September 5, 2007

Academics and Literary Culture

There's a thoughtful piece in the latest Columbia Journalism Review by Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (among other things). Wasserman presents a mix of good and bad news about the current state of book reviewing and contemporary literary culture more generally. It strikes me as interesting that his analysis, which considers demographic and economic factors in publishing and newspapers, anti-intellectualism in American culture broadly speaking and in newsrooms more particularly, changing technologies for reading and writing, and many other factors, says nothing in particular about the role of professional academic critics. Perhaps they are implicitly included here--but somehow I don't think so:
It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.
And again, implicitly, perhaps both Mark Sarvas and Richard Schickel mean nods in our direction when they outline what they see as prerequisites for good reviewing, but again, somehow I don't think so:
Mark Sarvas, among the more sophisticated of contemporary literary bloggers whose lively site, The Elegant Variation, offers a compelling daily diet of discriminating enthusiasms and thoughtful book chat, recognizes the problem. In a post last spring about the fate of newspaper reviews, he wrote: “There’s been an unspoken sense in this discussion that Book Review = Good. It doesn’t always—there are plenty of mediocre to lousy reviewers out there, alienating (or at least boring) readers…Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports. And every newspaper covers the same dozen titles…There’s much talk about the thoughtful ‘literary criticism’ on offer in book reviews but you don’t get much of that literary criticism in 850 words, so can we stop kidding ourselves?” But neither does Sarvas find such criticism on the vast Democracy Wall of the Internet, which he is otherwise at pains to promote. He confesses that, for him, the criticism that counts is to be found in the pages of such indispensable publications as The New York Review of Books or the pages of the upstart Bookforum.
What Sarvas is reluctant to concede but is too intelligent to deny is what Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time magazine, eloquently affirmed in a blunt riposte, published in the Los Angeles Times in May, to the “hairy-chested populism” promoted by the boosters of blogging: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”
(Quite rightly, Wasserman banishes the false dichotomy some, including Schickel, have proposed between print and online reviewing: "Moreover, the debate over the means by which reviews are published—or, for that matter, the news more generally—is sterile. What counts is the nature and depth and authority of such coverage, as well as its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readers find it on the Web or on the printed page matters not at all. Content rules.")

Anyway, I'm wondering: Do academic critics have a part in the story Wasserman is telling? Should we? Is his omission a sign of our irrelevance to it, or his neglect of our relevance, or our failure to make our relevance visible and understood, or something else altogether?

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