Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Death of the Critical Essay

The Reading Experience has articulated a point that I've been thinking for a while; that blogs should be doing far more than just commenting on the this and that of contemporary literature, but acting as a more reliable critical guide. It has always seemed to me that without a critical culture, its hard to agree that we have a culture.

"I would like this site to focus not on new books but on books from the recent past (post-1980) that deserve additional close reading beyond the attention they received in their initial reviews, by writers who deserve careful consideration (perhaps more careful consideration than they've previously received) as writers whose work may last", he writes.

It's a more than laudable aim. It strikes me that the instant review isn't so helpful - particularly if it doesn't find room to contextualise both within the writer's other books and within the cultural framework in which it was written and received. It's a given, these days, that "success" is enough, whether its Phillip Pullman or Nick Hornby or Alan Hollinghurst. School teacher friends tell me that the "reading list" at secondary schools is hardly changed from the seventies, perhaps with the odd Carole Ann Duffy or Simon Armitage poem to lighten the mood after a good dose of "Lord of the Flies." Yet there's plenty of questions here, already. Wouldn't now - with the film version of "Blindness" about to go on release - be a good time for making the case for Saramago's novel as the key text of the late twentieth century? Or, having time to consider "American Psycho" with the reflection of the years - and with the somewhat diminishing returns of Ellis's later books - can we now place it properly as a historical artefact, rather than a contemporary classic? (And in doing so, make the case for the linked short stories of "The Informers" as his truly radical work.)

I'd like to rise to this - as I'm sure a few other writers would - but there's a fear - all the work that a considered essay requires - is their a readership? I've found critical works as critical to my reading as more primary texts over the years as a good critic can be a light leading a pathway through the darkest of literary undergrowths. We have, here with our bloggers and wordpresses, the tools. Have we the intelligence to use them?

(With thanks to This Space for pointing me in the right direction.)


Ron Slate said...

There is a readership: people willing to peer into a laptop screen or reader for several minutes. But they are a significant minority of blog visitors. It takes several minutes to read most anything posted on my site -- and what I'm doing doesn't lend itself to the hit-and-run network linking many lit bloggers. Most people are looking for a quick buzz -- a quip, a new link to jump to. That's OK. There are two main hurdles to cultivating an active audience for a truly critical site: one, design (many sites are not designed well for extended reading) and two, low frequency of posting when the critic is trying to put some thought into the output (and needing to to read!). On the days when other lit sites link to a specific article on my site, traffic is largely refered from them. Otherwise, traffic comes via search. I should add that my posts are all book reviews -- poetry, fiction, essays, and occasionally other genres or topics. The site is www.ronslate.com. I'm eager to hear what others have to say.

Lee said...

I agree with Ron that there's a readership, albeit small, and in fact I'm an ardent reader of his blog. I'm spending a certain amount of time deciding where to head with my own blog, since I'm very dissatisfied with its hit-and-miss approach.

And as an online writer, my main regret is that most readers seem to expect that quick buzz from their net fiction. Though my work is undoubtedly flawed - seriously, even fatally flawed - I yearn for a readership which doesn't rush through a text.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks for the comments both of you - there's a slither of a germ of an idea here, I think - how to get that small readership to the blog posts that are more considered, and how to encourage more considered blog posts by providing a ready readership....

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm in your camp. I have no problems reviewing older books because – to my mind anyway – books don't have an expiration date. Okay, some do date but that's history. You have to read a novel like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remembering when it was written but that's only the background to the book; the book is greater than its era or context.

As for writing longer posts, I'm all for it. I certainly do and I make no apology for it. Granted I sometimes feel I'm only being read by the same dozen people but others will blunder there in time. Posts I wrote months ago still get occasional hits and that's how it should be. I'm building up a body of work not writing a newspaper column.