Saturday, 18 May 2013

Thinking about Literary Blogging

I've been to two events recently that attempted to think about literary criticism and literary blogging. In one case I was on a panel myself, in Solothurn with a Swiss literary critic (print), a Swiss literary programmer (radio) and a German crime writing critic (internet). I think I was supposed to be young and fresh and represent the future of literary criticism – which was the title of the event – but I'm not sure I managed that. Certainly, we didn't really argue and I didn't feel anyone said anything particularly earth-moving. Then there was a panel discussion between literary bloggers at the Brecht-Haus here in Berlin. This was a little difficult, for several reasons. Firstly, bloggers tend to be quite keen to express their opinions, by their very nature, and although there was a little more controversy involved than on the Swiss podium, there was also a lot of microphone-hogging, which was a shame. Secondly, it was hard to find a balance for a very mixed audience of experienced bloggers and venue regulars who seemed to have come out of curiosity about what these new-fangled blog things are. And thirdly, the title was too vague so nobody knew what they were supposed to talk about. But perhaps the problem is that panel discussions are often a bit rubbish, whatever they're about, because we're looking at a bunch of strangers forced to talk to each other in front of an audience in return for a modest fee.

Perhaps what panel discussions are good for is prompting thoughts that occur afterwards, however, rather than solving the world's dilemmas on the spot. So here are the thoughts I've been having, in as yet unprocessed form.

I've been thinking about the kind of literary bloggers who review the books they like, with no particular ambitions other than sharing their opinions and possibly communicating with other fans of their special genres or writers. The kind of bloggers that literary critics turn their noses up at; and perhaps Amazon reviewers also fall into this category. What I love about this phenomenon is that it means people are reading differently. I remember I used to write about seeing live bands for a while, but then gave it up because it made gigs less fun and more of a cerebral experience. Bloggers are reading more consciously because we know we're going to write about the books later. Even something as simple as rating books on Goodreads requires us to think about the extent to which we enjoyed and admired them, rather than merely consuming books and moving on to the next one. The idea that the big, bad internet, e-books, etc., have made reading a shallower experience neglects this aspect.

Bloggers can write about our reading experiences in a subjective way, a form that isn't yet entirely accepted in traditional (German) literary criticism. I like it, I really do. In fact I now feel uncomfortable with the pretense of objectivity in many more conventional reviews. Statements along the lines of "the writer's masterly descriptions of death remind the reader of his own mortality" are exposed as arrogant lies (for me!) when bloggers can write "I loved the writer's descriptions of death; they made me think of my own mortality" or indeed, of the same theoretical book, "the descriptions of death seemed unrealistic to me, and certainly don't tie in with my experiences of losing loved ones." Or whatever. Along with the rise of the first-person narrative essay that we've seen on or via the internet – those self-revelatory pieces with their gruesome fascination – writing about books is also becoming a first-person exercise, or can be. And I personally find that very interesting to read. Aside from Richard Kämmerlings' book on "what all these great books did to me", I don't see that in traditional (German-language) media outlets.

And we can do more creative things in reaction to books, we can rewrite and riff upon and fanfic and we can tell big fat lies (something the internet makes particularly easy). We can write our own fiction and share it, and it may not be much cop but at least we can get it off our chests. We can evangelise and big ourselves up and admit to being biased and unprofessional. We can collaborate and argue and we can try out unusual formats. We can get writers drunk and write them open letters and pretend to be of another gender or from another planet and we can fight against loneliness and isolation and get to know other people who share our obscure passions. We can cast a spotlight, however low-wattage, on our niche literary interests. In fact, writing about books in translation is a case in point: it's the bloggers who do this now in the English-speaking world, and often at an extremely high level. All this is marvellous, I think.

And yet I get the feeling a lot of traditional literary critics and journalists feel threatened by literary bloggers, hence their willingness to dismiss us/them out of hand, as I mentioned above. Is there a sense that the cuts in press coverage for books, and thus the increasing difficulty of make a living as a professional critic, are directly due to book bloggers? I don't think it's nearly that simple, but there are people who've put this case better than I can. I'll readily admit there are things for which professional critics are extremely useful. It's useful that many of them write for particular newspapers or media outlets, so we have a vague idea of what their politics or aesthetic principles might be. It's useful that they can read widely and draw comparisons. And it's good that someone else trusts them to write a decent piece, other than themselves. They come with a seal of approval, if you like. They also reach a far larger readership, as a rule, and can therefore prompt wider debates.

I'd like to regard book bloggers as an equivalent to amateur dramatics companies. We can be amazing, we can be ropey, some of us may rise to the professional level, but we're not ultimately a threat to the professionals. I did a fair amount of am-dram as a child and teenager. It was hard work but great fun. The British actor Michael Simkins wrote a piece in the Guardian last year about amateur theatre, in which he expresses respect for many of his amateur colleagues (and amusingly dismisses others). The difference, he says, is that amateurs prefer not to run all the risks of earning a living from their passion. That pretty much sums it up for me.    

Update: many thanks to Fabian Thomas of the Daily Frown for pointing out a great article on the subject from the professional literary critic's perspective, namely Volker "The Hair" Weidermann in the FAZ


Magor said...

Yes, the Solothurn panel somewhat sagged under the weight of generalizations and it certainly lacked in convincing argumentation and profound analysis, let alone open dispute. You did a great job, though, pointing out the advantages of book blogs and subjective criticism as an alternative approach to discussing literature. After all it boils down to a matter of quality, and in view of what newspapers have been doing to their review sections (and their contributors) we should reconsider where litcrit is heading and «why book bloggers are critical to literary criticism» (as John Self titled his post in the Guardian Books Blog some time ago (

kjd said...

Thank you. I'm always very nervous about these things and it's good to get some feedback.

Fabian Thomas said...

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article by FAZ' literary big shot Volker Weidermann pondering about the state of literary criticism, leaping off of Roman Bucheli's pessimistic view presented in the NZZ a few weeks prior to this. Basically, he takes quality criticism into account, but does not limit it to the newspaper journalists, which I found a fine move towards all us people who are writing into "the internet" day by day (also, he presents a fine quote by Egon Friedell):

kjd said...

Fabian, thanks so much for that pointer. What a great article!