Responding to Sir Stothard: The legitimacy of bloggers

Regardless of anyone's opinion otherwise, if an online writer is writing a piece of criticism that connects with another person, there is inherent good within that work. Photo: Sir Peter Stothard

BOISE, January 7, 2013 – In a recent piece in The Independent, Sir Peter Stothard (editor of the Times Literary Supplement) made a disarming statement. In essence, Sir Stothard claimed that the blogosphere is taking away from “real” literary critics and, in essence, damaging literature itself.

If you take a look at the comments on that article, you’ll see that not too many internet users agree with Sir Stothard. There is certainly a difference between the old school, elite critic and a book review blogger or online writer.

But what exactly was it that Sir Stothard said that set the internet on fire?

Let’ start here, “Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition… 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 pretty cut and dry: “Dear sir, my opinion is worth hundreds of yours because of some artificially constructed boundaries that were set in place hundreds of years ago. My notability is unquestionable!”

What is Art?

Of course, Sir Stothard doesn’t mean to exclude millions of people and their thoughts. He sees merit in blogging, and he definitely sees merit in reading. Sir Stothard and other old school critics see criticism as an art.

It’s something that you have to “learn,” not something have an innate ability to do with any success. The same old school critics wouldn’t necessarily consider every work of “literature” to be a work of “art,” either, so it’s necessary to define art, at least for the purposes of this piece.

Art, I would argue, is any piece of work created by a human that makes a connection with another human. Art is created for the purpose of connection, and that bond can be formed by an ideal, thought, belief or just a strong sense of aesthetics. The person viewing or reading the work doesn’t even have to get the intended message from it, so long as they feel connected to that piece.

Art, therefore, can exist as a building, a painting, a digital vector image, a hand-made instrument, a song, a book or a blog post. The beauty of art is that neither I nor someone with an Oxford education gets to define it.

Therefore, if a blogger is writing a piece of criticism that connects with another person, there is inherent good within that work. Sir Stothard might not agree with it, and I might not agree with it, but it’s making a valuable connection with someone.

Sir Stothard goes on to say, “Eventually [blogging as literary criticism] 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.”

There are some important issues here. Is what’s good for Sir Stothard what’s good for me? Is his opinion, in fact, the healthiest opinion I can digest? Sir Stothard believes his job is to tell me what to think about a book. In his mind, he is an expert and his claims are indisputable because he has, no doubt, read more books than I have.

Old school critics, in their own minds, know what’s best for literature because they’ve read more books. And, consequently, anyone who disagrees with their opinion or sees artistic merit somewhere the critic does not is hurting literature. It’s true that the average blogger does not have Sir Stothard’s eye for literature, but that’s just fine—that blogger has his own eye for literature, which is equally valid.

Speaking my Language

Before 50 years ago, it was difficult to find print criticism of more than a few specific literary works. The books reviewed in The Times might have been something of value to the critic, but they might not have contained anything that would resonate with the common person, much less a person included in any given niche audience.

When NPR, or Sir Stothard himself, reviews the new Michael Chabon book, people take note. People buy it. The problem with those big critics acting as the be-all-end-all book review, however, is that they don’t catch the subtleties that a regular-person blog owner catches.

When Chabon makes a finely-crafted homage to Jack Kirby, Sir Stothard might not catch it and an ordinary, “untrained” blogger might write a paragraph about it. Guess what? That’s the paragraph that lets me, as an individual, know that particular Chabon book is something I’m interested in. Old world, big publication critics cannot function as the only deciding factor in today’s literary world. Anyone, no matter how humble or “unseemly,” can make an important contribution.

Blogging as literary criticism is great because it lets a real reader know a real person’s opinion on a work of literature. Or an album. Or a movie. For example, Pitchfork didn’t even bother to review the new Propagandhi album. It was “beneath them.”

Thank goodness, then, for a site like Lambgoat, which happily reviews it. That writer from Lambgoat probably has a closer outlook on life and art to my own than a writer for Pitchfork—both outlooks are equally valid, but one is much more valuable to me.

There are all kinds of people who find artistic merit in all manners of different work. Sir Stothard has undeniably good taste, but it’s very different than my own taste—which I, of course, consider good and equal to his. The beauty of blogging as criticism is that ordinary people connect much better with other ordinary people than elite, “classically trained” critics do.

It’s no longer purely the realm of the elite and it’s no longer a benevolent dictatorship. The field is level because of the internet, and it’s extremely valuable to read criticism from someone whose background and ideals closely match your own. There’s a lot of art to sift through, and now we have valuable opinions that come from our peers and not from stuffy critics.

I can read a review that I don’t need to take with a grain of salt, and that’s an amazing thing. 

Making a Contribution

I think Sir Stothard makes an excellent point, which also reinforces my point, when he says, “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.”

Literary blogging is contributing to the English language, and the works it critiques are contributing to the English language. Smaller, more underground works are no longer ignored and marginalized. It’s because of these blogger-critics that the English language is being renewed.

Bloggers offer the ultimate resistance. Often, the language is going in a direction that the old guard doesn’t endorse, but that’s not the point. Anyone who’s taken a basic linguistics class knows that a language evolves organically, traditionalists be damned.

Bloggers are constantly challenging the established order and rebuilding the language. It’s not always pretty, but it is necessary for the sake of art, criticism and language as a whole. No one man, knighted and Oxford educated or not, can steer the direction of language. And, in that way, that makes the evolution of a language the most democratic process of all.

Times are changing quickly, and I admit that it must be difficult for a classical critic to consider an ordinary blogger his peer and equal. Even relatively uneducated bloggers are contributing to art and literature by starting discussions, by engaging readers and by supporting those industries in the first place.

Art, literature and criticism are moving in bold directions and headed to different places. They’re evolving. Instead of “doing harm” to literature, blogger-critics are just embracing necessary changes and strengthening the popular voice.

The king is dead, long live the king. 


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Dustin Verburg

Dustin Verburg is a writer and musician living in Boise, ID. When he’s not wishing he could play guitar like Greg Sage, he writes about internet ethics, good blogging practices and the human side of SEO. Dustin writes for Page One Power, a link building firm that focuses on relevancy and transparency. 

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