What I take most from Sven Birkerts's contribution to the anti-blog campaign is that there are some critics who have so utterly fetishized ink-on-paper, or who are so thoroughly invested in "print" and its its "biases and hierarchies" (Birkerts's own words) that they will attach themselves to the last sheet of paper passing through the last printing press before they will turn to the pixel as an alternative. (At which point they will no doubt endorse it as if their protests had never been never uttered, since where else are they going to go?)
Birkerts has been worrying over the transformation of print-based reading into digital-based reading for quite a long time now, so he is probably more entitled than most of the other blog-bashers to question the value of literary blogs. And his criticism is less that any particular blogs are deficient in critical standards or acumen than that the blogosphere as a whole is not able to provide "authority and accountability," which are apparently Birkerts's bottom-line criteria for worthwhile literary criticism. For Birkerts, there is an inherent, metaphysical difference between print and blog that makes the former not just superior but absolutely crucial in maintaining anything that could be called "literary life" at all.
Suffice it to say I find this notion absurd. Birkerts proceeds according to a number of fixed assumptions that to me are not fixed at all. One is that blogs are "predatory" on print sources. This is, of course, the same old charge that's been leveled against blogs since they first began to threaten the hegemony of print, and where litblogs are concerned, it becomes less true with every passing day and with every new litblog that comes to my attention. Increasingly, litblogs use print articles as a jumping-off point for further commentary that has much more in mind than simply pointing readers to the source. This sort of thing has long gone on in academic criticism, which often similarly uses previously published commentary as a touchstone, something that motivates additional commentary, a response that broadens the critical discussion. Journalists and book reviewers, it would seem, are not to be responded to in this way. Their words have authority.
Another such assumption is that the blogosphere is "fluid," a "slipstream" in which the unwary reader can get too easily "lost," whereas print book reviews provide an "echoing wall" back from which "the sounds produced by individual writers and thinkers are returned as a larger coherence." I suppose it is possible to become entirely passive when navigating the blogosphere, letting the links and cross-references lull you into a critical somnolence, but I don't quite see why this is inherently a feature of blog-reading. Couldn't you pull yourself out of the "slipstream" and exert some critical intelligence of your own? Couldn't you muster up some "coherence" yourself, rather than waiting for some "authority" to provide it? Besides, the days when most blogs provided primarily links are coming to an end, for the reasons I indicated above. The free-standing blog post, without "predatory" designs on print sources (or in which such sources are themselves "supplements" to the post), will only become more common. (Are in fact already common: many of the blogs listed on my blogroll to the right consistently feature these kinds of linkless posts.) At the very least, there's no reason to believe that the "slipstream" defines the blogosphere, except insofar as there are many good blogs, and you could get "lost" trying to keep track of them.
Perform a thought experiment: Sven Birkerts publishes one of his reviews on his own blog rather than in one of the newspaper book review sections. Does it thereby get lost in the slipstream, its content too "fluid" to manifest "authority and accountability"? Does it automatically lose its authority? Having "New York Times" stamped on it is what finally confers authority, regardless of how compelling the review is in and of itself? Is literature really well-served by this specious, artificially-induced authority?
Predictably enough, "editing" has its role to play in the print world of authority and accountability:
The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach.
I really don't understand why Birkerts would so directly oppose "editing" and "thinking." I myself, I now admit, do a fair amount of "editing" of my own posts. I try to put them together with some care, and I think I'm my own best editor. But I edit precisely to clarify my thinking, enhance my thinking, not to erase all signs of its taking place. If it nevertheless comes off as "idiosyncratic," so be it. I'd rather encounter the idiosyncracies of writers thinking through the implications of their responses to books they've read than most of the book reviews published according to "traditional print-based standards," if what I see in most of the Sunday book reviews are the fruits of these standards. Birkerts's "authority and accountability" and Gary Kamiya's "distance and objectivity and humility" are just self-justifying buzzwords invoked by writers who seem increasingly desperate to differentiate themselves from anarchic bloggers who won't hold themselves "accountable" to the powers that be (and who might be in the process of stealing their audience).
Ultimately, Birkerts wants to preserve a space for "unhurried thinking," a phrase he takes from Cynthia Ozick's recent essay on the decline of literary criticism. I do too, but I can't say I think he makes a very good case that the conventional book review as practiced in mainstream book review sections is a good forum for this kind of thinking. Some good critics (Birkerts frequently enough among them) are able to exhibit considered judgment and unhurried thinking in their reviews, but by and large the newspaper book review is a lost cause, done in by the consumerist approach increasingly adopted by most newspapers and by editorial myopia. Not much thinking at all goes on in most newspaper reviews, just rote plot summaries and stale recitations of received wisdom.
In my opinion, "unhurried thinking" is more likely to be cultivated in literary blogs than in the dwindling pages of newpapers and magazines. Bloggers have no imposed deadlines, no restrictions on the kinds of books that can be discussed, no need to stick to the stifling conventions of "literary journalism." As Frank Wilson (himself the editor of a newspaper review section) puts it in his own response to Birkerts, "Nothing is stopping anybody from being unhurried in their thinking, letting their views ripen, so that no nuance is released before its time - and posting the results online when they feel ready to. Just because the Web allows one to do things quickly doesn't mean that everything done there must be done quickly." The "fluidity" about which Birkerts complains can just as easily be channeled into productive chains of discussion that far surpass print book reviews in both depth and breadth and that will establish their own kind of "authority." Litbloggers don't have to be "accountable" to editors or to Sven Birkerts or to anyone else beyond the curious readers who can regard literary weblogs as "echoing walls," or can just go with the flow.
UPDATE See also this response to Birkerts's essay at The Wooden Spoon.
UPDATE Also this.