July 29, 2007
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Birkerts Deplores Blogs

In the Boston Globe, Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) tries to explain why literary blogging won't save our literary culture.

Ive been trying to make my peace with [literary Web sites] -- and to decide once and for all if they represent an advance, a retreat, or simply the declaration of an emerging new order against which there is no point in kicking.

As newspapers cut back on book reviews, Birkerts deplores the shift of literary discussion to electronic forms. As has always been the case for Birkerts, there's something about the screen of the computer that prevents him from paying attention.

I've discovered what the more digitally progressive of my peers have known for years: that it is alarmingly easy to slide into a slipstream, or, better, go rollicking in a snake-bed of sites and posts, where each twist of text catches hold of another's tail, the whole progress and regress morphing into a no-exit situation that has to be something new under the sun.

Well, yes: it's alarmingly easy — just as a schoolchild might argue that it's alarmingly easy to get bored reading an big old book when the sun is shining and everyone is going to play baseball down at the park. Or, just as the proverbial stock broker might argue that it's alarmingly easy to fall asleep, especially since nobody can be expected to keep all these authors straight: the country is going to the dogs and something should be done and I'll have another whiskey and soda!"

Reading requires attention. Birkerts can't bring himself to pay attention to what's on the screen; he gets distracted by the links. Everyone goes through this; it's part of learning to read hypertext, which means, part of learning to read.

This time, Birkerts longs for the declining influence of "the self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so. Arbiters, critics . . . reviewers." Self-constituted! Bloggers might be self-constituted, but newspaper reviewers are hired help, hand-chosen by the lords of the press. You might get lucky, and have, say, Mr. Hearst for your boss. You might get Lord Beaverbook. A bunch of new people are about to enjoy the literary patronage of Mr. Murdoch: good luck with that.

To write of newspaper folk as "self constituted" suggests that Birkerts, gray haired as he says he is becoming, never managed to spend much time in a news room or a newspaper bar. Those guys and gals were working stiffs, they were fierce defenders of labor, and they knew which side they were on. Birkerts feels "deep impulses of solidarity" for some forlorn picketers responding to cuts in the book reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Birkerts has a short list of influential book sections.

The absences are haunting: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington. I don't understand why Birkerts doesn't mention the NYBR or the TLS — both of which seem to me to be far closer to the center of literary discussion than any US newspaper other than the Times.

Birkerts dislikes what he perceives as "a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of 'I've been thinking . . .' approach." How about E. B. White? Hell, the entire Talk of the Town! It's hard to get more hierarchical than Ruskin on art criticism, but Mornings In Florence affects the same style.

Birkerts says he wants to "keep alive the possibility of shared discourse," but he isn't interested in listening. To listen would require attention, and his attention keeps wandering off under the influence of all those tempting links. It's not the link's fault, anymore than it's the sunshine that keeps our young scholar staring out the window toward that sunny ballpark.