Time Magazine’s Richard Schickel, riffing off a New York Times story about literary bloggers that ran several weeks ago, goes berserk in “Not everybody’s a critic,” an LA Times op-ed piece that adds to the amazingly uninformed backlash against citizen media:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.
Ah, cutting to the chase: Writing critically is an “elite enterprise,” plainly not in the scope of the non-accredited who can only be given permission, apparently, by esteemed publications. Such as Time, a magazine that has gone so far down-market as to be laughable in recent years? Good grief.
Schickel cites famous critics such as George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, as if bloggers are actually comparing themselves with such folks (is Schickel?). These were people who
wrote for intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind. We do not — maybe I ought to make that “should not” — read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity.
Prejudice? There you have it, in spades.
Stupidity? Not quite. Lack of serious reporting is more the issue.
The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum notes, for example, that the NY Times piece is farthest thing imaginable from blogger triumphalism. In fact, the bloggers aren’t comparing themselves with newspaper reviewers (fewer and fewer of whom are staff employees or, in many cases, even paid beyond getting a free copy of the book). They’re doing something different.
Schickel isn’t wrong about several issues, notably one he raises deep in his screed: the modern debasement of damn near everything he finds culturally significant, and the ascendance of people who merely love books (and movies) into the review-writing heights that he and his chosen brethren have managed to scale. Welcome to Earth, 2007.
Oh, it’s not impossible for a blogger to write a serious review, he says. But before he’ll listen to a word anyone says, he demands credentials. Only the anointed — again, by whom? — are invited, or can be taken seriously.
I’m a fan of Schickel’s movie reviews, even though I don’t agree with many of his conclusions. What seems to bother him most is that he and other well-paid critics are losing their oligopoly on publicly available wisdom. Loving something is not the only credential for being a critic. But it’s a hell of a start.