Recently, there have been many articles about the writing found on internet blogs versus established print publications. The authors of these pieces tend to work for magazines or newspapers, and they usually resent that the writing found on blogs would be compared to what is produced by paid professionals in ‘real’ publications. In their view, the internet seems to be an unsuitable place for genuine literary writing. In one example, in the LA Times, Richard Schickel quotes another writer, stating “blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.” There is truth to this, for there is much writing on the internet that is ephemeral and that has the spontaneous, careless quality of most day to day speech.
However, these attacks on blog writing never mention that there is also much bad writing in ‘respectable’ publications like Harper’s or the NY Times Book Review. For example, fiction and poetry reviews are usually a joke, since the reviewers (typically other novelists or poets) avoid hard criticism so they won’t be punished when submitting their own work for publication. Articles like Schickel’s will inspire predictable responses from blog writers, but the blog vs. print argument is an illusion; the real issue is good vs. bad writing, regardless of the medium. Quite simply, good writing is good writing, whether on a blog or in a newspaper or book. A true critic will recognize quality regardless of whether it is on paper or a screen.
Schickel unintentionally draws attention to this issue by demonstrating that he doesn’t really understand what criticism is, even as he champions it:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.
It is true that not everyone will possess the ability to be a good critic, just as not everyone can be an artist; but criticism is not an expression of taste, which is something that anyone can supply. Criticism looks to the art, while taste points back to the individual. As for “historical and theoretical knowledge,” this will vary from person to person, and criticism is not showing off all that you’ve read, but knowing how to analyze and judge what is in front of you. Finally, being familiar with an artist’s entire body of work is not necessary for a critic, as artworks fail and succeed independent of one another. Many people praise lesser works because of the name that is attached to them; good criticism combats this tendency. Someone who wants to preserve high standards of criticism should know these points.
Elsewhere, Adam Kirsch, for the New York Sun, writes an article lamenting the book review’s decline in popularity and visibility. Yet instead of considering that the bad criticism and dishonesty in much book reviewing might have something to do with its irrelevance, he instead attacks literary blogs. Even then, he doesn’t make connections between bad writing online and in mainstream publications, but takes issue with what he calls the ‘blog form’:
In fact, despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs — or at least, it shouldn’t. The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature…
The appearance and writing style of many blogs is a matter of convention, but a blog is merely a database that holds whatever the writer chooses to put in it. As such, there is no strict ‘blog form’. What can appear in a newspaper or magazine can be pasted word for word in a blog; they can contain everything from essays to poems to short stories and more. Whatever the content, it is always the writer who makes bad writing, and not the technology he uses. Though contemporary publishing is not as ‘democratic’ as a blog, there is no standard of excellence currently being protected by traditional literary outlets; just read some banal short stories in The New Yorker, or some blurb-ready reviews in the Globe and Mail to see examples of that.
Neither of these articles addresses the issue of quality in all writing, because to do so would implicate too many people in contemporary publishing; and not only would it make many ‘established’ writers look foolish, but it would destroy the implicit assumption that those on the side of ‘print’ are truly writing from a much better place at this point in history.
Anthony Zanetti is a poet and lives in Canada. An earlier, ‘blog-like’ version of this article can be read on his own literary blog.