Fighting over computer keyboardEarlier this week, the Chair of this year’s Man Booker prize judges, Peter Stothard, made headlines when he suggested that the overabundance of book bloggers today “is drowning out serious criticism, to the detriment of literature,” according to an article in the Guardian.

From the article:

“Although Peter Stothard, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplementis a blogger himself – and praises literary websites such as the Complete Review – he expressed fears that the burgeoning amount of online opinion about books could be damaging to the future of writing.

“‘If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics … then literature will be the lesser for it,’ he said. “There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion.”

Two book bloggers were quoted in the article as essentially disagreeing with Stothard. And the following day, a very well-reasoned and truly satisfying post by blogger John Self was added to the Guardian‘s Books Blog that took Stothard to task for his total wrongheadedness.

Self essentially made the point that because book review sections are being cut left and right by print outlets today, lit-crit and book review blogs are not only necessary—they’re also where much of the most relevant criticism is now being published, if only because bloggers have unlimited space in which to wax poetic about a given title’s high or low points.

I’m honestly not sure if anyone else has already pointed this out, but to me, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here, and it’s the same old story we’ve heard a million times during arguments concerning the arts: The older generation (Stothard) doesn’t understand the younger and newer generation, and so instead of being open-minded and making an attempt to learn, it lashes out in ridicule.

And I think there’s probably something else to consider here, as well: In 2012—in the very globalized and multicultured world in which we all live—do we really need onewhite guys fighting more middle-aged, middle-class white guy telling us what we should be reading, and why? I tend to think not. But then again, I’m essentially a middle-aged, middle-class white guy myself. So what do I know?

I’m curious to know what those of you who care about literary criticism—and about the current state of book reviews in general—think about all this. Are book blogs pointless? Are they harmful to literature, even? Or are they necessary and useful?

The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in between those two points of view.


  1. I have mixed feelings. At least twice a month I try to read book review blogs but after about 10 minutes, I give up. I keep trying because I keep hoping I will find one that I like.

    OTOH, 40 times a year I receive in the mail a print copy of The New York Review of Books (NYRB). I don’t read every article, as some things I am just not interested in, but I do read most articles and I do peruse the ads in search of books to buy. Occasionally, I will also read the NYRB online.

    The difference between the NYRB and the book review blogs is the quality and depth of the analysis and criticism. Compared to the NYRB, most book blogs are superficial and thus do not hold my interest. NYRB reviews are often educational about the subject matter in addition to being a review of the book. The NYRB’s primary failure is that it is of limited space and so can review only a limited number of books in each issue, unlike a blog which has no similar constraints.

    It isn’t that book blogs are pointless; rather, it is that anyone can be a book blogger and there are hundreds if not thousands of book blogs, which makes it difficult to find high-quality criticism. Because of the cost involved in producing a print book review magazine, a focus on quality is necessary in order to attract and retain subscribers.

    Are book blogs harmful? Perhaps. The harm is that those who read book blogs and become accustomed to the breezy blog style and lack-of-depth (and lack-of-comparative) reviews find it difficult to spend the time necessary to read and absorb the type of critical review found in the NYRB. Eventually, magazines like the NYRB will cease to exist because of a lack of subscribers. That will be, in my opinion, a very sad day for literary criticism.

  2. All of this strikes me as the intellectual elite trying to protect their turf. They understand that reviews are more than book recommendations, they interpret the work as well. If someone reads the review before the work then if they go on to read the work, their perception of it can’t help but be shaped by the review they read.

    In addition, elite literary review is use to controlling what books get discussed. While some books and authors are too big to ignore, the ability of the elite book review section or magazine to decide what to review often can bring prominence to some books while keeping others in shadow. In a bloggers’ world, that control is lost since most any book can find some blogger that will review it.

    Also it is true that some blogs lack depth, but it is also true that many published reviews are very self indulgent towards the reviewers point of view.

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