What do you get if you cross an internet blogger with a newspaper critic? One could be forgiven for expecting something of a clash, all things considered. Reassuringly, there were no scuffles at this evening’s English PEN event and a surprising degree of consensus as bloggers, critics and academics alike joined a lively audience to debate one of today’s most pertinent questions: does the ever-expanding blogosphere spell a welcome end to exclusivity, or do we still need a voice of authority?
‘The atmosphere we all breathe has changed,’ announced Erica Wagner (literary editor of The Times) somewhat profoundly. ‘I think it’s wonderful there are so many voices out there now. Books are such personal things; everyone reads in a different way It’s a good thing that there’s not one critical voice pronouncing the truth from the mountain.’
Indeed, it does appear that the literary floodgates, once guarded by a dusting of academics, are now open to all and sundry. But while John Mullan (book critic and professor) welcomed the shift away from the type of literary academia that was ‘totally sealed off with arcane vocabulary’, Sam Leith (former literary editor at The Telegraph and ‘writer at large’) suggested the gap between the different critical worlds is under a slightly false premise. ‘[Professional] literary criticisms have been amateur concerns and journalists – except those ghastly attempts to glamorise it with degrees – they’re all amateurs, some are hacks like me.’ Alex Clark (reviewer for The Guardian and chair of the panel,) admitted that she sometimes questions her own authority. ‘I ask myself: Who do you think you are? Nothing gives me the right… But then what gives the publisher the right to say, “this is astonishing” and charge £25?’
While both blogger and newspaper critic may now embrace a similar liberty – that of publically voicing their literary views – those in the print world are somewhat shackled by their restrictions on subjectivity. As Sam noted: ‘A critic is not sharing the experience; it’s a kind of buyers’ guide’, while Erica agreed that as a newspaper critic she has to be more careful in locating her criticism.
For Lynne Hatwell (founder of the popular literary blog dovegreyreader) it was the ‘critical and nasty’ blogs that prompted her to create a ‘nicer’ space. ‘It’s not about not being critical but a way of getting rid of the exclusivity,’ she explained. ‘I get a lot of flack for not posting negative reviews but I’m not getting paid; I don’t want to force myself to read a book I’m not enjoying, I’d have been miserable for weeks! I think you can combine a bit of academy with my subjective take. And I write emotionally which probably strikes a chord.’ It was refreshing to hear a newspaper critic fervently agree. ‘Personally, I’ve always been in Lynne’s camp,’ Erica said. ‘I want people to love books. If I really don’t like it I won’t [review it] life’s too short.’
However, Sam believed the real division between the two worlds is a matter of format, rather than a canonical set of rules. ‘You commission the number of reviews as the number of pages you’ve got. The internet reviews everything but there are not enough critics or patience of readers.’ Erica concurred. ‘I feel sorry for myself: I once had a stand-alone book section. [Now] I feel cramped and squashed but that’s nothing to do with bloggers!’ But she confessed that one downside of the internet is that such breadth of opinion can be quite daunting. ‘There is so much information out there coming from so many different places offering a wide spectrum of opinion. How do you decide who to listen to?’ John also found that accurate insight and observations are ‘few and far between’ in the blogosphere: ‘You have to wade and wade. It led me to think people want authority.’
So, Alex asked, has critical writing by people with the authority that we gave them now collapsed? Is a book review just a matter of ‘I really enjoyed this’ or do we need a gatekeeper? ‘It’s really hard,’ Erica said. ‘I’m interested in fairy tales and have this desire for the hero; we’re always looking for one person to lead the charge.’ John made an interesting point about the potential benefits from the academic perspective: ‘In the 80s and 90s it was obviously facile to say “Emma is really good” but the idea is that academic critics derive their authority by being able to explain why things are good.’ He argued that, from his experience, it was only after Paradise Lost was brilliantly explained that it opened up to him. ‘That’s what academics should do, that’s their job. In academia it’s something I do and I get paid for it. All I teach I love although,’ he added, lowering his voice, ‘entre nous, I’m not so keen on William Blake!’
Indeed, when it comes to the classics, there is often a certain stigma attached, as John discovered only too soon during his graduate days when studying Alexander Pope. ‘The teacher was weaving some web about enlightenment and intellectual genius. I asked (and was told never to ask again) do you think it’s worthwhile saying he’s good? He said: “That is a question but it’s not a question we find very interesting”. I never found out who “we” were.’ Lynne confessed there are books that frighten her. ‘Ulysses is a prime example,’ she said. But after discovering Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, she decided to take a year to tackle Joyce’s tome with an accompanying blog. ‘I hate the cliché but it demystified it. It became the best reading project I’d done. After I’d finished it I went shopping and wanted to turn to someone and say: “I’ve read Ulysses!”‘
For newspaper critics, choosing which book to review is no small feat – Erica receives a hefty 150 books a day and from this has to select 20 books a week. ‘That’s not a nice equation. You have to find some ways of setting the bar. However, it’s not hard to know that a proportion of those 150 books will be Roth or Atwood. The people you do genuinely worry about are the ones you’ve never heard of.’
This provoked a question from the audience about the commissioning process for reviewers amidst concerns of a certain ‘laziness’ which allows the likes of JG Ballad, Will Self and WG Sebald to create ‘a love triangle of psychogeography’. ‘I take your point,’ Erica replied. ‘But I think it’s more complicated than that. Psychogeography is complicated. You want someone who can talk intelligently and passionately about landscape. In 15 years of commissioning book reviews it’s a real challenge and delight to find the right book and the right reviewer.’ However, it appears that the New York Times exercises some rather extreme caution when it comes to the relationship between author and critic, as Erica pointed out. ‘In the NYT you can’t have stood in a room with the author! I was asked to review Paul Auster but I had [previously] interviewed him and that disqualified me from writing about him for the NYT.’
Lynne also admitted that ‘American boy writers’ like Philip Roth ‘terrified’ her. ‘I think there are lots of writers that scare you off. We had a doctors’ reading group and they chose Saul Bellow’s Herzog. I read it and found it very hard work. When I got there all the doctors said: “Oh God no, we didn’t read it, it was much too hard!” Alex agreed that a lot of writers – ‘a certain cadre of male writers’ – have their mystique created by an endless desire to canonise. ‘There seems no way to break that down.’
One audience member suggested this mystique could be caused by the subjective nature of reading ‘The reviewer says “this was fantastic” and then the reader thinks “I don’t get it so I must be wrong”.’ Alex agreed: ‘You feel like it’s a conversation you’re not part of. A blog expands that conversation.’ But it was Erica’s closing comment that put the whole debate into perspective: ‘Any conversation is one between the book and the reader, be it the professional critic or the person in the library; it’s completely personal.’
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/everyonesacritic/