THE MOST grating words I've read in a newspaper recently were in a New York Times report on the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation's leading newspapers.Of the three literary critics noted, I'm not familiar with Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, so Schickel's got a point that the Frenchman's name's unfamiliar to most online commentators, and not likely to be "bruited" about (I just had to cite that word "bruited" for its highbrowism).
The piece suggested that this might not be an entirely bad thing. Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website. "Some publishers and literary bloggers," the article said, viewed this development contentedly, "as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books."
Anyone? Did I read that right?
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.
Opinion — thumbs up, thumbs down — is the least important aspect of reviewing. 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.
I know the objections to this argument: Most reviewing, whether written for print or the blogosphere, is hack work, done on the fly for short money. Anyone who has written a book has had the experience. Your publisher kindly forwards the clippings, and you are appalled by the sheer uselessness of their spray-painted opinions. Looked at this way, you could say that book reviewing is already democratic enough, thanks much. It's more than ready for the guy from car parts.
But instead, let's think about what reviewing ought to be. 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.
Think also of Edmund Wilson, the best book reviewer this country ever had — alert to the possibilities, both moral and aesthetic, of the "classics and commercial" (to invoke the title of one of his collections) that passed before him. His method was usually rather reportorial — generally he let his opinions emerge indirectly, not as fiats but as muted implications of the way he read (and quoted) the work at hand. He was not a showy, or even particularly quotable, critic. But the clarity of his prose remains exemplary.
Finally, there was George Orwell, scrambling to make a living by writing reviews for London's intellectual press for maybe $20 or $30 a piece. He was more pointedly political than Wilson, and more attuned, perhaps, to the vagaries of trash culture, but his defense of honest vernacular prose in the face of bureaucratic (and totalitarian) obfuscation remains a critical beacon. All of these men wrote ceaselessly, against deadlines and under economic pressure, without succumbing to the temptation of merely popping off or showing off. None of these men affected the supercilious high Mandarin manner of, say, George Jean Nathan — as annoying in its way as hairy-chested populism is in its.
In any case, I love Schickel's argument, though I can't agree with all of it. There's a lot of really powerful writers out there, doing academic, legal, or jounalistic commentary in both traditional news outlets, in peer-reviewed scholarship, as well as on their blogs. I love law-blogger Ann Althouse's page not only because she's such a good writer, but because she's also an accomplished, interesting, and widely-published public intellectual. The same could be said -- more on the social science side -- for Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Being from the same subfield, I don't always agree with him, but he writes a good, literary-ish blog, commonly filled with sharp, pithy, and humorous posts.
I could go on with more examples. I would close, though, with a "on-the one-hand" conclusion of Schickel's piece: On the one hand, I think he's mostly right on the unfiltered, often low-quality nature of online commentary. (As good as the blogging medium is, it's a raw, mostly un-peer checked vortex of churning, twirling, and not alway so intelligent commentary.) That said, on the other hand, maybe Schickel's just naturally trying to stem the tide a bit longer, attempting to hold back the growing tidal wave of outstanding bloggers who are steadily encroaching on the traditional hegemony of the learned, published literary class.