Daniel Mendelsohn: Clueless About Online Culture

Reports from last night’s NBCC are trickling in, with perhaps the most comprehensive one to be found at Galleycat. Add Daniel Mendelsohn to the roster of elitist fogies who just don’t get it. From Ron Hogan’s report:

As he accepted the autobiography award for The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn said that he was especially proud to get this prize “in an era in which every who owns a Dell laptop is a published critic,” while the NBCC prize comes from “people who know what they’re talking about.” Well, as one of the great electronic unwashed, to heck with you, and you’re still completely wrong about Peanuts. OK, fine, we kid because we love and all that, but perhaps the remark rankled more because of NBCC president John Freeman’s defensive opening remarks about how “book reviews are the gateway to our culture,” aimed at establishing the continuing relevance of book reviewers in an age when bloggers are attracting more and more of the readers who do, in fact, crave good information about books and writers about which they might well like to know more. This is especially ironic, given that the NBCC board of directors now has two members, Lizzie Skurnick and Jessa Crispin, who are as “famous” if not more so for their online writing as for whatever they’ve done in print. The debate continues…

UPDATE: Daniel Mendelsohn has clarified his comments at Galleycat, writing, “The obvious meaning of my comment, made in the context of accepting an award from my fellow professional book critics, was that it is an honor to have the high esteem of one’s fellow professionals—writers whose published opinions of books, unlike those of random online commentators, are necessarily subject to many stages of vetting, editing, proofing, and above all editorial evaluation by people knowledgeable in the field of literature, and which are therefore more likely, broadly speaking, to be ‘expert’: which is, as far as I’m concerned, the kind of opinion that is meaningful.”

I’m happy that Mendelsohn has expressed himself more thoroughly, but I still think that he might want to bop around the blogosphere a bit more before making such a charge. I agree with him that having a laptop does not necessarily make one a reviewer or a reporter. But while I’m not really the kind of guy inclined to toot his own horn, the roundtable discussions featured on this site (as well as the Litblog Co-Op) have, in fact, involved organizing people who are qualified to comment upon the books they read (in that they actually read the book from start to finish, a task that eludes such “experts” as Malcolm Jones), fixing grammar, playing doubting Thomas, and encouraging alternative lines of argument. The Bat Segundo podcasts involve at least ten hours of reading and preliminary research for each guest, and often many more. Whether any of this is sufficiently “expert” is, of course, subject to your interpretation. I’ve never professed to be a literary “expert,” but I do try to initiate thought and conversations that don’t appear to be practiced by the “experts” who fail to read the books of the authors they interview or review.


  1. Well, since you kid, I’ll kid too:

    All things being equal, I’d rather know a lot about culture and not as much about online culture. And, at 46, I wouldn’t exactly classify my brother as a “fogie.”


    Matt Mendelsohn

  2. All things being equal, I’d rather know a lot about culture, period, wherever it may be found. Blowhards abound in print and online, and fogeys abound in every generation set, old and young. Mendelsohn deserved to win, but his comment was ill-advised and misinformed.

  3. Blowhards may abound, but so does hyperbole. Phrases like “blowhard” and “clueless” don’t exactly add a lot to the debate. You can parse as you like, but I think you’re creating conspiracy here where none exists. It was clear that Daniel’s funny acceptance speech, and particularly his opening remark, was not intended as an indictment of serious literary blogs (both yours and Edward’s are quite impressive) but rather the Amazon-type reviewer who writes that Dr. Zhivago is “soooooo depressing” and thinks he’s ready for the NYTBR.

    As someone who is quite devoted to books, I’m sure that you’re quite aware of the peril of reading too much into something. It was just a joke.

    Again, regards,

    Matt Mendelsohn

  4. I’m never quite happy with the excuse ‘it’s just a joke’. Jokes often indicate underlying attitudes and additionally can function to create a sense of ingroup moral superiority.
    I’d hazard a guess that Mendelsohn wouldn’t care to make an ethnic joke, for example, in such company.

    That said, I agree, however, that there is a lot of lame commentary online. Whether it passes for literary criticism (or even intends to) is another matter.

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