The clerisy: alive and well — and blogging!

So who has the right to parse or praise prose, and in ways that may influence the impressionable minds of other readers? Not just any Tom, Dick or Harris. Or so it would seem, judging from some of the sermonizing going on in the blogosphere.

pool.jpgA recent review in The New Republic of Gail Pool’s book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, has helped reopen a hoary skirmish between those who see themselves as The Sacred and Professional Guardians of Literary Standards, and the rest of the unlettered rabble of pretenders who dare to express their views on what they read. James Wolcott is the reviewer and here is a teaser from his review, Critical Condition:

Long before bloggers became synonymous with damp mold and scurrilous moldaway-4.jpginvective, book reviewers were cast as the pox carriers and bottom feeders of the word business, tattooed with the rep of being bitter, envious parasites, cunning predators, or charter members of the Dunciad. They tore the iridescent wings off Romantic poets for sport, and crouched in the hills like hyenas waiting for Hemingway to falter. Insidious by nature, they fluff up authors’ reputations in order to fatten them up for the sacrificial kill: the young slain for failing to live up to their early promise, their distinguished elders dragged by their whiskers into the lair of the spider-queen, Michiko Kakutani, to be eaten. Even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reviewer is considered suspect, a discount knockoff of a real writer.

It’s a lively and enjoyable bit of analysis that has rightly received worldwide Web circulation, as has Pool and reviews of her book, including 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – let’s just say ‘dozens’ of blog posts. Meanwhile, Pool’s hand-wringing thesis (and this is admittedly a rather flip abridgment based on the Wolcott review) appears to be:

  • Given that book reviews are declining in quality
  • And given that book sections are decreasing in size
  • And given that the internet is a cesspit of craven and shabby reviewing

We should therefore…

  • Establish some sort of professional code of conduct that lays out better ways to pick books to be reviewed, reward reviewers, and develop technical competence.

Fair enough. But it’s always seemed to me that the heart of this particular scrap is less about the ‘How?’ of reviewing books, and more about the ‘Who?’

Academia has long asserted its robed and mortared authority as Keeper of the Canon, albeit often without consensus and mired in its own protracted internecine convulsions. Literary criticism ain’t for the faint of heart. The multi-tiered mainstream media — from the New York Times to Your Town Times — also claim proprietorship as upholders of literary standards, but with varying impact and credibility. And of course at the bottom of the totem pole — well beneath the dirt-line, in fact — are we bloggers. Wolcott exhumes a passage from a New York Sun item on book bloggers written back in the spring of this year by Adam Kirsch:

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can’t, blog.

conspiracytheory.jpg

Bloggers, with their suspect motives and outsized chips on their sloped little shoulders, simply can’t be trusted. And in some cases that may be true. But might it also be possible — and not just 99-monkeys-typing possible — that professional critics may have their own motives for attempting to discredit a class of laypeople that’s been stealing some of the limelight to which they were formerly accustomed? I mean, have you heard?! Even mainstream media outlets have institutionalized blogging! Understandably, nervousness about the influence of bloggers is widespread and more than a few professional print reviewers are circling the wagons.

But perhaps an idea like that just makes me a conspiracy theorist.

monkey-typing-738255.jpg

At the end of the day the whole debate is really a bit silly and assumes the reader has little intelligence and few critical faculties of her own — both when it comes to reading books, and reading reviews of books. Most of us in the reading trenches have been at this for more than a page or two now and we’ve honed our intuitions when it comes to books and book reviews.

davies.jpegThe late great Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s finest exports of the 20th Century, weighed in on the whole business of writers, readers and reviewers in his 1960 essay, “A Call to the Clerisy,” which is in his book, A Voice from the Attic: Essays in the Art of Reading. I think he still says it best and would in fact applaud the efforts of the book-blogging community today.

It is particularly displeasing to hear professional critics using the term ‘layman’ to describe people who are amateurs and patrons of those arts with which they are themselves professionally concerned. The fact that the critic gets money for knowing something, and giving public expression to his opinion, does not entitle him to consider the amateur, who may be as well informed and sensitive as himself, an outsider. Admitting that there are triflers hanging to the skirts of the arts[,] it is generally true that we are all, critics and amateurs alike, members of a group which meets on a reasonably equal footing. The critics have their special tastes and firm opinions and are in some cases, more experienced and sensitive than any but the most devoted of amateurs. But they should never assume that it is so; they, of all people should know the humility which art imposes and avoid the harlotry of a cheap professionalism.

Hear, hear.

Davies argues for more influence from what he calls the ‘clerisy,’ which sounds suspiciously like the blogosphere:

voice.jpegWho are the clerisy?…. The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime, but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As lately as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now. But the clerisy has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups, not themselves malign or consciously unfriendly to literature, which are part of the social and business organization of our time. These groups, though entrenched, are not impregnable; if the clerisy would arouse itself, it could regain its sovereignty in the world of letters. For it is to the clerisy, even yet, that the authors, the publishers, and the booksellers make their principal appeal.

Enough about who has the right to say this or write that — I think I’ll go read another book.

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7 Responses to “The clerisy: alive and well — and blogging!”


  1. 1 Cliff Burns December 14, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    The problems I see with blogging involve the rampant amateurism and the lack of critical thinking in our community. I have scanned dozens of book/literature site and have rarely found one that exhibits the kind of intelligence and erudition of BOOKFORUM or a N.Y. REVIEW OF BOOKS article. Bloggers are “fans” rather than serious thinkers and that leads to vacuousness and treacle. Write in depth on a subject but temper fannish sentiments with articulate arguments and pithy remarks.
    The professional critics will maintain their hegemony until blog commentators display a lot more professionalism, intelligence and clarity of thought…

  2. 2 proseparsed December 14, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Cliff. You’re absolutely right. Professionalism and clear thinking will always serve us well. At the same time, I think it’s the freedom and multiplicity of voices that make the blogosphere such a rich resource. Messy, quirky and yes, sometimes disappointing, but who hasn’t been mystified, annoyed or disappointed by establishment reviewers? Fans may not always be willing or able to articulate the deeper ‘whys’ of their responses to books, but it’s precisely because they’re fans that those responses are often interesting and valuable.

    And thanks too for the words of wisdom on how to blog – I’m going to try to keep proseparsed full of pith and vinegar! Cheers, Greg

  3. 3 Robin Mizell December 14, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    Greg:

    I’m sure you’ve argued that each of us is a unique brand, regardless of the publishing platform. Thanks to a local newspaper that probably degenerated because it was the only one in town, I began to rely on the Web for news sources, including book reviews, in 2001. The unanticipated consequences have been delightful. Harlotry endures, which makes the skill to recognize it ever valuable.

    Robin

  4. 4 Marsha December 15, 2007 at 6:55 am

    Hi Greg, I’m all for more diversity re book reviewing. I go to the NY Times Review of Books to get in-depth reviews but I also like the more anarchic people’ reviews at Amazon.com. I find wide spectrum of comments thought-provoking, even if some people do not express themselves well or provide a substantial argument. However, I do tend to paid more attention to the people who regularly post more considered, developed reviews. And like Cliff, I don’t like a ‘fan’ piece masquerading as a serious review.
    Marsha http://writingcompanion.wordpress.com

  5. 5 proseparsed December 17, 2007 at 2:00 am

    Robin, Yes, the sheer volume of information is overwhelming at times and it’s more important than ever to be a savvy web browser. I’ve always thought word-of-mouth was a much stronger force than book reviews or advertising, so it will be interesting to see if we ever get any metrics that pinpoint the impact of blogs. Greg

  6. 6 proseparsed December 17, 2007 at 2:04 am

    Hi Marsha, Choice is a beautiful thing, and I’m glad there is NYT, many other mainstream sources – as well as all the strange and wonderful and useful craziness out here in blogland. Viva la blogoshpere! Greg

  7. 7 Rudywn March 21, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    thats for sure, brother


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