I am late with the latest autogenerated Booker controversy. You may remember there was a lot of fuss and divers alarums from broadsheet and online critics last year when the Booker judges explicitly promoted books that people might enjoy reading. This year there should be no such problems. The main judge is Peter Stothard, he edits the TLS, he has shortlisted numerous worthy titles including some from independent publishers. He even has a knighthood. What could go wrong?
And then Sir Peter had to attack the book bloggers. Online criticism, he says, is 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.
Considering the mediocre state of broadsheet literary criticism, this is hard to take. Prolific book blogger John Self hit back:
I wonder, then, if Stothard can have read This Space by Steve Mitchelmore (Britain’s first book blogger), or Mark Thwaite’s ReadySteadyBook (which carried the best critical response to Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque that I saw, online or off), or Max Cairnduff’s Pechorin’s Journal, or Kevin from Canada, or dozens of others that I visit regularly. Here are skilled reviewers offering thoughtful, informed criticism of a wider range of books than any traditional literary publication. What blogs can give readers is a sense of trust that, in professional circles, only the biggest lit-crit names – such as James Wood or Michiko Kakutani – can attain: a ‘criticism with personality’. They are expressing opinions about books in particular, and literature in general, based on a particular life of reading, written in a critical but non-technical language. What they can also give, crucially, is attention to books other than the newly published.
Self is right in general – online reviewing is a compliment to literature, not a threat. But the examples he cites don’t justify the great claims made for the form. Most of Self’s favourite bloggers have a very narrow range of focus, discuss exclusively a handful of obscure writers and offer a limited and censorious vision of literature and reading.
Perhaps Stothard is closer to the online attitude that he realises. Cut the first two lines, and you could be reading RSB or This Space:
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.
Norman Geras pretty much ends this argument for me.
Storytelling a great art, but unless the novel does something to renew the English language, unless it offers ‘a degree of resistance’, it does nothing. Oh, please! What about the aforesaid art of storytelling? What if a given novel merely tells a good story well and without offering resistance? So, then, it may not be at the cutting edge or a ‘great work of art’, but it could still be an excellent novel. If it tells a story, if it makes you think, if it shows you something about the world, about people; it might do these things in a fresh way or in a traditional way, exploring new forms or sticking with old and recognized ones; if it’s part of the great continent of fiction and wins readers and holds them, that is good enough and plenty. Sir Peter Stothard’s requirements are narrow and stultifying.