Sunday, May 27, 2007

Critics Vs. Bloggers Vs. Bookfraud Vs. Godzilla

Now that Baby is over one month old and the initial round of family visits is over, I can devote myself to more important matters at hand: finding new ways to procrastinate.

Really, my brain has been the consistency of banana pudding and my energy level is two steps above entropy. Not that I want to make excuses, for I might have been able to crank out a few desultory paragraphs over the past few weeks. They would have read as if written by an infant, completely apropos of my situation.

Oh, yeah, what was I thinking? Damn. Oh, yes. Literary criticism.

Literary criticism has never been my strong suit, and although I've been asked to pen a review of a certain book, I look at the practice with trepidation. I don’t really know what I can add to the world's bucket of words regarding a piece of literature, other to say that I liked it, I hated it, I thought it blew more ass than a enema machine (see what I mean about not anything to the conversation?).

Now comes along this great controversy about newspapers dropping book reviewers, signaled when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided to ditch its book editor in a cost-cutting move. This created a predictable amount of hand wringing among critics, and backlash among bloggers, whose book reviewing efforts are about as welcomed by critics as canned soup in a three-star restaurant.

Proof positive of the Apocalypse

The pro-blogger school of thought is that a blog-borne world of literary criticism will bring a more democratic environment to book reviews. Feh, say the professional critics. Blogging is no more criticism than the lunatic on the soapbox screaming that the end of the world is nigh because Ethan Hawke has published two novels and Bookfraud none.

But this is easy to diagnose. Critics are scared because newspapers dropping book editors means less work for them. Bloggers are the literary equivalent of outsourcing to Bangalore. Bloggers are the critics' worst nightmare. Not because critics are fungible, but because bloggers are essentially reviewing books for their own edification. In other words, we have an opinion of our own we think is worth sharing, if only to 15 others.

Granted, the level of erudition may be low and the insights crude; the binary "thumbs up-thumbs down" generally rules in cyberspace. You gotta wonder why some people even bother.

Still, it misses the point entirely. Some critics must have pretty inflated opinions of themselves, or at least at the size of their readership: outside from Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and a few others, there aren't many literary critics or book reviewers that carry weight with the public.

What’s more telling is that the shrinking of the critical class indicates the sad fact fewer people are interested in books than just a few years ago.

There wouldn’t be this discussion if the public gave a flying fuck about fiction (and non-fiction. There are far more people analyzing “Americal Idol” and Paris Hilton’s jail time than, say, the latest Michael Chabon novel.

If the United States was a nation of dedicated readers, each newspaper would review books each day. Someone might even give me a job reviewing books. But the number of readers is shrinking like my laundry misappropriated to the wrong drying cycle, and the literary review is getting marginalized to blogs, Web sites, and other lower-traffic media. Bloggers aren’t replacing critics, they’re filling a non-existent demand.

Critics to bloggers: Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down

The book review is an essential part of the literary landscape – without it, fiction in our society would be reduced to irrelevance as an art form. And no writer in his or her right mind would advocate for fewer book reviews in daily newspapers. I know, it's a circular thing: more book reviews, more interest in books, more readers, more book reviews, etc.

But bloggers haven’t made things worse — if they have incrementally increased readership in the general public, it can’t be a bad thing.

(I understand that the entry above has no relevance on anything, but I haven’t posted in nearly two weeks, and I were to dally further, I might as well put a bullet in the entire endeavor. Blogging for its own sake. Forgive me.)