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.