Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sven Birkerts is Wrong

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.


jrlennon said...

I threw in the towel on the gatekeepers in 2003, when the ludicrous non-reporting of Judith Miller enabled the beginning of the largest foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States. Josh Marshall and his team are better reporters than the New York Times, and the usurpment of literary comment by the great unwashed blogosphere cannot be far behind.

Writer, Rejected said...

"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."


Howie Beale said...

re: Birkerts, the literature/story distinction and Ozick's essay in Harpers. Interesting that both Munro's "Fiction" and W. Mason's letter in response to Ozick's essay offer consideration of the line btw. literature and story. Stories are what nice people share with nice people, right? (Or bad with the bad). JRL calls literature an "exquisite refinement" of story. And refinement requires that said story be recognized as standing over/against its peers, those great many being shared btw. nice people...

As of today, August 3rd, too much of what any given literary title (that which aspires to literature) seems to be about is the fact of its writer's standing. Pretension. The size and font of the name on the cover. The photo on the back. The helpful citations of previous bestsellers or approval by Oprah.

What about story? Story? Any potential yarn is dwarfed by the one with best resonance: starpower! wattage! it wants you to want to BE it!

Long way of saying that what I appreciate most about Ozick's essay is how she markedly identifies the critic as the literary novel's "ghostly twin" and emphasizes the necessity of critical synthesis. Just what does "Middlesex" have to do with "Indecision?" "Gilead" with "The Road?" "On The Night Plain" with "Jesus' Son?" "Veronica" with, I don't know, "The Great Gatsby?" Anything? Nothing? Can authors themselves write such an essay without sounding impossibly presumptuous ("Well, I see my own work as fitting into the canon somewhere between Henry James and Henry Miller..."). It has been said, I believe, in The New York Times and in various living rooms across the nation, that today not enough people read. There are a lot of strangers to literature.

Who intends to make that introduction? Who is hosting the party? There ought to be many hosts, right? Those voices with both background and foreground in the cultural firmament? Maybe not Sven Birkerts. (Is that a funny thing to say, 'cultural firmament?' Should it be?)

And how about the rapid-fire writing in blogs? Can that which lacks careful refinement be counted on to name what does?

Familiarity. You wonder what it is that movies do better than books. No matter how shallow the conversation, people talk about movies. Take David Denby's essay in the July 23rd NY'er, which definitely is deep in so far as magazine writing about movies goes. I'm not saying its particularly convincing, but he does seem to respect Ms. Ozick's advice. Critical synthesis. Who are the archetypal fictional characters for guys in their 20s and early 30s?

Apparently, in no particular order, "Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Adam Sandler, John Cusack, Jimmy Fallon, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, Hugh Grant, and Seth Rogan."

Apologies for the lengthy rant. At this gathering, I guess I'm like the loud drunk standing on a chair. I will step off the chair now. Which way the punchbowl?

ed said...

Here, here, Rhian. Well done.

jrlennon said...

howie beale, I am with you, except that 1) sometimes the superstars are superstars for the right reason, and 2) even Sven is welcome to host his party, too. Just, you know, he shouldn't be muttering about how I don't deserve to throw one myself.

I am right beside you at the punch bowl, believe me!

the individual voice said...

Blogs are about free speech, truly diverse voices, uncensored conversations (usually) and discovering gems on your own, like a beachcomber. Sven makes a living as the Chicken Little of the print world. He's just doing his job. Read his Gutenberg Elegies.

Jeff said...

"Sometimes the superstars are superstars for the right reason..."

Familiar phrase. When people say that--and I have, too--I feel like what they mean is, 'I myself wouldn't mind being a superstar.'

Though it's tough to identify what superstardom could possibly mean to a writer (whose ideal ought to be, depressing as it is, an afterlife of literary scrutiny, not a present one, save for the treasured circle of intimates), as opposed to what it means for an actor.

Isn't the quintessential breakthrough success in America followed by an unavoidable watering down, much as a sensation on the political scene too often becomes a glad-handing shell? (More a function of economic reality, vast wealth and great poverty connected by an ever-fraying strand of middle-ness, than any kind of character judgment... though character judgments ARE fun!)

There may be a few exceptions, but the standard would seem to track closely to the Hemingway model (save, in most cases, for the fireworks at the end). A novelist succeeds, and then successive work is released to bolster or exonerate the enormity of that success, pure interest in art gone by the wayside. For example, the guy in recent years whose third novel did enormously well, to be followed by a memoir called, "How To Be Alive," or something. Messud's "Emperor's Children" has nice satire to this effect. (Not sure my own memoir will have a readership of more than one, but I intend to call it, "I Know You Want To Be Me!")

Tracking backwards on comments from a later post, to take the example of Gowdry and Perrotta, with respect to stardom... In so far as such a thing exists, isn't Perrotta a contemporary lit superstar?

And in conclusion, I think the fragment "Even Sven..." is awesome. Somebody has got to make that the chorus of a song.

jrlennon said...

When I was saying some people are superstars for the right reason, I was thinking of, say, Alice Munro, or Philip Roth, or Don DeLillo. I would love to get to write like those people, and they're famous because they keep being good (Rhian's qualms about DeLillo's latest notwithstanding).

Franzen, who you referred to there, is a good writer indeed, but I wouldn't want his kind of publicity for anything. I mean, I think you're referring to hype, whereas I was referring more to long-term classic-writer status. I don't personally feel like I'm in any danger of either kind of attention, though.