(Note: It says it at the bottom, but just to be clear–this is a post from John, not Kristen. Blame me. And thanks to @Katiebabs for the heads up.)
So, it looks like there’s another Thing.
In a rather condescending guest article on SantaCruz.com, Daniela Hurezanu has come to the conclusion that The End is Nigh, and 20-something female book bloggers are either largely to blame or a primary outcome. Causality isn’t really clear, but I’m guessing the idea is that it’s all part of one giant feedback loop that will end in haggard, unshaven English Lit PhDs standing on street corners and distributing tracts of James Joyce to anyone willing to make eye contact. In short, the inmates are taking over the asylum and using the doctor’s Goya as a dartboard.
Haven’t we been here before? Many times, in fact?
Look, I’m willing to agree with her to a certain extent. I’ve seen Idiocracy, and I’ve seen enough evidence in the real world to wonder if it’s less fictional than prophetic. There are things down that road that we as a society (or plurality of societies, hello Internet!) should be worried about. But why is this one of them?
For Ms. Hurezanu, who Google seems to think is a classicist, translator, and critic, I can see why it would be troubling. Other than a seemingly random attack on kid’s books, her article breaks down into three main complaints: it is hard to persuade American presses to publish foreign books, there is a waning interest from publishers in “serious” literature, and publishers are actually treating the Children of the Blog seriously instead of ruffling their hair and hanging their (presumably finger-painted) word-mush on the refrigerator as is good and proper. Since these complaints line up nicely with who Google says she is, I’m going to assume we have the right person–if not, I apologize and will make any necessary corrections as they’re pointed out to me.
So, point-by-point then:
It is hard to persuade American presses to publish foreign books
Suffice it to say that this is not exactly unusual for American media in general, and even when an idea is imported it is almost always recreated for American audiences–with the exception of music, for various reasons. It’s just the way our culture works; for better or more likely worse, we’re exporters, not importers. Obviously, a translator will feel this deficit more than most, both for practical reasons and because they have greater exposure to what the rest of us are missing. I won’t argue the point.
There is a waning interest from publishers in “serious” literature
Well, yeah. Is this somehow surprising? “Serious” literature has the same status as “serious” music and “serious” film, and generally the same audience as well. While this group probably has a number of defining characteristics, the one that publishers are most interested in is that it is small. “Serious” literature does not meet the needs of mass audiences, and frankly never has.
Here’s a fun game. Go to this site and print out the list, then take it to work with you tomorrow. Pass it around and ask your co-workers to check off any names they recognize (Churchill doesn’t count), and add a double-check if they can name a work by the author in question. Put a minus sign next to any of the checks if the only place they heard of the author or work was in school. What do you think the result will be?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there’s an argument for trickle-down culture (it’s only slightly more convincing than the argument for trickle-down economics). But if “serious” literature was meeting a need for the larger population, shouldn’t all those names end up checked off? More to the point, when you hand the list to your co-workers and they glance down through it, shouldn’t every third name elicit a warm little smile and a irrepressible memory about how reading this book at that time helped mold the person they are today? When discussing “serious” literature, “serious” is often a code word for inaccessible, which is a code word for unpopular, which is a code word for pretty much irrelevant. When that is not the case, great things can happen. Unfortunately, it generally is the case, as a quick look at Amazon’s bestseller list will demonstrate. Of course there are exceptions, not all high literature is written in that style, but enough of it is that I’ll hold by the argument.
But we’re skipping a level here. Hurezanu’s implication is that, not only is this happening, but that it’s a great loss. That’s an assumption that I would like explained. Who is feeling the loss? The people who have never heard of a vast majority of “serious” literature authors, much less read their books? What is being lost? An opportunity to wade through a dense thicket of text that is above most people’s reading level searching for a kernel of existential truth? Hell, I get that by reading Terry Pratchett.
So, while I can sympathize with the waning of an art form (I am, technically, an artist) I’m left asking what the greater impact is supposed to be. This complaint is coming from someone with a vested and understandable interest in buoying “the Book” and is premised on some halcyon days when “the Book” was strong and good. For the vast majority of humanity, those days either never existed or were a tiny slice of years sandwiched between a rise in literacy rates and the explosion of media distribution.
Bloggers are being treated like real people
On to the reason for this particular rant.
I just read an interesting book called The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser (of MoveOn fame, though that’s only minimally reflected in this book). It makes the argument that the personalization features of hub sites like Google and Facebook are potentially harmful to society as a whole because it creates an artificial echo chamber around the people who use them. Even worse, because these personalizations are algorithmically moderated and usually transparent to the user, they create a perception that the echo chamber is all there really is. It’s an argument I find compelling, at least partially because I’ve made it so often myself.
Hurezanu appears to be making a similar argument about the book blogosphere, saying that blog authors are a largely homogenous group who review a largely homogenous selection of books, mostly urban fantasy and romance. I’ll go so far as to say that there might be something to that, given that there is a natural inclination toward producing fresh reviews of new, popular books–almost by definition. For that matter, I’ll even admit to teasing Kristen about reading urban fantasy because I don’t personally like it as a genre. But does that mean that the book blogosphere, at the prodding of presses and publicists who have an agenda focused on the new, has become a filter bubble regulated by bloggers?
I certainly don’t see any evidence of that. A quick look through the blogroll to the right will show more individual voices than a list of newspaper book critics would have twenty years ago, and that’s mostly in the F&SF genre. Would I be happy to see more older books get more coverage on blogs? Certainly, and if the book blogging community decides to take anything good out of this kerfuffle I hope that’s it. But how often did print critics review those books, either before the rise of the blog or today?
The part of Hurezanu’s post that I and I’m sure most others find distasteful–sorry, I’ll use her passive-aggressive phrasing–”disappointing” is the belittlement of bloggers as a community. Her constant use of the word “girls” to refer to women in their twenties and up, her bewilderment at this damn “tweeting”, and her righteous indignation that somebody who is actually part of the target audience for these publishers has some degree of influence on them is somewhere between sad and laughable. Of course, it’s also old hat, as I said above. The people who used to shape the message have not reacted well to new forms of data curation, whether it be executives at record labels or editors (or reviewers) at newspapers. But Hurezanu’s problem with the little-girl-blogger (how are they simultaneously little girls and housewives, by the way?) isn’t so much that they aren’t properly treating capital-B-Books–presumably, those are beyond their scope anyway–but that they’re bringing their pop culture, mass media consumption into the sanctum sanctorum of reviewing.
But I have to ask the same question that I did for “serious” literature above: what, exactly, is being lost?
Speaking as somebody who is about to be handed a terminal degree in an obscure field, I can tell you (again) that specialization sucks. It also changes your perspective on the world around you. Sometimes, this is good: a molecular biologist may have a pretty informed view on what hand soap to use to prevent infection, and I’d want to ask them over, say, a florist. In other cases it’s just a distortion. This is particularly true when you, the expert, are trying to project how a non-expert will interpret information. Greater context and a deeper understanding of material means that the expert will react very differently than the non-expert. If this isn’t obvious, compare the list of highest grossing films with the list of best reviewed films. (Obviously if your intention is academic criticism, this argument doesn’t apply; but then, why would she be complaining about bloggers who don’t share that audience and shouldn’t have any impact on it?)
So why, then, does a professional reviewer produce inherently better reviews than than the “electronic chatter” of a blogger? (We’ll assume that bloggers are inherently not professional for this discussion since she did, though I don’t believe that.) Usually this argument comes down to somebody saying that the professional will tell people what they “should” be reading, while the blogger can’t because they don’t have the domain knowledge to understand a larger context of the work. But the final audience won’t have that knowledge either, so why would they get more out of reading a “serious” book than a blogger would?
Now that I’ve written far too much (don’t feed the trolls!) I’ll just finish up with this: If Ms. Hurezanu wants to make this argument, then I would challenge her to make the argument. Given her apparent academic background, I’m sure she’s capable of it. Don’t just post some off-hand, insulting comments on a random web site where you don’t even bother to back up your bald assertions and unsupported assumptions. Answer the sort of questions I have asked here, and the ones that I’m sure others will be asking elsewhere. Otherwise, you might look like some poor little airheaded blogger girl.