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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Blog Ambition

Eyewear would like to disagree about blogs with the author of The Death of The Critic, who is chairing a panel discussion on the subject at the ICA (London) on 4 October. According to Dr. McDonald, writing in The Guardian yesterday, "there has been a tremendous democritisation in response to the arts". He argues that the death of the commanding (and professional) critic - one who, like Leavis, or Greenberg, has the authority to make large statements and champion artists - has been in part reduced by narrow academics, and also the tastes expressed by bloggers. He asks, "can we rely on the bloggers to bring vital if alienating art to a wide audience?" - and then sums up, "without critics of authority, the size and variety of contemporary criticism may ultimately serve the cause of cultural banality and uniformity."

This seems wrong, for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is wrong about the nature of blogging, and bloggers. It is a common mistake, for those opposed to the Internet, and its impact on culture and cultural discourse, to suggest that the writing available on blogs, because almost always free, is a) uniformly amateurish and b) merely the expression of a personal, often semi-moronic bias.

Instead, many blogs, on writing and poetry, for instance, express well-argued and well-written positions, and are often written by poets or others interested and well-versed in their field. Blogs, rather than being banal, have vastly enlivened the room to debate, and question, the evaluative process - often filling in the gaps left when daily newspapers of quality began to review less and less serious fiction, and poetry. McDonald doesn't seem to appreciate the radical, sometimes avant-garde nature of many blogs, which are more sophisticated than all but the leading print journals.

Is he right, though, in mourning the passing of The Major Critic, whose vatic pronouncements could make or break a career? Eliot, Empson, Winters, Jarrell, did some good - and were always stylish writers of critical prose - and it seems few, if any, poetry critics today, for instance, carry quite that weight (though surely Vendler and Perloff both do). The fact that more and more people can, and do, engage in critical evaluation, cannot be a bad thing, in itself, if the ideal of an enlightened democracy is ever to be more than an amusing fiction - and one might actually suggest the opposite lament - that if only more people actually did care enough about the fine arts, and serious writing, to blog about it, it would have more social and cultural impact.

Critics of blogs fear the ubiquity, and the sheer volume, of the writing. They crave a time (never real but always imagined as the golden age) when opinion was not only formed by, but completely controlled by, a very few individuals - individuals they know, and are in league with, usually (for who aspires to a tyranny of which they are not a part?). Why it should be good for opinion to be so dominated from above is unsure, but it seems to stem from the belief that only a very few persons have access to the truth, or what passes for the truth among intelligent people. Indeed, it believes in critics of genius, who steer their minority positions so cleverly that soon all others navigate in their wake - and, historically, this was the course for, say Eliot, championing The Metaphysicals.

Critics of blogs assume, incorrectly, that such a genius, if arriving on the scene now, would not write using a blog. Here, they are wrong. Any reader of Pound knows instinctively that his antennae would have wanted to use the new electronic broadsheet that is the world wide web, to broadcast his work - Pound, after all, used printing, and radio, where he could. The little magazine now gives way to groups on Facebook, and to Internet zines.

McDonald may be right, in thinking such a genuine new critical voice might be lost, among the multitudes of other blogs. But great, even good, writing, has a way of slowly earning credit with its readers. Some blogs get more "hits" than others - just as some critics, in the days of Leavis, were attended to, more than others.

I will write to Dr. McDonald and ask for his reply. Let's see if he's willing to enter the Blogopshere.
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