In a post criticizing science fiction blogs for allowing "the SF blogosphere [to] become a venue for crassly commercial interests far more concerned with selling things than encouraging intelligent discussion," Jonathan McCalmont notes my own previous post distinguishing between "liblogs" and "critblogs" and suggests such a distinction is "more about retreating from the existing public sphere than it is about changing it."
I think he's probably right, although I would describe the effort to establish the category of "critblog" more as a separation of blog-centered critical writing from the necessarily ephemeral "daily digest" style of blogging than a full-on retreat from the "public sphere." Nevertheless, I share McCalmont's dismay that many litblogs have simply accomodated themselves to the "public sphere" of superficial literary discourse rather than continuing in the attempt to provide an alternative to that discourse. This is even more discouraging for "mainstream" literary fiction and criticism, since it gives in not merely to the commercialization McCalmont decries in the SF community but also to the unexamined assumptions and shallow thinking that make journalism-based commentary on "literary fiction" so crippling to begin with.
McCalmont correctly notes that
whenever commercial interests enter into a public space, they change the focus of discussion from what is good or interesting, to what is worth buying. We can see this effect in the fondness of the SF blogosphere for book covers, give-aways, recycled press releases and interviews that are far more interested in what an author has to sell than in the subtleties of their writing or world-view. By contrast, actual substantial reviews are few and far between (especially outside of specialised review sites) and when they do appear they are seldom discussed, seldom linked to and seldom responded to.
I don't know that I would say most mainstream litblogs are "far more interested in what an author has to sell than in the subtleties of their writing or world-view", but there is a distressing number of "give-aways, recycled press releases," and perfunctory interviews in the literary blogosphere as a whole, and "substantial reviews," sustained critical reflection in general, certainly are all too often "seldom discussed" in comment threads. Too much space is given over to perpetuating the "book business" status quo, reinforcing middlebrow standards and enabling market-driven reviewing practices rather than challenging and critiquing them.
Yet I do think it's ultimately pointless to expend too much energy directed at "changing" the literary public sphere, either generally ("literary journalism") or literally (the public blogo-sphere). Capitalism will continue to trump literary worth among the big publishers, gossip and book business fandom will continue to dominate high-profile literary discussion. Many litblogs will be swept up (have been swept up) into the publicity machine. Trying to halt all of this is as futile as the effort to make fiction palatable to nonreaders, which is finally what motivates the existing public sphere in publishing and book reviewing in the first place.
Even so, the blog remains a useful publishing tool, and the blogosphere a valuable publishing medium. Just as it was always possible--although harder to do for financial reasons--to maintain a space for worthwhile literary criticism in print among all the reams of wasted paper that constitute the majority of what appears in print form, it is entirely possible to stake out a segment of cyberspace for nontrivial criticism, notwithstanding the possibility that what was the literary blogosphere will drift into irrelevance. The audience for such criticism might be targeted and modest in size, but such has always been the case for any literary criticism that takes itself, and the work it considers, seriously.