Feb 18 Session B-3
Everyone's a Critic: Literature, Criticism and the Internet
Although prominent writers such as Jonathan Franzen have accused the internet of corrupting and trivializing public discourse, online literary criticism has only become more credible and influential since its initial appearance over ten years ago. As journalists and critics have lamented the increasing loss of book review coverage in print magazines and newspapers, reviews and longer-form literary criticism on blogs and websites have proliferated and gained respect, to the point that online publications may be replacing print media as the dominant source of non-academic literary criticism. In this panel, three experienced online literary critics chronicle and explicate this phenomenon, beginning with Daniel Green, who traces the evolution of the "literary weblog" from its beginnings as a kind of clearing house for the dissemination of literary "news" through its development as a medium for more considered reflections on books and writing and its metamorphosis into full-fledged online journals that have assumed considerable importance in contemporary literary culture. Rohan Maitzen asks, "What is the source of a critic's authority"? She contends that online critical discourse has made this question especially urgent, arguing that critical authority must be earned and sustained through ongoing participation in debates about critical standards and their application to individual works. Critical authority, like literature itself, is always in development. David Winters examines how online "presence" has enabled and shaped the careers of three notable contemporary writers. Their success demonstrates how online attention to a writer's work—coupled with the writer's own efforts to cultivate a particular relationship to the "online environment"—has altered both the production and reception of contemporary fiction. Together, these three papers present and explore the implications of the ongoing relocation of critical commentary and literary activity in general from print to the internet—a significant phenomenon in recent literary and cultural history.
Stealing Thunder: Literary Weblogs Vs. The Print Media
Daniel Green, University of Missouri
If now the notion that extended, intellectually credible literary criticism written directly for online publication seems relatively unexceptional, this certainly was not the case just ten years ago. Although a few web-only publications featuring limited commentary on new books, such as Slate and Salon, were in existence, there were no online publications dedicated solely to book reviews and certainly no web-based journals offering what most critics and scholars would have called rigorous critical essays.
From this void emerged the so-called "literary weblog" (generally shortened to "litblog"), a form of literary commentary that, I argue, first established internet-based critical discourse as a legitimate possibility. In the initial stages of the development of the literary blog, "legitimacy" was certainly an apposite concern, since throughout these early stages, the form was met with skepticism and outright hostility, charges that, far from creating a new medium for serious literary criticism and discussion, it was helping to trivialize and sabotage the existing print media already devoted to this discussion.
In my paper, I will chronicle the rise of the literary weblog, as well as the disfavor expressed by its detractors. This encounter between the two, I will maintain, represented for the latter a perceived struggle to maintain endangered authority, while for the literary bloggers it was less about replacing the authority of established print critics with their own than it was about questioning whether the authority assumed by those critics was anything more than a fortuitous consequence of their access to a limited resource, namely the means of communicating with a wide audience.
My own literary blog, which I began in 2004, approached this new medium from a more academic perspective, emphasizing the ways in which much "literary journalism" fell short of meeting minimally exacting critical standards, while others (which I will also survey) wished to give attention to books and writers literary journalists did not (or were not allowed to) consider. This interplay between the norms of print reviewing and literary blogging eventually produced a different kind of criticism that can now be seen in many of the web-based journals that evolved from the literary weblog and that now increasingly dominate non-academic literary discourse.
Book Blogging and the Crisis of Critical Authority
Rohan Maitzen, Dalhousie University
Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve.
- Adam Kirsch, "The Scorn of the Literary Blog" (NY Sun, 2007)
"Everyone's a critic," the saying goes — but, as another saying has it, some critics are more equal than others. What makes the difference — what is the source of a critic's authority? That's the question this paper explores.
Academic credentials are one possible answer, though they often carry surprisingly little weight outside of universities. Authorship might be another — but it could as easily be seen as creating a conflict of interest. In the early days of book blogging, the most frequently cited standard was professionalism, invoked by some as a bulwark against the encroachment of unqualified amateurs, decried by others as shorthand for an elitist and exclusionary system of gatekeeping.
My paper argues that this debate was both vital and heated because book blogging exposed a truth — welcome to some, unwelcome to others — about all literary criticism: that it is never authoritative in any absolute way, both because criticism is inevitably subjective and because it is heuristic, not prescriptive. Literary criticism is never a pronouncement: it is always a proposal and an attempt to persuade. Though there are requirements for critical excellence ("knowledge plus taste," for instance, as Daniel Mendelsohn proposes in his "Critic's Manifesto") — they can be achieved by writers in any forum; blogging is not, despite what some early antagonists insisted, intrinsically incapable of reaching them. But as blogging makes clear, critical authority emerges collaboratively and in context, through the process literary theorist Wayne Booth calls "coduction." It must be earned and sustained, not just through reading and writing — and certainly not by declaration — but through discussion. Blogging (which is open and discursive) better reflects the ongoing ebb and flow of critical conclusions, by which a novel can be dismissed or esteemed, cherished, canonized, or disdained. The unsettling reality that the closed world of criticism once concealed — but that blogging made self-evident -- is that no criticism is absolute and thus critical authority, like literature itself, is always a work in progress.
Online Economies of Prestige: Sergio De La Pava, Tao Lin, Lars Iyer
David Winters, University of Cambridge
This paper examines a relatively neglected aspect of what Robert Eaglestone calls the "interwoven fabric" of the contemporary literary field: the reciprocal relationship between recent novels and online critical discourse. In the absence of established critical texts, it has now become common for scholars of contemporary fiction to turn to blogs, online magazines and fan communities for critical information and evaluation. Less is understood, however, about the ways in which these contexts shape not only the reception, but the production and publication of contemporary literature.
The paper uses three case studies to illuminate what I will term, following Mark McGurl, the "autopoietic" connections between contemporary writing and online criticism. My first example is A Naked Singularity (2008), the debut novel of American author Sergio De La Pava. Initially self-published, the novel received considerable acclaim online, leading, in turn, to republication by a university press, mainstream review coverage and prize nominations. This "amplificatory" effect of online discourse has been deliberately leveraged by my second example, the "alt lit" author and blogger Tao Lin—whose literary career, beginning with you are a little bit happier than i am (2006), has been indissociable from his strategies of online self-promotion. My third example, the British philosophical novelist Lars Iyer, has adopted a more ideological attitude toward the blogosphere, envisaging it as a utopian site of "intellectual communism." Iyer's first novel, Spurious (2011) not only began life as a series of blog posts, but projected a particular ideal of literary activity, modelled on online communication.
The work of all three authors, I will argue, has been significantly shaped by an emerging online "economy of prestige," characterized by reserves of symbolic capital which can, in James English's terminology, be "intraconverted" into mainstream success. As I will show, this feature of the online environment not only shapes the reception of contemporary texts, but feeds back into their production, altering writers' authorial self-conceptions, "positioning strategies," and routes to publication.