So, yesterday afternoon, Nic and I realised this was happening:
Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press? Hear two highly regarded literary bloggers — Mark Thwaite, founder of ReadySteadyBook.com, and Lynne Hatwell, founder of dovegreyreader.typepad.com — battle it out with to professional critics — Sunday Times chief reviewer John Carey and broadcaster and journalist John Mullan.
And we went along:
And, I have to say, I was pleasantly impressed. It was by far the most interesting and thorough examination of the vexed question of blogging that I’ve seen or heard or read in a mainstream literary venue (as it were); moreover the audience questions were of a much higher standard than I’ve come to expect from literary festivals. The format was semi-formal: Thwaite, Mullan and Hatwell all took a turn to speak, with questions after each, moderated by Carey. From my notes I reconstruct them thus [square brackets are my comments]:
- Mark Thwaite: set the scene, explained what blogs and RSS are [although as it happens, I suspect most of the audience knew this -- certainly there seemed to be a fair few other bloggers there, as I suppose you'd expect]. Highlighted the immense number of blogs out there to make the point that they are not any one thing — ten thousand would not be a good sample. [ObPedant: well, it would depend on your sampling methodology. But point taken.] Argued that even bad blogs — even those that commit the “sins of blogging”, that are reactive, populist, gossipy and so forth — certainly do no harm, and probably do some good in terms of getting people to engage with books; so why do journalists seem to be annoyed by them? Noted that bloggers learn, many improve as they go, dialogue with commenters makes you a better reader and writer [very true], and in general emphasised the importance of community. The literary blogosphere, in its best form, brings passion and rigour together.
- Questions from Carey: do you get to know your readers? (Yes, to different levels; some are close friends, some he considers co-writers of the blog, almost.) How do you keep the community “pure”? (It’s self-filtering; people not interested in the general tone of the site tend not to hang around.) Do you not feel “lost” among a hundred million-plus blogs? (A villager might feel lost in the city, but that doesn’t make the city a bad thing; and there are guides.)
- John Mullan: Blogs seem to be about the exchange of opinions; this has value, but academic criticism still has something to add. Unfortunately a lot of academics have “forfeited” their status — if critics are less regarded these days, if we can’t imagine general readers buying books of criticism to reader for pleasure, that’s largely academics’ fault. [I'm not sure about the apparent conflation of "academic" and "criticism" here.] One of the things academics need to do is reclaim value judgement, be bolder about saying which books are worth paying attention to and why. One reason it’s worth reading good critics is that they have knowledge that general readers don’t — otherwise what’s the point of them? Critics should in general tell readers three things [that, eg, reviewers or bloggers generally don't]: (1) Explain the design/structure of books, how they work (which is why we value books — it’s not about their subject; there are lots of books about the same things as Pride and Prejudice); (2) Take a long view (be widely read and be able to bring that knowledge to bear); (3) Articulate, make clearer the half-understanding the reader has in their head already. Critics are well-placed to be advocates [Yes].
- Questions: Carey: Can you separate knowledge and opinion that firmly? Good criticism is rare because it’s hard; it’s rare everywhere, in academia as well as in blogs. (Yes, but that shouldn’t stop people striving, and perhaps academics strive more … but they shouldn’t forget the obligations of criticism.) Thwaite: if academics are forgetting that obligation, is it partly due to the influence of Theory? (More down to an emergent property of academia — American University Presses publish reams of books that are not read, and often aren’t intended to be read so much as they’re intended to help people get their next job. But Theory hasn’t helped.) Hatwell: I value criticism; do you value bloggers? Did bloggers catch academia unawares, make them question their value? (Perhaps yes, and that’s not a bad thing; the other factor here is the proliferation of book groups.)
- Lynne Hatwell: What qualifies her to write about books? She writes in a personal and subjective way, and makes no apology for that; as John Carey once said, “my judgements are camouflaged autobiography”. A life-long reader; in the mid-nineties did a part-time English Literature degree with the Open University, and at the end of it in some ways felt little better off — now felt she had a voice but nowhere to speak. Hence, the blog, a voice she could use. Does not identify as a critic or a reviewer — they’re roles that involve more detachment than she wants to muster (gets enough detachment in her day job as a community nurse). She wants to write less about what happens in a book, and more about how it affected her. (Pomposity on a blog leads to death by a thousand comments.) For similar reasons she doesn’t post negative reviews, she wants to focus on those books for which she is the right reader. But at the same time she needs to be accountable for the opinions expressed — honesty, transparency and humour are key. Blogging has expanded her horizons. Blogs are accused of being unedited — but she spends a lot of time on her posts. There shouldn’t be a battle, blogs may be a different offering but the can be as meaningful as critics. [This was a much more obviously prepared statement than the other two, and much more personal, and went down very well with the audience; I can't capture the humour in these notes, but she's posted the full speech here.]
- Final discussion
- Mullan: your blogs are very civilized compared to my main experience — on the Guardian blogs, where commenters are often astonishingly abusive. Is this a weakness of the form? Speed and anonymity lead to an aggressive and combative forum.
- Carey: In a way that should be valued — will give future historians a complete spectrum of opinion! Critics say “we” meaning “me” too often. [Hmm, really? Certainly when I say "we", which I try not to do too much, it's because I'm presuming I'm addressing an audience that is on the same page as me.]
- Thwaite: I don’t think of the Guardian blogs as part of the blogosphere, I think of them as part of the Guardian. They are atypical In general there seems to be a movement away from anonymity — everyone knows my name.
- Audience: blogging is a medium — being a blogger is a role, not an identity.
- Mullan: I wonder if the democratisation of opinion that blogs bring plays into marketer’s hands to some extent — it tends to flatten opinion, historically innovation has needed critics to stand up for it.
- Hatwell: too much literary criticism is out of reach of the normal reader — cost, lack of library access. I’ve tried to integrate some critical writers into my blog, bring their perspective in.
- Audience: there should still be a place for casual thought, we don’t want everyone to end up as specialists.
- Thwaite: the next great critic will have a blog.
Apart from anything else, the panel made me want to give up writing for all other venues and just publish reviews here. (I suspect this is a symptom of having published so little here for so long.) I think I will try to slot a few novellas in between Clarke novels, this month. Hopefully including Philip Pullman’s new book, Once Upon a Time in the North, which I impulse-bought on our way out through the festival bookshop.
And you can read Nic’s take on the event here.
And a final photo: