This week, the blogosphere and Twitter have been abuzz about a pompous piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by William Giraldi that likened book bloggers to leeches on literature and our medium—the internet—as “a bog to wiggle around in.” If you want a good laugh, read his description of the current climate of literary criticism as:
a climate in which the Net has spawned a cacophony of gabble impersonating literary comment, palaver and vulgate enough to warp you. Literature has always had its leeches, except now the Net has given every one of them a bog to wiggle around in. This wouldn’t be any more of an issue than it is to ignore the wastrel on the corner dispensing pamphlets on anarchy, but as respectable print publications either prune their space for book commentary or else go extinct altogether, more and more criticism — like more and more of everything else — is migrating to blogs and social media sites. Young or new book readers looking for literary analysis are going to have an increasingly arduous chore of dividing the shit from the serious. Worse, the biddable and ovine will gravitate to the shit because that’s where all the buzzing is. If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog, you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.
Three quick initial points. First, I would think that this diatribe is little more than a writer (one who uses the thesaurus like a child uses a bag of cupcake sprinkles) trolling to bring attention to a relatively new publication, except that this publication has several esteemed contributing editors who presumably would not stand for such a crass marketing effort. Second, the author of the diatribe uses the words “critic”/”criticism” most frequently, and while there is debate about the differences between criticism and reviews, I tend to think of “critics” as snobby versions of “reviewers,” and so I use the terms interchangeably with a preference for “reviewer.” Third, it seems that for all of the author’s knowledge of literary criticism, he seems to be quite ignorant of leeches, a worm with a recently rehabilitated image in light of their environmental and medicinal importance. As a book blogger, I’m not sure that an analogy to such a beneficial species is so offensive.
But I digress.
The point I want to discuss here is whether book reviewers, such as those of us who publish reviews on Amazon or on blogs like this one, should be ignored if we lack certain credentials. I visited the website of the author of the diatribe, and found his short bio silent on what it is that would make him uniquely qualified to be a critic. He’s written a book and he is a fiction editor for a journal. He may have years of English courses, too, but as respectable as all of that is, is it really necessary? Does it make his reviews necessarily more interesting and informative than reviews by others with different backgrounds?
In my opinion, the only qualification a book reviewer needs to have is the ability to formulate and to convey an opinion about a book they finished. No English degrees are necessary. No publishing experience is necessary. No appointment at a journal is necessary. It might not be the most erudite review out there, but so what? If a reader finds it insufficient, he or she is free to Google around for another opinion.
Book reviewers should be like most readers—normal people who may have a better idea of what the public wants to read than someone who uses words like “palaver” and “vulgate.”
This topic reminds me, of course, of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut on the varied backgrounds writers should have:
I’m on the New York State Council for the Arts now, and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, “Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be.” … I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far.
Indeed. People of many different backgrounds can and should write books, and readers with “something on [their] mind[s] other than the history of literature” should review them for blogs, vendor websites, and/or bathroom stalls.
That’s right—a bathroom stall. For those of you are unfamiliar with the Twitter “graffiti reviews,” it’s the humorous way some reviewers have responded to the elitist piece in the LA Review of Books. I learned about it from Melanie at The Indextrious Reader (who learned about if from Juxtabook; and see Literary Omnivore for more), and I participated by tweeting a picture of an post-it note excerpt of my review of Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine in a Philly bathroom. The image above is my second graffiti review, referencing my comments earlier this year on Amal Awad’s Courting Samira. Join in with your own #graffitireviews.
Isn’t this “bog” (which normal people call the internet) a fun place to wiggle around in?