Sunday, March 30, 2008

Festival questions again

The event at the Oxford Literary Festival mentioned here two weeks ago takes place tomorrow. Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press?

No doubt these questions were designed to provoke debate rather answers, but I want to resist them anyway. The advantages of each are also drawbacks; a blog's freedom from editorial constraint for example. Unfortunately, while its judgements might be developed and qualified over thousands of words, it will always lack the weight and consequence of a newspaper review, even the briefest and least competent. The question then becomes: who decides what is meant by 'a better job'?

The choice of that final word loads the question. It implies reviews exist to supply a service; a consumer guide. If this was the case, debate could then be focussed and the bloggers and academic reviewers on the panel replaced by readers' anecdotes. Perhaps this is why literary blogs - even this one - consist less of reviews and criticism than news and chat. After all, who has time for literary criticism when frowning over the three-for-two stall?

As I suggested in the earlier post, the hidden question of the debate is the nature of criticism. So it might be instructive to read the review one panellist has in the festival sponsor's paper. John Carey has read Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul and offers a straightforward summary and appreciation. Excruciating examples of Naipaul's unpleasant character are given as if to save us the trouble of reading the book. Nothing wrong with that. It's what the review doesn't say that's fascinating. What relevance the examples have to Naipaul's novels is not discussed. Carey says only that the biography shares the "truth-telling and ruthless objectivity" of Naipaul's work. He's reviewed biographical works like this before and, while it might entertain Times readers lounging in the conservatory, it ignores the main issue arising from the book.

By coincidence, in recent weeks various blogs have debated this very issue. Nigel Beale provides the links and then takes us back to Sainte-Beuve and Proust. I wanted to correct his interpretation of Proust's words but Svetlana Correa did it for me:
The essence of art, the essence of true creativity, what makes Proust Proust and Bach Bach is, according to Proust, something that can never be found in those facts about an artist. It is something that an individual creates as if ex nihilo… That is why a "crude" person can create a sublime art, and a most refined be sterile…
How can we approach this essence and how might it help us in this destitute time? As I recovered from my recent misfortune on a country road, these questions became less pretentious and more urgent. Perhaps it was the painkillers. Anyway, for this reason I resolved to write reviews rather than these kinds of blog posts. I may be some time.

1 comment:

  1. From the Carey Writers Are Cunts post link, I'd like on behalf of geniuses everywhere to take issue with the platitudinal generalisation that "Geniuses are traditionally difficult to live with." Carey should realise that it's the rest of the non-genius population that are traditionally difficult to live with. The tyranny of the majority.

    New Online Dictionary:

    Genius: A type of person who is traditionally difficult to live with.

    As for what makes an artist-genius an artist-genius, beyond being traditionally difficult to live with, it's hard to know. Which gave birth to which- the genius or the being traditionally difficult to live with?

    And the self is certainly far too elusive an elusive entity for Pavlovian dissection.



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