The very first post on The Reading Experience weblog was a "statement of purpose" that included the following justification of attempting to do literary criticism online:
Literary criticism is greatly in need of revitalization, as mainstream publications confine their coverage mostly to gossip and the book business, their book reviews becoming more and more perfunctory when not being eliminated altogether, while the academy, once entrusted with the job of engaging with works of literature, has mostly abandoned it altogether in favor of "cultural studies" and other forms of political posturing. I would hope, in fact, that this blog could work as a kind of bridge between blogs and other general interest literary publications and what was once called "literary study"--which in my mind is simply the willingness to take works of literature seriously.
In a later post, I briefly chronicled my own disillusionment with academic literary study:
My alienation from academe was in part a reaction against the prevailing modes of academic criticism, which in my view had essentially abandoned "literature itself" in favor of critical approaches that were mostly just a way of doing history or sociology by other means. I had pursued a Ph.D in literary study in order to study literature, not to validate my political allegiances on the cheap, or to study something called "culture," an artifact of which literature might be considered but given no more emphasis than any other cultural "expression." I was looking to find a way to write literary criticism that continued to focus on the literary qualities of literature, and to that end had published several critical essays in publications that would still print such efforts when I happened upon the first literary weblogs. I soon enough concluded there was no reason the literary blog could not accommodate a form of literary criticism--longer than the typical kind of post I was seeing on the extant litblogs but shorter than the conventional scholarly article or long critical essay. Trying out these possibilities has been the ongoing project of this blog. . . .
If anything, the decline of book review sections I described in the first post has only continued apace, to the point that book reviews as part of newspaper "coverage" will likely disappear altogether within a few more years, while academic criticism remains as clueless about literature as it did when I abandoned it. Literary criticism that focuses "on the literary qualities of literature" still needs to be recovered, although the rise and development of literary weblogs since I created my own has indeed contributed to a process of such recovery. There are now more sources of serious discussion of new (and old) fiction on blogs and numerous other book review sites than were ever available when book reviewing was dominated by newspapers and a handful of magazines, and this discussion is at least as well-informed as the old print-based criticism and generally avoids academic pretension.
In my statement of purpose, I also indicated that I wanted to use the weblog form to try a "new kind of literary criticism, more compacted and concise, perhaps than conventional print lit crit, but serious criticism nonetheless." By "new" I did not mean criticism of some unprecedented or revolutionary insight but a less formulaic--in the case of book reviews--and a less discursively extended--in the case of scholarly criticism--approach that seemed appropriate for a medium that most readers expected to feature briefer and thus more "compacted" commentary. A weblog could "review" new fiction without reinscribing the conventions of the journalistic book review, and if the typical "post" on a weblog would not allow for an 8,000 word scholarly analysis, much of what is included in most scholarly essays is filler and rote rhetorical gesture, anyway. As became increasingly clear as I began to post the more "concise" critical essays I had in mind, the ease and immediacy of publication and the ability to link posts that characterize the weblog made it possible to revisit and serially expand on chosen issues, specific texts, or particular authors in a way that compensated for the need to abbreviate most individual posts.
After six years of posting criticism of this sort, I have concluded both that my original hope that what came to be called the litblog could enable a form of serious literary criticism had been warranted, and that my own blog was approaching an imposed limitation of sorts, imposed precisely by my practice of returning to those subjects that most engaged my interest as a critic. This practice was only reinforced by an assumption that many if not most readers were understandably not following all of my posts with the same degree of concentration I myself brought to them and thus a strategy of something like theme-and-variations would be necessary to keep the blog's most central concerns in steady circulation. While this strategy continued to provoke some lively discussions in comment threads and resulted in posts that still managed to advance my own thinking about the subjects considered, eventually I had to acknowledge they were nevertheless being overworked. Since The Reading Experience came into existence essentially as a vehicle for exploring these subjects, I also had to acknowledge that this weblog, at least in its originally conceived version, would have to be retired.
If the blog had reached the end of its usefulness, however, the writing I had posted to it retained its value, or so I believe, at least. In many ways, in fact, the writing, reduced to a core of representative selections, amounted to a coherent, extended articulation of those main concerns with which the blog had been occupied; in effect, the book I might have written had I not instead used The Reading Experience as medium could be fashioned from my TRE posts, a book that would both sum up what I had attempted to accomplish with the weblog form and perhaps stand on its own as a work of literary criticism. This is that book, borrowing the weblog's title--the significance of which as overarching theme should become clear enough as the reader progresses through the text--and otherwise distilling the blog's content to what I think of as its essence. I have arranged the selected posts in what seems to me a suitable order reflecting the coverage of issues readers of the blog encountered, in some cases have edited the posts substantially to integrate them more effectively into book form, and in other cases have added wholly new material to be found only in this book version.
Readers will have to judge for themselves whether this book affirms my original intuition that the literary weblog could support serious criticism and ultimately whether the book itself does hold up as an adaptation of the critical writing that began as posts on The Reading Experience weblog. I can say for myself, however, that the effort to produce criticism of substance on a regular basis, as well as the subsequent time spent reinforcing that effort by putting together the book version of The Reading Experience, have been even more rewarding than I might have imagined when first thinking about experimenting with a "new" kind of literary criticism.