Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ian McEwan & blogs and Mark Kermode & book reviewing

So, Ian McEwan isn't keen on the "road-rage" tone of blogs and "the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism" (what ever that means).
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.


  1. The main thing about the internet is that writers have to contend with a lot of people ranting about things they know nothing about. That the authors get to hear this is new (through the miracle that is the Web) but the common man has always expressed his opinion, sometimes standing round a water-cooler and sometimes vehemently over a few pints in the pub that night.

    What is not new is the right reviewers who should know what they're talking about think they have to attack writers and artists the way they do. Long before the Internet, Eduard Hanslick (considered the most significant reviewer of the 1800's) described Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto as "music that stinks to the ear." In fact an opinion held by many that it was the savaging his later music received that drove him to take his own life.

    McEwan is only partly right when he blames the fact that on-line reviewers are not accountable because the evidence history presents is that donning the mantel of a reviewer somehow grants these individuals a kind of immunity; they do get away with ripping hard-working artists to shreds. And if the big boys get away with it then it's not so surprising that the rest of the kids follow suit.

  2. Anonymous11:08 am

    There's something about the way these two arts are percieved that makes people defensive and intimidated when experts passionately declare what the best books are, and yet view Kermode-like rants as stimulating contributions to the push and pull of movie criticism.

  3. A&L Daily takes an annual survey for feedback on their content to try and self-regulate. I find it often critical of the culture-industry, and directing me to more obscure essays.

    Also, I agree with McEwan here. However, there is equal opportunity to make terrible judgments based on personal relationships with an author or critic. Both medium can be villified based on their respective stereotypes, and both stereotypes exist because of the vices to which each medium is prone.

  4. I've never felt the need to reject comments before, but a well-known troll just unloaded here and I decided not to tolerate him.

  5. Anonymous9:22 pm

    As I am an editor, I can empathise with the sentiment that putting your prose through an independent pair of eyes, and indeed, judgement, before it is published, is generally beneficial.
    I am also a blogger, and I can also sympathise with the frustrations that this process can involve.
    I understand what McEwan is writing. There are an awful lot of rubbishy blogs out there, featuring ill-informed, ignorant, bigoted and insulting posts. But there are also many good ones -- I am extremely happy with the ones I have filtered down into reading regularly. There is also a lot of rubbish written in the "mainstream media" also. It is a question of finding out what suits you as the reader best, I guess.
    Unlike, say, science, reading and fiction are two activities where one can suit one's own judgement, opinion and prejudices.
    Ill-informed blog (or any type of) writing about factual matters, often written lazily without any attempt to understand the principles -- that really gets my goat!

  6. Thanks Petrona. Filtering is indeed all.

    Maybe it's my limited experience of print reviewing (about a dozen reviews), but it wasn't much different from blogging.

  7. It seems as you intimate, nothing new, Stephen, and in the words of Nietzsche on the noble print medium:

    'Just look at these superfluous people! They are always ill, they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper. They devour one another and cannot even digest themselves.'

    I sympathise with dealing with the effluence of the diseased soul that is a troll, by the way. Argument and discussion have to be abandoned, I think, in such polluted territory.

  8. Where are these agressive, insulting bloggers? I've been blogging for over 18 months now, like to think I've made my way round a fair portion of the book blog world, and have rarely read a review that wasn't polite, balanced and fair, even if it wasn't profound or comprehensive. And the bloggers who comment at my site are exemplary in their responses. Is this unusual? By contrast, I only have to open a Sunday supplement on culture to find some unnecessarily sharp-tongued attack. If people think that a rant is a legitimate form of address to an author, it's not so difficult to see where this message comes from.

  9. There's probably more than a little parallel with the old eroding attacks on the hypocritical self-importance and psychological power of the scribes & pharisees back some time ago. The modern scribes feel their power cracking somewhat from beneath their feet. What I would especially hate to see is someone describe Tom Wolfe as a jumped up mediocrity playing the role of Great Man in fancy dress.

  10. I'm still pretty new to blogs, but I'm developing more trust in the response of bloggers with no axe to grind than with the incestuous world of print book reviews. It's no surprise to me that a grandee like McEwan disdains the perceived riskiness of blogs, when he's used to kid glove treatment from his agent, his publishers and pretty much all of literary London.



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