Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where is literary criticism? Everywhere.

Some of you may know my dislike for inflammatory "death of" statements - I have little patience for authors (usually old men) who declare that the age of literature is over, and bemoan the loss of our literary culture. Statements like those drip with disdain for younger readers, as well as an outright snobbishness in regards to the definition of literature. In general, I take great issue with any critic, writer, reader, reviewer etc making grand claims about the state of literature today, mostly because those statements are usually stereotyped-based, wrong, and ultimately counterproductive.

It was, then, with some disappointment that I read Mark Thwaite's post on the Guardian book blog a couple weeks ago. Thwaite - who I used to follow as a blogger back in my early days - laments the loss of "literary blogs", writing:
Many great blogs focus on genre fiction: the love of vampire epics or raunchy romances, SF or historical fiction. My focus was on "serious literature" – the scare quotes are in place because what is contested as such was also part of the reason to get involved in the fun and the fray of blogging. My hope at the time was that countless blogs would emerge that would prove an untested thesis to which I'd long cleaved: that the attempt by the mainstream media to contain the intelligence of the average reader by trivialising their seriousness could be resisted, and that blogging would prove that readers had far more sophisticated tastes than the broadsheets presume.
Thwaite pins some of the blame on Twitter as the source for the loss of intelligent, longform literary criticism. But of course, his entire premise is built on a shaky definition of literary (and an even shakier definition of longform), and a healthy dose of elitism. Thwaite is trying to present literary criticism as a field with a clear definition - the blogs/journals he links to are certainly heavy-hitters, but they are absolutely not the only ones. What became of literary blogging? Well, it's here. It's always been here. And it doesn't necessarily have to be about your so-called literary fiction, and it doesn't have to be characterized by dense articles.

Which leads me to Kelly Jensen's recent post at Stacked Books. Jensen's post looks more specifically at young adult literature than anything else, but the question posed is much the same: where are the critical reviewers? It's a question that's interesting in the context of young adult literature, largely because that field has distanced itself from the rest of literature (young adult is now viewed - bafflingly - as a genre, and not simply as a designation), and also because much of the nature of young adult book blogging has been in response to critics like Thwaite - young, untethered and populist.

Here's what I think is important to take away from both pieces: fine criticism is not easily defined. Jensen looks at specific blogs and specific blog-traits as one she prefers, but what's important to note is that Thwaite in all likelihood wouldn't ever call those blogs "literary". Jensen defines criticism in a way that is much more in line with my own opinions:
Some of the best critical reviews are entirely positive, but what separates them from a lot of other reviews is they offer a huge slice of the person behind the review. They're often more personal than a personal blog post because they let in opportunities for vulnerability that the reviewer doesn't always know they're opening up: their biases, their preferences, their world views, their passions. These reviews allow me as a reader to really get inside the book and inside the head of another reader.
This sort of definition means that literary criticism is never defined by genre. It means that it's not defined by age group or designation. Jensen throws out Thwaite's idea of an elite culture by demanding a personal investment - something I wholeheartedly agree with. Reading, after all, is never objective - we take into account every book previously read when starting a new one, and there is no vacuum in which we can separate between our real lives and those we read on the page.

This leads me to what I feel is the answer to both Thwaite and Jensen's questions: critical literary review is still here, it's just less obvious. The book blogging world has grown tremendously over the past few years, spawning subgroups, subniches, and entirely new mediums (BookTube, anyone?). Today, finding blogs is largely dependent on which community you belong to. While there is significant overlap (thanks, I have to admit, to sites like BookRiot, which blend together many different groups), most bloggers still seem to identify as something - "literary", historical fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, young adult, etc. These niches make it easier to find a group of people with similar tastes and interests, but significantly harder to find anyone else. My own blog is a fairly good example - I have resisted the urge for many years to fit into any niche, and yet circumstances have led me to be a part of the literature-in-translation group. I hardly post about sci-fi and fantasy anymore, even less about young adult literature or plain old fiction. Niches are easier, but they ultimately make the literary community feel... emptier. There are literally thousands of book bloggers currently active today - the problem isn't that these quality critics don't exist, it's that they're hard to find in the maze of the current community.

With so many blogs isolated, it's hard to see that literary criticism really does cross genre borders. It's hard to see that it's a field that's still thriving. Thwaite-style blogging still exists in many corners (many sci-fi blogs have some of the most probing, intelligent reviews I've ever read, while reviewers who delve deeply and personally into the heart of the books they read still exist for Jensen (lots of literature in translation blogs definitely fit this category). Having difficulty in finding these blogs and bloggers is fair enough. Implying that they doesn't exist is problematic. And attempting to lock in the definition of quality criticism - as Thwaite attempts - is simply wrong.


  1. An excellent summary of what's wrong with Thwaite's thinking. The piece starts off from a confused and cartoonishly dogmatic set of black-and-white oppositions ("serious literature" versus everything else; blogging versus "the mainstream media", etc) and only gets worse from there. Fact is, Thwaite and his friends (principally Steve Mitchelmore) are well-known in the literary blogging community for exactly this kind of exclusionary, ignorant view: the small pool of writers "we" like (e.g. Thomas Bernhard, etc) are the *only* ones worth reading; everything else is trash, and anyone who writes about it is worthless. No one actually takes these bitter old men seriously, though -- mainly because they haven't even read the vast swathes of literary culture they're so childishly dismissing. Thwaite's article is really just the last gasp of an old guard whose obsolescence is welcomed by the wider online literary world.

  2. I remember talking to a literary agent at a literary festival and s/he said: 'Book bloggers? Pah! No serious literary criticism there, don't know what they're talking about.' This was only a year ago, so it's neither a new concept, nor an outmoded one. However, I would argue that I am more likely to believe and trust the well-informed and highly personal opinions of some of my favourite book bloggers and follow their recommendations. Sometimes, I even buy their counter-recommendations, because I think it will be interesting to see what they didn't like. They offer a thoughtful, unbiased and refreshingly unpretentious approach to book reviewing, without losing any of the quality.


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