Thursday, May 31, 2007

Me Book Read Good

Well, thank goodness Richard Schickel is here to set us all straight about a couple of things:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: 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.
Clearly, Mr. Schickel has yet to read my penetrating critical analysis of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham. I think he'd realize pretty quickly just how seriously we bloggers take this criticism business.

If your appetite for condescension is as voracious as mine, read further for morsels like this:

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. The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Maybe most reviewing, whatever its venue, fails that ideal. But a purely "democratic literary landscape" is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.
Well, I, for one, adore yammering away over here on my oasis of idiocy.

Meh. I can't even summon the energy to be insulted. What's come over me?

You know, this "web versus print" debate reminds me of the various online mommy wars I've noticed over the past couple of years. SAHMs versus WOHMs. Bottle versus breast. Cocktail playdates versus teetotal playdates. (FYI: I'm in favour of the former.) These are all media-concocted brouhahas designed to fill up column space and get attention.

At the end of the day, people who love books are like people who have kids: more alike than not. Let's accept it, get over ourselves, and move on. There are books to be read. And, apparently, fewer people than ever are reading them. Shouldn't those of us who remain have a friendly little cuddle to try to stay warm... perhaps around one of Tom Wayne's book-fuelled bonfires?

(Ups to Rusty for the link. I think this was supposed to be my anniversary present. He knows how to keep the magic alive.)


shiny said...

Gah! One might wonder how Mr Condescension found time to remove the silver spoon to even print such elitist rubbish.

Love your blog by the way.

Jennifer Goodland said...

I wonder about the NEA's emphasis on literature versus other books. Via their overfocus on literature rather than nonfiction, they'd rather people read Sweet Valley High than No Ordinary Time? It's true that overall book-reading is declining as well, but it's also true that book sales rise steadily every year, and by the same or more percentage points than individual readers fall. And this may reflect, actually, a stasis - the same number of people, or even more than that, might read from year to year, so we should ask ourselves if we're at least replacing ourselves as readers. Granted, this is a serious problem any way you slice it - but there were plenty of people who went to that book-burning trying to rescue the books from the pile, which he happily sold. Had the same bookseller held a one-cent sale or a free sale, I'm sure he would have found many, many buyers rather than looking for the tax write-off by donating to an institution. I'm a bit suspect of his motives given that he did have homes for the books, but would rather have the publicity if he couldn't make some cash out of the deal. Instead of engaging in histrionics, we need to take an honest look at what the numbers mean (they don't measure fanfic or online reading for recreation either, nor magazines; all of these are immensely popular recreational and even literary reading), and work on growing our numbers without seeming like neo-Luddites chaining ourselves to the altar of format or genre.

Jennifer Goodland said...


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.

Ahahahahano. Everyone can, given thought, elucidate what they like about a work. Did this man never watch Reading Rainbow when he was a kid, or was Mr. Stuffypants' No-Fun Hour on at the same time? The children on that program didn't have advanced degrees or knowledge of lit theory, nor did they necessarily care about a body of work. "Disciplined taste" is hard to come by when you're still pouring ketchup on your mac 'n' cheese. What counted was this: they could easily inform their audience why they liked the book they were holding and what they thought was effective. It's not the New York Times Review of Books, but then, their demographic couldn't even lift the Times let alone read the Review. But I guess Reading Rainbow must have been a massive failure in his eyes because they didn't have any 6-year-olds able to compare Animal Farm to Charlotte's Web. "Some pigs are more terrific than others."

Unknown said...

There's one way for a newspaper writer to get his byline blinking all over the blogosphere...

Sami said...

Well, yes, criticism of the grade of Orwell and his ilk is a rare and wonderful thing, and indeed an elitist thing; by the brilliant for the educated. It's not democratic at all.

On the other hand, this dude ain't writing anything on that scale and neither are other current book reviewers and print "critics", so he can stick his condescension up his arse.

Anonymous said...

"These are all media-concocted brouhahas designed to fill up column space and get attention."


Wendy said...

You go, girl!

What a bunch of rubbish this guy is printing. I'd rather read the litblogs for my reviews than half the print reviews out there. The thoughtful, engaging reviews I've read on the blogs are a joy to read - and what's this about a review not being something we should engage in discussion about?!?! So is the print reviewer's word the LAST word on the subject? God forbid if anyone were to actually *gasp* question this guy's opinion - after all, he has "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." Gosh, the air in here is getting a bit thick.

Well, I must go back to my blabbering, er - writing, on my blog now. Thanks for the entertainment this morning :) I love your blog!

Anonymous said...

That's just dumb. There are plenty of blog writers who are fantastic at writing reviews and plenty of print writers who write horribly. Why not just judge each individual writer or piece of work on its own individual merits rather than making annoyingly inaccurate (and condescending) blanket statements? Criticize all you like, but don't do it in such an idiotic way.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, I know Schickel in real life and he is as curmudgeonly in the flesh as he comes off on the page.

Anonymous said...

Wow, after reading that, he has moved me to reconsider my position on literacy for the masses. I don't believe that reading is something that just anyone should be able to do. Bring back the uneducated peasant class! Scriptoria forever! Where's my ivory tower?

Anonymous said...

The ivory tower is under seige and this condescension belies a certain insecurity.

That said, the ivory tower has its place - a very lonely, dense and obtuse place. It is elitist because it must be. Not everyone can write well about the sort of highly specialized topics treated by academia. This sort of expertise takes years of training, research, preparation and knowledge. For example, I don't think any litbloggers go to the trouble of archival research for their daily entries.

I think what the litblogs are accomplishing is not of the same focus or quality of the sort of writing academia produces, but its application and appeal is far broader. The readers of litblogs determine their success or failure. An academic is not a typical litblog reader, thereby making him unqualified to judge.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I had been meaning to tell you - you can't read and comment on books ("criticise") without your "critical studies" certificate which I had noticed you weren't displaying on your page. Also, you haven't got knowledge of everything that happened, ever, nor have you experienced everything that happened or will happen, ever. IN SHORT, you are not every person who has ever lived and you have not ever read and retained a working knowledge of every book that has ever been written, nor do you theoretically know this, AND YOU HAVE NO TASTE (DISCIPLINED). As defined by the Grand Master of All Taste. So GET YE BACK INTO YOUR HOVEL and keep your opinions to yourself, peasant.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Oh man, I know Schickel in real life and he is as curmudgeonly in the flesh as he comes off on the page.

That's because you read this blog. And presumably, others. HE CAN SMELL IT ON YOU.

Besides which, I have NEVER seen the role of the critic as defining taste or providing cultural commentary. I read reviews in order to find out more about the book, to see if I want to read it. Not to see if it's going to enrich my mind. I don't give a shit. I want to be entertained, not poked into an existential crisis. I don't even look at the names of the reviewers. Even if I did, I don't care enough to know who they are or what they like or why they're qualified to comment. If The Grinch was writing reviews, as long as they were pertinent, I would read them.

*head explodes*

Sandy D. said...

This was one of my favorite responses to that column: Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books

Tammy said...

You guys are so funny! And so full of opinions -- too bad you're not entitled to them. heh

Thanks for the link, Sandy D. That post was hilarious. I love the Smart Bitches. They make me wish I were into romance novels.