Hamlet without the Prince

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2008

In the February edition of Prospect, William Skidelsky has a piece on the decline of book reviewing. As is standard for any adverse trend in the early 21st century, blogs get a fair bit of the blame. The write-off (lede for US readers) says

the authority of critics is being undermined by a raucous blogging culture and an increasingly commercial publishing industry
and the conclusion is
blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.
As a slow, mature critic, I’m sure Skidelsky is well placed to make authoritative judgements of this kind, based on the kind of lengthy reflection unknown to gossipy bloggers. Still, it would help us instant-reaction types to follow him if he had, you know, cited some actual blogs, perhaps even some that run book reviews.

{ 38 comments }

1

leinad 02.26.08 at 9:21 am

Heh, rigor for thee, not for mee. Especially if I’m accusing thee.

2

mparker 02.26.08 at 9:24 am

“Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation.”

I bet much of that lengthy reflection is spent searching through the reviews of other critics and even the writings of those gossipy raucous bloggers.

3

Barry Freed 02.26.08 at 10:28 am

Weird Synchronicity: I was just listening to a rare broadcast of Jean Shepard’s* old radio show on WOR on WBAI 99.5 FM in NYC which are rebroadcast every Tuesday morning at qround 5 AM EST. Shepard bgan the show saying how much he’d always wanted to do Hamlet as a comedy, remarking that he’d long suspected Shakespeare of having his tongue-in-cheek. At that very moment I was checking CTfor new posts on my Treo.

*of “Christmas story” fame

4

Barry Freed 02.26.08 at 10:41 am

Of course your post had bugger all* to do with Hamlet. I shoulda read the post first.

*I’m American, can I say this? FWIW, I’ll regard dsquared’s opinion as authoritative should he decide to weigh in on the matter.

5

Robin Green 02.26.08 at 11:25 am

Americans are allowed to swear in British ways – but they have to get the usage right (which you did, Barry).

For example, if you are a woman, you are not supposed to call yourself a wanker.

6

MR. Bill 02.26.08 at 11:33 am

Well, this is off topic, but I thought the recent action movie “Crank” with Jason Statham as a hit man trying to get revenge before dying of some “chinese poison” that will kill him if his heart rate slows, was in fact a ferocious black comedy. Much of it was silly (if cruel)…
And I’m on topic now to think of all the ‘serious’ reviews of books I’ve read that were more about the reviewer’s ax to grind (generally with the author or their perceived ideology) than the tome in question…

7

Martin Wisse 02.26.08 at 11:44 am


Still, it would help us instant-reaction types to follow him if he had, you know, cited some actual blogs, perhaps even some that run book reviews.

Mine [1], for example. If this guy wants “lengthy reflection and slow maturation” he could do worse; it’s not rare that it takes me more than a year to write a review.

In the meantime, he’s not saying anything other critics who see their cozy reviewing gig threatened haven’t said before. Anybody who complains about blogs as causing the death of proper reviews should be condemned to read the broadsheet reviews for a year, as well as the books column in Private Eye to see the reality of that process of “lengthy reflection and slow maturation” traditional critics supposedly excell at.

[1] Did you know all bloggers are filthy self promoters as well?

8

rick 02.26.08 at 12:40 pm

Isn’t this whole ‘blogging good/blogging bad’ thing reeeaaaalllly played out? Skidelsky has a point that the blogging crowd won’t ever acknowledge and the blogging crowd has a point that the Skidelsky crowd won’t ever acknowledge. The people who care about book reviewing will continue to produce and consume book reviews until cohort replacement leaves only the bloggers standing. Move on…

9

Andrew 02.26.08 at 12:54 pm

One of those irregular verbs. I distil crucial information; you pass on data; he/she disseminates gossip.

10

Steven Poole 02.26.08 at 2:05 pm

Hmmm. About this bit:

Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

Well then, neither does reviewing books for weekly newspaper sections, or weekly magazines, for one of which Will used to be Lit Ed. I very much doubt anyone worked for more than a few days, let alone a full week, on what he paid for a review. So not much room for lengthy reflection and slow maturation there.

Perhaps, though, one’s writing can flourish in its maturation and lengthy reflectionism to a much greater extent when one is comfortably ensconced at a monthly magazine.

11

swampcracker 02.26.08 at 2:36 pm

A good blog is a man-made element having a half-life of less than 24 hours, known as Opinium.

12

Buck Theorem 02.26.08 at 3:07 pm

If blogs have any edge over academic studies, it’s probably in the same way as forum comments: the “I” that might signify aloof superiority in official criticism can free up a blog to approach a subject predominantly as a personal experience. This can be just as enlightening in putting a piece in its cultural and political context, etc, than any brilliantly researched and written academic piece. I’ll also wager that any reader that cares about criticism can differentiate between different types and contexts; just as they could discriminate before between academic rhetoric that is only in love with its own naval, and those that truly opened up the text.

Good writing is good writing, whether book, blog or literary supplement. I’ll take it where I can find it, whether from a curriculum-approved study or blog whimsy.

13

Alex 02.26.08 at 3:11 pm

William “No Relation of…” Skidelsky…

14

Michael Bérubé 02.26.08 at 3:18 pm

A whole essay on the shallowness of raucous blogging culture and no citation of Lee Siegel’s breakthrough book on the shallowness of raucous blogging culture? Come on, that’s not even trying.

You know what might enhance book reviewing in print culture? Giving book reviewers nice long deadlines, a decent check, and more than 800 words of space. I think we have one or two print outlets in the US that do this. One or two more would be great! Because that would be twice as many.

Sure, blogs can be chatty. (Why, I’m being chatty right now!) But the idea that they have anything to do with the decline of serious book reviewing does not seem to be, how shall I say, the product of lengthy reflection and slow maturation.

15

Backword Dave 02.26.08 at 4:11 pm

If I’ve skimmed that article correctly, he’s not actually arguing that book reviewing is necessarily in decline. He’s saying that the status of critics is – and he’s blaming culture. There seems to be another possibility, if the thesis is indeed true, that the standard of critics has declined.

Anyway, the ‘authority of critics’ has always been shaky: how many books currently recognised as classics received particularly glowing reviews. How many received terrible reviews or were ignored?

And am I the only person who misread the phrase ‘slow maturation’?

Oh, hold on, he’s also suggesting (in paragraph 5), that George Orwell was a “successful author at the top of the literary pecking order”. He wasn’t successful until ‘Animal Farm’ and that was after much of his famous criticism. And Orwell wasn’t putting critics down (he did that elsewhere); he was describing – with some licence – his own life.

16

MR. Bill 02.26.08 at 4:15 pm

“Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world, though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst, the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!”

Laurence Sterne (1713–1768) Tristram Shandy, Vol. iii. Chap. xii.

17

MR. Bill 02.26.08 at 4:28 pm

And when I think of “slow maturation” I think of cheese.

18

Bloix 02.26.08 at 4:37 pm

I’ve been a reader for 35 years and I can recall only one occasion on which I was prompted to read a book I wouldn’t otherwise have looked at based on a review. Am I unusual in this? Do others rely on reviews to help them select what they read? Do people have favorite trusted reviewers?

19

Bloix 02.26.08 at 4:39 pm

I just thought of another one. That makes two.

20

Crystal 02.26.08 at 4:52 pm

the authority of critics is being undermined by a raucous blogging culture

You will respect mah authoritah!

Is Skidelsky cheesed off that he might have to find a real job someday? Or is this yet another iteration of Kids These Days ™! I bet there was similar muttering when the price of books and paper dropped sufficiently that even the working-class could afford reading material of their own. Tsk, tsk!

21

seth edenbaum 02.26.08 at 5:00 pm

I’s not the vulgarity of blogging its the technocratic and technophilic culture of english language blogging. The intellectuals among the blogging class prefer analysis to interpretation and number crunching to literature and the arts. And american political activists are no more anti-intellectual on the web than than they were before they or it went online.

Literary criticism, reviewing as opposed to theorizing, is engaged and self-reflexive in that a critic is describing and commenting on his or her own personal tastes as reflected in his or her response to the book. The acts of reading and response is directed both inwardly and outwardly. Examining your own sensibility and your own assumptions is what takes time and patience. The analysis of data external to oneself and the culture that sees that as the definition of communication or at least of intellectual seriousness, these are the mainstays of the “serious” anglophone blogging community. Engagement with culture is left for the off hours and is used as a means to casually reinforce biases and assumptions, not undermine them. And of course the very notion of “depth” is referred to again and again by technophile optimists and rationalist technocrats as the logic of religious irrationalism. It’s true those who defend it usually fog it up in rhetoric, but there’s no more need for verbal games in the defense of slow thought than there is in the defense of slow food. It simply tastes better.

The arts at full height teach you to have fewer assumptions: doubt is first principle. It may not be a good idea to have that as first principle for every activity but adversarialism not collaboration is the model for democracy. The search for universal first principles is the basis of technocratic liberalism, but democracy doesn’t work that way. Sorry kids, Brad DeLong saying “trust me” doesn’t cut it. And Rawls was a fool.

22

Michael Bérubé 02.26.08 at 5:02 pm

Well, fie on me for going for the cheap Siegel joke first as usual! I totally missed this bit, which makes for much better material:

on the whole, journalists increasingly dominate the literary review pages of newspapers—and since an increasing number of books are written by journalists too, this results in a kind of circularity (which bloggers, quite reasonably, often moan about). But if literary journalism is increasingly feeding off itself, then, McDonald contends, that is largely because academic criticism has withdrawn from the field. In the last two decades, English literature has both tangled itself up in arcane and inaccessible debates about theory and emasculated itself by allowing itself to become a handmaiden to other disciplines, through its embrace of historicism and cultural studies.

Yes, that sounds about right. When academic critics had our testicles removed so that we could become handmaidens to cultural studies, we stopped appearing in newspapers.

23

Hogan 02.26.08 at 5:37 pm

an increasingly commercial publishing industry

Since Gutenberg, yes. It must have taken some quite lengthy reflection and slow maturation to come to that awareness.

24

Ginger Yellow 02.26.08 at 6:25 pm

I’ve been a reader for 35 years and I can recall only one occasion on which I was prompted to read a book I wouldn’t otherwise have looked at based on a review. Am I unusual in this? Do others rely on reviews to help them select what they read? Do people have favorite trusted reviewers?

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book based on a newspaper review, but I’ve read countless books on the basis of a write-up in the LRB or NYRB, and many on the recommendation of blogs.

25

geo 02.26.08 at 6:32 pm

#21:cheap Siegel joke

So you were joking about its being a “breakthrough book”? It’s sometimes hard to know when you’re tongue-in-cheek, Michael.

26

Michael Bérubé 02.26.08 at 7:12 pm

So you were joking about its being a “breakthrough book”?

Hmmm, good question. Insofar as Against the Machine may be the first book that (a) inveighs against nasty pseudonymous comments on the Internet (among other things) and (b) was written by someone whose career was derailed by the nasty pseudonymous comments he’d posted on the Internet in effusive praise of his own writing, it might be legitimately considered a “breakthrough” book after all.

27

a very public sociologist 02.26.08 at 7:30 pm

What’s Skidelsky’s problem? Does he seriously believe book reviewers who have to work to newspaper deadlines have the time to “lengthy reflection”? And what of the book awards circuits? Do judges read all the books on the long list? Does each and every one come in for mature consideration?

28

novakant 02.26.08 at 7:42 pm

I’ve been a reader for 35 years and I can recall only one occasion on which I was prompted to read a book I wouldn’t otherwise have looked at based on a review. Am I unusual in this?

On what basis do you select your books then? Do you read according to a literary canon or does one thing lead to another? What about contemporary fiction, I’d be totally lost without critics.

As for myself and to be brutally honest, I generally enjoy reading reviews a lot more than reading the actual books – saves a lot of time too. Needless to say that, when I was studying CompLit, I belonged to the theory faction.

29

peep 02.26.08 at 7:50 pm

He says good criticism requires “slow maturation”.

Does that mean it should be written by middle-aged and/or elderly man that act like bratty
kids?

By that standard Lee Siegel is the ideal!

(and worst of all are those damn precocious kid bloggers — they’ve matured much too fast!)

30

seth edenbaum 02.26.08 at 7:52 pm

hulk, art and commerce aren’t synonymous, The former requires the latter for practical reasons, and inverse was once true as a matter of PR and the goal of social advancement. But these days, to many in the thinking class commerce is self-justifying as the origin of] the scientific[sic] logic of individual achievement and the social world that’s built around it. A serious discussion of the realm of illusion and lies seems counter to analytic and instrumental reason.

But meanwhile in the world of the day to day, commerce keeps art sharp and to the point and the nouveau riche still aspire to that old odd mix of vulgar honesty and good taste that makes popular art and entertainment pretty interesting. Art and commerce feed off each other in conflict. To argue otherwise <a href=”is to miss the point

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a book based on a newspaper review,”

This country isn’t known for its newspapers.

31

Steven Poole 02.26.08 at 8:02 pm

Another thing: Skidelsky alleges that academic criticism and literary journalism no longer interpollinate — and then he complains that three newspapers chose to cover a book by an academic-who-also-writes-for-newspapers (John Mullan’s Anonymity) as their lead review.

Shurely some mistake?

32

Katherine 02.26.08 at 8:35 pm

Bloix, I started reading the Inspector Wallander novels on the basis of a review of Nordic detective novels in the London Review of Books. Other than that, I found the whole magazine to be pretentious in the extreme. Towards the end of my year’s subscription I suspected it of being satire.

33

gmoke 02.26.08 at 9:04 pm

Not necessarily reviews but I have a habit of publishing my notes on books I’ve read on my dailykos diary (http://gmoke.dailykos.com). I see it as a public commonplace book. It may violate fair use to quote so extensively but it sure does fit into the tradition of the commonplace book as I understand it.

I consider that my selection and editing of the quotations is added intellectual content but I may be fooling myself.

34

seth edenbaum 02.26.08 at 9:48 pm

Wasn’t there a discussion on this site recently of criticisms of the humanities in the UK, of proposed funding cuts to “less important” fields?

35

Delicious Pundit 02.27.08 at 3:40 am

Speaking of cheap jokes, is Hamlet without the Prince like Garfield minus Garfield?

On topic, I think it’s a shame the newspapers are dying, but when the New York Times Book Review appoints Sam Tanenhaus as its editor that seems more like a self-inflicted wound.
With the power of Google, I fixed your link – JQ

36

Doug 02.27.08 at 9:09 am

17: “And when I think of “slow maturation” I think of cheese.”

And when I hear the word cheese, I reach for my knife. Mmm, artisanally spoiled milk…

37

Another Damned Medievalist 02.27.08 at 1:07 pm

Fee, I’d have thought the decline might have something to do with the fact that even the venerable The New Yorker hires someone like Joan Acocella to write a review of a medieval history written by a scholar who is best known for his work on WEB DuBois. Heaven forfend that they actually ask an expert. If the print media can’t be bothered to look for expertise, how on earth can there be any argument against bloggers, a group that includes an awful lot of thoughtful people, many of whom are also experts in their fields?

38

Another Damned Medievalist 02.27.08 at 1:07 pm

I have no idea how that first word got there.

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