Ed of Ed Rants comments on an anti-blog essay by Sven Birkerts published in a recent Boston Globe. It is worth taking a look at.
Birkert's essay strikes one as more Barbarians-at-the-gates hand-wringing from someone safely ensconced inside the gates, thank you, who is not ready to give up his comfy place. (I confess a long and conflicted mental relationship with Sven Birkerts, who has always championed print media and could fairly be described as a Luddite. I, too, am something of a Luddite. I don't have a cell phone -- in fact, until recently, JRL and I had one of those old dial things. Never had a dishwasher. I love, love, LOVE books as objects, and will never buy an e-Book, and my dearest wish is to own a letterpress -- okay, Luddite cred established. But the feeling his work gives me is annoyed and conflicted. It's too late at night to explore this, especially since I started this post last night, but suffice it to say that although I find his basic argument to be true -- Print IS Good -- I find him to be not quite smart and well-argued enough.)
Birkert's essay says that, after a tentative exploration of the blogosphere, Sven is not not convinced that all this amateur reviewing is really a good thing -- that the days when a few select newspapers and magazines had a lock on opinion were better. The recent decision of several larger papers to ditch their book review sections seems to have brought this on. But this is where Birkerts errs -- bloggers are not the enemy. The enemy, Sven, are the robber baron owners of newspapers and media conglomerates who have killed off the world of print criticism.
(I admit that it's hard for me to get too worked up about the loss of the book review pages in newspapers (as much as I loved getting newspaper reviews of my novel sent via fax (hahahaha -- fax!)) when a more dire problem is the complete and total suckification of newspapers and mass media in general.)
And if Sven were sitting at my side right now, we could find many, many very intelligently written reviews of his work on the internet, and he knows it. Probably some dumb ones, too -- but Birkerts might be surprised to discover that most people who read all the way through one of his books are actually quite sharp. In any case, it really isn't the content of internet blogging that pisses Sven off. It's the format, and specifically, the lack of a Gatekeeper.
This is what the blog-dissers keep coming back to: there is no Authority on the internet to make sure that what it written on it is smart and wise. There is a lot of blah-blah-blah in Birkerts's essay, but the gist is this: without smart, educated wise men deciding what gets published and what doesn't, how can we know What Is Good?
I'll tell you, Sven: we know what is good by reading, reading, reading and reading some more. We actually don't need Charles McGrath telling us what to read. The internet gives us easy access to an enormous amount of opinion, and you know what? That is good. Fifty opinions might not be better than one, carefully-vetted, well-paid, possibly biased opinion, but it certainly gives one more to think about. The NYTimes is not keeping culture alive by paying writers to review their best friends or their prep-school enemies. Yes, it publishes some awfully good criticism, but if the NYTBR were to dry and blow away tomorrow, those excellent reviews would find another venue. The mediocre ones, too.
What the vaunted Authorities do is keep some ideas from being heard. An editor's main job these days is rejecting, is shutting up. The internet is shutting up no one, not even Michiko Kakutani (though who knows, maybe in the future, Rupert Murdoch will be) but is instead allowing all kinds of other folk to speak, too. Honestly, Sven, look in your heart! Is that bad?
(A better argument for Birkerts would be: too much. How can we have a dialogue about the latest critical review of whomever when there are 10,000 articles, and everyone has read a different one? I'd argue that, for our culture, it's already too late. Even writers talk more about movies than books, because there's a better chance that someone in the room has seen the same movie as you than has read the same book. Of course, on the internet, it's easy to find some to discuss whatever minor review you've read...)
If Birkerts really did look in his heart, he'd know that what he's freaked out about is his own irrelevence. He shouldn't be. Print and the internet can, and do, coexist. Though newspapers may well die off -- and soon -- print magazines will hang around a bit longer, and books will last throughout my lifetime, at least. Because people like them.
But even if books stopped being printed, it wouldn't be that bad. It would make me cry, for sure. Because I love books. But: books are just paper. In the end, what matters are human ideas and thoughts and dreams and arguments. They're never going away.