“Books bloggers are harming literature” says Peter Stothard. He is Chair of the Booker Prize, and editor of the Times Literary Supplement. I am reminded of the comments of Helen Mirren and Andrew Marr, who have both previously complained about how the Internet is sending culture to the dogs.
From my vantage point, working on the edge of the literary sector, I don’t think Stothard’s analysis is true. There is indeed a mass of blogged criticism online, just as there is a large amount of self-published literature. However, authors and publishers of every size still seek reviews and approval from the prestigious literary journals like the London Review of Books and Stothard’s TLS. An approving quote from a broadsheet critic will find its way onto the cover of the book; a similarly gushing endorsement from an individual blogger will not. An essay in the established press will provoke a conversation and a public debate. An piece of writing that is similarly erudite, but published on someone’s personal website will not have the same reach, nor puncture the public consciousness, in the same manner. This is simply a question of reach and brand.
Of course, a few blogs transcend their medium and become credible sources for literary criticism: Dovegreyreader springs to mind. But this rise to credibility and influence is as a result of the quality of the literary criticism. That is a good thing for literature – The poacher always turns gamekeeper, so-to-speak. Contrast this to newspapers or some literary magazines, kept afloat as a loss-leader by rich patrons or media groups. In such cases, their influence has effectively been bought, and their critics are more susceptible to the influence of the market and the quest for commerical readability. It is this segment of the literary criticism ecosystem that should concern Mr Stothard.
In fact, in the niche of genre-literature, it is the bloggers who catalyse the art-form. For example, the Pornokitsch website that puts out much more quality literary criticism than the Guardian, which can only muster a single monthly round-up of the latest sci-fi. Who is doing more for that kind of literature?
Perhaps Stothard is actually conflating bloggers with the reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere, who often write batshit crazy reviews, giving five stars or one star, without having read the book. This is indeed a problem, as it ruins the Amazon product review system. However, I doubt that the few people who find such comments credible have much in common with those who read the TLS or the LRB. More to the point, I can’t believe that the product reviews on e-commerce sites have provoked a single authors into changing the way they write, or what they choose to write about.