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I planned initially to post tonight in response to Michael Dirda's comments about bloggers over at Critical Mass. He was commenting on the demise of newspaper book review sections. The post is supposed to be about the importance of those sections, something Critical Mass (the Nat Book Critics blog) is getting lots of writers and critics to weigh in on. Here's part of Dirda's statement:

Every blogger wants to write a book. In fact, the dirty little secret of the internet is "Littera scripta manet"--the written word survives. A book is real, whereas cyberspace is just keystrokes--quickly scribbled and quickly forgotten. But to publish a book isn't enough: It has to be noticed. And this is where book sections matter. If you were an author, would you want your book reviewed in The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books--or on a website written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biografiend? The book review section, whether of a newspaper or a magazine,remains the forum where new titles are taken seriously as works of art and argument, and not merely as opportunities for shallow grandstanding and overblown ranting, all too often by kids hoping to be noticed for their sass and vulgarity. Should we allow our culture to descend to this playground level of discourse? Newspapers sift, filter, and evaluate; they are responsible and strive to be trustworthy. So, too, do their book review sections. To curtail such coverage is to abandon an intellectual forum for a childish free-for-all. We would be shortchanging not only readers, but also the art, culture and scholarship of our time.Playgrounds, as we all remember, are ruled by bullies, loud-mouths and prima-donnas.

I thought, well, he hates bloggers and maybe I should write about that. Maybe I should appeal to him on the basis of our mutual love of books, or point out the many impressive authors who have been interviewed at Bookslut, or spoken on the Bat Segundo Show, or participated at the LBC. I thought I would ask him to look at blogs in the kidlitosphere that are constantly championing picture books and middle grade novels, titles that rarely receive more than an occasional paragraph in major newspapers. I was going to ask him if he ever read the insightful posts at The Millions, or Jenny D.'s or TEV's. And how about the way that Gwenda keeps everyone so in tune to the latest in Sci Fi, Fantasy and YA? What about Leila's near daily posts on censorship battles and Jen's weekly literacy links? I was going to write Mr. Dirda a letter and ask him to show me just where the "bullies, loud-mouths and prima-donnas" reside in the lit blogosphere and then point him in the direction of so many intelligent talented bloggers who would show him just how dynamic and smart and witty the lit blogosphere can be.

And then I read some more posts at Critical Mass and I realized that it's not just Michael Dirda who thinks print publications are the last bastion of literary sanity in American society. Consider Nadine Gordimer's comments:

Q: The other aspect of this is the newspaper sections which cover books -- and bring that discussion to a wide and democratic audience -- are also shrinking.

A: Oh, yes, and the amount of journals where young people can see their first efforts, their first story or their first poem, are disappearing. All of us started that way -- we saw our first efforts published. Looking at it printed there, removed from yourself, you look at it objectively as a reader. It's your own work, but you look at it as a reader. And you see your shortcomings, and you see where you didn't quite convey what you wanted to. But now that chance is really gone. I was talking to somebody last night, he was saying the same thing about the literary reviews. Almost every college or university used to have a journal. Now there are few left. Virginia Quarterly Review is one of the few left.

I have enormous respect for Ms. Gordimer but clearly she doesn't know anything about the many many many literary journals on the internet. (A visit or Dan Wickett's site wouldn't be out of line to relieve her concerns for young writers.) What really bugs me though is that her interviewer didn't tell her about them either.

And then there's Stewart O'Nan:

For the literary novelist, it's not just that there are fewer column-inches out there. The real danger is that what little space is left is taken up by books which are marketing events rather than works in need of a thoughtful critique (Harry Potter, trendy political nonfiction, a celebrity author's latest) or by genre stuff that's essentially review-proof (chick-lit, true crime, mysteries, audiobooks). If you're not a hoary eminence or the new kooky flavor-of-the-month or a boring, important award winner, you're lucky to get any press at all. It's hard to blame book page editors, since they're simply echoing what the industry as a whole is doing, but for the serious writer, the crunch is on from both sides.

I'm not even going to touch the part about genre stuff being "essentially review-proof" (WTF?) but does he ever visit the internet at all? Does he care about the many sites that actively discuss the work of literary novelists? Scott Esposito anyone? Or Mark - and his undying love for John Banville? I would argue that the literary novelists get tons of coverage, it's the genre folks who suffer the most from being ignored. (This is interesting though - a review at Strange Horizon's of O'Nan's Night Country. I wonder how he felt about being reviewed by a genre site?)

I read these thoughts and on top of the recent disagreement at Read Roger over bloggers being neutral enough to write about books in the kidlitosphere and that whole N+1 mess, I can't help but think that this new discussion isn't completely about saving book coverage in newspapers, not really.

It's also about book coverage in print being the only coverage that matters.

It's okay for the lit blogosphere to exist as a version of your Mom's book club - it's okay for us to talk books and authors and compare notes on favorites, as long as we keep our place. Have you got that? We must not think for a moment that we contribute anything beyond serving as accessories to the real literary discussions. We are table cloths and throw pillows; curtain rods and side tables. Out here on the internet, if you write about books, if you publish the work of new writers, even if you interview a great author then you are apparently only doing it because the real folks who do this work happen to be busy that day. Thinking that the members of the lit blogosphere (kid lit, genre lit, every part and parcel of it) are in any way comparable to the true lords of the book universe would be highest folly on our parts.

Little children should be seen and not heard, you see. We should buy books but not dare to offer well thought opinions on them.

Want a special bit of irony in all this? Guess who wrote this:

A newspaper that takes away its book review section ends up alienating its most faithful--and influential-- readers

That would be Michael Dirda again.

Well I used to be one of the faithful Mr. Dirda and after reading everything else you had to say today (before you made this statement) I was thoroughly and completely alienated. Clearly you don't want me (or my kind) reading the Post review section anymore. If you did, then you wouldn't have referred to us in such an appallingly rude manner.

Maybe you forgot that lit bloggers are readers, first and foremost. Maybe that's the one thing that everyone who ignores, dismisses and denigrates the lit blogosphere has forgotten.

comments

Dirda seems definitely against blog reviewing, but probably this is an unconscious reaction to the high quality review and criticism blogs that exist and which undermine print dominance (at least potentially in the mind of someone who is a critic working in the print industry).

Gordimer seems to be talking about something more related to places for literature itself disappearing, and I wonder if she's perhaps just not aware of the reputable places for it on the internet in this way. She seems to be of the spirit that, if she were engaged with it fully, would see some of the internet journals as equally valid as print ones. Part of this could just be a transition to print and electronic publishing worlds that lots of people are just not in sync with.

I felt like O'Nan was trying to say something but is undermined by a prejudice towards whole genres as not being capable of producing work worthy of critical attention due to the very fact that they are from a "genre". Isn't "In Cold Blood" by Capote a True Crime book? I know what he's getting at, but it'd be better not to make sweeping generalizations probably.

The Dirda remarks seem slightly disrespectful, both to children and lit bloggers, by assuming that both are incapable of being insightful and serious about books. I do think there are lit blogs that don't deserve as much credibility due to lazy writing and summary reviews and ranting rather than reviewing, but it's not useful to condemn all for the sake of some.

Excellent points all around Christopher!

I especially agree about Gordimer - I think she would feel better if someone would tell her about all the literary magazines online. She doesn't need to worry as much as she is and would probably be quite supportive of those mags if she knew about them.

I also agree with your comments about the generalized nature of Dirda's remarks. We have all seen very poorly written lit blogs (and lots of poorly written blogs, period) but the constant manner in which lit blogs are all lumped together as one single entity really frustrates me. I don't understand why someone like Dirda (a man whose opinion I always respected) would be so lazy and - for lack of a better word - utterly and completely lame.

Colleen, excellent points. I think that sometimes people just don't know the right places to look. I have found many, many high-quality sources of book recommendations here on the Internet.

An excellent post, Colleen.

Incidentally, Mr. Dirda and I have been emailing. He's a good guy, and I suspect that he was having a bad day and that he may be a bit of a Luddite. I am doing my best to inform him that there's more online than meets the eye.

One other point: I don't think the elitism is limited to print vs. online. Consider John Freeman's dismissal of Pittsburgh as "fly-over America."

http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2007/04/book-editor-writes-from-fly-over.html

Very well put Colleen.

And I must agree with Ed, when the hell did Pittsburgh fall into the plains of the midwest? I'm just guessing the folks at UNEB Press weren't thinking of Pitt when they came up with the Flyover Fiction Series.

I'm glad to hear you guys are in contact Ed and I hope that Mr. Dirda has a few positive things to say to reverse the damage here. I just don't understand why people think it's okay to mouth off about blogs with no frame of reference - he should be better than that.

As for Pittsburgh; I don't even know what to say about that. (Other than isn't Freeman supposed to be intelligent?!)

Well, you have to understand something about New Yorkers. Some of them have the mistaken impression that New York is the center of the universe. So a city that's a six-hour drive away becomes Hicksville. Never mind that New York doesn't rank very highly on the Literary Cities list. :)

Colleen--I think that this is going to be a moot point before long. When the traditional print reviews are gone, everyone will be grateful for litblogs.

I honestly don't want print reviews to go away, Gail - I just want everyone to co-exist with some mutual respect. (Dreaming, maybe?)

And as for NY - I think it's a great city but coming from FL, AK and now the Pacific Northwest, I don't have a clue what it is like to be in or from NYC. My agent lives there though, so I'm gong to play nice!

I would rather they didn't go away, either, for many reasons. Things may turn around, of course.

One thing I think the whole blog review vs. traditional print review polarization illustrates is that in our culture there is no such thing as different but equal. If two things are different, an assumption is always made that one is superior to (or one is inferior to, take your pick) the other. Which is not what different means at all.

Excellent point Gail - and I would say that history has, quite depressingly, proven you to be true.

Colleen, thanks, as always, for your informed and balanced defense of the literary blogosphere. I especially liked your point, in the comments, that you just want everyone to exist with mutual respect. I mean, we're talking about people who love and respect books, and want people to read them. How can there be so much conflict over who has more of a right to write about the books? (I know, I'm being naive, but still...).

I don't think anyone in the blogosphere envisioned this conflict either, Jen. It makes no sense at all.

Wow, what a great post, Colleen.

I feel badly about the collapse of the book pages and much worse about the unemployment of talented people. But why go after the bloggers? No one is saying, why should I buy a paper when I can get my reviews on the web. The problem is that *everyone* is saying, why should I buy a paper when I can get all my news and more on the web. I must admit that I no longer purchase newspapers. Sometimes I'll buy TLS for fun, but never a newspaper. It's ecologically unfriendly and, frankly, I can find all the news online--including much more foreign coverage. (I read Russian and British news daily in addition to NYT and WaPo. I get a much broader picture that way than relying just on U.S. papers.) Reviewers, unfortunately, are just the first to go. Unless newspapers can find a way to turn a profit online, journalists are the next.

On a totally unrelated note--how is an "audiobook" a genre? That was just WEIRD.

I've been thinking the same thing Kelly - we do not get a paper here either, and read WaPo, Reuters, the Guardian, etc. online everyday instead. I can see if you lived in NYC or any other city and wanted local info - that makes some sense, but I'm torn on the book review issue. Does losing book reviews really spell the end of literacy in America? That just seems like too much of a stretch to me. There's really no way to measure the impact of a review versus everything else as the books that are generally widely reviewed in papers are also widely reviewed online and on tv programs.

As for audiobooks - I can't help you with that one. His whole comment was bizarre!

Colleen,

I just pray that you won't let Mr. Dirda's intemperate remarks stop you from signing the petition to bring back the newspaper book sections. If you don't sign, that might make it just the one extra person that would have changed the big business guys' minds. Do you want the responsibility for killing these sections on your hands?

Also, if you would be so kind, please sign my petition to Fox to bring back "The O.C." so we can enjoy having Ryan, Seth, et al. back in our homes every Thursday night again. Thanks!

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