Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fighting Words From Our Friends in Print

"Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand," Richard Schickel wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday:
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.
Schickel, a film and book critic, is bitter about something he read in the New York Times, an article that found solace in the possibility of bloggers filling a void left by the disappearance of newspaper book critics.

Richard Schickel makes the same mistake that every scared print-bound critic makes: That blogs are trying to replace print. They're not, and the bloggers, much less the blog medium itself, are not the mortal enemy of the print critic.

Observers and paranoid ad sales teams have been over-thinking the so-called blog revolution. Blogging is merely a cheap, easy way of making a website. A website can, like a magazine, contain articles. For our purposes, it's best to think of blogging as a mode of delivery similar in many ways to a magazine. It's a medium.

But the medium isn't the message (to turn Marshall McLuhan's trope around); the message stays the same. The message here is criticism, and the fact that there's high-quality criticism and low-quality criticism, professional criticism and amateur criticism, doesn't change with the publishing mode.

I like to compare today's burst of blogging to America's newspaper industry around the time of Ben Franklin. With a wide-open market and relatively affordable printing presses, some small entrepreneurs started little papers. There was a lot of competition. There were big papers with big money behind them and small, one-man operations that struggled. There was yellow journalism at the worst end and excellent standards at the other. Over time, most papers fell. Some prevailed. And not necessarily the best or the most reliable. That's capitalism.

Blogging and web-based media will follow the same pattern. This isn't as new or as scary as some of our frightened friends (or abusive step-fathers, in the case of Mr. Schickel) in print would have us believe.

So when a critic who's been making a living as a film critic for Time and a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times suddenly uses his position to tell people who have been making the best of cheap printing presses (which is what the blog medium amounts to) that they are lower than amateurs, that they have no credibility and that they ought to stop, I figure we bloggers must be making progress.

No one thinks Joe Barstool, a working stiff who rattles off casual reviews of crime novels, is replacing the professional daily and weekly critic. No one thinks that the 16-year-old movie enthusiast who posts rave reviews of blockbusters on his MySpace page is creating thoughtful prose and insightful criticism.

When the barriers to entry are low, the quality is lower and the quantity is higher. Everyone knows that, and no one in their right mind thinks that means the end of the good stuff; it just means more junk to sift through. But it isn't as if Americans are being deluged by millions of pounds of mimeographed fan-zines, pamphlets, and cut-and-paste newsletters in their mail boxes every day. We have to seek out these blogs and web-based dilettante critics ourselves.

Richard Schickel's error is comparing the blog world to a democracy, a mythological political system where everyone gets a voice. Politics is the wrong analogy. Try economics. The market decides who gets read. Not every voice is heard. Many voices echo into the void and then fade out. Much like new companies or new magazines.

When a new genre, like blogging -- or to use a music analogy, hip hop -- is created, the first skeptics will say it's not music at all. A moody and snobbish Schickel compares blogging to finger-painting, and quotes a writer who says it's more like talking than writing.

Next, the skeptics will concede that it's music (or writing), but that it isn't as good as its traditional counterparts, and never can be.

Maybe they're missing the point. If you and I are playing chess against each other, and I'm playing speed chess and you're thinking through each move for an average of 30 minutes, the game isn't going to work so well. This is the difference between a typical blog critic and a typical newspaper critic: they're playing different games.

Mr. Schickel believes that the permanence of paper elevates criticism:
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.
He's saying that when a writer knows he or she will be writing for paper publication, the writer takes better care, thinks things through. He's right -- when I post this online, I will have worked on one draft, without an editor, and I will have posted it rapidly.

But again, Schickel is concentrating on the medium, when the blame lies in the execution. What blogs have created is in essence a genre of writing. The best of the genre, like the best of graffiti or the best of detective novels, is excellent, but different from traditional painting or literary novels or magazine and newspaper criticism. Dismissing the entire genre is a losing battle. Pay attention to the best of it, Mr. Schickel, and accept that the world is changing.

And embrace the enthusiasm with which people are engaging with culture. Some of them will become better writers because of it, and eventually graduate to paying jobs at major print media.

Schickel is an elitist in the worst sense of the term. He's the party guest who stops talking to you when he hears you live in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. He's the guy who mutters during an impassioned speech by an earnest soul that we shouldn't have to listen to this self-indulgence, reacting to the emotion and not hearing the words. He's the type that believes that art in a museum is good art, because it's in a museum. He's the kind of critic that enforces canons and grumbles about other voices pushing out the venerable classics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a bit of an elitist myself. I don't have time for babble and cheerleading and over-simplified rating systems. But I'm not going to judge the merits of a critic or a reviewer based on his or her mode of transmission. That's illogical.

I was recently asked by an acquaintance why I thought I was qualified to be an art critic. My undergraduate degree isn't in Art History, it's in English Literature. I don't have a graduate degree. I currently write about telecom software for a living. Why should anyone trust my judgment about art?

Let me turn that around and ask why anyone should trust my judgment about telecom software. My background is in writing, not in technology. How did I get here? I'm not an expert -- I don't even want to be. But I have the analytical and writing background necessary to ask the right questions. My role isn't as a pundit or an insider; it's as a translator. I am a liaison between the sometimes-hostile factions of software maker and software user. I ask the software users what they think of the technology, how they use it, what they're lacking, and what they want to do. I ask the software makers what the software is built to do, how people use it, what's coming next, and how best to make the technology work.

Back to art, a topic I'm much more personally invested in. I'm not a seasoned expert in art, but no expert comes to the media fully formed. I'm an educated enthusiast who asks questions, follows critical threads, looks closer, and attempts to bridge the gap between an intelligent but confused public and a insular and opaque art world. I am constantly learning about art and its roles -- actual, possible, and ideal -- in our culture, and my goal is to document my thought process.

I write this blog because I love to write. I do it for a living but I don't write about what I love at work; I do that on my own time. With any luck, I'll be paid for this some day soon. I think of this as a part of the minor leagues. If I'm not entertaining and thought-provoking, people won't read what I have to say. If I am, people will come, and skeptics like Schickel will have deal with my kind on a more level field.


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