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Missing the Point Department

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.

35 Comments on “Missing the Point Department”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 20th, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Can we just number these? On both sides? Like the old joke?

    It would save a lot of time and typing.

  2. #2 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 20th, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Number these… on both sides… I don’t get it.

    Yes, Schickel is defending turf. So be it.

    “But before he’ll listen to a word anyone says, he demands credentials.”

    Well, he’s still describing the norm. The NYT Book Review may have a million readers (at least, a million subscribe to Sunday). Bookslut has 8,000 a day.

    I wonder how many people primarily read on Amazon before choosing whether to purchase? Here’s an article from the Times (and follow-up letters) about a little snafu in 2004 when Amazon Canada had all of the anonymous reviewers unmasked:

  3. #3 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 21st, 2007 at 2:31 am

    Old joke: A guy goes to jail. So he’s sitting around in his cell and someone yells out 21 and everyone starts giggling. Someone else yells out 18 and everyone starts to cry with laughter. So he leans over to the guy next to him and says “what’s so funny?” and the guy says “We’ve all been here so long we’ve numbered the jokes” so he says “can I try?” “Go ahead.” he says. So the guy yells out “15”, and no one laughs. So he leans over again and says “Why’s no one laughing?” and his neighbor says “Well some people just can’t tell a joke”

    I think we should do the same thing with blogger-vs-journalist arguments. Just number them. Then someone on the journalism side could say “17” and someone on the blogger side could reply “23”, and so on, and it’d save so much on time and typing on everyone’s part.

  4. #4 : où est la limite à s’inspirer des autres ?
    on May 21st, 2007 at 5:58 am

    […] Mais en gros, l’idée est bonne. À propos du concept “tout le monde peut être un critique”, lire ce texte. […]

  5. #5 Dan Gillmor
    on May 21st, 2007 at 7:01 am

    Jon, the Amazon Canada fiasco is one reason why the company’s “real names” system is such a valuable addition to the online world. I ignore the reviews by people who don’t use real name (which Amazon verifies via credit card information). What remains? In many cases, an excellent collection of commentary from people who love books or have something to say on a particular topic.

  6. #6 Dan Gillmor
    on May 21st, 2007 at 7:02 am

    Seth, I’m weary of this stuff, too. But I can’t let bizarre stuff like Schickel’s piece go by without some comment.

  7. #7 Delia
    on May 21st, 2007 at 7:32 am

    Dan, it seems to me that as long as anyone is allowed to make such reviews, in most cases, the truth would come out whether or not people use their actual names. And I think that you are probably forgoing a lot of good reviews by *requiring* that people use their actual names — if they *want to*, fine… but just because someone wants to preserve their privacy doesn’t mean they do it for a bad reason. D.

  8. #8 Proving the old adage about opinions at
    on May 21st, 2007 at 8:04 am

    […] bitchslaps the blogosphere (in response to this) and not for the first time. The blogosphere slaps back. […]

  9. #9 Dan Gillmor
    on May 21st, 2007 at 9:50 am

    I have nothing against anonymity. But I take much less seriously the people who refuse to stand behind their own words, except in rare circumstances.

  10. #10 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 21st, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Oh, I don’t think it’s “bizarre”. I understand the reasons for each side’s posturing. Still, how many times can one see the following exchange before tiring of it?

    “Quality and high culture are important (and you should pay me to insure it, you Philistine cheapskate user of scab labor)”
    “Data-mining and unpaid freelancers are gonna put you out of job (everybody cheer, yay, yay yay!), you *ELITIST*”

    Then again, it’s not my business (pun intended) either way.

  11. #11 francine hardaway
    on May 21st, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    One of my mentors once said, “don’t take anyone else’s judgment for your own.” I was a critic in the old days, educated with a PhD in English from Ivy League people like FW Dupee and Meyer Abrams (all critics, all dead) and writing film criticism for New Times. It was well before the IMDB, and you would have thought I would have to look things up and know something. But no, the studios furnished all the reviewers with background packets, so you could know very little about the entire body of someone’s work and still fake it as if you did. That’s how you learned.

    Sure it helps if you see a lot of movies or read a lot of books when you write a review. But on the other hand, the USER only wants to know if he/she should see THIS movie or buy THAT book. So frankly, I’m happy to see the elitist critics pushed to the side. And yes, before I buy a book I read on Amazon. Before I see a movie, I look at the reviewer in the NY Times and if I already know his/her prejudices, I ignore the review and see what the users on Moviefone say.

    True critical thinking is taking everyone’s opinion into account and forming your own judgment.

  12. #12 Delia
    on May 21st, 2007 at 5:00 pm


    I’m still at a loss as to why would you equate honest peoples’ desire to preserve their privacy with “refusing to stand behind their own words.” As far as I can tell, one doesn’t have anything to do with the other — you seem to be reading a bad motivation where there need be none…


    P.S. Granted, in *your* situation… you just *can’t* preserve your privacy and in the same time do the kind of things you are doing… but don’t you value your privacy? when you can get it:)… D.

  13. #13 Dan Gillmor
    on May 21st, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    I’m a privacy nut, as such things go, when it comes to personal data and other kinds of invasions by governments, business and the like. In those arenas, people are far too willing to give up their privacy. This is entirely different.

    I’m not reading a necessarily bad motivation into it. I’m simply saying that I give much less credence to people who make anonymous comments about other people and their ideas, and I think we’d all be better off if most people did this.

  14. #14 Delia
    on May 21st, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    why not just look at what they say and what reasons they give for what they are saying? why would
    you give them *any* credence based on the fact that they tell your their actual names — how does that have *anything* to do with the value of what they are saying? D.

  15. #15 Dan Gillmor
    on May 21st, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    By your standard, then, there is no difference between an unsigned leaflet and a publication where the publisher is known, or a witness on the stand versus someone testifying anonymously from behind a wall. I guess I can’t explain, in that case.

  16. #16 Delia
    on May 21st, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    I look at what they say and what reasons they give for what they are saying…*first* and *foremost* — always! ESPECIALLY online… it’s not like you can see the expression on their faces (like you might in the case of a witness) or that knowing that a particular random person wrote a particular post means much — the reverse doesn’t mean much to me either (that a *known* person wrote the post), I mean nowhere as much as what they say and the reasons they give for what they are saying — they may be more *likely* to say something of value but that becomes irrelevant when you have the info in front of you… I suspect you don’t agree but that’s ok :)…. I was just curious what your reasons were… but I don’t really need to know… D.

  17. #17 Charlene
    on May 21st, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Dan, perhaps you don’t realize that many of the Top 100 editors, many of whom use full names, are suspected of being large consortia of reviewers. Some, such as Harriet Klausner, post reviews of up to ten books a day.

    It seems pretty stupid to me to judge a review by whether the reviewer is concerned about stalking or has been stalked. Content, not some superficial and easily faked

  18. #18 Charlene
    on May 21st, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    …personal information, should be what people pay attention to.

    (Sorry for double post.)

  19. #19 Criticism should not be a democratic activity' « sans serif
    on May 21st, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    […] Dan Gilmor tears into Schickel’s analysis. “What seems to bother him most is that he and other […]

  20. #20 Richard Shickel Complains About Bloggers: “Get Off My Lawn!” | Andy Wibbels
    on May 22nd, 2007 at 11:35 am

    […] More: 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 annointed — again, by whom? — are invited, or can be taken seriously. […]

  21. #21 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 22nd, 2007 at 7:46 pm


    Interesting point about Harriet Klausner. Yes, a few people have suggested she may be a pen name of a pool of writers, but in the NYT article above, Amy Harmon was able to speak to her on the phone. So did Kendra Mayfield in Wired:

    Hey look– I’m trusting these publications because of their… drumroll please… dead tree credentials!

    And let me explain the point that Dan’s making. The more you know about the person making a recommendation– assuming the person is trustworthy and making it in good faith– the more you will naturally be inclined to trust that person’s recommendation. If someone is using their real name on Amazon, you will have less reason to suspect them of malice, for even if *you* don’t know them, you can count on someone else knowing them. Furthermore, if they have a “record” of reviews, you can gain a better picture of what they know. Dan, Seth and I have on a number of occasions discussed the promise and difficulties with doing this on the blogosphere. (Seth: 15!).

    That said, we are all prone to salesmanship. The first review of a book one sees on Amazon, no matter who authored it– or the charm of a traveling salesman in the mold of Harold Hill or Elmer Gantry– may be able to overcome what suspicions one has. I think P.T. Barnum made a comment on this about the types of people being born every minute (or maybe he didn’t– Wikipedia says no).

    Now, within the course of human events, people bond into institutions which confer status upon other people based on some sort of contributions to society. And that it is all that Schickel is asking for. He would wonder how it is that Harriet Klausner, who may well be a wonderful aunt to show up at a shabbos dinner and talk about any of the fifteen books she read that week, is any effective as a critic if she has no bite in her reviews; one would long for a Pauline Kael (UC-Berkeley dropout). Nonetheless, while a professor or veteran journalist may be able to coast on their achievements, the populist online critics like Harriet Klausner need to prove themselves everyday.

    Similarly, we judge our host here not because of what the institutions of the University of California at Berkeley’s Journalism School, Harvard University’s Berkman Center, have invested in him, but merely on his efforts to out his best into his blog, and inspire the sharpest commentay. Plus, we like him, and we like a good argument. (21!)

    (There’s other press-bloggers who let their reputation carry them along, but we know who they are. 😉

  22. #22 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 23rd, 2007 at 6:23 am

    Jon – how do they know the person they spoke with, wrote all the reviews? What’s to stop her, even if a real person, from being the “front” for a group? (it’s happened before, heck, it’s a common story plot).

    Indeed, it would be an obvious thing for a PR firm to do.

    But we are not encouraged to think about such things (with the notable exception of blog-post payments services, because those threaten the A-lister’s own market power), because that would undermine the fairy-tale being told of the GOOD People vs. The BAD Elitists.

  23. #23 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 23rd, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    Seth– I am within near certainty that Harriet Klausner is not a front. Like you, I am keenly aware that there are many “useful fictions” in this world, but she is not one of them. As Lance Armstrong or John Nash are to their respective fields of endeavor, it is entirely plausible that there is a woman in this country who can read books like she does. You can add Time and the WSJ to the publications who would be similarly bamboozled.

    Moreover, she really *doesn’t* fit a useful fiction. Yes, there is an anti-elitist tone to the pieces about her. But it’s not part of the spinning-of-crowds narrative.

    (Granted, if she were, that would be a great name for the title of the expose– “Useful Fiction”)

  24. #24 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 23rd, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    “I am within near certainty that Harriet Klausner is not a front.” – Err, why?
    “You can add Time and the WSJ to the publications who would be similarly bamboozled” – OK. No problem.

    Searching for [“Harriet Klausner” fake] was illuminating:

    ‘It is like she has taken the book’s cover, paraphrased the notes, and presented her short synopsis as an official “review” of the book.”

    Let’s hear it for vox populi! She gets free books, the publishers get an unpaid shill, and the blog-evangelists get another talking-point about how those snobby priests of journalism look down on THE PEOPLE. It’s another Net success story – any hint of independent criticism has been replaced by citizen-marketers, and that’s spun as a populist triumph.

    But, hey – that’s where the money is.

  25. #25 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 24th, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    Seth– yes, I did the same Google Search as you. And yes, when I weigh the speculations of a newspaper blogger in Dayton Ohio vs. the WSJ, NYT, Time, and Wired, I think you know who I’m going to trust. May our host here forgive me, but I’m a credentialist.

    And, oddly, it’s not the blogger evangelists who have been celebrating Harriet Klausner; quite the contrary! She doesn’t weigh in on what John Edwards or Jeff Jarvis said; she doesn’t engage in the “conversations”, she doesn’t Twitter, she doesn’t take pictures of her cat; she doesn’t navel gaze. She just reads books and writes reviews. And by doing just that she fits the corporatist narrative.

    Is it a great crime that Harriet Klausner gets free books and I don’t? Can’t say so.

    A new thought– is it possible that the publishers send her a synopsis of the book, just to help her “get started” on the review? Not a person on Earth can prove that, unless you uncover the publishers’ correspondence with her (perhaps she has a very good shredder– and receives encrypted her email). The only way to take a crack at it is to do linguistic analysis of the reviews of different publishers.

    But, to swing back on point: Schickel might have complained that the pop-reviewers are reducing criticism to its commercial activity. That is fitting for washing machines and cars, but not for what he feels are sacrosanct works of art. That train has long passed, of course. He also could have bemoaned, as the Times did, that real cultural criticism is leaving the mid-tier cities, and only going to remain in New York or Los Angeles (e.g., the Globe had merged the Sunday Ideas and books sections).

  26. #26 Delia
    on May 24th, 2007 at 5:06 pm


    Dan appears to be *more* than a credentialist: looks like, for him, if you’d rather not share your name with the whole world, you might just as well shut up… (you are NOT standing behind your words…) And nope, it’s not an issue of privacy! After all, why *shouldn’t* the whole world know? (from here to eternity…) you MUST be hiding *something*! ;)…


    P.S. (if you haven’t noticed) I’m mostly kidding, Dan…

  27. #27 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 24th, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    I am neither credentialist nor populist, but evidence-based (this may sometimes seem like credentialism as I grant a slight presumption to a working journalist over J. Random Ranter, but it is weak and easily overcome with any expertise – it certainly doesn’t take much to be more expert on a topic than the average hack). So, did any of the puff-piece writes apply any sort of verification? I didn’t see it.

    If what she does for “reviews” is simply to paraphase the blurb and promotional material, that would be a workable “explanation”. Otherwise, the time required simply strains credibility.

    Schickel specifically made the point that he’s not objecting to commercialism _per se_ – and it would be ignoring history to do – he’s basically objecting to superficial hackwork being touted as the replacement for thoughtful analysis, because hey, everybody’s got an opinion. And lurking under here is the issue that blog-evangelism rewards and encourages superficial hackwork (you’ve written a piece yourself on this, e.g. being fast is better than being deep).

  28. #28 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 24th, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    yup. see The New Gatekeepers: Their Values: quantity over quality; anonymity over traceability; immediacy over thoroughness; breadth over depth; etc. In other words, hackwork. new topic.

  29. #29 Delia
    on May 25th, 2007 at 7:35 am

    Seth, it seems to me that IF you are evidence based, you wouldn’t be granting presumptions to anybody — you would just look at the stuff (on an *individual* basis) and decide if it’s good or not — if you already have the thing in front of you, what good are presumptions? (the time those would have been useful has already passed).

    Jon, I think it all depends… I can think of a number of circumstances where “the new gatekeepers’ values” (according to you) would do just fine… : for instance, not all useful information requires a lot of pondering and getting something quick may be essential


    P.S. The real issue seems to be whether the “non-credentialed reviews” (that *overall* appear to be a mixed bag — well, more so than the “credentialed reviews”) are just something EXTRA that is available… or whether their existence does in fact result in less available quality reviews (“credentialed” or not)… and if this is the case at the moment, is this something that’s temporary or not…

    P.P.S. Jon, I agree that too much information to sort through can be a problem (I took a quick look at your article) : rating by those who have already read the stuff seems to be a promising solution (but it needs to be more than just a popularity rating a la Digg — I think Fabrice Florin’s idea is on the right track and can be applied to a lot more things) D.

  30. #30 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 25th, 2007 at 8:42 am

    Delia, unfortunately, in practice, there’s a need to take various inductions and reputation-based shortcuts. It’s just not workable, or at least exceedingly difficult, to be a purist, given how much of society relies on information relayed from other (very self-interested) people. Note this is where I think Dan and other A-listers do a great disservice, in dismissing the problem by putting the onus on the reader in terms of a “buyer-beware” credo. That’s just a license for systemic propaganda and corruption, and it’s exactly what we see happening (but, sigh, it’s profitable).

    But note with “Harriet Klausner”, the better handling goes to the bloggers, and it’s a easy call. You look at how much time would be required, and skepticism is clearly in order.

    Right, the issue is if the lower-quality drives out the higher-quality. One way of dodging this issue is for the blog-evangelist to pretend it was a categorical assertion that nobody outside of the protected preserve of professional pundit is even capable of high-quality, and to go into a populist sermon on the topic. Hence why I suggested about that we should just number the arguments to save time and typing.

  31. #31 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 25th, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    Delia– yes, my work foreshadowed Digg. My time would probably have been better invested in April 2005 had I written Digg then. I would have written it differently, though. Fabrice has some great ideas, and his multivariable approach is on the far side from the Digg binary system.

    Seth– 11.

  32. #32 Delia
    on May 25th, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Jon – if your idea was different enough (and for the better) it may still be worth writing your version of Digg (Digg’s system doesn’t appear to have much for IP protection — I mean there seem to be so many copycats and I’m not aware of legal challenges by Digg….) D.

  33. #33 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 25th, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Digg’s key ingredient is not the code, but the *audience* from Rose’s being a minor geek TV star. The story of digg is much less a mystic emergent crowds phenomena, but an admittedly successful way a niche celebrity monetized his fan demographic. Without that audience, your site isn’t going anywhere.

  34. #34 Delia
    on May 25th, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Seth: Jon said: “My time would probably have been better invested in April 2005 had I written Digg then” — this only makes sense if the code was a significant ingredient in the success… (unless Jon could also get the audience) D.

  35. #35 MiniMediaGuy » Blog Archive » Bloggers are furious
    on May 31st, 2007 at 7:05 am

    […] get used to democratic media,” found on, that captures the outrage of Dan Gillmor, Terry Heaton and J.D. Lasica, and tosses a sneer at cyber-elitist Andrew Keen. The bloggers focused […]