Critical Ass

From the latest National Book Critics Circle newsletter:

Eric Banks then spoke about the blogging committee. Our blog visitor numbers, he said, are down sharply. We’re getting only 10,000 visits per month, with an average of 250-500 each day. One of the problems is that Google is misdirecting people to the old blog which is no longer forwarding reliably to the new one. It was suggested that we create a wikiprofile and Jane Ciabattari underlined the importance of blog visits when it comes to our application for NEA funding. Everyone, Eric Banks urged, needs to help by thinking of ideas for new posts, even if they are only a few sentences long. One idea in the works is a series of interviews with editors about the move toward on-line reviewing. Laurie Muchnick suggested a sort of six-question template for editors, the answers to which we could post periodically.

How do I put this delicately? Perhaps the numbers are down because the content put up isn’t exactly scintillating. Perhaps the failure to link and include other bloggers, whether NBCC or non-NBCC, might be one of the reasons why nobody cares to visit the site. Perhaps nobody really cares about what stuffy and humorless book critics have to say about $27 hardcovers that regular people can’t afford to read because the unemployment rate is rising and the job market now sees 200 people applying for a busboy job and there are pedantic matters such as figuring out which relative you can ask to loan you the money to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Assuming you are even that lucky.

There are endless possibilities here. And it’s certainly not going to be remedied by a six-question template for editors or a wikiprofile. I don’t believe that James Wood has ever required a six-question template for editors or a wikiprofile. But if decent blog stats can get you NEA money to survive, just where in the hell is the bailout money for the bloggers?

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9 Comments

  1. Interesting that you are only just beginning to think like this now, though, Ed – you’ve been blogging for at least six years?? isn’t it?
    A publisher here has already suggested to me that he thinks book bloggers in Oz should get some arts funding – I would be rather embarrassed to carry an arts funding sticker all the same. It carries the whiff of being bought out by the cultural establishment over here.
    If I was running a reviews site or a journal and wanted to pay other people to write, that would be another matter though.

  2. The old NBCC blog was always mildly interesting, but I stopped visiting because it became the single most boring thing on the web.

  3. Geez, Ed, if the economic climate really contributes to the disinterest of all those people worrying in line for the busboy job, it doesn’t seem as if it would matter whether it was “stuffy and humorless critics” exclusively or if links to other bloggers were included. I mean, it doesn’t follow, does it? I’ve heard people give the specious argument that good books are uplifting, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard someone suggest that book reviews are uplifting.

  4. Genevieve: I’ve actually been saying this for quite some time. One of my hopes — and there have even been a number of speculative meetings — is to set up a place that can actually pay and support people to write about the arts. Particularly those passionate and skilled voices who are marginalized or ignored by the newspapers, but who we all read. If someone were to give me a budget of about $150K a year (and this is about as likely as me getting struck by lightning twice today), I would create an online area that would help many writers to survive and encourage crackling journalism that could thrive. Places like The Rumpus are a good start, but they don’t pay the writers. And right now, with newspapers collapsing, writers need to be paid. (Having said that, and with the caveat that the editors have thrown me some work from time to time and I am accordingly very grateful, I think The Barnes and Noble Review has been very good about establishing something like this.)

    Andy: Obviously, you aren’t aware of this wonderful human quality called optimism. Or do you really believe that people aren’t reading when they’re not looking for work? If you can’t afford the $27 hardcover, you can go into a used bookstore and buy a $1 used mass-market paperback. That was, oddly enough, how I discovered the postmodernists as a young man with no money. If people can’t buy the books now, then they can always buy them later when times are flush. Remember that blogs are as much about the backlist as they are contemporary books. So about a year from now, someone reading the CHEAP paperback can come back to this site and follow the 20K words of fiery but civil discussion.

  5. Sorry, I guess I didn’t recognize the optimism in your tone, Ed.

    Most the busboys in my neighborhood are Mexican immigrants from rural villages, so I’m guessing that they’re not reading the NBCC blog and finding it unsatisfactory, no.

    Gee, I thought that you HATED mass market paperbacks. You had that long, hilarious comment in the CHEAP discussion in which you personified the dignified, hand-crafted bookshelves you had owned, sturdy and august, worthy of Vollmann, comparing them to the lightweight cheapness of Ikea shelves, good only for slim mass-market paperbacks.

    And it still doesn’t follow. Are you saying that job-seekers will find, say, you to be relevant to the difficulties in their lives (or relevant despite the difficulties in their lives), but the NBCC to be irrelevant? Modest.

  6. Ed,

    The Canadian government is, as you are doubtless aware, currently reviewing its Literary/Arts magazine funding programs. I made a submission to the committee involved with this review last year. Here are a few points made in it (find the whole enchilada here: http://nigelbeale.com/2008/04/the-case-for-public-funding-of-literary-blogs-and-book-reviewers/ )

    6. Should the proposed program be expanded to support Web-only publications? Or should we continue with the current practice in the CMF of supporting digital ventures only for print-based publishers?

    Very much the former. Although print publications are highly desirable, and support should be maintained to ensure that they continue to exist, excellent commentary and literary criticism is available in the literary blogosphere. Funding for legitimate literary bloggers should be made available.

    This money again, as with print publications, should be earmarked for the production of written reviews and literary criticism, and where warranted, the production of serious (not promotional puffery) audio and video programming.

    7. Should the proposed program put a greater emphasis on appropriate compensation for writers and other creators? If yes, how could this be done?

    I have already indicated that this should very much be the case. High quality content is essential if the government, assuming this is a priority, wishes to succeed in promoting a healthy culture of literary reading. The easiest way to do this is for the government to provide funding for the production of book reviews and literary criticism. For example, writers/literary critics would first have to meet certain requirements to ensure seriousness of intent. Once qualified, they would be retained to produce criticism which, at minimum, would have to be posting on their own websites, at maximum with high traffic print/broadcast outlets and/or online mediums. Payment would be contingent upon meeting these objectives.

    Admittedly this, in a way, constitutes government getting into the business, and as such may not fit with the philosophy of the current ruling party. But, given the importance of healthy community and democracy to Canada, and the threat that declining levels of literary reading pose to this valued way of life, I cannot think of a more important, nor indeed a more effective place in which to spend public money, than in the funding of literary journals/websites and the writing of literary criticism.

  7. Sorry, but I think the only chance for a higher quality of lit (and litcrit) is NO serious-type funding for online material. Let the genuine talents who are driven to write, despite the lack of money in it, do it. Don’t encourage venal MFAs, and zero-talent dilettantes who are good at writing grant proposals and schmoozing corporate arse, to proliferate online the way they’ve taken over “print”, by tossing meat in the water. Bring back the Gifted Amateur; down with the Talent-Free Hack.

    Anyone intelligent enough to write a good sentence can figure out a way to support the Art with a standard, unglamorous day job. Cut out the TV and the unnecessary expenses and you can do it. Commitments to Great Things are never a convenience. Convenience-Vanity-Credulity are the modern Holy Trinity that need killing off.

    The difference between Art and Entertainment: Entertainment is the friend who always tells you what you want to hear and Art is the friend who doesn’t. Cultivate more relationships of the latter kind if you want a deeper life. The cultivation does not involve money.

    Cut out the Television and some of the hypnosis will wear off and you may actually find yourself wanting money less (if not wanting less money).

  8. Well, I tend to agree with you, as does Philip Larkin:
    http://nigelbeale.com/2006/06/the-best-writing-is-market-driven/

    But in this particular instance, government is looking for input on how to allocate existing funds: what I suggest (self servingly) is that more go directly to writers, as opposed to printers, transporters and post offices…also, that if websites are able to attract large audiences, in many cases larger than printed publications, consideration should, if money is going out to support a ‘literary’ culture anyway, be given – it isn’t currently – to on as well as offline entities.

  9. Very good discussion, thanks, Ed for kicking it off. I am thinking (and have recently discovered to my very great surprise that writers at the Huff Post are also unpaid. ZUT ALORS.)

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