Why am I willing to read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, parts of The Waste Land and The Four Quartets again and again but not likely to go through Ulysses one more time? I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I can’t be a critic though I love books.
Not everyone wants to or can be a critic though they may write about books.
Bloggers writing about books will harm literature, says Peter Stothard.
It is the critics who should be writing about books, says the editor of the Times Literary Supplement.
Stothard, who blogs about books himself, told the Independent: “There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. Quite unnecessarily.”
“Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition,” he said. “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.”
The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, he said. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers’ opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”
His opinion matters not only because he is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement but also because he is the chair of the jury of this year’s Man Booker Prize.
He and his four fellow judges will pick the winner of the Commonwealth’s biggest literary prize.
The Independent notes:
A row broke out in 2011 over a perceived dumbing down of the prize as the chair of the judges Stella Rimington said she wanted books “people would read and enjoy”.
He (Stothard) dismisses the readability tag as a “side issue” on judging novels and concedes the organizers may have chosen him as chair of the judges to avoid similar issues this year. “The novel is more than a story. Storytelling is a great art and not to be knocked.”
“Yet, If the English novel does nothing to renew the English language, then it really doesn’t do anything. The great works of art have to renew the language in which they’re written. They have to offer a degree of resistance.”
In other words, great works of art have to be difficult: “They have to offer a degree of resistance.”
Stothard did not name any great writer, work of art or critic, for that matter.
But maybe he had a writer like Joyce in mind. Certainly, Joyce wrote like no other writer – he “renewed” the English language, so to speak – and he is definitely difficult.
Stothard values difficult writers who “renew the English language” more than “storytellers”, but I personally like the immediate gratification of reading a good story.
What’s good is a matter of taste, of course – and, on that point, Stothard is awfully snobbish.
To recall his dim view of bloggers writing about books, “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers’ opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”
Stothard is wrong in dismissing bloggers wholesale as lacking in discrimination and judgment.
And what does he mean by “good” books?
Even critics don’t agree on which book is good or bad.
Stothard seems to think literature is like medicine and readers should be guided by specialists like literary critics. Literary criticism is a skill, he said while talking about the books he had to read for the Man Booker prize:
“It was hard work. In a normal year, you might read 20 novels. So to read 145 in seven months is an unnatural act. But it’s an important unnatural act because in a way literary criticism is an unnatural act. It is work, a technique, a skill.”
But what can a literary critic tell me about the appeal of a writer like John Grisham or Ian Rankin?
It’s true romance and crime outsell “serious fiction”.
But the bloggers can’t be blamed for that.
Romance and crime outsold “serious” fiction even before the rise of the blogs.
Stothard should know that, having been in the newspaper business since the late 1970s, when there was no internet and newspapers had to compete only with television channels.
So he has no business blaming the bloggers.