Not Everybody’s A Blogger.

Recently the Orang-utan Librarian wrote a post titled Bloggers Are Underrated. Are bloggers underrated? That’s something I haven’t considered in a very long time. The question took me all the way back to May 2007 when I first read an op-ed titled “Not Everybody’s A Critic”, a blast at what was then called “the blogosphere” by the film and literary critic Richard Schickel. This is what Schickel had to say about the rise of book-review blogs:

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.

Putting aside the opening sarcasm, where does he get the idea that criticism isn’t a democratic activity? He goes on to say that criticism is much more than having an opinion, that a review should “initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries”, which is a fine idea, but why should the job of initiating such dialogue be limited to a (mostly self-selected) few? A few paragraphs later on he says, “I don’t think it’s impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple ‘love’ of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job.” A love of reading, I believe, is what prompts most people to share their responses to a book, but it’s a mistake to assume that it’s all that bloggers have to offer. In considering what criticism should be he brings up “French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I’ll warrant”—and here he reveals that he’s criticizing blogs without bothering to read any. This is the equivalent of a film critic dismissing a film without ever seeing it.

In keeping with his own lofty ideals of what criticism should be I think it’s fair to say it should be well-informed and thoughtful rather than lazily dismissive, ignorant, and sarcastic. But then toward the end it’s clear that Schickel’s real target isn’t bloggers but any writing published electronically.

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.

Note that he’s paraphrasing Samuel Johnson who said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Johnson also said, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book,” and now I’m not allowed back in the library until I pay for the damage, but that’s another story. The argument that no good writing is published online is even more ridiculous now than it was almost twelve years ago when Schickel’s op-ed was first published, and, by the way, I probably never would have seen it if it hadn’t been published online as well as in a print newspaper. And, by the way, newspapers were pretty ephemeral even before there were computers to be networked so I’m not sure it follows that everyone who writes, or wrote, for print had their minds most wonderfully concentrated. Also I hope it’s clear that I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’m writing here. I even wrote a few drafts on paper, but it’s the message and not the medium that matters.

That last point brings me back to the question of whether bloggers are underrated. And the only honest answer I can give is: it depends. Blogs are varied and individual. They’re empty vessels and, just as with a book or even a newspaper, the writing they offer is just as good or bad as the author makes it. Although, to paraphrase a more recent sage, that’s just, like my opinion, man.

16 Comments

  1. Ann Koplow

    Not everybody’s a blogger, but this blogger is very glad that you’re a blogger, Chris.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m very glad you’re a blogger too, and I’m often in awe of your blogging in spite of being so busy.

      Reply
  2. Bookstooge

    Well, I have to admit, I’ll take a blogger’s review of a book I’m interested in a lot more seriously than some “critic”. I find most critics to be Ivory Tower idiots, ie, out of touch with what the normal person wants.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Yeah, I’ll take a blogger’s review of a book too because someone who’s passionate enough about reading to do it in their spare time just might have a better take on a book. And I believe anyone who can read can have a valid take on a book.

      Reply
  3. floweringink

    You always make me think, Christopher and I love that! This post also pisses me off. My first thought is ” wow, what a pompous asshole this Schickel guy is”, and then it takes me to another place altogether. If the idea is that anything online isn’t worth reading, then people like me, who either can’t, or find it very difficult to, read actual books and newspapers, are basically screwed and will never reach the heights of worthwhile reading. Ok, maybe a bit of a tangent on my part.

    As ever, a very thoughtful post!!! Thank you!!!!

    On a different note…..I just wanted you to know that if it appears that I am re-subscribing to your blog over and over again, it is just because I am filling out the name/email/website info whenever I comment. It seems to be required. I am not complaining; I just didn’t want you to think I was totally nuts.

    Reply
    1. BarbaraM

      Yeah. I have to do that every time too! What’s up with that?

      Reply
      1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

        I’m trying a new plugin that I hope will fix the problem. Oh yeah, I also updated WordPress which might have also been causing trouble. So, to answer the question, What’s up with that?

        Reply
    2. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s a really good point about technology making it possible for you and people like you to read–something Schickel obviously didn’t think about in his attack on the internet. That’s not a tangent–it’s important to remember that what you read matters more than how you read.
      And thank you for telling me about the problems with the comment system. I had no idea and haven’t seen anything, but I’ve installed a new plugin that will hopefully make it easier.

      Reply
  4. SkyeEnt

    I tried very hard to come round to Schickel’s way of thinking, but failed. Maybe if I read his whole article… but I’d rather read something intersting online.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Well, Schickel’s whole article is only a little over a thousand words, even less if you leave out the sarcastic asides, so it’s a quick read, but I tried to provide a fair and accurate summary. And I do think he makes a fair point that a good review is one written by someone with an understanding of the artist’s background and previous work, although if it’s a review of a new artist…well, let’s just say I don’t see why reviewing and criticism should be reserved for the few.

      Reply
  5. Bookstooge

    By the by, I clicked on the “notify me of follow-up comments by email” tickbox when I commented originally. Didn’t get notified of the next couple of comments. Don’t know who you use to host, but it looks like you might have an email issue.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thank you for letting me know. I’m not sure what’s going on with the comments but I’ve installed a new plugin that I hope will make things easier.

      Reply
  6. theorangutanlibrarian

    Fantastic post! I have no idea why anyone would decide that criticism is not a democratic activity… unless they were trying to act as a gatekeeper and make sure people went to their website/msm site instead of shopping around for opinions (and no one would have any vested interest in doing that, right ? 😉 ) Funny that the person assumes that bloggers are “unqualified”- I’d say I and many others have sufficient qualifications to talk about books (most of us are English grads after all) and have found many *actual* English professor-bloggers. I tend to see that point of view as more of a misconception than anything else (or else, I’d have to go back to the assumption that someone would only say that to try and make alternative reviews seem less appealing 😉 ) Sorry for getting a little bit heated on these points- I guess people like this have the power to get my hackles up!
    I will say that, despite my piece, it is a subjective opinion whether bloggers are underrated (I can only add that the reason I did the piece was cos I’ve seen a lot of people in other online communities disparaging bloggers recently as “irrelevant” or “unnecessary”, so thought I’d share my take) Anyway, I really liked your response to this article!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m glad you got a bit heated up. Schickel’s criticism of bloggers is over a decade old now but some of his points still get repeated–as you well know! I think one of the great functions of the internet is, to a great extent, it’s kicked down the gates and allowed everyone, or at least everyone with a connection to the internet, a chance to express themselves. Really criticism and reviewing have always been democratic activities. It’s only been thanks to the internet that the reviews and criticism of a wider variety of individuals have been able to reach a larger audience.

      Reply
  7. Jay

    I think a ‘love of reading’ has to be the #1 qualification, and people who are too much of the mentality that is “work” are not enjoying it as they should, and as it is meant to be. I 100% find myself turning to Good Reads when I want something recommended – I lean on fellow readers, many of whom in fact have wonderful insights and criticisms.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thank you so much for reminding me of Good Reads which I also frequently turn to. A love of reading is definitely the #1 qualification for thoughtful reviewing and even criticism.

      Reply

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