Bookish Thoughts: BuzzFeed Books & the Internet vs. ‘literary criticism’

We’ve all heard the news – books are dying. Well, that’s what ‘new media’ junkies would have us believe. Ok maybe just the wackos who have lost touch with reality because we all know the whole ‘books are dying’ idea is a bunch of hog wash. Oh I’m sorry…I just used a colloquialism in a space devoted to the discussion of those sacred objects lay people call ‘books’. Here, take my reading glasses and black turtleneck jumper. I must now revoke my membership to the ‘literary critic’ club. Although, I suppose, many people would never have regarded me a member in the first place because I dare to write about books on the Internet, the same place where Grumpy Cat exists.

All facetiousness aside, I find this feud between traditional book critics and the new only book community to be very interesting. Despite my jokes, I do not find myself able to claim a firm side in this rivalry. I may write about books somewhat informally online, but I also have a Masters in English Literature and believe in rigorous, formal criticism. In my very first post for this little blog I state my devotion to ‘serious’ readings of literature. As much as I enjoy the book community online, my aims are quite different and I do recognise that many book reviews on blogs lack the depth found in more traditional reviewing publications. Of course this informality is one of the community’s greatest strengths.

Traditional ‘literary critics’ are specifically decrying the establishment of BuzzFeed Books as the beginning of the end for ‘proper’ literary/book criticism. This is of course closely related to the GIF controversy to recently rock the online book community. Flavorwire has a great review of this situation in this particular article, which I recommend reading. For a view on the GIF issues, see this article on Salon. As I stated above, my feelings on the current debates in popular literary criticism, i.e. non-academic, are complicated. Really it all boils down to a conflict between old and new. In such debates, it is usually wisest to side with the new because we all know you cannot stop the ongoing forward march of time. But I find this particular situation to be a bit stickier. I can’t just commit myself to the ‘new’ ways.

The new editor of Buzzfeed Books, Isaac Fitzgerald’s statement regarding his views on the online book community are particularly interesting:

‘BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.’

Perhaps this is the difference between the online community of book bloggers and reviewers and the traditional culture of book reviewing – one of the Internet’s most unique features is that it has increasingly become a place for the unembarrassed celebration of people’s interests, hence  ‘fandoms’, people coming together to share their love of a common phenomenon (TV shows, movie, book, etc.). For the online book community, this celebratory nature of the Internet is obviously present as is evidenced by Fitzgerald’s commitment to positivity. This celebration of books is of course something I believe in wholeheartedly – I love reading book blogs and watching videos by booktubers  that offer quite basic reader-response reviews because it perfectly replicates the wonderful experience of a nice chat with a friend about what they’ve been reading recently. Who among us doesn’t love sitting down with a good friend and just chatting away about good books, or even not-so-good books? Such a conversation doesn’t typically involve  much serious literary analysis, more important is the simple experience of reading – would you recommend devoting a week or two to this story?, was it a positive experience?, what did the book make you feel?, did you like the characters?, etc. The book blogging and booktubing community is driven by young people, which adds to the charm because the excitement about reading is so palpable (and which also explains the focus on Young Adult literature). Anything that gets young people excited about reading is great in my book, but I wouldn’t classify the community in the same realm of book reviewing as The London Review of Books or The Paris Review. Using GIFs and incorporating pop culture references (a la Slaughterhouse 90210) is a fun way to get talking about books and valid opinions can certainly be presented in such an untraditional manner, but the level of discourse is aimed at a different audience and for a different purpose than traditional literary criticism. Different, but not necessarily better or worse.

Here’s the thing: literary criticism, the kind that sometimes involves ‘the scathing takedown’, the work of literary critics writing for such respected publications as the LRB, is important. Setting aside any discussion of the usefulness of the academic study of literature (see this post for my views; in general just don’t get me started on the vendetta against the humanities – I will probably go on a long, emotional rant and will end up in tears as I usually do when arguing…side note: you can probably guess why I was never on the debate team), the usefulness of serious, critical discussion of contemporary literature cannot be denied. I believe art and literature are the most important reflections of human experience in a particular society and as I’ve stated before (post is linked above) the study of these reflections is imperative to a healthy society. Of particular importance are the public contemplations of such art and literature so that everyone can be granted access to the discussion and learn to reflect complexly on the issues present.

It’s unfair to write off non-academic literary critics as stodgy old ‘book snobs’ educating the masses on what is intellectual enough to read. Even if some of them are ‘book snobs’, isn’t  such sophisticated taste understandable? You don’t expect a sommelier to spend his days drinking  £4 Sainsbury’s brand Pinot Grigio. It’s a literary critics job to recognise great literature and to have an opinion of books. A scathing takedown may seem unnecessary and harsh, but it’s necessary to comment on the failings of literature as much as the successes. The Internet is filled with negative reviews of books, visit the Amazon page for even the most beloved classics of literature and you’ll find a few one star reviews. The only difference between an Amazon of Goodreads one star review and a scathing takedown by an old-school literary critic is that the latter often offers more thought-out criticisms yet is stigmatised as a snob for doing so. If all literary critics, in the online community and the traditional book review publications, limited themselves to positivity, the forum for debate would be quite boring. A scathing book review will incite a discussion on how a book could better deal with a given subject, which is instructive and helps build a community of readers more aware of the intricacies of the art form.

My thoughts here are just the ramblings of an aspiring writer and an amateur literary critic. One of these days I will get around to writing another book review here – I’m working on a combined review of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, but as you can imagine such an endeavour is quite daunting. My review will hopefully serve several purposes, including thoughtful reflection on the books’ contribution to contemporary literature as well as a general overview of the reading experience. Just because it will be published on a blog doesn’t mean it is a ‘fluff piece’, but even if I did want to include GIFs and pop culture references, it would still have a place in the discussion of literature.

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