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You Are Not a Unique and Beautiful Snowflake

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Blogging about blogging is inherently boring, so this will be, like, quick.
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I was part of a very small, informal audience not long ago for the dean of a journalism school who refered dismissively to "so-called 'citizen journalists'" - a ridiculous term to begin with, since of course all journalists are citizens, with no more or less rights to access than anyone else as a matter of law - and I shrugged it off as a spontaneous throwaway line from a veteran lapsing for a second back to 2001. Professionals understand the meritocratic nature of Web reporting and commentary, regardless its trappings, especially when they are at the head of a program that includes as a matter of necessity an emphasis on "new media" and its corresponding relationship with more traditional outlets. Besides, since I adamantly do not practice journalism here at SMQ, it's nothing personal. Everybody knows what time it is. Whatever.

Alas, the naivete of youth. To think, I would just assume the promulgation of hard, fast "journalist/commenter/blogger" roles and sterotypes had long fallen to the arcane, obscure rants of the irrelevant. Or perhaps that's the proper categorization of L.A. Times book critic Richard Schickel's lamentations of book reviewing gone to the online dogs? What do you think:

THE MOST grating words I've read in a newspaper recently were in a New York Times report on the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation's leading newspapers.

The piece suggested that this might not be an entirely bad thing. Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.

"Some publishers and literary bloggers," the article said, viewed this development contentedly, "as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books."

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism -- and its humble cousin, reviewing -- is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.

That's a revolting disrespect for the market, to begin with, and moreso to the intelligence and taste of the "average" person, especially as Schickel continues,

I know the objections to this argument: Most reviewing, whether written for print or the blogosphere, is hack work, done on the fly for short money. Anyone who has written a book has had the experience. Your publisher kindly forwards the clippings, and you are appalled by the sheer uselessness of their spray-painted opinions. Looked at this way, you could say that book reviewing is already democratic enough, thanks much. It's more than ready for the guy from car parts.

Rather than even consider the ability of bloggers and other Web types (like, er, the L.A. Times online edition) to rise to the traditional elan of gatekeeper criticism, or to accommodate its barbarically disfranchised voices, he instead decries the low level to which that art has supposedly sunk. The greats, Schickel says - Edmund Wilson, George Orwell - "wrote ceaselessly, against deadlines and under economic pressure, without succumbing to the temptation of merely popping off or showing off," and for "intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind." But bloggers, these incorrigible bloggers, rather than write ceaselessly against deadlines under economic pressure to fill the emerging market niche existing outlets clearly have not for today's intelligent readers - assuming he believes such a creature still exists, certainly Schickel must concede the perceived slashing of "professional" book reviews is a result of their fading profitability - will exist only to "confirm our own prejudices and stupidity," and endorse "cultishness" of "lazy" favorites. In his case, he cites the "inflated reputation" of Philip K. Dick, the confirmed, convicted hack. The college football version of that might be, I don't know, serving up YouTube clips of the wishbone.

At least we're not in our underwear here, yet. Check:

And we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering. We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion.

Their - our - credentials are in the substance of the writing and the thoughts it expresses. Same as any writer, ever, anywhere, in history; we're back to the market. Our right is as human beings.

At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, there was a fascinating panel featuring writers whose books were written in what time they could spare from their day jobs. Inevitably, blogging was presented as an attractive alternative -- it doesn't take much time, and it is a method of publicly expressing oneself (like finger-painting, I thought to myself, but never mind).

D.J. Waldie, among the finest of our part-time scriveners, in effect said "fine." But remember, he added, blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.

I thought it was a wonderful point. The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Maybe most reviewing, whatever its venue, fails that ideal. But a purely "democratic literary landscape" is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.

One of the goals of this site, loosely defined, is to be a sort of "football critic," to understand the game responsibly, to "bring to the party...disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge" within the limits of my experience. Maybe it works, maybe not. So am I a blogger or what? Is Bookslut? There would seem to exist a very precise definition of the form that differentiates the opinions of bloggers from, say, the opinions in the online edition of the L.A. Times, whose journalists remain, after all, mere citizens (I think). Richard Schickel is writing about books. He's been writing about books for a very long time and certainly must be pretty good at it. I write about football, and am far less experienced in a public forum. It's not exactly the same, maybe not at all, unless one is willing to equate the difficulty of relating to the prophetic surrealism of Don DeLilo with reading hot routes against the zone blitz. But I also read the college football sections of a couple dozen newspapers every day, and of every mainstream outlet with an online vehicle (which is to say, every mainstream outlet). That includes best-selling cross-over artist Mitch Albom, and Sports Illustrated. I also read a couple dozen blogs on the subject, and on a few others as time allows. And when it comes to standards, oases of intelligence and delight - oh man, especially delight - let's just say that I am not turning to Stewart Mandel.

My point: Yammer, peons, yammer away, and paint the walls erected by your money-grubbing media forebears, and over one another's splatters, and erect new walls, and fight about it, until somebody new comes along to the table so you can rage against their impertinence, too. Same as it ever was.

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Related and recommended: "Battle of the Book Reviews", a more flexible take from the very same L.A. Times' "Calendar Live" section.

Update [2007-5-22 17:12:36 by SMQ]: John Gasaway of the much-lamented Big Ten Wonk writes in with some appropriate insight on Schickel's beloved Orwell, courtesy of Lionel Trilling in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent:

"He liberates us. He tells us that we can understand our politics and social life merely by looking around us; he frees us from the need for the inside dope. He implies that our job is not to be intellectual, certainly not to be intellectual in this fashion or that, but merely to be intelligent according to our lights--he restores the old sense of the democracy of the mind, releasing us from the belief that the mind can work only in a technical, professional way and that it must work competitively. He has the effect of making us believe that we may become full members of the society of thinking men. That is why he is a figure for us."

By "us," in context, I gather Trilling means "the people of a society," and not "book critics." But then, everyone claims Orwell for his side.