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Lost in the blogosphere

Why literary blogging won't save our literary culture

(Illustration/Peter and Maria Hoey)

A GRADUALLY GRAYING book reviewer with several decades in the trenches, I've been nibbling at literary web sites and blogs for some time now -- out of curiosity, to be sure, but also from a sense of vocational self-preservation. I've been trying to make my peace with the changes -- and to decide once and for all if they represent an advance, a retreat, or simply the declaration of an emerging new order against which there is no point in kicking.

New, yes, and yet still deeply intertwined with the old. So far it's clear that the blogosphere is in vital ways still predatory on print, that the daisy-chain needs the pretext of some original daisy; its genius, its essence, is manifestly supplementary. This recognition gives some credence to the many who argue for coexistence, a meshing of print culture and digital, with the latter very much spawning from the former.

But I am also paranoid enough -- or maybe forward-looking enough -- to imagine the day when magazines and newspapers have begun to dwindle away and the world of text has shifted dominantly to screen. Indeed, I would say we are right now at what feels like a point of vital balance, and those of us involved with literary journalism and book-reviewing live with the sense of a balance teetering.

In the past few years, as revenue flees from print on paper, newspapers have worried their declining circulation figures and have had to make cutbacks. We've seen shrinkage and reallocation of space for book reviews at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even here, in the city where America's literary culture was born, at The Boston Globe (which cut a page from the Ideas section last year and reduced the Books pages).

A flashpoint of sorts was reached this spring when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced that it would eliminate its book-reviews editor and rely on wire-service reviews exclusively. The decision prompted swift response from the National Book Critics Circle, which spearheaded a picket protest of the paper. The ensuing crossfire (mainly online, as it happens) between bloggers and print critics was intense and acrimonious enough to suggest that more than the disposition of a few column inches is at stake.

The controversy has to do with the fact that people in various quarters, literary bloggers prominently among them, are proposing that old-style print reviewing -- the word-count-driven evaluation of select titles by credentialed reviewers -- is outmoded, and that the deficit will be more than made up by the now-flourishing blog commentary. The blogosphere's boosters pitch its virtues of variety, grass-roots initiative, linkage, and freedom from perceived marketing influence (books by major trade publishers, which advertise more, sometimes appear to get premium treatment in the print book review sections).

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?

More than once in recent months I've followed the siren call of link and thread, immersing myself at depth. There is no one prescribed path, of course, but an afternoon's meander might start with a visit to a reputedly intelligent blog, like Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation, or Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant, tracking from an opinionated post on, say, the new Don DeLillo novel to various referenced print reviews, then following back along a trail of dispute, the warring evaluations pointing back to anterior disputes, each with its own intriguing links to other posts or articles by the writers in question.

In the process I've discovered what the more digitally progressive of my peers have known for years: that it is alarmingly easy to slide into a slipstream, or, better, go rollicking in a snake-bed of sites and posts, where each twist of text catches hold of another's tail, the whole progress and regress morphing into a no-exit situation that has to be something new under the sun.

Experiencing this, I become the gradually graying reviewer again. I can't help it. I am in every way a man of print, shaped by its biases and hierarchies, tinged by its not-so-buried elitist premises. My impulse is to argue that if the Web at large is the old Freudian "polymorphous perverse," that libidinally undifferentiated miasma of yearnings and gratifications, unbounded and free, then culture itself -- what we have been calling "culture" at least since the Enlightenment -- is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.

But this "mattering" requires the existence of a common ground, a shared set of traditions -- a center which is the collectively known picture of private and public life as set out by artists and thinkers, and discussed and debated not just by everyone with an opinion, but also most effectively by the self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so. Arbiters, critics . . . reviewers.

The blogosphere, I would argue, works in the opposite direction. There are arbiters aplenty -- some of the smartest print writers are active on blogs as well -- but the very nature of the blogosphere is proliferation and dispersal; it is centrifugal and represents a fundamental reversal of the norms of print culture.

Proliferation -- the chaos of the endlessly branching paths -- is one crucial structural difference between the print and digital realms. Never mind that the Web has swallowed vast archives of print material; we are also seeing a significant shift in the nature of the discourse itself. Blogs and on-line journals do not simply transfer old wine into new bottles -- the wine itself is changing.

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.

This question of blogs versus print is intricately bound up with broader perceived transformations in how our culture carries on its artistic and intellectual business. Some of these were addressed in a recent essay in Harper's by novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick in which she took up the questions of shared discourse, addressing what she saw as not just the threats to print, but more ominously, to literary reading itself.

Though Ozick's focus was not on blogs, she took some pains to describe the loss of accountability and authority in the literary sphere, a situation which resembles nothing so much as a complex game being played without rules, referees or, increasingly, audience. The piece concluded with Ozick's assertion that although writing, driven by idiosyncratic private forces, would ultimately take care of itself, for literature to survive there would have to exist a vibrant culture of criticism.

"What is needed," Ozick writes, "is a broad infrastructure, through a critical mass of critics, of the kind of criticism that can define, or prompt, or inspire, or at least intuit, what is happening in a culture in a given time frame. . . . In this there is something almost ceremonial, or ceremoniously slow: unhurried thinking, the ripened long (or sidewise) view, the gradualism of nuance."

Ozick harkens back to an order many feel is now gone, nodding implicitly to the old Matthew Arnold ideal of a vertical hierarchy where excellence rises and the finest thoughts and expressions shape a commonly known culture. Whether such an ideal has ever really existed -- except in the minds of a small mandarin class -- is debatable. America has never seen the like, except in Ivy enclaves and a few nodal centers in post-war New York, like the intellectual hothouse that was the early Partisan Review. Moreover, our revisionist critics have been debunking the mythology of high culture for decades. Ozick, of course, is not blind to this. She takes the ideal more as a point of reference than an actual historical precedent.

In her call for a culture of criticism Ozick is asking not just for deliberated, insightful response, but for what can be felt by all as a public nexus, a kind of echoing wall from which the sounds produced by individual writers and thinkers are returned as a larger coherence. She makes a strong differentiation between criticism -- sustained inquiry -- and reviewing, which she sees as hobbled by slightness and, often, commercial pressures. While reviewing is pitched to the present and confined to short views, criticism exists with reference to an ongoing tradition.

But times are changing, and these days the idea of a sustained tradition is bracketed, if not widely derided. I share a number of Ozick's worries, but as a self-interested reviewer -- one somewhat less skeptical about the implicit limits of the review -- I want to twist her argument to my own ends.

I would argue that in the critically shepherdless period Ozick has described, a culture of intelligent reviewing is more essential than ever. It is a simple matter of something being better than the near-nothing she adduces. Reviewing cannot replace the kind of criticism Ozick is talking about, granted, but by addressing itself to the idea of a center, by upholding the premise of a public voice, and by hewing to high editorial standards, it can do a great deal to keep alive the possibility of shared discourse.

I'm talking about print reviewing here. For as exciting as the blogosphere is as a supplement, as a place of provocation and response, it is too fluid in its nature ever to focus our widely diverging cultural energies. A hopscotch through the referential enormity of argument and opinion cannot settle the ground under our feet. To have a sense of where we stand, and to hold not just a number of ideas in common, but also some shared way of presenting those ideas, we continue to need, among many others, The New York Times, the Globe, the Tribune, the LA Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The picketers had a serious point, and contemplating it rouses in me deep impulses of solidarity.

Sven Birkerts is editor of the journal Agni, published at Boston University, and the author of several books, including "The Gutenberg Elegies" and, most recently, "Reading Life: Books for the Ages."