This week, Peter Stothard said in The Independent that he was concerned that the reviews and opinions which proliferate about books on the internet could kill off literary criticism. This has caused me to do some pondering this week. Of course, Stothard is not only the chair of the Man Booker Prize judges’ panel, he is also the editor of the Times Literary Supplement – the pinnacle of weekly literary criticism in the UK (to which I have finally subscribed). And I respect his views, and I agree with some of what he says. He says that:
“It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”
It’s true. There is a world of difference between the ‘I liked this book because it had a good plot/appealing characters’ review, and the more in-depth and incisive criticism which examines why a book has literary merit, and how it adds to our cultural development. Certainly I try to steer clear of the former, and to be more rigorous in my reviews on this blog, because that, essentially, is what I’m trained to do. I try to apply the academic principles I would use if I were writing an academic paper or a lecture to the books I read, and there are many bloggers out there who do the same, and provide worthwhile reviews which, while perhaps not the kind of work the TLS would publish, nonetheless are not meaningless, and have value for readers. Stothard acknowledges that some blogs do provide excellent reviews (and he is a blogger himself), but one does have the sneaking suspicion that perhaps he would prefer us all to be reading the TLS rather than book blogs. Fair enough; but surely any reader who is even slightly discerning knows that the internet is a curate’s egg: there is a lot of really, really bad stuff – bland and pointless commentary, things that are simply incorrect, things that have no merit – alongside some really excellent work that is all the better for being freely available.
Stothard’s point is to protect literary criticism, to make sure it is something that is valued precisely because it assesses and value literature. I think he’s right in that; he says:
“If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed…Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”
He says that truly great literature is not always easy; it’s not the page-turners, but those which cross boundaries, do something new, play with textuality, chronology, language and ideas.* And these are the books that literary critics value, and often choose to write about. Personally, I do think that literary criticism needs some defending; it is an art, or at least it is if done properly, and it is important that literature is properly analysed, explored and criticised, because it deserves it, and because it offers a kind of regeneration for our literary culture. However, it is difficult (for me, at least) to be quite so sceptical about the reviews which appear across the internet: if I think a book review has no merit, then it won’t change my opinions of the book, and I’ll quickly move on. But if blogs and discussion forums on the internet have got people talking about books, that has to be a good thing. The British, historically, have been notoriously anti-intellectual; if they are embracing books and book-blogging, then this has to be a good thing. It won’t replace academic evaluations, because ultimately, they don’t have the same objective.
If these ‘difficult’ books which constitute great literature are not plot-driven with a mass appeal, then reviewers will reflect this. A review of, say, Joyce’s Ulysses which focuses on plot and popular appeal will not be positive. A critical paper on it will have a very different approach, and will tease out the strands of intertextuality, of history and contemporary life, of language usage and nuances, and will offer a very different persepctive. The difference is in the intention. This is not to say that everyone shouldn’t be reading ‘difficult’ novels, though merely to label them as such is pointless – we’re getting into Leavisite territory here, and surely the more books everyone reads, and writes about, the better. After all, I’m prepared to bet the internet has a lot more discussion of Fifty Shades of Grey than of Will Self’s Umbrella, and that is hardly impinging on the territory of the literary critic. Why should everyone read, and engage with literature? Well, as C.S. Lewis said,
“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
*Incidentally, this year’s judges include Professor Dinah Birch, a very eminent academic who specialises in Victorian literature, and is also a critic; and historian Amanda Foreman, as well as Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame but also an editor of The Junket, and Bharat Tandon, also an academic and critic. The panel seems to have made a definite move away from last year’s more populist shortlist; the judges have talked about the importance of prose, and of innovative language usage, which is reflected in the shortlist, and Stothard’s reference to the complexity of great literature and the need for serious criticism suggests that Will Self’s novel is probably a good bet. Having read it (and reviewed it…) my money’s on Umbrella.