Much of Steve Wasserman's Columbia Journalism Review article is concerned with delineating newspapers' obligation to cover "books as news that stays news." He suggests that this means reviewing books "of enduring worth," which in turn suggests an emphasis on work of inherent literary value. I think most people would understand this to signify specifically works of literature--fiction and poetry, although some occasional works of nonfiction might also be included as achieving "enduring worth" as well. Indeed, in further indentifying "news that stays news," Wasserman asserts that "It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities. . . ."
But in his otherwise cogent enough defense of "serious criticism" in newspapers and other general-interest print publications, Wasserman doesn't really focus with much particularity on literary criticism. It is more or less conflated with discussion of "books" more generally, as if the latest academic tome on American foreign policy or most recent biography of William Randolph Hearst were equally the subject of "criticism" as a new novel by Richard Powers or new collection of poems by John Ashbery. As if the "news" conveyed by The 9-11 Commission Report were the same kind of news conveyed by Falling Man.
In fact, what Wasserman really has in mind is the kind of social analysis or cultural criticism described by Leon Wieseltier (as quoted by Wasserman): the "long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers." While most good novels do not offer "obvious or easy answers," I don't think it's the interpretation of fiction that Wieseltier has in mind here. Novels might sometimes provide grist for the cultural critic's rhetorical mill, but ultimately "criticism" as Wasserman and Wieseltier understand it is an "elite" discourse through which learned commentators discuss the cultural, political, and historical forces bearing down on "society" as it is reflected in all forms of expression. (I don't object to learned commentary per se, but I do like my learned commentary on literature to be about literature.) As Wasserman himself puts it, "the fundamental idea at stake in a novel—in the criticism of culture generally—is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself." It is the critic's role to sketch out this "self-image of society."
Suffice it to say I don't have much use for this conception of the critic's role, at least not if we're going to persist in calling such a critic a "literary" critic. It's telling that Wasserman singles out The New York Review of Books and The New Republic as exemplars of the kind of reviewing practice to which he aspired when the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (and presumably still does). As Michael Orthofer has recently pointed out, and as I have argued previously, the NYROB (for a long time now ) and TNR (increasingly) have more or less abandoned the task of reviewing fiction on any consistent basis. Only the most highly promoted, "big" novels, or novels by already established "big" authors get reviewed in these publications, and, especially in NYROB, the reviews are usually quite perfunctory, given length only by the tedious practice of dwelling on biographical details or surveying the author's career in an equally apathetic fashion. While both NYROB and TNR have sizable reputations for their supposedly weighty reviews and critical commentary, most of the weight comes precisely from discussions of books, mostly nonfiction, that illustrate how society "reasons with itself, describes itself," etc. (some might say it comes from the intensity of the commentators' own self-regard), not from "long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate" analyses of works of fiction or poetry.
Thus the whole ongoing debate about whether "serious criticism" can take place online or only in print is at best a red herring. Very little serious criticism of literature takes place in print to begin with, aside from the conventional, mechanical book-report review, which Wasserman concedes is, on the whole, "shockingly mediocre" as carried out by most American newspapers. "The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers," he writes. "One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration." The question is, at least for me, not whether print is superior to pixels or whether the online medium can sustain serious literary criticism, but whether there is or will be such criticism available at all to those who want more than the "pablum" spiced up as criticism to be found in newspapers or the "long, thoughtul" exercises in fake wisdom on display at the "premiere" mainstream print journals. (Wasserman also mentions Bookforum, so I must hasten to add that I agree with his assessment of this publication. It is one of the few--perhaps now the only--book review that features actual literary criticism, and in more than token gestures.)
This is why I still hold out hope that blogs, or whatever subsequent online forms they might morph into, can serve as sites offering "serious criticism" of literature, both canonical and contemporary (but maybe especially the latter). Print may or may not be the more adequate medium for the kind of long and thoughtful meditation Wasserman and Wieseltier obviously prefer, but since newspapers are only offering less and less space for such efforts, and since print magazines and journals seem to favor the meandering "think pieces" over focused literary analysis, those of us who would simply like to see both contemporary literature and literary criticism continue to flourish don't really have the luxury of waiting for print editors to see the light or for would-be literary critics to quit noodling around. If blogs are attracting people, both writers and readers, who are enthusiastically engaged in discussions of literature, then I can't see any reason why the literary weblog or the online literary journal (or both together) can't be credible forums for "serious criticism."
The recent spate of articles deploring online discourse have raised various objections to this notion. The most easily dismissed is the assertion that criticism requires "authority" on the part of the critic and that blogs are too numerous and too dispersed to acquire such authority. While I can agree with Wasserman or with Richard Schickel that not every critical opinion is worthy of repect unless backed up with accompanying support and analysis (in Schickel's case, a point articulated in an essay mostly lacking either), there's nothing that automatically confers authority on a book review or critical commentary simply because it appears in print or that detracts from that authority because it appears online. Wasserman claims to agree with this ("content rules"), but also apparently accepts the further claim that most litblogs don't attempt such criticism, anyway, and that they lend themselves primarily to a cacophany of strident voices. Rohan Maitzen confesses that she, too, held such a view (actually she acknowledges she had no idea that blogs engaged in "serious criticism" even existed, a state of knowledge she also, as it turns out, shared with Schickel and Wasserman) but now, she writes: "I've been reading through the archives of some lively blog debates related to my own questions about the terms and tendencies of contemporary academic literary criticism. . .Following the long chains of arguments and rebuttals, examples and counter-examples, I'm struck with a familiar sense of futility: when so much has been said by so many so often, what can I hope to add? I'm also struck, though, by just how unaware I was that conversations of quite this kind were going on."
That Adam Kirsch hasn't taken the time to survey existing blogs to make sure his claims can stand scrutiny doesn't make his unexamined assumptions valid (precisely the opposite, in fact). Literary blogs and online publications will gather "authority" just as print-based publications did so: through what they produce.
Another objection, one that clearly underpins Steve Wasserman's essay, is that criticism must be "long" before it is "thoughtful" and since blogs by their very nature can't accomodate lengthy analysis they can't be thoughtful. It is still probably an open question whether the blog form will allow for the kind of analysis Wasserman has in mind (this will be settled at least as much by readers as by writers, depending on whether we overcome the "screen fatigue" that some readers profess to develop with longer forms of online prose), but it is certainly true there is no defensible case to be made that that sort of analyis is impossible on blogs. However, if blog detractors were to sample, say, the shorter posts sometimes offered by Steve Mitchelmore (This Space) or on a regular basis by Jonathan Mayhew , they would surely see that "deliberate analysis" can occur in shorter, more compacted blog posts as readily as in the conventionally drawn-out critical essays they champion. Jonathan's deliberately condensed bursts of insight are more discerning about poetry than almost anything else I read (and I read quite a lot about poetry, even if I don't post all that much about it on TRE.) Bloggers like these just may demonstrate in the long run that "thoughtful" literary criticism doesn't always have to be "long" and that the "patience" requested by certain windy critics might not really be worth the time.
A final objection lodged against literary blogs is that the kind of reading they encourage is too frenetic, that the hyperlinks they provide make them hyperactive. Such skipping hither and yon interrupts the cogitative process, turns critical analysis into a game of tag, a cross-blog competion for links. To me, however, the interractive and recursive features of blogs are their most valuable and distinctive, the features most likely to result in the internet/blogosphere making a real contribution to literary criticism. Of course they can be used as excuses for gossip, shortcuts to thinking, or for cheap self-aggrandizement, but ultimately their additional, more purposeful potential for exploring implications and extending lines of thought will surely be exploited more fully as well. Links, whether external to other sites considering in-common subjects and themes or internal to archived posts representing previously-expressed thoughts on a given issue, provide an opportunity to extend debate and reintroduce relevant ideas in new contexts. Even in this post, I have offered a half a dozen links, each of which if pursued through other links and comment threads could lead to substantive discussions of both the immediate subject at hand and other, related subjects to create a reading experience almost impossible to duplicate through traditional print sources. This sort of experience, by which one is led to parallel analyses and direct response, often without having expected to encounter such a vigorous exchange of views, is one I have myself increasingly come to appreciate in my own reading of literary blogs, and I would like to think that blog skeptics, if they bothered to investigage what good literary blogs actually have to offer, would eventually themselves find this form of critical discourse as substantial and satisfying as I do.
In one of the installments of the apparently eternal series of "panel discussions" on book reviewing foisted on us by the National Book Critics Circle, Dwight Garner, according to Richard Grayson's account of the session, proclaimed that he and his colleagues at the New York Times Book Review turn to blogs not for criticism but "for news of the publishing world and gossip." Other panelists seemed to agree that this is what blogs are good for. On the one hand, this is just more evidence of the dense-headedness and incuriosity of Garner and his ilk, the self-appointed "gatekeepers" of mainstream book criticism. If they were truly interested in the "serious criticism" of literature, they would actively be looking in more than the usual places for anyone, in print or on blogs, who might be offering it. But they aren't, and they don't. On the other hand, that they can and do find blogs that supply them with their gossip is evidence enough that the literary blog as it has evolved over the 4-5 years of its existence indeed encompasses a large category of blogs that do little more than gabble on about the "book business" and its hangers-on practicing what is called "literary journalism." If anything, many of these blogs are even more sychophantic than the literary journalists themselves.
This has been a fairly predictable development of the approach taken by many of the founding literary bloggers, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient one. Most of the early bloggers did not simply link to "literary news" as an excuse for mindless chatter. They offered smart, often trenchant and contrarian takes on this news. If they hadn't, literary blogs would never have captured readers' attention the way they obviously enough did. (They certainly would never have attracted my attention as they did.) The collective existence of these weblogs, each contributing distinctive observations on books and book discussion, gave readers who happened upon them a perspective on the current literary scene that print criticism clearly was not providing. The literary blogosphere has now expanded to include more comprehensive and sustained commentary (including by many of the original bloggers themselves), but most of its critics seem fixated on what they perceive as the "chatty" qualities of the link-and-comment style of blogging. It allows them to continue in their condescension toward blogs, but I think I can even now hear the sound of their perches of "authority" crumbling.
UPDATE Kassia Krozier also gives Steve Wasserman a piece of her mind.