Letter to a Young Book Blogger

(h/t Michelle Dean for coming up with the title)

What is the mission of the book blogger? Wow, that’s a fairly pretentious question, even for an imaginary interlocutor. I didn’t even know I was supposed to have a mission. I just thought I was doing this because I liked reading books, and having opinions about books, and even better, getting to tell people my opinions about books, and—this is the really awesome part—some people actually pay attention. Oh, wait, you’re here because you read that William Giraldi article about “true criticism” where he pretended to tell some “young critic” that Matthew Arnold jazz about trying “to see the object as in itself it really is,” and the aims of “lasting criticism,” and you got to the part where Giraldi took a swing at “the ‘literary’ snipes who live their dreary lives online, that legion of wonks who are mere tourists in the land of literature,” and you figured he might have been talking about me, so what did I have to say about that?

Well, what made you think he was talking about me, specifically, and not some other book bloggers? There’s a lot of book bloggers out there, you know.

Uh huh, sure, there’s that line later on in his article where he’s all “if some confuse their need of a dictionary for your use of a thesaurus, that’s OK.” I see where you’re going with this. You saw my critique of Giraldi’s aesthetic where I mentioned that he was “getting a lot out of his word-a-day calendars,” and you know D.G. Myers called attention to that post, and Giraldi mentions towards the end of this thing that people should be reading D.G. Myers, so it’s entirely possible he clicked through and didn’t like the crack about the word-a-day calendars. Maybe, maybe not, and even if it’s true, I’m sure I wasn’t the only book blogger he had in mind. You’d have to ask him about it.

What? You still want to ask me what the mission of the book blogger is? You’re not going to let that go? It’s not enough you should have fun, you want a mission to go with it?

Oh, all right then.

You know who Harold Bloom is, right? Harold Bloom is this guy who’s carved out a life for himself where all he has to do is read his favorite books over and over again, and every now and then he shows up in a classroom and talks about them, and sometimes he writes that stuff down and publishes it, and once he published enough to get tenure he was pretty much set for life. I know, pretty sweet, right? Anyway, if you asked Harold Bloom to describe his job, he might say: “Read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate: that is the art of literary criticism for the present time.” And book blogging is exactly like that.

Now, some critics get all defensive about this, and they’ll try to tell you that criticism is an art form, which is sort of true, in that there’s a technique to it (more than one technique, but this letter’s going to be long enough as it is) and some people spend more time practicing it than others, and that level of practice shows in the finished product. By that standard, though, I could say throwing the knuckleball is an art form, or wok cooking, or book blogging. (And you know what? I mean it.)

What’s that? You’ve heard that book blogging is about “taste,” and William Giraldi told you true criticism is “judgment rendered universal through erudition,” and he told you he got that from Johnson? I’m no Johnson expert, so I can’t say I recognize the line, but I suppose that sounds like something Johnson would say. On the other hand, Johnson also said “we owe few of the rules of writing to the acuteness of critics, who have generally no other merit than that, having read the works of great authors with attention, they have observed the arrangement of their matter, or the grace of their expression, and then expected honour and reverence for precepts which they never could have invented.” Interesting guy, Johnson.

So Giraldi told you that “your authority as a critic derives directly from the assertiveness of [your] erudition,” eh? I suppose you think that means your reactions to books won’t matter until you’ve read all the right ones. Well, that’s just silly. How do you even know what the right ones are? Oh, Giraldi specifically defines “necessary literature” as “the time-tried classics which have come before and informed our civilization.” Yeah, that’s a common strategy critics use to defend their turf. Never mind that there’s more than one civilization on the planet, or that the “time-tried classics” have been handpicked by critics. Remember what Johnson said about how critics basically notice stuff in books? Well, from there, they go on to find other books that have stuff like that, and that’s what they call a tradition, or they find books that have stuff that totally isn’t like that, and if they think it’s any good it’s a radical break from tradition, and if they don’t think it’s any good then to hell with it. And that’s how canons get made.

It’s actually not that different from how you pick out your favorite books, except you don’t have huge cultural institutions backing you up on those selections.

Next question: Is it okay to just say positive things on your book blog? Aren’t you afraid that people won’t take you seriously if you come off as overenthusiastic? Giraldi told you that “the pillory of a bad book is as culturally stimulating as the lauding of a good book,” and he added that “the critic is not created only to praise,” so now you’re wondering if you’re going to have to go negative at some point. Let me tell you: You weren’t created to do anything with your book blog. You’re making a choice to start a book blog, and once you’ve made that choice, the rest is up to you. It’s not even your job to be “culturally stimulating.” Oh, sorry, your mission. You want a mission? Here’s a mission: Have fun reading books.

Don’t even start with all that crap about MFA programs. That’s not even about literary criticism and book blogs. I mean, when people start rattling off lines like “Literature isn’t a children’s foot race; you don’t a get a medal simply for participating,” just look them in the eye and say, “You know who else thinks ‘Harrison Bergeron’ was a good story? Antonin Scalia and John Stossel, that’s who.” Oh, it’s a lousy rhetorical argument, sure, but it shuts people up long enough for you to avoid listening to the rest of their rant about the pernicious influence of MFA programs on Great Literature.

What else did Giraldi tell you? That you’ve got “an intellectual and ethical obligation to be outraged by inferior art, to defend your ars poetica with fire or else risk self-immolation by cowardice,” huh? Ooh, Latin; nice touch. Anyway, to hell with that. Remember how I said your mission was to have fun? Well, that means you don’t have any obligations to feel anything about anything just because somebody thinks you should. (Except for the part about having fun; you’re totally on the hook for that.) And who is William Giraldi to call you a coward, anyway? I suppose he thinks if we don’t attack the “bad” books, civilization will go down in flames, too. Oh, he did say “relax your standards in literature and the relaxation of other standards will soon follow”? That’s rather… alarmist. Are you sure he was talking about Harold Bloom earlier? Because he sounds like he’s veering into Allan Bloom territory.

(Allan Bloom? The Closing of the American Mind? Well, you are a young book blogger, I suppose.)

“Defend straight to the scaffold the literary values you know to be enduring”—he really said that? Wow. Something like that, hot on the heels of the self-immolation line, it makes you wonder about literary martyr complexes. Look, I honestly can’t stress this enough: Have fun reading books. The fate of the world isn’t hanging on you perpetuating the Western Canon, and if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t know that any “literary values” are truly “enduring.” Books “endure” because people keep them around; if we start keeping different books around, boom, the definition of “enduring” literature changes.

Frankly, a lot of the time, throwing oneself “straight to the scaffold” might possibly be more about calling attention to oneself than about defending some book.

“Dare to suppose that the writer is independent enough to handle harsh criticism,” huh? OK, point for Giraldi there. Obviously, you should attack the writing, not the author, because, following the moral code Wil Wheaton has given us, you’re not going to be a dick. And if an author can’t handle negative reactions to his or her book, she absolutely should reconsider putting that book out in front of the world. But that’s even assuming you want to engage in harsh criticism. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. Just try to make sure that you’re staying positive because you’re having fun, not because you’re playing it safe.

He said “part of the critic’s job is to unsettle the status quo [and] to force self-examination”? Did he mention anything about stealing the fire of the Olympians while he was at it? Look, pushing yourself to self-examination while you’re (having fun!) reading books can be hard enough. My advice is to just put yourself out there, and if people are inspired by the ideas (and feelings!) you’re sharing with them, that’s great, too. What was it Voltaire said about the necessity of cultivating our own gardens? Your book blog can be an example to others about how to have fun reading books, but it’s up to them to appreciate that example, let alone follow it.

Speaking of your potential readers, does Giraldi have anything to say about the general public? What’s that? “You’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set—they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought.” Seriously? He said that? Well, there’s nothing like owning your own elitism, I suppose.

Let’s look at this from another angle: I’m the guy who flat out says being a book critic is nothing special, and one of the key things I meant by that is that you don’t get to position yourself above other people just because you found somebody to subsidize you while you sit around and read books. You want to go back to this MFA bullshit and how not everyone who writes a book is a special snowflake? Fine: You’re not a special snowflake, either. Yes, it’s very nice that you’ve made the decision to have fun reading books, and to share what you’ve gotten out of that with the rest of us. But it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, and if you’re just going to cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are, and how fancy your book learning is—well, you’re not really here to tell us about books, you’re here to tell us about you. And did I mention that you’re not a particularly special snowflake?

OK, I’ve calmed down. What’s next? Giraldi does own his elitism? Yeah, why don’t we skip most of that. Stipulated: William Giraldi is an elitist.

“The sanctity of literature,” huh? You’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t believe in it. I mean, I’m willing to accept the concept of “literature” as a historically contingent cultural construction, but I’m sure as hell not going to grant it “sanctity,” which means I’m not going to suggest that you need to defend it. By all means, if you like a book, and you want to make the best case possible for why I ought to read it, knock yourself out. But you don’t need to do it.

What’s your next question? “When is it permissible to be over the top in a positive or negative review, to unshackle your enthusiasm for genius or your disdain for dross?” Call me crazy, but Giraldi wrote that question for you, didn’t he? That’s fine. I’ll answer it with another question: Are you having fun reading books? Actually, let’s add another question: Are you remembering to not be a dick? What the hell, one more, filched from John Green: Did you remember to be awesome?

Ohhhhhhh, wait, you want my advice on style. Shaw said something about that—oh, Giraldi used that “effectiveness of assertion” line? Neat. Anyway, that’s about finding your voice, and the way to find your voice is to keep trying to find it. Write, look at what you’ve written, and ask yourself if it feels like the best possible expression of what you’re trying to say. it isn’t, go back and write some more. If it is, hooray! Now show it to somebody else, and find out if they get what you tried to say, too. If they don’t, go back and write some more. If they do, hooray!

What else does Giraldi have to say about expressing—I’m sorry, asserting yourself?

“I believe that true judgment can be had, that the discerning critic is able to prove how one book is better than another book. That proof resides always in the language. Language doesn’t lie. A cliché can’t hide itself. Platitudes can’t pretend to be meaningful. Solecisms can’t convince you they are something else. Easy verbs and indolent adjectives will never have potency. An assault of the quotidian will never be intellectually charismatic. You can’t dress up sentimentality as emotional truth. No amount of rouge will ever camouflage rhetoric and sophistry. Propaganda and dogma will always reek of immorality.”

You know, he’s right: a cliché can’t hide itself. Especially not by throwing itself into a paragraph with a bunch of other clichés, which is exactly what happened there. It’s actually quite an impressive string of platitudes.

(What’s that? Yes, I did skip over the assertion that “the discerning critic is able to prove how one book is better than another book.” And I think you know why. You want me to spell it out anyway? Fine: “Proof” would involve some fundamental, objective standard of what constitutes, oh, let’s call it “the good” in “literature,” and that objective standard doesn’t exist. At best, you have a historically contingent cultural construct of what a bunch of “critics” have agreed is “good,” and all you can do is hold a book up to that artificial standard and describe whether or not the book satisfies the criteria for “goodness” that you’ve preselected.)

No, I don’t want to hear a High Modernist interprtation of the backlash against Modernism, thank you, although it’d be nice if it included at least a handwaving gesture towards acknowledging cultural diversity. It does? Great. What’s next?

Really? He slams the book review section of People? That seems a bit lazy. What else? ” Time has proven what best means”? We covered this already, didn’t we? And then some reading recommendations, huh—what’s that? Do I have any reading recommendations? Sure, I’ve got an entire website full of them.

Ooh, run that last bit by me again:

“Our species would go a long way toward full maturation if more writers and critics would declare zero tolerance for every book that insults the intellect with bathos and debases language with bromides. A critic should not balk at savaging what is bad just as he does not shy from praising what is good. Disputation and dissent serve the necessary task of evolution, of alteration, and unless you believe that nothing in our literary culture requires alteration, you as a critic are duty-bound to shout ‘No!’ in thunder when a book transgresses against originality and vigor.”

Poppycock. First of all, do you really want to subscribe to a Darwinian theory of literature? Do you know what sort of field days cultural critics had embracing Darwinism in the last century? Let me put it plainly: In this context, Giraldi’s talk of literary evolution is just a pseudoscientific gloss for his elitism—remember, we’ve stipulated that he’s an elitist—and when you recall lines like “people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set”… it’s hard not to see an ugly, ugly school of thought taking shape. A profoundly anti-egalitarian school of thought that’s of a kind with the arrogant assumption that you could possibly prove one book is better than another. (Talk about your pseudoscience!)

What do you want me to say in response to that brand of condescension, of disdain for anything that doesn’t live up to Giraldi’s high evolutionary ideal? I mean, we’ve covered this several times already in this conversation: Your “job” as a book blogger is to have fun reading books, and to share the joys that you experience with other people—and “sharing” implies that you’re in a relationship of equals, not that you’re God’s Gift to Literature, deigning to unveil your erudition for the masses to bask in. You read, and you learn things; if you’re really lucky, you learn things about yourself. You talk about what you learned, and how you felt; if you’re lucky, somebody responds to what you’ve said, and then you can learn from them, too.

And as long as you’re having fun doing that, don’t let anybody tell you you’re doing it wrong, no matter who they quote to support their attack on you.

That’s all the advice I’ve got for you right now. I hope you found it useful.

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6 September 2012 | uncategorized |