The OF Blog: A Literary Rorschach Test: Thoughts on Peter Stothard's Recent Comments

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Literary Rorschach Test: Thoughts on Peter Stothard's Recent Comments

So another round in that epic clash between the bon ton and the hoi polloi has broken out over in the UK, this time centering around remarks made by Booker Prize chairman (and editor of the Times Literary Supplement) Peter Stothard regarding the pessimistic future of literary criticism.  Oh, how the retorts have been swift and biting!  If one were to play a drinking game in which one took a shot every time the word "snob" or "elitist/m" was used in those links, one would likely be comatose by now.  Hopefully, I will be pardoned or at least not drawn and quartered if I view with a skeptical eye many of the sentiments expressed in the links provided above.

The first thought that occurred to me is that I could not find a transcript of his comments.  That is understandable, as newspapers do edit their interviewees' comments into the space of a small column.  But here is the offending part of The Independent's column, at least for some:

The 61-year-old says: "There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. Quite unnecessarily."

"Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition," the former editor of The Times says. "It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone's opinion is worth the same."

The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, he says. "Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain't so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off. There are some important issues here."

When I read that piece yesterday, before the flood of blog responses began in earnest, I thought he had a valid point.  A critic is not the same as someone who goes on Goodreads or Amazon and leaves a star rating.  A critic is not someone who expresses his/her liking/disliking of a book.  A critic is not someone who describes how a book unfolds.  No, a critic is something different.  To me at least, a critic is someone who delves into the "whys" of a story, teasing out elements that bear further consideration (or in some cases, dismissal).  A good critic gives a reader a chance to (re)evaluate his/her own stances regarding the act of reading.

Yet in these type of reactions, you don't see the critic being portrayed as anything valuable.  Oh, no.  There is an underlying sense that one feels "attacked" when Stothard bemoans the apparent collapse of literary criticism beneath the sheer weight of other forms of literary discourse.  Let me turn this issue around and try and see this from Stothard's perspective.  I would imagine that he would probably counter some of the comments by asking simply, what reviews, blog-originated or otherwise, have you read lately that made you re-evaluate your position on what constitutes a "worthy" or "good" book?  I know for myself, it is increasingly difficult to find a review that does little more than just provide the reviewer's likes/dislikes, take them as you please.  Although there is some value, I suppose, in that style of review essay, is there really anything gained other than the reader finding someone who may confirm his/her already-held opinion on what types of works are worth reading?  I don't think one reads Goodreads reviews or those of several genre blogs (to use examples with which many readers here would be familiar) to learn anything about the art of writing or reading comprehension, but for those (such as myself) who do occasionally want something more, where do we turn?

The answers to that question are not pretty.  Newspapers and magazines traditionally have been the source for literary criticism that is more than two paragraphs long.  Yet over the past quarter-century, their coverage has been slashed in the US and likely elsewhere.  True, there are isolated blogs that do provide these voices (and Stothard is well aware of them, based on later comments), but how do you go about discovering them when you want something more than a review ending in 7.5/10?  From blogrolls and others' recs?  Sure, that'll work to a degree (this blog's blogroll does link to several who provide lit criticism), but it's hard to discover them on Google or elsewhere without wading through a lot of dreck.

Acknowledging this is not "being a snob."  One can find oneself longing for certain forms of literary review/criticism without dismissing out-of-hand newer media.  Stothard, I believe, is not dismissing blogging or online reviewing as much as he's expressing a fear that in this still-maturing online age, that certain voices that dare to dig deeper and to unearth things that are overlooked by the majority because they have chosen/are not capable of investing the time to explore why such a work is worth considering, that those voices will be drowned out by white noise.  I look at my shelves and I wonder if authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Delany, or Flannery O'Connor, just to name a few, would have achieved any sort of wide readership today if there were not critics as well as general readers praising their works and exploring just why their writings bear a closer examination.

It is too easy to get caught up in the rhetoric associated with "snob" or "elitist" and presume that the one expressing an opinion that runs counter to popular opinion is just fighting against an inexorable tide.  Perhaps that is so.  However, popular opinion does not mean that a work is good or that it will endure (true, the inverse is also correct).  But if those so-called "elitists" are dismissed with finality, who then will dare to go against populist takes?  That is the lingering question.


Justin said...

Well said, Larry.

I don't have much of a problem with his comments. He doesn't even bemoan the amateur reviewer. He just points out that it's different.

Larry Nolen said...

Yeah, I think part of the problem is that his comments (which I suspect are edited down to fit into certain pre-arranged "slots") trigger reactions from those who think they've heard this spiel before. One size certainly doesn't fit all when it comes to reviewing and readers shouldn't expect that.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to tempt you once more toward Barthes' Mythologies, having come to his (very short) essay Blind and Dumb Criticsm:

"But if one fears or despises so much the philosophical foundations of a book, and if one demands so insistently the right to understand nothing about them and to say nothing on the subject, why become a critic?"


James said...

His conclusion is exaggerated, but he makes a good point otherwise. I wan't bothered by what he had to say. I don't really review anymore though, so I ain't all that quick to get offended over nothing.

Larry Nolen said...

One day, Sajaan, one day! The only books I'm buying for the next few weeks are the ones shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as I plan on reviewing them the first two weeks of October.


I think he is a bit too pessimistic, but considering the uproar, I suspect some are proving some of his points unwittingly ;)

Heloise said...

Well, with genre fiction in particular (although it is by no means confined to that) you very often do find attitudes like "If so many people like it, it must be good", or "Nobody likes Ulysses, but millions of people bought Harry Potter, so that must be the better book". This is of course by no means a new phenomenon, but thanks to the interwebs it has become a very public one, and while one probably should not worry overmuch, becoming complacent is generally not a good idea either. I do wish Stothard would have come across as somewhat less condescending, but, like you apparently do as well, I suspect that the interview having been edited down to quotable bites might have something to do with that.

Larry Nolen said...

Agreed on all counts. It amazes me, despite my past experience saying it shouldn't, that too often people read a source uncritically and think that the medium is by nature objective and unbiased. While I suspect Stothard said more than what was quoted, what was presented was something that the journalist and editor knew would get attention and reactions. As seems to be the norm for the paper, The Guardian's online writers seem to be feeding off of this manufactured controversy. It's just seems that barely a month or even a week goes by without one of that paper's online staff writing something that inflames the popular/elite, literary/genre, class-based arguments.

I guess it makes money for them, so why stop?

Liviu said...

Two quick points: the divergence that Mr. Stothard seems to bemoan between popular opinion and literary fiction happened long ago and has nothing to do with the internet (see the top 10 US bestsellers list for 1950's vs 1990's per Publisher weekly and the names there and you will note the discrepancy as one has Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pasternak, Nabokov, S. de Beauvoir and many other "literary names", the other has Danielle Steel with probably 1/5 of the 100 novels, Stephen King with a few also and all the usual hacks, Grisham, Clancy, Patterson etc etc)

Second: curious what you'll think about the Booker shortlist which imho is actually quite far from the "ivory tower" impression that Mr. Stothard seems to give and is much more page turning than last year at least imho - only Umbrella which is a joke played on the reader is unreadable and a few books there are excellent(Swimming Home, Bring up the Bodies - maybe not as good as Wolf hall but still...) with The Garden of Evening Mists one of my top 5 novels of the year; even The Lighthouse which is closest i think to the navel gazing, self-absorbed stuff has some moving moments but it came too much as Sense of an ending light

Larry Nolen said...

I'll be reviewing the Booker shortlist starting next week. Have already read Bring up the Bodies and Swimming Home and think both are worlds better than virtually all of last year's shortlist. Only one I haven't read/don't own is Umbrella and that might not arrive until mid-October, just before the winner is announced. The comparison of the Moore to the Barnes is worrisome, as I found The Sense of an Ending to be rather trite.

Add to Technorati Favorites