In the mid-1990s, Sven Birkerts made a name for himself by suggesting that, as I once glibly summarized his position, the Internet would destroy the art of reading and kill books dead. So it’s no surprise to see him in yesterday’s Boston Globe, sticking up for print-based book reviewers and warning that “literary blogging won’t save our literary culture.” Now, Birkerts isn’t a blowhard like Richard Schickel, so when he weighs in on the so-called book review crisis, attention must be paid…even if it turns out he just gets things wrong in a more sophisticated way.
It’s very nice of Birkerts to refer to the relationship bloggers have with the mainstream media as “predatory” rather than “parasitical” as most of his peers do (although I’m okay with that characterization personally), and to raise the possibility of “coexistence, a meshing of print culture and digital.” If he’s going to take the digital side of things seriously, though, why is the blogger’s perspective represented by a straw man? “People in various quarters, literary bloggers prominently among them,” he writes, “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.”
Literary bloggers calling the book review outmoded? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Name one. Most literary bloggers I know got into the act not because they wanted to hammer the final nail in the book review’s coffin, but out of frustration that the book review editors at America’s newspapers had failed to hold down the fort. Frankly, literary bloggers probably care more about keeping book coverage in America’s newspapers than the vast majority of those newspapers’ other readers, and not just because that coverage gives bloggers something to link to…or because they’re increasingly being hired to write it.
After that opening salvo, Birkerts’ argument veers into the usual cultural conservative position that we need arbiter-critics who can talk smarter about things than the rest of us rabble and thereby explain to us what really matters—although at least he has the good grace to at least suggest that such a hierarchy may only have ever existed “in the minds of a small mandarin class.” In opposition to this elitism, he says, the blogosphere offers “proliferation,” which causes our culture to lose focus, and “a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument,” which accelerates intellectual degradation. When an “amateur” is allowed to spout criticism willy-nilly online, he warns, “what we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.” (If you think this sounds an awful lot like Andrew Keen, you’re right; Birkerts is one of the earliest luminaries of the anti-Internet school.)
At this point, he invokes Cynthia Ozick, suggesting that if we can’t have the world of better criticism she called for in Harper’s a few months ago, we could at least try to promote “a culture of intelligent reviewing.” It’s just, he says, that such a culture could never flourish on the blogosphere, because “as a place of provocation and response, it is too fluid in its nature ever to focus our widely diverging cultural energies.” Only newspaper book review sections, he declares, can provide readers with “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.” This is pretty familiar Birkerts territory; he’s long contended that the printed page allows for immersive contemplation while the computer screen provides endless distraction. Why this should be the case with as ephemeral a medium as the American newspaper rather than the massively archived blogosphere is an issue Birkerts doesn’t address. And by failing to return to the idea of “coexistence” mentioned earlier, Birkerts only widens the gap between the print and online camps—a gap that has no rational reason to exist, since both sides, when viewed in good faith, want exactly the same thing: a viable platform for the wide distribution of serious discussion of contemporary literature.