Sven Birkerts and “Literary Life”

The reputedly intelligent Sven Birkerts has entered into the print vs. online fray in today’s Boston Globe. He very kindly cites me, as well as Mark Sarvas, as a litblog that he has investigated. I can’t speak for Mark, but in the interests of conveying to Mr. Birkerts that litbloggers and print journalists are not necessarily on opposite sides of the coin, I should also observe — and this is quite important in responding to Birkerts’s argument — that Mark and I also write regularly for print, and that Mark indeed has a novel coming out next year. I know that Mark and I have had previous lives as journalists in the pre-digital era and that we are both on the cusp of gradually graying ourselves. (As a matter of fact, I snipped a thin gray strand from my reddish beard this morning.) Hopefully, this will quell another regrettable round of “Who’s the bigger old fogey?” and concomitant declarations of Terre Haute residency.

First off, I must commend Birkerts for not only being honest about his own print biases, but for at least going to the trouble of investigating blogs in this supposed “war.” But while Birkerts brings some interesting ideas to the table, of which more anon, I think it’s important to correct some of Birkerts’s assumptions about the litblogosphere.

As was abundantly pointed out by Colleen Mondor last month, it’s not so unreasonable to aver that the litblogosphere could exist on its own terms if it wanted to. When one discounts links and roundups, much of the content generated by litbloggers is as original as the content generated by newspaper writers. And with many figures straddling both sides of the fence, it’s unfair to call litblogs “in vital ways still predatory on print.” (Speaking for myself, I have never had any interest in being predatory. I have only wished to encourage the continuing discussion of literature, which sometimes involves a few necessary subjective assaults.)

But let’s examine this “predatory” rap. A litblog merely links to a piece — in the best of cases, with accreditation and generally with some one-sentence context. Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” column for the New York Times (and later the corporate blog Paper Cuts) has confirmed Garner’s status as a print-based pettifogger considerably more predatory than the blogosphere. “Inside the List” is, more or less, a blog transposed to print form. Of course, it took the blog form of Paper Cuts to reveal Garner’s incorrigible character. He saw fit to steal an idea from Largehearted Boy and, with a graceless stooge shuffle eerily reminiscent of Carlos Mencia’s dunderheaded dance in front of Joe Rogan, pled ignorance when the notations were closely compared.

So why does Garner get a largely unobserved slap on the wrist while the bloggers get the stiff sentences? And what business does Birkerts have calling the blogosphere supplementary when book review sections are likewise supplementary? Take away the many books that are published each year and the book review section abdicates its contemporary thrust, transforming into white space.

Birkerts asks the question:

I’m hard put to repudiate these virtues of the blogosphere. But can it really compensate for losses in the more clearly bounded print sector? The bigger question, if we accept that these are the early symptoms of a far-reaching transformation, is what does this transformation mean for books, for reviewing, for the literary life?

So here at last is the real concern. The literary life. A codeword for whether or not the literary print journalist makes a modest living or is able to maintain a sideline. To my mind, “literary life” is more of a semantic powder keg. The print journalist may depend on freelancing paychecks in part for a “literary life” rooted more in paying the rent; the litblogger may hope to fulfill a “literary life” predicated on a love of books.

Nevertheless, I do believe Birkerts is right to point to “literary life” as the two words that sum up why book review sections, which naturally cling to overly conservative critics and overly conservative books under review, are dying and litblogs are thriving.

Certainly Birkerts is a man who clearly loves literature. His critical work reflects this. And I can likewise confess that my reading, whether done for a professional assignment or an amateur project, is initiated because of an enthusiasm or a curiosity. (Yes, even with Ron Jeremy. I offer no apology for my brow stretching high and low, or for my reading stretching across literary and genre.) If I did not have either or both of these two qualities, then I would recuse myself from the work. For there could be no way that my response would bristle with the life I try to inject into it. I don’t know Birkerts personally, but I suspect he is cast of similar character.

If we accept “literary life” as an emotional preoccupation with books or something that truly comes from the heart, can we find this “literary life” in the work of Joe Queenan, Leon Wieseltier, or the non-NYTBR writings of Rachel Donadio? Do any of them truly care about books? How did the strange newspaper world shift these bores (and sometimes boors) to their current stations? Can one open up a newspaper section and read a lede in which the reviewer actually gives a damn, pro or con, about the book under review?

Birkerts likewise laments “the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.” Well, for all of its talk about preserving the future of book criticism, I do not see the National Book Critics Circle instituting a mentoring program to help out younger critics. I do not see them receptive to the idea that people under the age of thirty do, in fact, read form time to time. I do not see some of the humorless NBCC board members attempting to reach out to perspectives or voices that are different from their own — particularly, if it involves politics. This is the “emergent maturity” that Birkets champions in print critics? If print critical culture wishes to remain this vanilla, then give me the comforts of polymorphously perverse bedsheets any day of the week.

What’s not to suggest that the litbloggers — who might just present a more comforting anarchy than a “self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so” — can’t “matter” in the way that Birkerts describes? If the norms of print culture have refused to shift over the past twenty-five years, as Pat Holt has suggested, maybe it’s high time for these norms to be shaken up. Maybe the centrifugal proliferation that Birkerts bemoans is the very impetus that will “define, or prompt, or inspire, or at least intuit” in that way that Cynthia Ozick pined for. (And if Birkerts can twist Ozick’s argument to suit his purposes, then I suppose I’m entitled to do the same.)

It’s also necessary to note that the “hopscotch through the referential enormity of argument and opinion” that Birkerts quibbles with is largely what he, as an interested party, brings to his blog-reading experience. (And Sven, if you’re feeling swallowed up by all the content, you may want to check out this thing called Bloglines.) I doubt every person reads blogs in the same way that Birkerts does. Thus, is this likewise a legitimate gripe?

Nonetheless, I do think that Birkerts’s lengthy essay is a more judicious response to a scenario that is likely to be unresolved for quite some time. I only wish that Birkerts could understand that the two “sides” are more similar than he realizes.

[UPDATE: There are now additional responses from Prairie Progressive, who notes that “the essay seems predicated on an elitist approach that seems prevalent among many established print reviewers.” Meanwhile, Mark Bernstein observes, “It’s not the link’s fault, anymore than it’s the sunshine that keeps our young scholar staring out the window toward that sunny ballpark.”]


  1. Fascinating stuff. As I was slogging away yesterday–a beautifully sunny day I spent indoors–on a would-be novel, a eview, a blogpost, and finishing up yet another book for review, I wondered what in hell I was up to. My sum total for yesterday’s efforts, apart from a raging case of carpal tunnel, was zip. Not a dime. Why in hell was I doing this? Who cared?

    I then thought of Wendy Lesser, who, in “The Amateur,” refers to herself as “an eighteenth century man of letters.” (I am at my day job–the one that pays the rent–and don’t have the book here for the exact quote.) Ah, I thought. That’s me. A 21st century female book lover with the good fortune of knowing a few fellow travelers. Life could be worse.

    Print, online, braille, crumpled little notes–just give me the damned stuff to read. Who needs the fucking television?


  2. Hello,

    I am new here and new to weblogs in general. So far, I’m really enjoying reading them.

    Before I state my problems with book reviews, whether in blog format or in print, let me state my issues with books. Then it will be clear that I don’t care whether it’s print or weblog, as long as the review is good.

    my problems with books are as follows: excessively topical to the exclusion of putting the issues in context, or having much to say (for fiction). This applies to “important” subjects such as politics and hard news as much as “less important” subjects such as genre fiction and “women’s issues.” These books are a flash in the pan. They lose a lot of relevance within a year or two; often much sooner.

    my other problems are poor editing, books that look like they’ve been slapped together in a hurry without much effort by the author or editor, and milking a controversy for all its worth instead of fairly characterizing your opponent’s position.

    finally, I want to know what makes the book stand out? Is it the type of book that comes out over and over again with just slightly different slant and a new “name” for the author? or does it really have something original to say? would I be better off buying that book that came out 6 months ago that’s now selling for fewer than 5.00 US on amazon?

    I don’t want to sound like all books are garbage these days. I think there are many *excellent* books being written and published. but how do I find them? there are a lot of books, the kind that get put on the display tables, that don’t look very impressive. how do I find the good ones?

    It seems to me that I have a better chance to find good books in weblogs b/c more books are reviewed, and b/c money is less of an issue.

    for fiction, I want to know if the book is good enough to be read in 10 years. I realize it really can’t be predicted (most of the time?) whether a book will last but I want to know if this is another cookie-cutter chick-lit or “literary” book that is worth a quick read, but nothing stellar – or if it is good enough to be read for quite a while.

    I don’t see book reviewers in print doing this. I’ve read many more in print than on weblogs. this is all hard to do and it doesn’t pay. but if you’re not going to do it, say so. such as “this book is really topical and it may or may not be worth reading next year. I can’t tell.” to me that’s valuable information.

    my other frustration is with the confusion of fact and opinion. I find print reviewers mess up here all the time. to avoid offense I’ll give a musical example. the musician Paul Simon was asked to come up with a list of the top 10 albums that everyone must listen to. his list was heavy on 50’s doo-wop music, which he loves.

    Now I know those lists are hype but I’ve heard Simon talk a lot about that music. to call it “the best” is an opinion. my list would have a lot of classical music on it. the specific composers and performances I would pick would reflect my opinion.

    I personally don’t see enough differentiation between “this book, or aspects of it, is objectively bad” versus “this book is not to my taste, but it is a good book anyway.”

    I read my local paper’s book section every Sunday. I think that doing a really comprehensive review is such hard work that a less elitist attitude is a good thing. whether in print or on the Web.


  3. and I messed up – when I said “fiction” in the 2nd paragraph, that should be “nonfiction.”


  4. The comment aboive this one is amusing. The writer complains about poor editing of books and her comments use lower case letters to begin paragraphs and, not content with this electronic new way of writing, switches at times to the time-honored use of caps in some paragraphs.

  5. Yes, but I wasn’t writing a book. I didn’t think comments on a blog were held to a particularly high standard. You didn’t have to pay any money to read what I wrote.

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