gall and gumption

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Richard Schickel Farts In Your General Direction

I vaguely recall some commentary here and there a couple of weeks ago about the decline of the newspaper book review. The National Book Critics’ Circle is trying to save the Book Review section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Naturally enough, book reviewers are also on the case.

I want to save the newspaper book review, as well. I am all for anything that puts dollars in the pocket of a hungry literary scribe. And I also favor the dissemination of new ideas and of new books, and I’m pro-critic, too. I am a critic. I’ve written book reviews for newspapers, for actual cash dollars. But I haven’t written a book review for money in about two years. Mainly for lack of trying. And for years, I taught people to write and to read literature. Published a book of original literary criticism that was not widely praised, but praised in very good places. Small and select again, like you, my dear readers.

But I’m just a blogger now. I am not one of the Lord’s Anointed. I unanointed myself when I created my Blogger account and now I am one of the shaggy hordes threatening the citadel of Richard Schickel’s mind newspaper book reviewing.

Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.

And great wailing and lamentation was heard in the citadel, for Auto Parts Guy was seen crossing the plain where the invading armies had pitched their tents…”

Schickel was apparently unaware, until the terrifying figure of Auto Parts Guy filled the sky and blotted out the sun, that “anyone can comment on books.”

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Even now, he has trouble believing it. Do you believe it? Well, look at the consequences. Auto Parts Guy.

He acknowledges (and I won’t quarrel with him on this) that most newspaper book reviewing is hackery. He knows this because all sorts of riff-raff have been able to review his books – with spray paint. Well that’s democratic. And if it’s not democratic enough for you? Well, I suppose you’ll think it’s just dandy when Auto Parts Guy comes and kicks your front door in and – something cataclysmic and awful -- wants to swim in your community pool maybe. Booooo!!! Auto Parts Guy!! The thing is pellucidly clear, as West Indian lawyers like to say.

One hesitates to make Schickel even more frantically irritated than he already seems to be, but perhaps it should be gently pointed out to him that people have always been free to comment on books. No one has to prove they have a right to an opinion. Not even Auto Parts Guy. I would recommend Schickel read Boswell’s Life of Johnson. He will find plenty of evidence there. Only one of the speakers in all of those conversations is a literary critic, one of the greatest literary critics of all time, in fact. And yet all sorts of people are venturing to express their own opinions to him. About books, politics, morals, all kinds of things. Bloggers don’t even need to assert their right to an opinion. It’s given. We aren’t all necessarily entitled to agreement or even interest from others, however. That we have to earn. And how will we know if we’ve earned it if we don’t put it out there? Does Schickel ever talk to anybody?

To be fair, from where Schickel sits it must look like a bunch of scabs are moving in to take over his job. I hear the lament of the skilled and valued worker who fears he is about to become obsolete. I don’t want book reviewers to become obsolete; I want there to be more to read in the newspaper, not less.

It isn’t bloggers who are threatening his job. They may be threatening his status, but his status is totally bogus anyway. He never had such status, and bloggers have not changed it.

I don’t know what Schickel’s credentials are but he doesn’t seem to be doing much with them. This is a slovenly and incoherent piece of writing. He brings in Sainte-Beuve (“not a name much bruited in the blogosphere,” he sneers, failing to notice that it’s not a name much bruited in newspapers or, for that matter, even Time magazine, either). What he says about Orwell is not relevant to the point at issue (but it is the one Orwell reference that newspaper people, for reasons that elude me, love to invoke), and he simply asserts (violating his own strictures against “idle opinion-mongering”) that Edmund Wilson was the “the best book reviewer this country ever had.” “Thumbs up!”

He seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that it is his job to tell posterity what to think of books. He imagines he is maintaining some sort of standard of judgment. On the basis of what evidence I simply do not know.

At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, there was a fascinating panel featuring writers whose books were written in what time they could spare from their day jobs. Inevitably, blogging was presented as an attractive alternative — it doesn't take much time, and it is a method of publicly expressing oneself (like finger-painting, I thought to myself, but never mind).

D.J. Waldie, among the finest of our part-time scriveners, in effect said "fine." But remember, he added, blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.

I thought it was a wonderful point. The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

I don’t know, there’s something so perverse about me. When I read a passage like that last paragraph there my mind immediately goes to these written things that don’t impose any sense of responsibility at all: “The Imperfect Enjoyment”; Ben Jonson’s journey down the Thames; Dryden’s incredibly scurrilous pamphlets; James Joyce’s raunchy letters to his wife Nora; the Dunciad; Boswell’s journals; well, you get the idea. I mean, if you look at books they don’t act like this, there are so many layers of assumption with no reference to evidence in books. And there is no evidence presented to support any of his statements about blogs, either. Just Auto Parts Guy! Scary Scary Auto Parts Guy!

But it never worked like that. Schickel is just as entitled to his opinion as everyone else. But to get an audience to trust that opinion, his credential won’t help, his status won’t help, nothing but writing intelligent criticism will help. The one person who actually does have an obligation to prove anything to anybody in this scenario is Schickel. How’s that for irony? That is how it has always been.

It doesn’t occur to him that the bloggers who write about books, the ones he dismisses as doing no more than “finger painting” are his readers; a person who is interested enough to write book reviews reads book reviews. These are the people that he is treating with such bilious contempt. The critic is not the only person who judges. His readers judge him. They make snap judgments about him, just as they do about everything else that appears in the newspaper – everything under the sun. His credentials don’t protect him from those kinds of judgments. They will read him, and if they don’t think he’s interesting, or if they don’t feel they can trust him, they’ll move on. And this is, again, something that Schickel doesn’t seem to know.

Or maybe he does know and imagines that his position on a newspaper is like that of a preacher in a pulpit: a license to preach at the audience and not have to put up with any lip, and enjoyment of the delusion that any of this enforceable without the consent of the governed so to speak. Naturally a person who puts himself in that position is prone to think himself or herself specially ordained and anointed and entitled to have readers who know how to behave themselves.

And all three wrote for intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind. We do not — maybe I ought to make that "should not" — read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity.

Orwell, Wilson, and Sainte-Beuve had readers who were grateful for book reviews, you sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth readers, you! What does Schickel get? He leaves you alone in the house for a couple hours and you invite all these yahoos in here and they drink up all the good booze and trash the place– you let Auto Parts Guy in here! Which bathroom did he use?

And what do you think of a writer who has such contempt for his own audience? For the people (other than his book publishers) who care most about what he writes in his book reviews? For the people who would most likely join him to save the book review? For the people least responsible for the predicament in which the newspaper book reviewer finds himself? But he farts in your general direction anyway, because, well, Auto Parts Guy! I mean, Auto Parts Guy!

Bloggers, and readers, are the last people to blame for this predicament. Newspaper management at the corporate level has a lot of the responsibility; editors have some of the responsibility; the book reviewers have responsibility. The LA Times Book Review has been dull for going on 30 years, and they have responded by doing just about everything possible except making it interesting. I don’t say nothing interesting ever appears, but considering the writing talent, and the reading talent, that gathers in the entertainment industry, why are their reviewers so uninspired? It is possible to write about books in a way that itself gives pleasure. But you can’t get there by starting out with contempt for your reader.

Now that I've fallen off the edge of the earth, no one has to come back here to read what I write or what Jeff writes if they don't find it interesting. I don't have the mighty clout of the LA Times at my back. And all my credentials will not help me if I'm not honest or interesting. An academic imprimatur would add prestige, but not necessarily intellectual value, to whatever I write here. I'm working without a net. So is is everybody else. Schickel, too.

Update: Tidied this up a bit. That's what comes of blogging in the wee small hours of the morning.

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At 12:23 PM, Blogger L7 said...

Dick says: The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully.

Writing this piece didn't seem to concentrate Dick's mind that wonderfully. Just observing.

Can you hear me? [Is this thing on?] Can you hear me now?

[Am I speaking or writing? I cannot tell the difference. For I am just a blogger.]

At 6:26 AM, Blogger buckner said...

How nice that you can go back and tidy up your speech. How'd you do dat?

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