(x-posted from the Valve)
The blogs salved this ennui and created nourishing microcommunities. Yet criticism as an art didn’t survive. People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested .... The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction—"The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!"—or displeasure—"I shit on Dante!” So man hands information on to man.
The pace of the contemporary moment is ruinous. Who has time to develop an opinion anymore? We must choose between the obvious and la critique trouvé. The former wins little readership; the latter, a devoted following. Canny appreciation will win a blogger an audience—earn him entrance into the nourishing microcommunity of his choosing—but the quality of his thought will suffer. He will repeat himself repeating others and be praised for it. But it’s not like the editors of n+1 won’t begrudge such coteries the solace of companionship. As Keith Gessen writes in an email Mark Sarvas posted:
It’s just a different model of magazine. As you say, Eliot’s Criterion, where he published The Waste Land, or something like Partisan Review (those guys published their own poetry!), are places where the editors had things they wanted to say that they believed no one else was saying. Irving Howe’s Dissent. Herzen’s Bell. Dwight Macdonald’s Politics. Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. The other model is curatorial: you’re throwing a creative writing contest and whoever wins the contest gets published. That’s the New American Review or the Paris Review—or the thousand magazines associated with MFA programs. They’re both valid models, but obviously we’re working in the first one.
Most of those—especially those publishing the work of the New York Intellectuals—are coterie work. When judging it, you take into account the intellectual environment that produced it. You look for the shared ideological, intellectual and personal assumptions of the group of people writing for a particular venue and you adjust your assessment accordingly. To rail against n+1 for treating a self-sustaining intellectual community as a single entity is a general complaint, one easily recognizable to you folk if I substitute “theorists” for “lit-bloggers.” You can, like Jodi, consider any such effort inherently dismissive, but much of what I’ve learned earning my Book of the Month Club degree says otherwise. The issue is always thornily general; complaints about the inaccuracy of the generalization always miss the point ... especially when they validate the generalization in the same breath they deny its explanatory power.
Take Sarvas. He should be shamed for publishing private correspondence, but he should be mocked for publishing it because Gessen, Marco Roth et al had to gall to point out that “lit-bloggers [have] become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches.” The pettiness behind his decision to publish Gessen’s emails proves the editors of n+1 correct: some lit-bloggers do turn bellicose when their authority’s questioned. Garth Risk Hallberg’s considered rebuttals on The Millions work to refute the generalization, but the comments and links to his post contains more of the same:
You think I’m small-minded? I’ll show you. I’ll publish your private correspondence.
Teach you to call me petty.
Or consider Edward Champion’s biting response to the claim that lit-bloggers “represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of capitalism”:
[insert author name]’s [latest book from author] has hit bookstores. It’s criminally underated, and [reviewer who writes somewhat intelligently or has interesting take] has an interesting take on why it’s worth your time.
Last night, I had a [vaguely personal moment in which I don’t reveal too much of myself to readers, because, based on some of the comments here, I think a few of you are keeping extremely close track of my personal life—for what reason I have no idea]. And it reminded me of [article which probably has nothing to do with moment in question].
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention [A friend or acquaintance who has done something interesting, must keep this near the end to avoid favoritism]’s thoughtful project, which should blow the lid on [incongruous reference here because I’m overworked and I need more coffee so that I can stay awake, until such moment as I will be able to properly collapse].
As withering self-deprecation goes, Champion’s performance is brilliant; unfortunately, it also proves the very point he wanted to refute. In real sense, Champion and other lit-bloggers are vehicles for information about literature, not organs (ahem, ahem) devoted to its study. Which is fine. I read Champion because he has his ear to the ground. He does a phenomenonal job tracking trends in contemporary literature. (I find his book reviews a little too mainstream for my taste, but their failings are exemplary of the form, not the individual.) Perhaps unfairly, n+1 castigated the lit-bloggers for not being something they aren’t trying to be; but the editors do have a point about the lack of speculative gusto, or more mundanely, the poor reading skills of many in the lit-blogging community.
You see, my biggest complaint about the lit-blogger’s response n+1 is that it simply misses the point. The entire “Intellectual Situation” is a meditation on the relation of speed and technology to the cultivation of thought:
The true mood of the form is spontaneity, alacrity—the right time to reply to a message is right away. But do that and your life is gone.
As with email, so too with cellphones and blogs. The dearth of analytic vim in any blogging community is not necessarily the fault of the individuals comprising it, but a symptom of the temptations of the genre. It is tempting to write book-chat. It is tempting to turn a blog into group therapy. It is tempting to post the same sort of fluff found in Slate. It is tempting to link to the same YouTube video everyone else has. Unless you consciously fight it, the inertia of generic norms will exert its influence on you ... and your blog’ll be the worse for it. That lit-blogs are singled out speaks to their potential—to the potential of people who are still devoted readers—to bring to their blogging the same spirit of resistance they demonstrate every time they choose to read instead of write an email, use their cellphone, or turn on their Wii.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play tennis.