Yesterday, I was reading this excellent post from Rohan Maitzen at her Novel Readings blog, which led me to another excellent post where she succinctly describes the predicament of literary criticism at the present time. Namely, where should a professional critic publish her criticism in the age of easy online self-publishing, aka blogs? Should one publish via the slow, vetted, and prestigious venue of professional scholarly journals? Or should one publish via their own personal blog? Or somewhere in between?
Maitzen quite calmly and intelligently says it should be a mixture and that different forms of writing are better suited to different contexts, but that each has its place. She neither traffics in blog triumphalism or in professional old-school, rear-guard defensilism. Blogs are neither the only place for literary criticism or merely a venue for networking and personal commercials. They are another avenue for writing and thought, and the practice of regular blogging can be its own valuable contribution to literary culture. What’s more, writing via a personal blog in some ways fixes the problems of professional scholarship: its slowness, its almost autistic inability to deal with a non-professional audience, its theoretical architecture and prior-scholarship throat-clearing, its restriction to printed journals located only in college libraries, etc. (Of course, many of these problems are also intentional benefits; such is life.)
What piqued me personally about Maitzen’s post is how so much of it articulates for me thoughts I’ve felt but have been unable to articulate regarding the publishing of short fiction. As someone who is not in any way a “professional literary critic” but who was, for a brief time, a teacher of creative writing, many of the mechanisms of prestige and professional publication for literary criticism are mirrored in the world of creative writing. In fact, since fiction and poetry writing became activities of instruction within the English department, the publication of those types of works (via literary journals often run by graduate students at large universities) has modeled itself off of scholarly peer-reviewed articles. The consequences are sometimes similar: extremely long publishing cycles, prestige from publication combined with a kind of sequestration from day-to-day literary life, creating a kind of slow moving museum of prose, etc. To be sure, not all literary journals are like this; many of the journals that are more lively are disconnected from university life entirely, or they are run by a permanent series of editors. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the journals with better editorial consistency aren’t changing out their student mastheads every 2-3 years. (Of course there are exceptions to my exceptions, but go with me.)
But what this means is that literary fiction and poetry are even further decontextualized from everyday literary life. They exist solely on the reservation of the campus. (And they’re extremely hard to get into! At least, I’ve found them extremely hard to get into, but perhaps I’m simply not talented or diligent enough — a distinct possibility.) It becomes a country club of staid fashion and values.
And all of this professional rigmarole is rendered even more ridiculous when you take into account the absurd ease of online publication. Why take years of submitting a 14-page story so that it will be published in a modestly respectable print journal that will (under the most wildly optimistic of circumstances) be read by 1,500 subscribers, if, in the span of one afternoon, it can be fairly nicely presented on the world of worldwide webs, where it can be read by anyone (or no one!) for as long as you’re able to effectuate the maintenance of the software? The answer, of course, is the prestige of the print publication. It means something to publish in State University Quarterly, where it means almost nothing to publish here at my blog, even though the words themselves could be the exact same. The problem here, which is I think even more acute for so-called “creative work,” as opposed to literary criticism, is one of context. To determine its value so much of art depends upon its context. A urinal in a bathroom is something you piss into, but placed sideways in an exhibit and signed, it’s a sculpture. In a realm of no context, it’s both, but there is no realm without some kind of context. But what the context of prestige provides is legitimacy. In fact these mechanisms of prestige often take the very place of having to read a story. It’s in the New Yorker; it almost doesn’t matter what it says. The container is more important than what is contained. Or take the Harper’s “readings” section which picks and chooses pieces of found text and re-contextualizes them within the well-justified columns of that magazine. What a fortuitous changing of context!
(I feel like I have said all this before, probably just to myself but also perhaps in some form on this website. Here’s hoping I can turn redundancy into a charming quirk.)
But until online self-publication is afforded the same attention to each iteration’s own self-generated context and potential worth, online writing will exist in the eyes of professionals as a type of neverending graffiti.
I think that this will end or at least develop when some kind of literary critical version of Jason Kottke comes along, who will not publish the good literary criticism but will draw attention to the worthwhile, already-published literary criticism. Publishing will come to seem less important and the drawing attention to, the congealing of attention around, what is already available will become much more valuable. The context will become being picked up by Kottke, or some such.
Of course, with all of the rapid linking going on now and the fact that many lit blogs have been running strong for ten years, we’re already in that world; it’s just that it’s not recognized as the primary distinction. Getting in print is still the primary distinction, when it should be the attention of a respected editorial attention, a Kottke of the literary world, or a Maitzen, or a James Wood, or a Dan Green, etc.