In the early days of February 2015, 3AM Magazine advertised an event in London to celebrate "the recent boom in online criticism" and to encourage readers "to get involved in the growth of digital literary culture". My interest was piqued, as the subject is close to my heart and is rarely discussed in fleshy public, for the obvious reason that those who produce it must do so from their disparate basements in Terre Haute.
Indeed, the event was to be held in big London and I was unable to attend. Still, as I have been writing online about books, mainly on blogs, since as recently as 1996 and am familiar with many of those who do the same, I was keen to see who was speaking and what the reference points might be. It turned out I had heard of one of the six panellists and knew one other personally.
It was to discuss:
- the implications for contemporary literary culture
- the distinctive challenges and opportunities facing the new generation of online literary journals
- the democratisation of criticism in the online landscape: in a world without journalistic gatekeepers, can anyone be a critic?
As soon as I read about the panel, I tweeted a question concerning this curious situation. There was, after all, still time to invite a London literary blogger for their insight. I didn't get an answer. The only response was for a well-known US critic to favourite the tweet. However, Flowerville noted what I had overlooked wearing my blogger-goggles:
As you can see, there were no responses to this either.
On the day itself, the event was publicised on a webpage and the link retweeted by a panellist.
Once again I tweeted, only this time with the bitter assumption that nobody would respond. I was then blocked by the same panel member. Still, while there was no woman on the panel, at least naked female mannikins were on display.
While this is a storm in an espresso cup, it is exemplary of a distinct campaign of middle-class revanchism in British culture. Where amateurs and outsiders had dominated, professionals are taking their place. The great Morrissey, the finest bloom of the flowering of postwar British culture borne on a welfare state won by an organised and compassionate working class, has noticed this in his own field:
In the guise of serving the public, the Brit Awards have hijacked modern music in order to kill off the heritage that produced so many interesting people, to such a degree that we could not imagine anyone who has ever truly affected the course of British music to be on stage at the 02 collecting a deserved award.The major music TV event of the year is now about marketing "acts" manufactured by talent managers, business managers, brand managers.
With this in mind, note the labels given to each of 3AM's panellists: Co-editor in Chief, Contributing Editor, Senior Editor, Founder and Editor, Novelist and Publisher, Digital Publisher. The titles are impressive and I have no argument with them or the talent and hard work they signify, but contrast them with the titles of those who laid the foundations for online criticism's "recent boom": plain Blogger. It appears we must now submit to a professional hierarchy. So in addition to there being not one woman and not one blogger on the panel, there is not one person without a CV of such note; not one non-professional, working-class voice. Blogging for years and building a reputation and audience counts for nothing. Again.
Of course, this person could get involved, sans CV and anonymously, that is, they could perhaps buy a train ticket, travel to the big city and spectate. They might not be blocked and might even be allowed to speak, if invited, but what they say would always remain secondary, always dependent on permission from the high table.
This is an unexpected consequence of online literary magazines usurping the space blogs once occupied, and rather than reinventing the form, they mimic the broadsheet book pages from which the internet was meant to liberate us. For many years writers developed an audience relying solely on the quality of their work. For them, as it was for TS Eliot, criticism is as natural as breathing, or indeed necessary for breath. Blogging was about paying attention, exploration, discovery and sharing. Now editorial patronage is key and replaces radical possibilities with gatekeeping.
The host of this event, 3AM Magazine, is a prime mover. The step change became clear to me when the "Reviews editor" launched a personal attack on three unnamed but clearly identifiable working-class writers whose work is "exclusively online (their writing is so tedious that no editor would commit it to print)" under the cover of a review that didn't even address the book's contents with anything like good faith. In fact, it repeated the condescension and misrepresentation the book drew in the corporate print media. The reviewer's bracketed aside, even if it were true (and there are numerous examples to refute it), demonstrates the instinct to appeal to professional authority, where power and money relieves any need for justice. As 3AM's pages lack a comments section, attempts to challenge such calumny are stifled at birth. So much for "getting involved".
Later, the same reviews editor posted another review of a debut novel summarised as "an awful book", one that prompted the reader to want "to hurl the fucking thing across the room" (James Wood this is not). The author of the novel subsequently tweeted the news that there may be more than literary motivations at work here (though on his side such motives might have been strongly at work in relation to a certain "full-length novel" not having yet seen the light of day). When concerns were put to the "Editor in chief" that privileged access to its pages was being used to pursue undeclared personal grudges, the reply came back that 3AM was "open to different points of view" (apart from those that might appear in a comments facility I suppose) and indeed any requests for basic decency, honesty and fairness would only encourage more such reviews "for the sheer hell of it".
As Flowerville has shown elsewhere, this policy isn't restricted to 3AM Magazine, and has nothing to do with democracy, pluralism or a commitment to free speech but the very nature of "dudenation" editorial policy; one must share the "gatekeeper's mostly adolescent male mind" for the sheer hell of being published. The aspiring critic must realise that compromising to further a career – even one as lacking in reward as writing online – and thereby winning the protection and authority of a magazine title, means compromise becomes that career.
It would be too much to expect this state of affairs to prompt a Peter Oborne-like gesture from the co-editor in chief who blocked me, let alone a document like the September Statement produced by professional philosophers concerning the behaviour of an influential academic. But internet literary magazine culture certainly requires serious attention to renew its radical beginnings.
Oh, and by the way, guess who 3AM is publishing now.
An indication to the cause
Why is this happening? While I have argued that it is down to professionals moving into the domain where amateurs flourish, it is also perhaps a product of literature and how we respond to it. This is suggested in volume two of My Struggle, in which Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about how, as a young man, poems never opened themselves to him: "When I approached them I felt like a fraud, and I was indeed always unmasked, because what they always said as well, these poems, was: Who do you think you are, coming in here?". Not knowing how to open poetry, he felt a judgment had been passed and his literary dreams were pathetic mirages on the horizon: "I was an ordinary man who would live an ordinary life and find meaning where I was, nowhere else". One alternative, he explains, is to deny your feelings and "to stay afloat in that world without literature ever opening up to you".
You could write a whole dissertation about Hölderlin, for example, by describing the poems, discussing what they dealt with and in what ways the themes found expression, through the syntax, the choice of words, the use of imagery, you could write about the relationship between Hellenic and Christian modes, about the role of the countryside in his poems, about the role of the weather, or how the poems relate to the actual politico-historical reality in which they had arisen, independent of whether the main emphasis was on the biographical, for example, his German Protestant background, or on the enormous influence of the French revolution. You could write about his relationship to other German idealists, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Novalis, or the relationship to Pindar in the late poems. You could write about his unorthodox translations of Sophocles, or read the poems in light of what he says about writing in his letters. You could also read Hölderlin’s poetry with reference to Heidegger’s understanding of it, or go one step further and write about the clash between Heidegger and Adorno over Hölderlin. You could also write about the whole history of his work’s reception, or of his works in translation. It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up. The same could be done with all poets, and of course it has been. (Translated by Don Bartlett)This is surely the experience of so many of us seeking to deal with the judgment literature passes down. Many of us have accepted fate and sought to stay afloat in denial. (Some are so floaty that they are invited onto panels.) But I have never been able to square admiration for such scholarship with the fact of literature, the utter remove onto which writing sometimes opens, something that I sense opening in Knausgaard's own work despite the ostensibly banal, terrestrial focus. How is such work possible and why does criticism avoid this space? How can it indeed approach the void opened by its own practice?
One answer is for criticism to seek to literature in criticism itself. That is, to seek the space in which critical writing opens onto this remove. This is how the online literary magazine might be reinvented. I have a dream in which the content of such a site is determined by constraints, as in Lars Iyer's Dogma, in which Lars and W. constrain the writing of conference papers: Dogma is spartan (don't use quotations). Dogma is full of pathos (rely on emotion). Dogma is sincere (speak with seriousness). There are many others. I have a dream in which this magazine has only a homepage, with two or three discrete columns, each one written by a different person but each discussing the same subject, the same thinker, the same event, the same poem, the same book. The focus would then be on the subject and the quality of writing and each writer would be writing beside and against their fellows in the same space.
A similar project was pursued by Maurice Blanchot with the Revue Internationale, a failed utopia described here by the same Lars Iyer, in which "total critique" was the goal. Perhaps it is inevitable that such attempts lead to a neutralising blandness, if not also to 3AM's reactionary hit pieces. So instead, I would recommend those of you who share Knausgaard's experience to pursue your own work on a solitary or small group blog with a focus on truth and necessity rather than reception, to seek your own identity as a writer, to wait for literature to open, however long and lonely the journey; to lie down in the dark and, like Beckett's narrator, listen. A blog comes to one in the dark. Imagine.
In daylight, we can all then watch wide-eyed as the literary internet is otherwise expropriated, with the events such as Literature 2.0 providing a fig-leaf for the banality and careerism to come.