(Note: This is the paper I recently presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. It was part of this panel.)
While "surfing" the world wide web in late 2003, I began noticing certain websites—they looked more like online diaries—discussing books and writers with an enthusiasm and a seriousness of purpose I was not seeing elsewhere on the web. I then had some nascent ideas of my own about how the online medium could serve more usefully as a forum for serious-minded literary commentary than it had up to that point, and the creators of these websites seemed to have had similar ideas, although understandably they were as yet being applied in somewhat rudimentary ways.
What most made these sites stand out for me was that they were linked to each other, as if this was some kind of network that had been around for a while, an opportunity for like-minded readers to conduct an ongoing discussion about recent books and literary news. Most of this discussion was in the form of relatively brief observations or opinions offered along with numerous hyperlinks, but often the observations were astute and the opinions expressed with sharpness and wit. If this was something that could not exactly be called criticism, it was manifesting an intensity of interest in serious writing—"literature" was usually used without irony—that was clearly not being satisfied by the coverage afforded it by publications in what these bloggers—and these were indeed blogs that I was reading, although I was only vaguely aware of the term—called the "mainstream print media."
So I decided to see if I might join that network. My goal was to explore the possibility that this new online medium—new, at least, in its focus on literature—could in fact be used to foster creditable literary criticism. In my very first post on my own blog—which I called The Reading Experience, drawing on my affinity for John Dewey's aesthetic philosophy of "art as experience"—I said: "I would like to test the proposition that the internet, in the form of the so-called 'blogosphere,' can provide a forum for a new kind of literary criticism, more compact and concise, perhaps, than conventional print lit-crit, but serious criticism nonetheless." I should say that my background was in academic criticism, but I had recently been writing and publishing more or less general-interest criticism in book reviews and literary magazines, with some hazy notion of becoming a freelance writer, if it was still possible to actually succeed in that ambition. Perhaps this "new kind of literary criticism" would prove to be a worthwhile alternative both to academic criticism, which was no longer receptive to the critical approach I preferred (focusing on the aesthetic character of literature), and to the precarious practice of newspaper and print magazine criticism.
Thus did I find myself participating in the development of the "literary weblog" (most often referred to as the "litblog") from essentially a kind of public reading diary to a much more flexible medium capable of incorporating the whole array of discursive forms—personal essays, manifestos, reviews, critical analyses, as well as fiction and poetry. This discourse was indeed generally "more compact and concise" than these same forms as they might appear in print, and typically it was characterized by a more informal, often quite conversational tone. But this conversational quality of what came to be known as the "blog post" was directly related to the device that most obviously distinguishes the blog post (or any online writing) from writing in print: the existence and availability of hyperlinks. The ability to direct readers elsewhere as a way of supplementing or supporting the writer's purpose, of directly counterposing the writing at hand with other voices considering the subject, often voices in dissent as well as support, inherently encourages a conversational, dialogic approach, and many literary bloggers explicitly sought to demonstrate that this sort of literary discussion had its own kind of value.
That value was certainly disputed in the few years it took for the literary blog to evolve and begin to attract the notice of the broader literary culture—editors, critics, publishers, and readers. Notable figures from within that culture rendered pointed and often severe judgments:
Recognition is. . .measured in the number of hits—by their clicks you shall know them—and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses—fillips of contempt, wet kisses—aren't criticism.
Editors, n + 1
To listen to the avatars of the New Information Age, the means of communication provided by digital devices and ever-enhanced software have democratized debate, empowered those whose opinions have been marginalized by, or, worse, shut out of mainstream media, and unleashed a new era of book chat. . . .
("Book chat" was one of the favored words used by critics from the "mainstream media" to belittle the level of discourse they perceived to be characteristic of litblogs.) Sven Birkerts wrote:
The implicit immediacy of the "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumptions of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new-of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking" approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.
Richard Schickel would surely have been appalled by the title of this panel. In a piece published in the Los Angeles Times, he wrote, after registering his horror at the thought that literary blogs might come to replace newspaper book reviews:
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.
Schickel's description of the practice of criticism may or may not be correct—I agree with much of it, but find it difficult to conclude that the authentic responsibilities of conscientious criticism necessarily make it an "elite enterprise"—but the mistake he and these other critics made was in assuming that the particular qualities they discerned at that moment in literary weblogs, and online writing in general, were fixed qualities, that online critical discourse could not continue to develop to the point it could just as easily attract "individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book" as print. Even at the time, Wasserman conceded that "what counts is the nature and depth and authority" of criticism, "as well as its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readers find it on the web or the printed page matters not at all. Content rules."
All along there were litblogs that tried to uphold the critical standards that were supposedly being abandoned (I won't be so presumptuous as to pronounce mine as one of them), but these blogs were generally never mentioned in the surveys of the damage being done by the literary blogosphere that for a while appeared with numbing regularity (or so it seemed). If it was true enough that some litblogs (whose number was increasing quite quickly) offered "criticism" that was not that far removed from n + 1's caricature of the typical blogospheric "response"—"I shit on Dante"—there were plenty of others whose authors considered themselves to be contributing to a valuable collective discourse about literature of a kind not previously available to the broader literary public and took seriously the imperative to offer more than off-the-cuff remarks. (And if at the time it would been accurate enough to call many of these bloggers "amateur" critics, very many of them have since, in fact, gone on to establish themselves as respected professional writers and reviewers.
Something like a validation of the potential for the literary weblog to provide intellectually serious literary criticism was the appearance in 2005 of a blog called The Valve. This was a multi-author blog, intended by its founder, John Holbo, to be explicitly "academic" both in the affiliations of its contributors and in the focus of the subjects addressed. I was asked by Holbo to be among its original lineup of contributors, and The Valve rather quickly became a very popular site (certainly its number of daily "hits" far exceeded anything I had seen on my blog, or any of my blogger colleagues had seen, for that matter), succeeding in its purpose of attracting academics as both authors and readers and of taking up literary issues in a way that academic critics could find credible. Eventually The Valve began presenting blogging "events" in which all of the contributors posted extended commentary on or related to a currently prominent scholarly or critical book. The first of these events considered Theory's Empire, which allowed The Valve's slate of contributors to examine the generally anti-theory essays collected in this book, resulting in a lively but also carefully considered series of essays, in sympathy with the book's agenda, strongly critical of it, and somewhere in between. Each of these posts also attracted a large number of comments (some of them as long as the post itself; most of them civil), and altogether this event provided a range and depth of response to and coverage of this book and the scholarly issues it raised that in my view could not have easily been accomplished in print journals.
Over the course of its existence (it officially ceased publishing new posts in 2012), The Valve continued to solicit new contributors, but eventually the initial enthusiasm waned, although I would argue that in part this was because the original inspiration for the blog had been fulfilled and the idea of intelligent, informed critical writing appearing on the web no longer seemed such a novel proposition. Something similar happened with the first wave of literary weblogs. Although a few of them still exist (including my own, in an updated iteration), many do not, or at least have been inactive for a long time. But these blogs were in fact remarkably successful, not just in ultimately reaching a wide audience of interested readers but in establishing a space in the cybersphere for the nontrivial discussion of literature, and ultimately in changing the reading habits of many serious readers who previously would never have regarded the internet as a source of legitimate literary debate. I believe it fair to say that the notion one can find entirely respectable web-based critical commentary online is now incontestable and mostly noncontroversial. Someone surfing the web as I did 12 years ago will discover much of interest within a few clicks, although these sites and pages might not be blogs. But this, too, seems to me a sign of their success, not their obsolescence.
Today literary weblogs are more likely to be known simply as "book blogs," and most of them have indeed settled for something like "book chat" as their mode of operation. More serious-minded blogs do remain, authored by reviewers, critics, and some academics, as well as by poetry and fiction writers using the weblog medium as more than a promotional instrument. Admittedly these blogs have a smaller audience than many literary bloggers had during their period of greatest notoriety, but they may also have a more easily assumed authority and less defensive tone. Nevertheless, the "litblog" is not the object of attention it once was, when it seemed for some to promise liberation from the arbitrary authority of print book reviewers and so-called literary journalists and for others to threaten the already wobbly status of book coverage in the digital era print press.
A significant factor in the relative decline of the litblog is surely the concurrent rise of social media, specifically the development of a substantial literary presence on Twitter and Facebook. The sort of brief commentary and linking with which literary blogging began, and continued to be a prominent feature, has largely been taken over by these social media forums, where a network of "connected" Friends and Followers exchange news and views, albeit often in an unavoidably offhand way due to the limitations of the medium used. To the extent that a need for "connection" itself is met by sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the same function as served by blogs becomes less urgent, since social media provides it more immediately and ultimately more broadly. Arguably, however, the force of this need was first fully expressed through the success of blogs, which demonstrated that it could be met through digital communication.
In my view, the most important reason why the literary weblog is not now the center of literary discourse online is that in retrospect it also served to illustrate that a serious and sustained level of wired critical discourse was possible, and in the process initiated a transformation of attitude that eventually resulted in its being superseded by other kinds of web-based publication that, while perhaps using the template introduced by weblogs, could not really be called blogs. Multi-author sites such as The Millions or The Rumpus looked like blogs, but they published something much closer to conventional literary essays, articles, and reviews. In tone these sites were not much removed from typical literary journalism, although the pieces posted there had fewer restrictions on both content and style than traditional print publications. Soon enough, web-specific journals focusing entirely or in part on book reviews such as The Quarterly Conversation, Open Letters Monthly, and Full Stop appeared, as well as other publications that offered print versions but also had significant presence online, such as Rain Taxi and The Brooklyn Rail. Some intellectually weighty journals such as 3:AM Magazine and Jacket had been around as long as, or longer, than blogs, but they, too, gained greater attention in the litblog's wake.
The literary criticism in these publications, generally, but not exclusively, reviews, often went far beyond, both in length and in critical heft, what was offered in all but the most studious general interest print publications. Indeed, these book review sites are much more likely to cover experimental and translated works and books from independent presses, which are at best sporadically reviewed in mainstream print book review sections. Few of the reviewers could be called "amateurs" as most of them are experienced reviewers, many with credits as well in the print press, or aspiring reviewers with clear ties to the literary community (themselves writers, writing students, or independent critics). Perhaps it would not be quite accurate to call these critics "professionals," since much of this work in unfortunately unpaid, but the breadth of reading and the critical sensibility on display signal that the motivation behind the work transcends the affirmation of status symbolized by monetary remuneration, coming instead from a conviction that contemporary literature deserves genuine critical debate and assessment, which increasingly cannot be fully supplied by newspaper and periodical criticism. (But it would still be nice if these reviewers were paid.)
The appearance of such web-based book review journals as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, and the National Book Review has definitively refuted any remaining claims for the inherent superiority of print criticism to criticism originating online. LARB in particular makes it impossible to think that intellectually engaged and critically scrupulous writing needs print on paper for its ideal expression. (This is true not just of LARB—one can find this kind of writing on many of the other sites I have mentioned.) Numerous contributors are in fact academics writing about subjects not always addressed in general interest publications, usually in an accessible prose avoiding the most reflexive kinds of jargon but also the most overt attempts to "popularize." (A good example might be the relatively recent pieces on alternatives to the "hermeneutics of suspicion" offered by Rita Felski and others.) The same thing is true of Public Books, which, however, has not yet attained the prominence of LARB. The National Review of Books is closer to the conventional newspaper book review, but it is notable as an implicit acknowledgement of the decline in book coverage in American newspapers in its founding as an online alternative.
A number of the publications I have identified do also offer print versions, although in many cases contents are also available, in part or in their entirety, on the websites. This does not so much indicate a retreat from a commitment to the online medium as it does a recognition that a strict demarcation between the two media has become increasingly untenable, at least as it is supposed to mark some essential difference, about which we must always remain mindful. Sampling both the online and print editions of one of these journals shows there is no such difference, neither in ambition nor in quality of thought. In these publications it becomes clear that writing in print has no intrinsic, metaphysical advantage over writing published through digital means, no greater authority that doesn't come from the centuries-long dominance of the printing press. It should also be said that the convenience and immediacy of online publication does not make it superior to print when convenience and immediacy are not relevant concerns.
I would argue that the primary legacy of the literary blog consists of its questioning of the hegemony not of print but of those critics and reviewers claiming the imprimatur of authority on the basis of little more than their access, however much achieved through perceived merit, to the limited supply of critical outlets in print. That so many of the first wave of bloggers have subsequently achieved considerable status as writers and critics, online and in print, makes it pretty clear that "merit" was a more widely dispersed phenomenon than some critical "gatekeepers" would have had us believe. The point is not that blogs facilitated the career aspirations of any particular writers or critics but that they fomented a reappraisal of the way we talk about our literary culture that ultimately has reinvigorated non-academic literary criticism. That talk is both livelier and more comprehensive than it was before there was such a thing as a "literary weblog," and the critics who fretted over their own looming demise still have their part in it.
My own blog does still exist, although I don't make the effort to keep it continually updated that I did in the past. I generally post longer, reflective essays or reviews of books that I haven't more formally reviewed elsewhere. My audience isn't large, nothing close to the audience I could reach as a contributor to The Valve, but I like to think it's an audience prepared to believe they will find substance in the criticism they encounter when they visit this blog.