In his response to the spat between litbloggers and n + 1 over "The Blog Reflex," Scott Esposito observed that, however simplistic the n +1 analysis really was, literary blogs nevertheless "could use a little honest, intelligent criticism."
I agree. I even agree that some of what "The Blog Reflex" had to say is worth considering, even if it is also true that it isn't clear really "how much n + 1 reads blogs," as Scott further points out. There are indeed more weblogs in the litblogosphere that take advantage of the medium "to post the best they could think or say" than are dreamt of in Keith Gessen and Marco Roth's philosophies, whether or not these blogs feature "5,000 word critiques" (although there are some of those, as well.) I would hope that most readers of this blog would agree that it mostly attempts to do that, although I do also provide links and shout-outs, which seem to me perfectly appropriate, and even worthwhile, activites, especially if you believe, as I do, that literary blogs can be useful in fostering an ongoing discussion about literary matters, a discussion that could be enhanced simply by pointing readers to other participants or to information relevant to it. Thus while some acts of linking and pasting do undoubtedly contribute to the culture of high-speed trivia, others could just as readily advance serious discourse about literature as citations and bibliographies in more recognizably "scholarly" forms of writing.
I also agree that sometimes those bloggers who by and large don't offer longer posts and reviews but instead comment on literary news and issues in a more epigrammatic style actually condense their views too severely--if not to the "I shit on Dante" extreme of unsupported opinionizing then at least too casually to merit much consideration by serious people. However, Gessen and Roth are wrong to imply that all blogs using this compact method of posting are equally frivolous or worthy of scorn. Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation seems to particulary rile up Gessen and Roth, but if they bothered to read that blog over the long haul, rather than focusing on individual posts that don't satisfy their expectations, they would certainly find that TEV expresses "an acute and well-stocked sensibility," one as "acute" as anything to be found in n +1 or any other literary journal. On many blogs, "sensibility" emerges cumulatively, over a longer stretch of shorter posts. Regular readers of The Elegant Variation surely know quite well what kind of writing and writers Mark Sarvas admires and why he admires them. If Gessen and Roth don't want to put in the time required to become acquainted with this or that blogger's sensibility, so be it. But their blanket assertions that "litblogs" don't engage in seriously-intended commentary about books and literature is just factually incorrect.
Still, it does seem to me that too many litblogs do settle for the link/quote/quip style without adding anything substantial or distinctive to the conversation about current literary developments. There's a great deal of overlap, too many bloggers linking to the same items who don't have the same powers of aphoristic insight as Mark Sarvas or Ed Champion or who just contribute to the creation of a real enough kind of herd mentality emanating from a large enough part of the litblogosphere. To some extent, this may be what the "Blog Reflex" is trying to get at, however much its authors made this point difficult to debate because of the deliberately hostile way in which it was expressed. If so, I can accept the implicit critique even if it was manifestly overgeneralized and needlessly contemptuous (as were Gessen and Roth's further comments at The Millions, TEV, and The Valve.)
On the other hand, this criticism really only applies if the litblogs in question truly do aspire to participate in the larger, more nationally focused discourse about books, to be part of some broader effort to rival, even replace, traditional print publications. And obviously many of them don't. They're content to provide links to a smaller circle of congenial readers and to engage in what is sometimes sneeringly referred to as "book chat." I'm not much interested in such chat myself, but it's only when this kind of book discussion, whether online or in print (where it most certainly does occur) passes itself off as rigorous criticism (or itself sneers at actual literary criticism) that I look at it askance. And I don't know why Keith Gessen and Marco Roth would puff themselves up with indignation over these blogs, either. They're not propping up the capitalist order, and they encourage people to read.
I do worry about the ways in which litblogs, especially the more well-known and influential ones, have in effect established a too cozy relationship with the "book business." Thus the question asked by G & R--"Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exists who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred?"--is well worth the posing. Certainly publishers have not stopped employing publicists and advertising in book reviews, but I am uncomfortable with the speed with which literary weblogs transformed themselves from quasi-outsider sources of literary debate into friendly partners with book publishers and other affiliates of the book business. I myself do indeed accept review copies from a number of publishers--and sometimes solicit them--but I never state or imply that I intend to review a book no matter my ultimate response to it, and especially don't promise a favorable review. (This seems to me the likely policy Gessen and Roth follow in their own consideration of publisher-provided copies.) The vast majority of books I have received in this way I have not mentioned on this blog at all. I'll review/discuss a book if it raises issues I otherwise want to discuss or if I am overwhelmingly impressed with it. If this means I will receive fewer "free advance copies" in the future, so be it. I still make enough money (barely) to buy books if I need to.
The best kind of relationship between bloggers and publishers is that described by Mark Thwaite at The Book Depository:
The blogosphere is a conversation. And the first thing publishers need to do is to join that conversation, not seek to dominate it. How do they do that? Well, they get a blog and they start blogging! But I’d recommend that they don’t simply use the blog as a publicity blog. . .
To get the most out of their blog, publishers need it to be a genuine part of the wider conversation about books that is the blogosphere, but one that just happens to be hailing from a place that also happens to publish books. . .
In other words, the publishers should come to the blogosphere, not the other way around.
But I also think that Gessen and Roth are mistaken to assert that what litbloggers really want from their interactions with publishers and their consideration of particular books is "recognition" measured in "hits." I can remember the earlier days of the litblogosphere--before "mainstream" recognition came our way and we were courted by book publishers in the first place--when it was true that links from other bloggers--at that time our numbers were considerably fewer--were highly prized, a sign that your blog was accepted into the "self-sustaining community," as G & R put it. But that time has long passed. The kind of incestuous cross-blogging for which litbloggers were originally (and sometimes justifiably) criticized essentially disappeared once litblogs began to draw wider attention. Most of the ur-litblogs--TEV, Maud Newton, Moorish Girl, Silliman's Blog--report their news and views from sources that are as unimpeachably newsworthy as anything n + 1 itself surveys. These blogs no longer need the click-throughs that pump up one's hit count, anyway, but I nonetheless believe that even those of us in the lower-rent disticts, who do benefit from the links we still occasionally get from the plusher quarters, are not fishing for links and do not blog primarily for recognition and to secure our "niches."
If the n +1 critique of blogs is that they trivialize the discussion of literature, I can't agree. The rise of litblogs has been, on the whole, a positive development for serious book discussion. If, however, the charge is that sometimes litblogs focus on trivialities, I think the allegation has some merit. The year-end obsession with "best-of" lists (shared, of course, with mainstream print publications) almost makes me want to stop reading litblogs during the month of December, and the constant monitoring of prizes and awards doesn't do much for me, either. I could not have had less interest in the most recent "tournament of books." But ultimately such annoyances are more than balanced by the enhanced attention to fiction and poetry litblogs have cumulatively brought to bear and by the possibilities for new forms of criticism they continue to promise. Perhaps if the editors of n + 1 themselves paid more attention to the whole range of literary weblogs that are now available (and not just to the mentioning of their own names in the most prominent of blogs), they would come to see that as well.