Reviews of Reviews

Update:  Example of a lengthy book review in the print world:  Pankaj Mishra discusses the future of India and its problems in moving toward the open market is the NYRB review  “Impasse in India”,  it concentrates on Martha Nussbaum’s  The Clash Within:  Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future.

One of the richest additions to this blog have been the book reviews by James McCormick; Lex likes to summarize his reading and keep us in touch with the way works that influence him – and why. Most of the bloggers here do something close to a book review every once in a while, though I can’t remember any of fiction or poetry. Even in my narcissistic way, I couple the personal with published, more thoughtful discussions of the general topic. So, some Chicagoboyz and Chicagoboyz readers might be interested in A&L’s link to Adam Kirsch’s “The Scorn of the Literary Blog.” This review is prompted by a National Book Critics’ Circle survey of “reviewer ethics.” He contends that problems of conflict of interest were not important because,

To be obsessed with potential bias or conflict of interest on the book reviewer’s part is to imagine the reviewer as a judge, who is obligated to provide every author with his or her day in court. But that judicial standard is impossible, because there is no such thing as an objective judgment of a work of literature; aesthetic judgment is by definition personal and opinionated. Nor would a perfectly objective book review even be desirable. The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama.

He then contrasts professional reviewers with those on blogs, contending that

In fact, despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs — or at least, it shouldn’t. The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news — it doesn’t offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. 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. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.

Of course, the contrast between non-fiction and fiction may be part of the key here, but I’m struck by how often bloggers speak from their area of expertise – areas that may not include journalism but may include, say, science or history. I’ve also often been struck by the length and depth of blog discussions, ones not available to those printing in a medium that costs more per word. But, of course, even McCormick’s thoughtful lengths are not longer than those in, say, The New York Review of Books or Claremont.

The survey was also reviewed by GalleyCat.

4 thoughts on “Reviews of Reviews”

  1. 1)There’s a discussion of this over at Megan McArdle’s blog (Jane Galt)…I can’t post a link because of the #$#@4# spam filter.

    [Jonathan: McArdle’s post is here.]

    2)The negativity of the MSM toward blogs is simply the kind of thing that always happens when incumbent industries are threatened by disruptive technologies. Christensen & Raynor analyze the phenomenon very well in their book “The Innovator’s Solution.” I have a review on my blog; again, I can’t link it, but just type “Raynor” in the search box.

    [Jonathan: David’s review is here.]

    3)The blog form does have a disadvantage for very long stuff, because it’s irritating to many people to read long stuff on the screen, and even more irritating to have to print it out. This may be solved in the fairly near term by e-ink/electronic-paper technology. At the same time, blogs do have a major advantage in that they can contain direct links to Amazon (or whoever) for purchasing.

  2. McCormick also tells us how he feels while still aiming at an honesty that gives us both his feelings and a certain objectivity. The ideal these reviewers seem to aim at doesn’t have that combination.

  3. 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.

    In other words, only criticisms created by people paid to produce them can hope to reach useful levels of detail and insight. Bloggers just don’t have the resources to do the job.

    But the author forgets that while any single blogger may not be able to compete against a professional literary critic, a pack composed of several dozen certainly could. Reading a dozens of short critics, each done from a different perspective will, I think, produce a better analysis of the work than one individual, with on perspective will produce by just grinding away.

    The power of the blogsphere emerges from the interactions of many bloggers, not the individual brilliance of any one blogger.

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