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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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04/04/2007

Comments

Mike M.

While I thought this was a wonderful post, there is something missing from your argument and this same fact has been left out of most of the reactions to n+1:"The Blog Reflex" is a part of a series of small essays that runs in the beginning of ever issue of n+1, "the Intellectual Situation". I don't have my copy at hand, but at the web site they have one of the other essays up :http://www.nplusonemag.com/masturbation.html. I think it is important to look at the essays cumulatively, as that seems to be how they were intended to be read. The essays all revolve around a theme of the instantaneous and the electronic and rarely get specific in their critiques (this is not true in the extended essays, some of which are very good- the n+1 boys find some wonderful writers... in my humble opinion). So it is fair to critique their critique, but it must be done in the proper context or else the author's original meaning is obscured.

Dan Green

"it is important to look at the essays cumulatively, as that seems to be how they were intended to be read."

That's all well and good, but Gessen admitted in one of the comment threads that "Blog Reflex" had been intended as a provocation, so I don't think they can plead "context" in this case. Nor does that meliorate the comments he and Roth made in those threads.

Mike M.

I didn't mean to discount the provocative nature of the essays, but that they were only part of a larger argument.
I'm not apologizing for others, and as I'm not really a member of the "lit-blog" community, nor n+1, I found the entire event sad. When I first read the essay I disagreed with it, but found it interesting, but I never expected the vitriol that followed. While Gessen and Roth both made comments that managed to make some absurd comments, Ed Champion and Mark Sarvas acted no better (although Sarvas did pull a mea culpa of sorts).
In the end, I'm content to read blogs and n+1 as I find them both interesting. I may lean towards n+1 in the end only because I can take it to bed.

Brandon

I think the blogosphere over-reacted to this essay. Mr. Esposito hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the blogosphere can benefit from criticism. Personally, I'm less interested in the essay itself than in the way the blogosphere responded to it. I wasn't at all surprised by Mr. Champion's response--I don't expect anything more than garbage from him--but I was dismayed to see Mr. Sarvas sink TEV (at least temporarily) to the level of MySpace by posting those e-mails. That's the kind of immaturity I'd expect from an angry teenager; I wouldn't expect it from a grown man.

Your response, as well as Mr. Esposito's response, was well-reasoned and mature. Maybe, if other responses I read had been on the same level, the litblogosphere wouldn't have come out looking so bad.

Dorothy W.

I think this is a very intelligent and fair response to the whole controversy -- thanks.

Mark

Do you really believe, whether judged cumulatively or on the basis of individual epigrammatic posts, that Mark Sarvas or Ed Champion is operating on the same level as n + 1? It's hard to believe that you do, given the thoughtfulness of your own posts. As an interested reader of blogs who has no intention of starting his own, my perception is that even the most intelligent of you guys are too beholden to the ur-bloggers to give them criticism of a kind that might help them better contribute to the overall conversation. Sarvas's critique of n + 1 (not just in the various comments sections, but in his long, final post at his site) demonstrated such thorough tone deafness that it's impossible to imagine ever taking his views seriously again (though I do appreciate the reliability of his output).

bdr

Excellent post, Dan.

This all reminds me of similar battles being fought between traditional political punditry and the dirty hippie bloggers and between music critics and music bloggers and between soccer journalists and soccer bloggers etc.....

I'm convinced an under-appreciated factor in the buzz rattling society now is that masses thought subdued by power now actually believe they actually have some small power of voice, and battles bigger and tinier (and thus more vicious) over power of defining who and what's an authentic voice within these new matrixes are part of what spark some who've held that power to decry the new realities.

I'm not taking one side or the other completely - I understand that any fool with a computer does not a credentialed critic make (look at me!) - but this dynamic is here to stay as long as the masses stay ahead of power's ability to control their discourse.

susan

An excellent post that realistically states the situation. In these days of everybody being heard and some claiming expert status, I find that a large proportion of litbloggers are a fairly honest group. If they're offering a real critique or review, they make good points (and have actually read the book). If they're reactions are more on the personal, gut level as reader (as are my own), they're pretty clear about that as well.

I think that one of the problems that has seeped into the system via blogs is the vast amount of unpublished-as-yet writers who seek connections to the publishing world that were not available prior to web access.

Dan Green

"Do you really believe, whether judged cumulatively or on the basis of individual epigrammatic posts, that Mark Sarvas or Ed Champion is operating on the same level as n + 1?"

They're not doing the same things, so "level" is irrelevant. Let's remember that it was Gessen and Roth who instigated the fight and seemed to consider themselves in some kind of competition with blogs. No blogger that I'm aware of has proclaimed him/herself intellectually superior to the editors of n + 1, although they sure talk like they consider themselves superior to bloggers.

Mark

I don't know. You're making direct comparisons about sensibilities that lead me to feel like you believe the one as "smart" or "important" as the other, even if that intelligence or importance only emerges over time rather than in any single blog post. You're sort of arguing that it's like comparing a short-story writer to a novelist, whereas a more cogent analogy is gossip columnist to novelist. Gossip columnists are fine, but if they join the National Book Critics Circle, there's a problem.

Since this blog gets a lot of the things right that those other blogs get wrong, you would seem a good candidate for calling shoddy thinking by its name. It just seems like there's this trap in at least the portions of blog land I'm familiar with: you can't offer pointed, genuine criticism of each other. Above, you're admirably pointing out some valid criticisms of litblogs, but the main offenders get not just a pass, but held up as acute thinkers capable of aphoristic brilliance. Since those guys never get criticized by their own tribe, they can dismiss their critics as stodgy establishment blowhards.

ed

Since Mark appears ignorant about NBCC membership criteria, I should note that blogs are not counted as credit. The basis for membership is determined on print reviews. Whether blogger-penned reviews amount to "gossip columns" is, of course, subject to individual taste and discretion.

Dan Green

I'm not giving passes for anything. No evidence of "shoddy thinking" has ever been presented in these exchanges. Certainly G & R never offered any. Their assault was conducted entirely through innuendo and bald assertion. Certain bloggers are "phenomenally ignorant." Oh yeah? Well, your mother wears army boots.

Brian Hadd

As this post has it, the blog ain't publishing and that ain't bad. Subjecting it to the same criteria doesn't serve a purpose other than the hindering of the development of the blog, which is probably what n + 1 is really asking blogs to hurry up and do. The effectiveness of their method, though, might not be too noteworthy.

whetted

I totally agree with this and I think that all the issues you set forth here are well worth investigating in more detail. The idea of publishers interacting more with the blogosphere is a fascinating -- and in our times a necessary -- task. I've lately been thinking a lot about "the canon" and rewriting it, rethinking it, reinventing it and therefore eliciting new modes of entering into a text. First, however, it is necessary to re-canonize certain texts and, as I know firsthand, many publishers think only in terms of money to be had rather than new pedagogical methodologies. Sadly, this leaves many texts unavailable (as they do not possess a "cash in" value) for these kinds of purposes. With the increasing influx of academic blogging in the literary blogosophere, I think the issues you raise and question here are very relevant indeed -- so many thanks for this post and for bringing these queries to the foreground.

Finn Harvor

[note: this started as a comment; morphed into a manifesto – oh well, guess it’s time I actually wrote one worthy of the name]


Ed hits a bull's-eye in terms of illuminating one of the important subtexts of this debate when he mentions that the criteria for being considered a professional critic is what one has published in print, not what is posted online. The issue is of importance, I imagine, to Dan, too -- witness his recent posts on the issue: repeatedly he has argued that it is snobbery of the worst kind to disregard writing (in whatever form) that appears online simply *because* it is online; the distinction between paper and cyber is a distinction of convenience, meant as a method of filtering text in an age of extreme superfluity.

But the problem is this: this kind of filtering is a habit that agents, publishers, granting agencies et al have adopted pretty much universally. In short, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer (and I include critics in that category), you have to publish in print. Unfortunately, the standards of deciding what is worth publishing are in a state of dysfunction at the moment. And this comes round to the issue that I think Gessen was driving at. (I have to qualify this remark because the n+1ers, still, after all the furor surrounding “The Blog Reflex”, haven’t posted their original article at their online site – what’s up with that?) That point is if lit-bloggers fall into the trap of certain hack “pro critics” and simply write regurgitated ad copy posturing as considered criticism, is it any wonder that so many recent novels from major houses have gotten away with being bland? More and more, “this season’s list” is top-heavy with the following: mannerist works that gain their thematic energy (and marketability) by writing about secondary characters from famous novels; emotionally immature works that are popular precisely because of their immaturity and jejune lack of threat (no disturbing thoughts here!); or social novels that lack a political edge. (Contrary to what Dan has stated previously, it *is* possible – albeit difficult -- to write work that possesses a politically aware sensibility yet is also artistically nuanced.)

The bottom line is that these days, in the world of literary assessment, up is down and down is up: the professionals have decided that only what is published on paper by major houses is really worth paying much attention to and/or canonizing. The possibility that the emperors may not only be wearing no clothes but not have all that much talent doesn’t really seem to occur to them – and if it does, it occurs to them in secret, and no one within the industry really wants to upset the status quo enough that the principle that *all* that is written should be assessed before it is judged as less-than-worth-taking-notice-of. A principle such as this would not only require major houses to at least bring back some form of slush pile for unknown authors, it would cost them money. Better some kind of institutionalized prejudice that lesser-knowns grumble about but tolerate. Face it: every blogger who primarily blogs big books is supporting the industry as it is currently aligned. Thus, then, the triumph of the present caste system of online beneath print.

And this won’t change any time soon -- if ever. Note that Gessen in one of his final thread-comments on the issue did not argue from reason but argued from authority; he cited several recent articles in prestigious publications that n+1ers have appeared in. And annoying as Gessen’s tactic may have been on an emotional level, in terms of the realpolitik of success he had a point … love ‘em or hate ‘em, the n+1ers are going places. Geddit?

(Ironically, the n+1ers were arguably, especially at the beginning, “self-published”. Gessen himself has clearly stated the model n+1 is following is that of periodicals like The Criterion and Partisan Review. This model dictates a group of like-minded people get together, pool their capital (an advantage Ivy Leaguers are often going to have), and form a print magazine or publishing house. But I digress.)

As I said, the social class Gessen and friends come from gives them a definite advantage in terms of the economics of actually producing a material literary thing and a material thing that will gain attention from influential people. While n+1 can justly be criticized for over-generalizing in its dislike of lit-blogs (as Dan points out, if they’re going to criticize, they should be specific), they can also be criticized for not acknowledging the degree to which they possess advantage in what, after all, is on a certain level a game. To paraphrase Mark Alan Stamaty, it’s not producing good work that counts; it’s being *perceived* as producing good work that really wins the day. This has always been one of – is perhaps the central – injustice of rankings of cultural production: Yes, Gessen and co. have brains. And yes, so do a lot of people who blog. Guess which group will be remembered longest? Guess who will be rewarded the shiniest medals of Literary Seriousness?

One avenue of hope, however, is that while competing with n+1-ish avant-privilege is out of the question in the short term, writers who want to also stake a claim on seriousness need to consider the possibility they, too, have the option of publishing. Photocopying technology is becoming so sophisticated that it is possible to produce a small run of good-looking books/magazines. The audience for these need not be small. (Steve Augustine has argued that perhaps a good writer’s audience *should* be small … although I hope he sees that as only a first stage strategy.)

And so that’s where lit-bloggers might direct at least some of their energy: by all means, keep on blogging. The idea that your work is somehow “less” simply because it exists in cyber form is founded in snobbery. But face reality, too: there needs to be a material publication at some point, and if you want your work remembered, posting online or self-publishing solo works isn’t enough. First, aim to be financially successful. Try to get a decent agent and a big house deal. But if that doesn’t work, don’t give up. Instead, forego (temporarily) the dream of making big bucks from your work . Join with friends. Form a small press. Form a small magazine. Xerox it. Build an audience. And hold your head high. You’re a writer because you write. You were a writer always, of course – that is, if you had the earned and/or inborn talent, and the drive to get your work to the stage of a final draft.

The current grand trend of the big houses to choose increasingly formulaic work (literature as “brand”) isn’t going to stop any time soon. And it certainly won’t be stopped merely because a lot of heavily promoted contemporary novels are overrated. It will only stop when lesser-known writers produce such a large mass of brilliant work that the institutions of literature will *have* to take notice. It will only stop, in other words, with the most influential arbiters of taste and the biggest publishing houses are put to shame.

Elizabeth

Finn,
How about bloggers just get as serious as n+1 but keep publishing online? That's what I'm looking for. The publishing industry has already taken notice, and the door is open for bloggers to show a level of discernment and taste that's missing in the mainstream press. Instead bloggers (some of the bigger-name ones, anyway) seem more interested in quick-hit, throwaway stuff that's fine to read when there's nothing else to do but that doesn't provide much nourishment.

Steven Augustine

"How about bloggers just get as serious as n+1 but keep publishing online?"

This is the crux of the "problem", I feel, and the foundational weakness in the n+1 attack: as if the word "Bloggers" refers to a *unit*.

Let's just focus on the serious few dozen blogs and disregard the other tens of millions and the discussion can take on some kind of shape.

We keep referring to the print/online-filter/no filter dichotomy as though it's a fundamental law of physics, when the fact is, the responsibility to implement some critical online filtration is there for the taking. Let's not forget that even the supposedly Sanhedrinesque filters we know in mainstream Print come about as the result of nothing more divine than human decision-making.

(Sidebar: before I go any further on the matter, I want to make it clear that I don't pretend to operate a "blog" myself; I'm using blogging software because I'm a cheapo TechTard, but, otherwise, because I don't post opinions, interact with an audience, refer to current books or events or court more traffic than could fit in a VW minibus with the seats wrenched out I recuse myself from the category; I participate in this argument as a *fan*).

The only essential difference between the biggest and best of the Lit Blogs and, say, the NYTBR (aside from the matters of salaries, deadlines, a security guard and a water cooler ) is the *perception* that the NYTBR offers stringently vetted material from stringently vetted professionals, whereas the Lit Bloggers are a bunch of bookish cellar-dwellers riffing online over personal obsessions; again, that's the *perception*. Was that 90,000,000-word Tanenhaus-commissioned puffpiece on Mailer in any way sharper than Dan Green's work, in concept or articulation? No, in fact it was embarrassingly silly and worthy of some of the goofier blogs.

As Finn points out, "...it’s not producing good work that counts; it’s being *perceived* as producing good work that really wins the day."

So, do something about that perception. Cut down on the chumminess, cut down a bit on the copious output (three new posts a day makes it virtually impossible to meet Wilsonian standards on a regular basis) and for godsake filter/moderate the illiterate comments. Wouldn't it be beautiful if the Lit Blog "comment" sections were more like Letters to the Editor at the New Yorker, c. 1973? I mean, why the hell not?

Literary coups are happening all the time in the Litblogomniverse but they are drown out by the incessant crosstalk of dear-diaryitis and intramural armpit farts and copy-and-paste bark-and-chatter.

I'm saying maybe Phase Two is everybody buffing up a little and standing apart and setting a door policy and drawing a mile-wide line of demarcation between the excellent and the unserious...for the sake of the excellent.

I can't say I absolutely disagree with every snatch and passage of the n+1 salvo that I have thus far managed to read; I just think it's spurious in the most convenient way for n+1 to posit that the active distinction is between "online" and "print" when as we all know the real battle is between "bullshit" and the good stuff...and "bullshit" is winning.

Robert Nagle

to pick on a very minor point you made. I dutifully compiled my Best of 2006 list last December. (Actually I think I sent it out as an email to friends and posted it on my blog as an afterthought--I didn't even fix the hyperlinks!). In it, I made a half-joking parenthetical remark about how a blind date took off with my boxed set of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue. Two weeks later, I received a complimentary copy in the mail from the U.S. distributor of the DVD. A guy from the video company had happened to read it.

Freebies aside, though, I find best-of-lists to be useful. Yes, it's a popularity contest. Yes, they're not particularly analytical. So what? This ritual is also a designated time for reflecting on the past year and crystallizing one's reading into a subset of worthwhile reading. Also, I don't always blog about important works I have come across. This gives me the opportunity to bring it up.

The only problem with listmaking as I see it is that it can turn into a quantity contest. Who cares that blogger X has 100 books on his Best of 2006 and blogger Y has only 7? Breadth in literary tastes in my opinion is overrated.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas

The only problem with all you "serious" writers is you're all bores. Seriously.
The first task of literature is to communicate with the public. Literature can only address truly serious issues, have an impact on this society, if it's READ.
Instead we get-- what?
Endless discussions about literary minutiae leading nowhere. Read this entire discussion from Green's post on down.
Read it not as "literary" people, but as how anybody stumbling upon this blog would read it.
It sounds like grad students talking endlessly on a Friday night in the dorm room, into the wee hours, the magnificence of the discussion being to the participants an illusion fueled by too much pot or booze.
Do any of you-- n+1, lit-bloggers, the lot of you-- ever consider the audience?
I mean, an audience made up of more than yourselves-- more than the couple thousand folks interested in the stale artififact literature has turned into?
Of course not! That's not "serious," you know, and the goal of the lit-blogging community is merely to be taken "seriously": in your own words, New York Review of Books-wannabes; unable to see that the NYR of B is a model for NOTHING beyond how to drive people away from literature-- from the flesh-and-blood noisy passionate wonder that literature, fiction and poetry both, indeed used to be. Once upon a time, in another galaxy, far, far, away.
Have a good day!

Dan Green

"Have a good day!"

Thanks!

Steven Augustine

In the old days, someone would issue a rant like that and have a vital new body of work in his pocket to back it up. Nowadays, though, it's more about play-acting and demands little more from the rest of us than bemused forbearance.

K.I.N.G Wenclas

Oh, but I and my colleagues HAVE new work coming out. We're just starting to present it (two new ULA books out ya know). We've chased out the bad writers in our group and are moving forward.
We believe in good writing-- writing which is readable and meaningful both.
The genuine article.
Are you folks providing it?
Not as evidenced by the posts on this blog.
Note what I do with my "rant"--a strong opening which, yes, DEMANDS that anyone encountering it read it.
The post is concise and builds to a conclusion.
I also throw some music into the writing. Euphony. Ever hear of it?
The funny thing about your kind of writer is that you love to pose and posture, marching about in your uniforms of phony intellectualism as "serious" writers, but most of you are terrible writers, Mr. Green included. Sorry if that sounds harsh-- BUT, there's a reason the public has abandoned literature. For more reasons than the tired excuse of television.
What has literature turned into?
The conversation on this blog, which is like finding a shoe box in a closet, a box filled with chattering and irrelevant voices.
Hobbyists conversing among themselves. It reminds me of a conversation among computer game players.
What's the solution?
Exactly what I'm trying to do-- make a lot of noise.
Think the ULA is not for real, chump?
Stay tuned. . . .
(You don't cut the ULA any slack-- how many of you dare exchange links with us?-- so you'll have to forgive me on this Easter Sunday if I cut you none.)

K.I.N.G. Wenclas

Three days later:
We've established that lit-bloggers have a herd mentality.
No reaction "from the rest of us" the speaker suggests, and lo, not another word is heard.
"So shall it be written," Pharoah proclaims. "So shall it be done!"
(What kind of facial expression is "bemused forebearance"? I'm trying to visualize it. One sees the face undergoing various tics, twitches, and eyeblinks to capture just the very right and proper uncomfortable-but-trying-to-look-comfortable pose. There! Got it. "Bemused forebearance.")

Pat King

K.I.N.G. is totally wrong when he says he's weeded out all the bad writers. We left because we didn't want to associate with his paranoia. He thought I was a pretty damn good writer while I was part of The Party. You can go to his site and judge for yourself whether he's a good writer. What he's posted has been pretty damn flat and cliche. But, whatever. It's easy to just throw the word "bad writers" out there without backing it up. Go to www.outsiderwriters.org and judge for yourself whether we're truly bad writers or K.I.N.G is just crying sour grapes.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas

(Figures that the only person to respond would be another undergrounder.)
(Note, Pat, while you're here, the basic intellectual cowardice of system-produced writers when confronted with something outside the predictable. With someone who makes a little too much noise, or doesn't play entirely by the genteel rules. The entire structure is a cardboard edifice waiting to come down-- but it needs a shove or two. Running away from engagement with the mainstream accomplishes nothing. Underground writers have done it for years. It means accepting your safe niche in a closet within a closet within a closet at the back of the house.)
(Oh, be sure, Pat, to point folks on this blog to the essay on your site which tries to justify bad writing. Yes, there were some strong points of contention within the ULA. I argued then and I still argue for no blandness, no pablum. For a time you were on my side. Well, we'll see what happens. We welcome the competition.)
Anyway, by all means check out my blog. Please. I have a new post up-- more bad satire. Did it in about 40 minutes, from a rough outline in my head-- tried to address some of the questions that were raised on some of the "Reading Experience" posts about the riole literature should adopt.
Is the satire very bad? Oh, I don't know. I put a kind of rhythmn and momentum into it.
One could compare it with Mr. Green's story on this blog, the first one to be encountered, about an ex-President, which has some potential but is lethargically paced and squanders every opportunity to be interesting which exists within itself. Don't you think so, Patrick? I bet he labored over that story for weeks.
There's a difference, Pat, which you of all people should recognize, between the natural writer (like Blackolive) and the workshopped kind-- who must struggle through class after class, program after program, writing conference after writing conference in an effort to learn how to produce an homogenized product which when all is said and done turns out to be barely competent. Well, competence, I'll give them that.
Thanks for the free plug, Pat!

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