Amateurism, the Internet and Literary Criticism


City of Words by Vito Acconci, 1999

What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.

–Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture

According to The Oxford English Dictionary the word amateur refers to one who loves, is fond of, or has a taste for, anything; one who cultivates anything as a pastime. But there’s also a more derogatory meaning: someone who isn’t a professional; who is unprofessional, who practices an art or science unskillfully; an unpaid dabbler; inexpert.

It is across these axes that much of the debate about information and truth on the Internet occurs.

Some months ago I engaged in a discussion with Ronan MacDonald about his book The Death of the Critic.

While it is primarily about the demise of evaluative criticism, the book does have things to say about the Internet. Thanks to blogs and burgeoning user content platforms, (“the pullulation of commentary,” as MacDonald puts it), everyone today is a critic. We can all now vent and emote. Push back, blow off, swoon and fawn in public cyberspace. ‘People power’ dominates the age. This is not necessarily a good thing, according to McDonald. It’s killing off a breed of professional, educated, capital ‘C’ Critic ‘essential to the survival of culture.’

Jurgen Habermass, one of Europe’s most influential social thinkers, would agree. Here he is quoted in Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur:

“The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.”

“Any intellectual,” as Keen follows up, “is just another strident voice in the cacophony.”

Given the number of critical voices now squalling, it’s hardly surprising that intelligent, informed ones are difficult to hear. This is troubling. Critics as objective instructors, expert judges, provide a salutary service, says MacDonald, brushing as they do against “the grain of received wisdoms and tired forms. By bringing the shock of the new to wide audiences, they fight against conservatism and stagnation.”

Regrettably, academic critics seem to have yielded the floor to bloggers and reviewers many of whom share little more than personal reactions and subjective enthusiasms. Assuming the attitude that if anyone can be a critic, then surely there is no need for specialized professionals devoted to the task, academics have taken their non-evaluative teddy bears and stomped back up the stairs of ivory towerdom.

What we are left with, says McDonald, is banality and uniformity decked out in the guise of democracy and improvement. A world where it is impossible for one art work to be meaningfully described as better than another.

The blogosphere does however provide an opportunity for fresh voices and perspectives to emerge. The fear is that these voices will be drowned out by the mediocre, the banal, the ad hominem and the bilious. However, in so far as the Internet breaks up cosy cabals and vested interests, it can, says MacDonald, richly serve that meritocratic goal.

In a February 2008 article in Prospect magazine, William Skidelsky suggested that the authority and prestige of these cabals was being undermined by a ‘raucous blogging culture.’

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Authority by right has to do with ability and quality: the ability to write persuasively, to be clear, consistent, amusing and interesting; the quality of speaking truth. This is the way prestige is earned. The best reviewers will always attract an audience, regardless of where they choose to write. And they’ll write because they are passionate about what they’re reading; because they have the amateur’s love of what they’re doing. Not for the money, because there isn’t any: most earn chicken feed for their efforts. The Internet gives voice and venue to those not blessed by traditional outlet. A podium from which their opinions may be heard, and possibly, if they are good, at some distant point, a source of income.

While the concern that a proliferation of bloggers has dumbed down criticism and curtailed the evaluative function is valid, it is one that looks at bloggers in the aggregate bemoaning the results. Many literate readers would rather sift through a menagerie of uneven material to arrive at a new insight than depend solely on the familiar, entrenched self-appointed standard-bearers.

While blogging is well suited to instant reaction, and it may well have an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news, this does not preclude its capacity to deliver good criticism. There are no deadlines. There are no space limits. There are no editorial lines to toe. There are no buddies to please, debts to pay. Bloggers can take as little or as long as they wish to formulate their ideas. And they can do so on their own terms, assuming they are true amateurs, unpaid, behooving to no-one. If they have nothing to say, or say it poorly, and this may well be the case with a majority of them, then we who search for the light can move on.

Given the super abundance of information and opinion now available, the necessity of reliable, well-read critic/reviewers ‘amateur’ or otherwise, is greater than ever. There is no shortage. The challenge is simply to find them.

Consumers of books, readers of novels, now have more interesting ‘amateur’ voices to listen to than ever before. Sure it takes time to void the vacuous, to find sustaining nourishment, but the search can be fun and enlightening. A large, accessible crowd of enthusiastic voices has to be healthy for criticism.

I read some 10-15 literary blogs regularly. Though not a replacement, they do prove to be just as provocative and interesting as traditional media. They rub against conventional wisdom. In fact, they subject me to more new voices than I’d ever hear without them. Far from a leveling, conservative and stagnating force, the best of them roil with the known, discover the unknown, and advocate the experimental.

Just as artists expand, improve, and evolve when surrounded by critics, so too do critics when surrounded by attentive, audible, responsive readers. The intelligent reader will find and appreciate the best criticism, just as the intelligent critic will the find and champion the best art. Academics aren’t isolated in ivory, they now have direct access to the public. Instead of slogging through peer review processes and learned conferences, all they have to do is blog, like the rest of us.

Thanks to the Internet there is simultaneously more dross to wade through and more informed, vital exchange taking place, in literary criticism than ever before. So long as capital ‘C’ Critics, no matter where they come from, have something important to say, they will be heard, regardless of there being noise where there once was silence.

Visit Nigel Beale’s literary blog, Nota Bene Books


Nigel Beale is a freelance writer/broadcaster who specializes in literary journalism. His articles and reviews have appeared in, among other places, The Washington Post, The (Manchester) Guardian, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Bookseller, BorderCrossings and Canadian Art magazines. In his role as host of The Biblio File radio program he has interviewed many of the world’s most admired authors; plus publishers, booksellers, editors, book collectors, librarians, conservators, illustrators, and others connected with the book.

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