It seems that when people know they can't be held accountable, when they don't have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn't belong in the world of book reviewing.(Mmm, that string of adjectives reminds me of another). I'm as perplexed with this as The Literary Saloon is. Many blogs allow comments from readers precisely to generate the accountability of feedback, and there's about as much eye contact with its subject in print reviewing as there is in blogging.
Also, it's ironic that he contrasts his dislike of blogs with his admiration for Arts & Letters Daily. I gave up on that page several years ago because of its bigoted and philistine tone. Would he feel any different about the site had it linked as regularly (or even once) to one of our best literary blogs - now sadly retired - as it did to shrill neo-liberal propaganda? For of course, The Sharp Side was very good at holding McEwan to account for his actions. Among other revelations, it exposed his dining arrangements on the day tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen tried to hold their representatives to account for a criminal war or two, as well as providing a remarkable 5,500 word analysis of the politics of his most notorious novel.
The loss of Ellis' voice is regrettable for his incisive blogs on our foremost Establishment Literary Fictioner alone. Yet his retirement from blogging helps to emphasise from where blogging emerges: not from the necessity of making a living, or from an attempt to gain attention at any cost, but from passion and expertise in various fields; something that has to be done alongside another full-time life. It's no surprise that many give up. The only reward, it seems, is friendship.
Despite all this, I tend to share McEwan ideals about resisting the "nasty, truculent, aggressive edge" in book reviewing. Only a few novels really deserve it. Yet with Sir Howard Davies' comments about book reviewing culture still resounding, I wonder if it might benefit rather than ruin the literary culture in this country.
Think of the influence of the UK's most popular film reviewer. So many people listen to Mark Kermode on Simon Mayo's radio show precisely because of his quirky passion. Metafilter discussed his famous rant about Pirates of the Caribbean just last week. It's an indication of the hang-ups media folk have about literature that the literary equivalent - Mayo's Book Panel - does not have an expert reviewer but opinions from "members of the public". Last week, I even saw two actors giving their worthless judgments on Richard & Judy's Book Club! In order to bring Literature to the masses, it seems they feel the need to remove any offending literary content (as Joyce Carol Oates observed). The more bland and wet one is, the better. Yet of course, they want all the perceived cultural benefits of literary appreciation.
If Kermode decided to transfer his expertise to books, we'd probably never hear from him again. But we do need such a reviewer. Of course, I'd be willing to take on this heroic role, so long as I didn't have to read the god-awful books on their reading lists.