Sunday, May 20, 2007

Yet another hissy fit ...

... over book reviewing, this one from Richard Schickel: Not everybody's a critic. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

"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."

Oh, my. Moreover, "D.J. Waldie, among the finest of our part-time scriveners, in effect said "fine." But remember, he added, blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.

I thought it was a wonderful point." I was always under the impression that writing, too, was a form of speech. To be half-decent reviewer, you have be a careful reader of what a text says, you have to be able to think clearly about said text, and write clearly what you think. Which is why, "Very often, in the best reviews, opinion is conveyed without a judgmental word being spoken, because the review's highest business is to initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries."

Why one could not do that on a blog escapes me.


  1. "Why one could not do that on a blog escapes me."

    One CAN do that on a blog, naturally. Just not 'down the centuries' - cause blogging isn't even a score of years old yet.

    And it's too soon to tell what blogging is a 'form of', right? Xanadu may still come true. Is it possible blogging can stay shallow forever? No.

    And the shape of things to come will make every pioneer uncomfortable and every Luddite, holding onto last century's paradigm, confused and angry.



    "I suppose it's just me but it seems like everyone of last century's gatekeepers are angry about what a youtube lure the net has become for the loose and disheveled. How long has mankind known that "everyone's a critic"? Now it's being proven at the expense of the complacent and the crying about it is constant, predictably sour, and full of 'wasteland' proclamations.

    What's this article reveal? It reveals, again, what disdain those gatekeepers hold for us normal folk. A car salesman, an insurance agent, a doctor, an electrical engineer, all with cogent opinions they're willing to share. For free. Now this is serious!

    Quick! Tell everyone that no 'gatekeeper' credentials means the rabble's opinions are worthless. Mere heckles that only steal the bread from the mouths of the righteous.

    [yawn] Pity the poor Luddite-journalists, who now have to face the buggy whip maker's fate. Adapt or die. It happens to everyone."

  2. I tend to think that's about right. An insurance agent (Wallace Stevens), a pediatrician (William Carlos Williams), an Anglican priest (R.S.Thomas) all wrote some pretty good poetry. I'm just a journalist who has tended to specialize in books and authors.

  3. "I'm just a journalist who has tended to specialize in books and authors."

    I think one day the "books" part of that will be considered 'quaint'.

    The Frank Wilson of 2097 has a tablet he calls "his book" that he uses everywhere and has ANY writer he wants for saying the name. He specializes in 100 times the authors you do, Frank. Oh yeah, he has 1000 times the audience you have. But he's you, Frank, I'm sure of it.


  4. Hi Frank,

    Very very interesting.

    You know I read read read book reviews all the time, every week, many many--and weigh them--in order to select the best for my column Poetry & Poets in Rags. You can bet that a review that comes out of The Inquirer, The LA Times, The NYT, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, and so forth, written by Frank Wilson, David Kirby, Carol Muske-Dukes, James Fenton, and so forth and so on, will be of a somewhat higher quality than those from newspapers with lower circulation, and less-prestigious publications by lesser-known, and maybe less-experienced reviewers. And we might say that these, in turn, hold trump cards over the car parts guy who blogs.

    But there are no rules, and there is no pecking order on Tuesdays when I make my final selections. I will choose and have chosen to link to reviews from bloggers in favor of well-known reviewers in big-name papers. I'm even thinking it will happen next week. That's a good bet too.

    Richard Shickel never gets around to noting this phenomenon, when a no-name blogger has one of the top reviews in the English-speaking world in a given week. Instead, he makes the split without justification, as here:

    For example, French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant. In the middle of the 19th century, his reviews appeared every Monday for 28 years. He was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: "Just characterization."

    That "just" did not mean "merely." It meant doing justice to the work at hand and to the culture in which it appeared. Another way of putting that is that he wrote with a blogger's alacrity but with a thoughtful critic's sense of responsibility to, yes, "the great tradition" the author aspired to join.

    Why couldn't a blogger do "Just characterization"--in fact, what a great idea for the name of a book blog. Why couldn't a blogger (one day, somewhere, somehow) have more than alacrity, but have a "thoughtful critic's" a sense of responsibility to "the great tradition"? Oh, I find that many do, and often--and it's only just begun. It's just as you say, "Why one could not do that on a blog escapes me."

    Of course, I'm not in the car parts department at work. I'm a car salesman. But I happen to spend a good 40 hours a week on my column.