The chair of this year’s Man Booker prize judges has warned that blogging is drowning out serious criticism, to the detriment of literature.
Although Peter Stothard, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement, is a blogger himself – and praises literary websites such as the Complete Review – he expressed fears that the burgeoning amount of online opinion about books could be damaging to the future of writing.
“If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics … then literature will be the lesser for it,” he said. “There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion.”
Literary criticism, said Stothard, needs “to identify the good and the lasting, and to explain why it’s good. You don’t read a literary critic to explain why a new Ian Rankin is any good – the people who know about him don’t need that explaining. If we’re going to keep literature and language alive, we have to be alert to the new, the things which aren’t like what’s been before. And as Howard Jacobson said, this may be unpleasant, it may be that we don’t enjoy reading it, but it might matter hugely to the future of literature.”
Referring to last year’s Man Booker chair Stella Rimington’s much-criticised focus on finding “readable” books for the prize’s shortlist, Stothard said that while “readability can be a very interesting thing, great art for the most part resists it to a degree”.
“If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed,” Stothard told the Independent. “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 also criticised newspaper editors for cutting back their books pages, and for the proliferation of unargued reviews in papers, along the lines of “if a critic goes to the cinema and ends up writing about ‘how my child would have liked it’, or ‘what the audience thought’”.
“There is not much space any longer for old-fashioned, argued criticism,” he said. “I think critics are just being submerged, and to a degree newspaper editors and other people in the media are saying they don’t need to give that space to books pages because it’s all online.”
Guardian books blogger and author Sam Jordison agreed with Stothard about the need for argued, reasoned criticism, but said that this was amply provided by bloggers such as John Self, Max Cairnduff and Stephen Mitchelmore. “One of the best places to find out about what’s new and good is on blogs,” he said. “Reader recommendations can make a big difference: even if it’s just people saying ‘I liked that’, some groundswell will build up. [And there] are just so many books out there, it’s good to have alternative routes to finding them.”
Simon Savidge of books blog Savidge Reads, meanwhile, said that he found Stothard’s comments “disheartening”.
“There is, and has always been, some snobbery towards bloggers,” he said. “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.”
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