Highbrow & Lowbrow, in print & online

I’m sorry to have missed Mark Sarvas et al.’s panel up at Columbia on Tuesday night: it sounds like a banner version of the longstanding/ongoing conversation about blogs and book reviews. You can read accounts by James Marcus and Ed Champion (I won’t characterize them, as Mark labeling Ed [accurately] as “impressionistic” seemed to get Ed into a lather….). On James’ site, a British commenter alludes to the lively discussion over there on the same topic. If you want a flavor of that, you can do no better than to read my friend Louise Tucker’s brilliant blog post on the so-called Golden Age of publishing (an illusion, she reminds us). I was glowing with pride when it went up--all the more so when it got 263 comments! Way to launch a polemic.

Editor Elizabeth Sifton compared Mark to Irving Howe--a lovely, flattering, amazing compliment. I don’t know Howe’s work well enough to be able to guess the specific contours of the comparison beyond the notion that, like Howe, Mark writes very intelligent, clear criticism, the kind of criticism that serious readers can learn from. The kind of criticism that doesn’t require one’s being fully up-to-date on the latest theory to grasp.

That sounds like an anti-theoretical barb. It’s not. Or not exactly. However, when reading about a fictional text, I like the references to philosophers and theorists who might illuminate that text to work in the service of the argument not as flamboyant signs of the writer’s erudition. I mean, I could spatter this whole posting with references to Habermas and Bourdieu, couldn’t I? But why?

From all accounts, it seems that the flame throwing between newspapers and blogs has abated. The papers may have run out of ammunition. Everyone recognizes--even the Times, which ended TimesSelect this week--that the future of daily information is digital and free.

The question of the day now, has returned to the richer one of popular versus elite. What is the best way to reach an audience? Are open forums the best way to be democratic? Is a thoughtful, learned review necessarily snobby?

I don’t think these questions are ones of either/or: each critic has his or her foibles--as readable as James Wood is, for example, it’s hard to assign him to undergraduates because of his pretty pervasive habit of quick, unexplained allusions to Continental and Russian novelists (along the lines of: “Unlike Turgenev, Conrad’s fathers…”). Older readers get used to this and find such tags either helpful or not, but young readers often get stopped: “Oh, no! I haven’t read Turgenev. I have no idea what he’s talking about…” The ability to keep reading in one’s ignorance, trusting that context will fill in clues, is a skill, and some days, it’s not on my lesson plan.

What I want to note, however, is that the blogosphere seems to have spawned a new breed of nonacademic literary critics, of academic literary critics who make an effort to write jargon-free prose. Read Mark or Bud Parr or Garth Risk Hallberg or Ana Maria Correa and you’ll see what I mean. These critics also draw our attention to literary critics working primarily in print--James Wood is maybe the leading example--whose work is intelligent and readable.

Those of us in the academy would do well to take note.