educated people who were scared of Eudora Welty, for pity's sake. They read good books when they stumble across them but are hungry for guidance, information, and approaches. Again, I'm talking about educated adults who are avid readers. Help these people!

Second, the approximation of a conversation among bloggers generates ideas. Not only is every classic new to everyone once, but so is every idea. These ideas are generally not original. Who cares. I'm not writing for the PMLA. I'm writing and reading for myself. My small but select group of intelligent and good-looking readers are reading for themselves.

Should we be reading James Wood instead? Sometimes. But reading Wood on "Jane Eyre" would not have stopped me from writing about that book all of last week. I had a great time.

Why does The New Yorker publish Wood? Or The Washington Post, Dirda? Why do the NYRB or The New Republic or The Hudson Review bother with essays about old books? They're not for Augustine's benefit, I guess, since he mastered the classics in college, but there must be plenty of people like me think we still have a lot to learn. One way I learn is by writing.

Rohan Maitzen said...

These are all really good comments, and it's interesting that they all converge on the intrinsic value of blogging for the blogger (learning through writing, entering into dialogue with other readers, etc.)--aspects of 'blogging the classics' that Steve Augustine does not seem interested in. I suppose that's fair enough if you focus on blogging, as he seems to be doing, as an alternative to print ciriticism.

JD: I like your point about blogs linking reading with life. In my classes, I tend to steer away from this (how can you teach these connections, much less evaluate them?) but they are a big part of the experience of most readers. I found it interesting in my seminar on the Victorian 'woman question' this year, which focused on novels about marriage, that several students (outside of class time) remarked that the readings and our discussions were prompting them to rethink their own relationships.

AR: They read good books when they stumble across them but are hungry for guidance, information, and approaches. Again, I'm talking about educated adults who are avid readers. Help these people! Many litblogs, including yours and mine, do offer these readers a lot, I think. Sure, there is a lot of published criticism ranging from the accessible to the arcane--but for those who don't choose to turn every reading experience into a research project, blogs offer all kinds of ways 'in'. As Paul says above, 'blogging is educational,' and so is blog reading. I don't see, then, that on these grounds any of us has anything to feel sheepish about, whatever Steve Augustine's evaluation of our online activities! My ponderings about the potential professional standing of blogging really has to do with other issues.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Thanks, Rohan, you highlighted a point I fumbled. For most readers, the "metric tons" of criticism may as well not exist. It's not accessible - physically (only available in university libraries or journals) or because it's specialized (i.e., uses the word "problematization").

What is your sense of the quantity (and quality) of non-specialized work on George Eliot, for example? If a reader wants to go beyond the Penguin introduction, what would you tell him?

Rohan Maitzen said...

Good question. I'd be tempted to go biographical: her life was truly remarkable, and following her intellectual development along with her personal story helps remind us that ideas are held by complex, interesting, passionate human beings. I'm fond of Gordon Haight's biography: though it is now seen as diminishing her in some respects, it's very readable and contains a lot of material from her letters and journals. Kathryn Hughes and Rosemary Ashton have also written good biographies. Haight edited a volume called A Century of George Eliot Criticism which is very good: it starts with contemporary reviews and includes pieces by Henry James and Virginia Woolf as well as some key 20thC stuff.

Another really good resource is actually found on the DVD set of the BBC Middlemarch. The DVD extras include a one-hour documentary on Middlemarch featuring interviews with lots of really smart, articulate people: A. S. Byatt, David Lodge, Terry Eagleton, Claire Tomalin, Kate Flint, Howard Jacobson. Byatt, I think, is particularly interesting.

Robby Virus said...

I just wrote a lengthy post on my blog, responding to this post, because I think it's quite an interesting topic to muse about. Here is one of the main points I made. Or perhaps it's more of a rant than a point:

I am a scientist by training and profession. When I was a senior in college I took a class called "Community Ecology and Field Botany". In this class we not only learned the names of a lot of plants, but we went out into "the field" and studied the ecology of these plants, in a highly scientific manner. One study I remember was on a common weed called the Curly Dock (Rumex crispus). We went to a local meadow that was lousy with Curly Docks. It was a large grassy field, with scattered dandelions and daisies, nestled in the local mountains. And everywhere you looked in this meadow were Curly Docks. Curly Docks are an odd looking weed when full grown, as they turn brown and have long stems covered with seed pods. They're ugly, in a way, yet also beautiful, in a way. In this verdant field, they looked dead, in their seedy brownness, but trust me, they were very much alive. The object of our study, as best as I remember, was to determine the distribution of Curly Docks in the field. We had to measure the location of each plant, and then determine if they were randomly distributed or not, and if not, were there any clues that might describe why they were not distributed randomly...did they prefer to grow on a certain type of soil, or in the shade as opposed to the sun, or near to another particular species of plant? So we carefully mapped out the field and the precise location of each Curly Dock within it, using highly scientific instruments such as tape measures. I can't remember what we found, but my point is, we were really digging deep into the secrets of Rumex crispus, in order to help understand why that meadow was the way it was. I'm sure if I looked through the scientific literature I could find lots of information on Rumex crispus...biochemical studies of its metabolism, gene sequences perhaps, things of that ilk. All of that would be quite interesting to me, as a biologist. And it would no doubt help me to understand even more why that meadow looked the way it did, and why the Curly Docks were spread out across that field the way they were. Now, if a professor of English Literature were to come across that field, he or she is probably not going to be able to tell me anything about the Curly Dock, or about the genetics of the plants in that field, which will enlighten me scientifically. As a biologist who's studied this stuff for years and years, I'm naturally way ahead of them. That professor might look at that field and say something like "Wow. This is beautiful. Look at the way the setting sun lights up the seed pods on those brown plants from behind. It almost looks like a painting by Monet." Am I to scoff at the professor and say "Hey, shut up. You're not adding to the scientific literature with that comment, therefore it is irrelevant and inconsequential". No, I would be a complete jerk if I did that, and more importantly, I would be missing the point. That professor of literature could certainly not get their views on that meadow published in a scientific journal. Yet there is a truth there, and frankly it's part of the reason I started to study biology in the first place...because I had a naive and innocent sense of the beauty of nature, and I wanted to get closer to it by studying it. But it's all to easy to do the opposite. It's too easy to lose the joy and beauty in what we are studying simply by studying it too hard. The scientist in me must never forget that. And the literature professor must not lose sight of the simpler beauties of the works they study by scoffing at those people, like myself, who read George Eliot and can only add to the world of literary criticism something like "I loved Silas Marner. It was so wistful and poignant. I thought I would never stop bawling my eyes out when Silas mistakes Eppie's golden hair for his lost money."

A. Ominous said...

May I respectfully suggest that many of you are presenting the best-case scenario (ie, the bloggers knowing what they're talking about) for the mere sake of argument? Even Wikipedia has some degree of oversight.

Beyond that (again): my point was not to suggest what Litblogs, in general, should never do. I'm disappointed to see so many self-serving misreadings of my original comment.

Far be it from me to underestimate the joys of consensus.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi, Steven,

You and I have been over this territory already (a bit, anyway) at the original site. You introduced qualifications after your first comment, but even then your descriptions of the merits of 'blogging the classics' continued to be touched with contempt, or at least to sound dismissive. You were bound, then, to induce self-consciousness and provoke responses from people engaged in that kind of blogging.