Love: A Burning Thing

March 16, 2007 | 6 5 min read

I guess I re-enter the ring of fire at my own peril, but I feel compelled to return to what has become (or so the publish first, ask questions later crowd would have it) “n+1 vs. lit-bloggers.” At times, the whole kerfuffle has seemed to confirm some of the liabilities n+1‘s “Blog Reflex” sought to diagnose in lit-blogs: a tendency toward contempt or wet kisses, an emphasis on performance over analysis, a reduction of big questions into partisan orthodoxies. These are, in fact, the very same liabilities I thought I detected in the n+1 piece. On the other hand, without some very engaging performances, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Despite the extremely high temperature at which tempers seem to be running, or perhaps annealed by the flames, several noteworthy questions seem to have emerged. To wit:

Does instant communication encourage combat? If so, why? (Is the media the message?) When does anger work to enrich understanding, and when does it hinder it? Are those even the metrics anymore? How can a medium so bound up with the culture industry manage a critique of that industry? Is the blog-as-antidote-to-ideology itself part of the ideology? Is good writing good for writing? Does mass culture exert a leveling effect? Can highbrow and middlebrow coexist peacefully, and if so under what circumstances? What becomes of critique when words are control x-ed and control v-d and the very idea of context, the context of context, starts to evaporate?

I’d like to advance the proposition that we’re all engaged in a test-case. To the extent that we can do something productive with these questions (which will likely involve listening as well as talking, reading as well as writing), we support the idea that the blog has some place at the table of cultural criticism. To the extent that we spend time finding ever more inventive ways to give one another the finger, we prove out the idea that, behind the hypnotic flickering on our shiny new screens, nothing of much worth is happening.

Here, I find myself rooting for the blog in the way I used to root for the Red Sox – passionately, but cautiously. Weirdly enough, this may be not too far removed from n+1‘s attitude. The original “Blog Reflex” piece – which I have read, and recommend others do, if only at the bookstore – proceeded from the tacit assumption that the blog isn’t by its nature the enemy of “critique.” Keith Gessen’s and Marco Roth’s thoughtful, if controversial, their comments here and at Long Sunday only confirm that they believe that the blog might, at least theoretically, offer some counterweight to an increasingly narcotic media environment… a point with which I think most literary bloggers agree.

I took issue with the n+1 polemic because I thought the rhetorical choices – use of the past tense, sweeping generalizations, accusatory tone – tended to prejudge unfairly, and at a very early date, the results of the blog experiment. And to make ad hominem attacks without naming names. Again, I think n+1 editors Gessen and Roth are, if not in agreement with me on this point, then at least open to the criticism. (And in this kind of volatile discussion, it takes courage to come out and offer even a partial recantation, as Mr. Roth did, rather than sticking to the mode of turf-defense.)

Moving forward, it might help to clarify what we mean by “lit-blog.” (A contraction of a contraction of a contraction is bound to cause some confusion.) In responding to “The Blog Reflex,” I took “lit-blog” to mean “blog about books,” because I contribute to one. But I’ve come to see that n+1 meant something closer to “blog that filters contemporary culture through a literary sensibility.” I’m happy to accept this more expansive definition. Thus, as Keith Gessen suggests, my very short catalogue of popular blogs that seemed to refute n+1‘s generalizations should be amended to include not only Maud Newton and Moorishgirl, but also Long Sunday and Crooked Timber and so on. In all candor, Gessen seems to read more blogs than I do… which only makes me wish that “The Blog Reflex” had been more specific in its targets, lest babies and bathwater both end up in the gutter. (To be fair, the “Intellectual Scene” section of n+1 has always been more about the generalities of culture; the specifics are usually covered in the longer essays.)

I stand by my plaudits for The Quarterly Conversation, the LBC, and the Pynchon roundtable, as I stand by my own reviews, but that’s a matter of taste. What’s noteworthy is that each of us seems to be able to come up with a list of exemplary literary blogs. I do resent the imputation that “Keepers of the Flame” name-checked only the blogs of friends or that I prefer blogs that make “noise.” I’m not online enough to have known that there was “a little circle,” and I mentioned Scott Esposito’s blog specifically because I thought he didn’t seem like a noisy writer. (I’m open to correction on this point, but check out his photo on the website… he looks so gentle!) I don’t know Scott from Adam any more than I know Ed Champion from Bat Segundo. I literally just reached for a couple of examples, from among the 10 or 15 blogs I read.

I also think “phenomenally ignorant” is unfair, as are the unbanked assertions in some of Mark Sarvas’ and Ed Champion’s responses to Gessen and Roth’s comments; we could debate the value of name-calling, but – again – we’d be debating taste. I’d prefer for the name-callers to spell out what they mean, or to admit that, hey, in the heat of battle, they lashed out… and move on.

But Mr. Gessen’s momentary lapses in what’s generally an intelligent post – like Mr. Roth’s admission to getting angry; like Ed’s “Je refuse,” like my own flirtation in the original post with imputing the worst motives to “The Blog Reflex” – points to a phenomenon the subsequent comment thread bears out. And which bears analysis, should anyone wish to undertake it: there’s something about instant communication that encourages high dudgeon. This is not always the enemy of thoughtful “critique,” but it does not, in and of itself, constitute critique. “When it comes to hatred, most of us are cowards,” as Marco Roth puts it. Hatred can be a cleansing fire, but to hate bravely requires discipline.

As I see it, the challenge for literary bloggers – at least those who would admit to the temptation to flame, and who would also admit to feeling like their most combustible writings are not their most intelligent – is to find a way to preserve the agonistic pleasures of the medium while doing important work for the culture. I’m not sure if I agree with Gessen’s premise that “bad writing is bad for writing”… that it’s an offense against writing (though Milan Kundera thinks so). But I know I don’t want to waste time reading bad writing. There’s a war on, for Pete’s sake.

Ultimately, the most useful point of comparison for the blog seems to be the print periodical in all its variations. The blog as a medium seems capacious enough to contain short reviews, 5,000-word essays, war reporting, dumb lists, gossip, “ignorant railing.” Anyone has a right to make whatever complaints they want, and – here’s the blessing and the curse of the medium – to hear rebuttal or retraction or further discussion in fairly short order. Rather than spending my time telling other people to shut up, or trying to impose a reign of virtue, I’d prefer to try to step up my own game.

And anyone who doesn’t like that can suck on it.


  1. Bravo, Garth. Well said and – for what it's worth – mea cuplas are owed. You've beaten me to the punch – I'm working on a post in a similar spirit for Monday – but for now, I'll just own up to having been guilty of some lashing out, and also hoping to step up my own game. I'm just a bit more plodding that you've been, so it will be Monday. But there's not a word in here I would disagree with.

  2. Garth,

    Thank you for this and your other post on the n + 1 item. You've made a lot of good points here, but I'd only like to respond to one right now: this whole idea that litbloggers are a closed circle of high-fivers.

    I link to other litbloggers when I think they have good content. Plain and simple. If it happens to often be the same sites, it's because these sites work for me, in the sense that they regularly publish stuff that I find interesting. (I'm sorry, I just don't have time to scour the net for all litblogs and read them regularly.) Similarly, I give a lot of links to BookForum, The Guardian, and the LATBR, because I like their writing and they have established credability with me. In neither case am I trying to ingratiate myself with anyone or perpetuate some kind of closed circle. These are just the sites I've come to trust, and I think many other readers and bloggers are like me in this sense.

    The last time I can remember giving out a "high-five" was to Ed Champion for his 100th interview, which happened to be with David Lynch. I don't think it's unreasonable to hand out a compliment for this kind of an accomplishment. I cannot remember the last time prior to that when I gave out a similar "high-five" to any litblogger, but I think it's been a while.

    Also, narcissist that I am, I tend to read it when other bloggers write about me. Usually what they say will be something along the lines of "I found this here," or a response to something I've written. Rarely do I find high-fives being extended to me, and I can't say that any particular sites seem to be continually harping on how great my site is.

    Really, if we want to talk about high-fives, let's go back to the week when the NYTBR did a huge profile on n + 1, plus published a Benjamin Kunkel essay, both of which happened to coincide with a very positive Kakutani review of Kunkel's first novel (which nonetheless had lukewarm sales) . . .

  3. Scott Esposito is not a tenth-rate "high-fiver," by a long shot. He is one of the two or three best thinkers now working in America — period.

  4. Also, if you cannot recognize Scott Esposito's genius, you are simply a corporate tool of the publishing industry unfit to walk this earth.

    I'm zipping up my pants now. Thanks for the thoughts, Garth.

  5. Scott writes:
    “I link to other litbloggers when I think they have good content. Plain and simple…”

    Which is likely true. But the blogs that any given reader has exposure to is usually a function of how long that blog has been around, and the network that blog is in. (all of the blogs mentioned above fall into what I’d call the “litblog” network) And it makes sense that to critical outsiders those networks start to resemble backslapping, high-fiving cliques. The blogs n+1 champion (wood’s lot, etc) are not in that network.

    Anyone who followed the rise of the litblogs know that at the beginning, there was a group of book blogs linking one another (as well as other media blogs, like TMFL, Gawker, Galleycat, etc) and that accounted for the rapid growth of the network. And there were more than a few parties in New York where everybody got together for drinks and linked each other afterwards (met the lovely so-and-so downtown last night) Now there are probably thousands of sites that blog about books, but those in the litblog network (those with the most incoming links, to be more accurate) are still largely the same.

    The blogs n+1 prefers were never part of this network, so they fall on the unfortunate end of the power law. According to technorati, none of the lit blogs of that early network link woods lot or the valve with any frequency. (Which is actually pretty surprising)

    N+1 thinks that the litblogs at the top of the curve are bad. And if there are right (which is obviously arguable) this is a problem, since readers looking for literary criticism are much more likely to be exposed to edrants then they are to a blog like woods lot.

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