Sunday 2 June 2013

Bucheli, Weidermann and the FAZ Comments Section: a Utopianist Rant

I've been thinking about literary criticism and blogging, sharing some of my ideas here as I go along. And I'm not the only one, as it turns out. On the day I was on that panel in Solothurn, Roman Bucheli had an article in the NZZ on the pressure of digital options on literary criticism (and then sat in the front row of the event, intimidating me slightly). To sum up my reading of the piece, he says that criticism is under pressure because of financial issues (with newspapers having to please advertisers). He also talks about the idea that digital publications can do a lot more because they have more space, and he says the idea of just putting the same reviews online as in print is a bit of a wasted opportunity. He closes:
Even (and perhaps especially) in the digital age, there will be space and need for such sophisticated texts. Digital is not necessarily the grave-digger of analogue critique; rather, it could become a platform for a critical and analytical competence that has  existed in various forms since Lessing. To enable this, open and free spaces for thinking must be created, where the art of reading is linked with enjoyment of argument and the will to interpret is linked with the Eros of writing.
I love this idea, although of course it's very abstract, as utopias often are. To my mind, those spaces would be open to both professional critics and mere amateur book-lovers. They would enable genuine conversations, perhaps in a similar way to the World Literature Forum or the Guardian's Tips, Links and Suggestions thread – only they'd incorporate professional criticism.

So then Volker Weidermann wrote a piece in response to Bucheli in the FAZ. Basically, he said that Bucheli was too pessimistic and critics should stick to writing excellent reviews. Bucheli's comment that readers of print editions are less impatient than digital readers, he points out, is nothing but an assumption - we can't know how many articles are read all the way through in a print newspaper. And he rejects Bucheli's call for new spaces:
The only response is that these "platforms for critical and analytical competence" and these "free spaces for thinking" already exist. They are the arts pages of the daily and weekly newspapers, and – particularly free, particularly open – the internet. All that's needed is to fill these spaces, in such a way that people want to read it.
Look to the past, says Weidermann, and lists a number of excellent literary critics of yesteryear. But for me, he's missed the point. I shall address his vague, blanket use of the concept of "the internet" in a moment. However, his insistence that the newspaper arts pages (in print or digital form) are a free space appears a little ridiculous, frankly. Professional critics can write there, but only if the editors accept their pieces. Readers now have an opportunity to react in a slightly more immediate way via the comments section, but in practice this opportunity is very limited indeed, particularly in the FAZ.

The FAZ comment field has 1000 characters. Try making a coherent point on a complex issue in 1000 characters. Yesterday I tried and failed. What I wanted to say took up three separate comments. It was probably also riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, and very possibly my argumentation was flawed. I can't tell, however, because the FAZ moderates comments before they go online and hasn't yet activated my serious points. Ah well, it's the weekend, I thought initially. It's rather nice that the moderators get the weekend off. Only to find my rather puerile comment about the gendered avatars had been waved through, much to my embarrassment. And then another comment posted by someone else today (Sunday). I'm a little bit upset now, because I'd been talking about the article with a couple of lit-bloggers on Facebook and we/I thought it'd be fun to have that conversation in public, via the comments section.

Obviously, part of my annoyance is sour grapes about what may well be a technical glitch. But on a less personal level, the structure of a comments section that limits the length of entries is a hierarchical one. The professional journalists have space to expand their ideas, while the rest of us are allowed to respond in brief. I think I wrote something to the effect that it's probably not the FAZ's function or indeed intention to democratise literary criticism. However, they did in fact have a more open approach at one point, with the FAZ Lesesaal (which died in 2008). A shame.

Because, given time, that digital space could have become something akin to what Bucheli wrote about and I imagined. A public platform rather than closed conversations like we have on Facebook; a central port of call rather than a thousand individuals' blogs.

Ah yes, the vague and blanket use of the term "the internet". Open, free, full of people expressing their individual opinions. True, this is something we can do on the internet. As Weidermann's probably aware, though, the multitude of voices expressing opinions makes it hard to develop a conversation. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a single critical, analytical space where anyone could join in? I suspect Weidermann's hair would probably stand on end in horror at the idea. Who's supposed to pay professional critics to argue with mere readers? Ach, that's the trouble with utopias, and with incomplete ideas. They fall at the hurdle of financial reality. Still, I suppose there's always Goodreads, for those who aren't boycotting it since Amazon bought it.

To round off this rant on a more optimistic note, I have a few more amateur critics to introduce you to – excellent blogs about literature by people with day jobs:

In German: We read Indie - a conglomerate of booksellers, editors and librarians (all women) blogging about independent books. In English: Helen Finch - a Germanist writing about her work issues, German-language literature and translation - and Vertigo - a museum director writing about art and literature, with a particular emphasis on W.G. Sebald.


Anonymous said...

Might be worth reading for you ...

kjd said...

Yes, Rainer, Keuschnig is very clever indeed and expresses the issue very clearly. Thanks!

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