Barbarians at the Gate

I’m not the only one to take note of the New York Times‘ baffling decision to review Lee Siegel’s new anti-Internet broadside not once, but twice. Both times, moreover, the assignment was given to reviewers who were clearly predisposed to sharing Siegel’s hostility to all things online and favorable in their outlook towards the author himself. You’d think, if you’re going to review a book twice, that you’d seek a more sharply critical perspective for the second one, just to create something of a debate.

This points to two issues that the Siegel reviews raise, actually. The first is largely specific to the Times itself, and its long-standing attempts to choreograph the conversations of the highbrow American (or at least New York) intelligentsia, to treat itself as the “paper of record” in such matters. It has long-standing print rivals to this role on both sides of the Atlantic: the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Village Voice (not so much for the last decade), a few other publications and periodicals here and there. There are long-standing ethical questions about highbrow cultural criticism that aren’t limited to the New York Times. Who should a review editor assign to do reviews, anyway? To someone you know has a favorable take, who will protect the reputation of a favored author or performer? To someone who will do a hatchet job? I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that highbrow editorial staff and their critics have indulged in fairly corrupt answers to these questions from time to time precisely in order to extend subtle lines of authority over the entire enterprise of literary or high-art production. That’s Anton Ego’s world, only more conspiratorial and incestuous: small networks of well-connected intellectuals, artists, publishers and socialites in New York sniping and biting at one another, with the Grey Lady dispensing and withholding its favors in whatever way deemed necessary in order to uphold its cultural capital.

What disappears as a result is much sense of which reviews might delight, amuse, instruct or provoke a wider educated American readership in far-flung communities who care little for the narrow social universe of the literati. I don’t pick up the Times looking for a hostile review of Siegel so as to comfort me, nor react against it simply because the reviews were positive. What I care about first is simply whether they’re interesting to read, whether the reviewer writes compellingly, whether there’s an original take or appreciation of the work reviewed. I care whether what is reviewed covers a broader or more interesting range of work than the conventional wisdom of a small inbred New York elite might deem worthy of attention. In that context, wasting two reviews on anything short of The Great American Novel is lamentable, even if the editorial context is one in the Sunday section, one in the regular paper. In that context, assigning a review to someone who is as uncurious and temporizing as John Lanchester in the Sunday section was seems a waste of space. Lanchester at least observes that it’s possible that the book isn’t particularly true, though he does so in the most mealy-mouthed way. The fact that he picks up on Siegel’s anger and then never really seems to think about the possibility that virtually every charge Siegel levels against online discourse could just as easily argued to be self-portraiture struck me even more. “Why is it”, asks Lanchester, that the Internet seems to make so many people so angry? I don’t know. Maybe, just possibly, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s mostly Lee Siegel that it makes angry? Lee Siegel who performed as a “isolated, elevated, asocial individual” drawn to online discourse (and anonymity)? I don’t think it’s much to ask that at least one reviewer consider more fully the lack of introspection and discovery in Siegel’s book. Maybe to do that, you’d have to be someone who knows the online world better than either of the Times reviewers do.

This goes to the second problem with the Times that’s particular to these two reviews rather than generic to the ethics and aesthetics of how it assigns reviews in any case. I think it’s fairly clear by now that the New York Times sees itself as one of the leaders of the charge against new media, as the fortress of mainstream journalism. Yes, the paper has finally gotten its head on straight about its online availability, but it’s also been aggressive about handing the ink microphone over to literary lions and fellow journalists so that they can moan and complain about this brave new world of blogs and Web 2.0. I met a Times reporter last year whose work I really respect, and with whom I had a fascinating, interesting conversation. I was fairly startled when the conversation briefly turned to the revenue situation of the major daily newspapers at the reporter’s bristling and unreserved hostility towards digital media, just because he seemed so much less reflective at that moment. I get that, people’s jobs and livelihoods are on the line, and an old industry is dying, at least in the form that most of its workers have known it. That doesn’t often allow for much perspective.

The New York Times and every other major daily is going to have to think about what its core business really is, about what it needs to be doing that no one else can do. I think that comes down to reportage. The online world can’t produce original, eye-witness accounts or in-depth research about the major and minor events of the day, for the most part. That takes money, it takes an organization, it takes experience. It takes reportage being your job, not just something you do on the side. The new online media lack all of those attributes and will continue to lack them. Readers will continue to pay for reportage. Maybe the revenue model will be different in thirty years, but there will be a market for original information.

What we won’t be paying for (at least not much) in thirty years is literary and cultural reviews and op-ed pieces. Not just because better can be had already online, in many cases, but because the old media ill-serves educated readers in those areas and has always ill-served them. This brings us back to the ethics and aesthetics of the closed world of editorial elite and the literati that used to exist unchallenged. Now we have choices, and our choices will proliferate still further as time goes on. We don’t have to settle for the choices that come out of small incestuous circle-jerk of New York editors, from their dispensing of favors through their immediate social networks.

That in the end is what made Lee Siegel so furious, as Ezra Klein noted at the time of the original “Sprezzatura” affair. He’d been handed a microphone, because he was an already-anointed cultural critic of note within those small social worlds. But a wider world of readers thought some of his cultural criticism to be at best silly, peripheral, oddly eccentric and strongly self-indulgent. (Siegel himself, judging from his Sprezzatura comments, imagined himself to be a strongly original, gutsy, and imaginative essayist.) He was given the stage and a big introduction, only to find that most of the audience had left the building, and those few that stayed threw rotten tomatoes. That’s a long way from getting a seat at the Algonquin Round Table.

So no wonder there are others in that small world who feel sympathy for Siegel and praise his rage against the Internet. They’ve got a union card for a closed shop that once had a monopoly, but suddenly the world is full of little entrepreneurial factories churning out commentary and reviews that are more readable, interesting and diverse than most of what the big outlets publish for commentary and cultural reviews. They have to earn their audiences for the first time in their lives, rather than just suck up to some latter-day William Shawn. So they’re not about to consider that the angriest, most isolated, most asocial person on the Internet in his day might have been Lee Siegel himself, that the skunky odor around his TNR column wasn’t generated by his detractors but wafted from the main entries, and that the main thing being destroyed, at least as far as cultural criticism goes, is a tottering, threadbare cocktail-party monopoly built on self-congratulation.

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5 Responses to Barbarians at the Gate

  1. Doug says:

    Still, the Times remains the biggest megaphone in the business, a sure way to sell books. On the other hand, the web channels are growing. I’m interested in how that drives the economics of book publishing. Is marketing through web-based channels sufficient to replace the drop-off in newspaper reviews and other large outlets?

    A problem of web-based reviewing is how quickly it goes into really small divisions; specialists in, say, DC-centric mysteries all talking to each other. But aggregation? And diversity of topics?

    There’s a further challenge of obscurity snobbery, in which the least accessible books (whether in literary terms or in actual availability) become the most praised, something like the problem in criticism of popular music — if someone other than the critic has heard of it, it’s by definition a sellout and thus no good.

    Sorry this is a little incoherent, I’ll be off the cold medicine in a day or two and better able to argue.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    My fondest hope would be that the existence of cultural criticism and opinion writing on the web would push the central old-media outlets for this kind of writing to freshen up their own rooms, and become more honest brokers of opinion and criticism, to just be smarter and more compelling to read.

    But you’re also right that for the moment, marketing through online channels isn’t going to carry much weight. I did point out to a group of academic publishers last year that when they’ve got a title that is potentially of interest to both scholars and a small mass-market, they might want to look to create events of the sort that Crooked Timber has hosted around particular books. And I’m guessing that when Cory Doctorow writes something up at Boing Boing, it gives a sales boost comparable to a favorable write-up in the old media (though that’s usually for something that would never get a write-up in the old media, and that’s part of the problem.)

  3. powmh says:

    Brad De Long Death Spiral Watch
    Brad Outsources Brain

    Where oh where to start? As noted above, the Times often assigns double-reviews. Seigel is a serious thinker, his book deals with an the great cultural/sociological/technological sea change of our age–the internet–and apparently it has excited some readers into paroxysms of rage.

    First things first: As some readers noted above, the Lanchester review is in fact fairly negative, even if the writer employs wry turns of phrase rather than the sledge-hammer style preferred by death spiral bloggers.

    But then we get to the nub of this busines. It’s not that the Times was or was not critical of this book, it’s that the Book Review is “fairly corrupt” a “conspiratorial and incestuous” world.

    Wow. Do tell. So what’s the evidence offered? More or less … nothing. This isn’t to argue that every review is a wise one, or to argue against the notion that books and reviewers are sometimes mismatched or that reviewers sometimes work out grudges in unseemly ways in print. I’m sure that never, ever, happens at Berkeley or Swarthmore. (This is not to argue, by the way, that the NYT Book Review is beyond criticism. It’s good that readers question the assignment of reviews and the like. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that the book review section, along with the NY Review of Books and The Boston Book Review and the TLS, is one of the few forums left for serious discussion of books for a mass audience).

    Ah, but the blog post does not stop here. Then we are told that other nub of the problem is that the New York Times “sees itself as one of the leaders of the charge against new media…. ”

    Double wow. And the evidence adduced here? An unnamed New York Times reporter once told our fair professor that he was unhappy with the internet. But this conspiracy theory runs aground on a shoal of fact. Speaking as (full disclosure) a New York Times reporter, I can testify that the New York Times is pouring vast sums into the internet, on the wise assumption that the web is the future. As well, this opening to the web has already offered more space for opinions from outside the time, more space for reviews, more space for the glorious cacaphonous world that is “out there”.

    And save for a few of our grumpier colleages, most of us are fascinated by the web and in fact read blogs like this one regularly. Not to mention that on a very ego-centric and parochial level, I would like to see this grand enterprise continue and frankly I’d be perfectly happy if my stories were transmitted via the tooth fillings of Swarthmore and Berkeley professors.

    But of course this is all so very fact based. And conspiracy theories are so much more fun.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    Where to start, as you say?

    First, as you say, it is good to question. And first and foremost, I’m questioning as a reader and consumer of the NY Times book reviews: both the daily and Sunday reviews. I’m questioning whether the reviews reflect the range of serious opinion about books in American culture, or instead a much narrower kind of literary conversation that’s mostly local to New York. I’m questioning whether those reviews are nearly as interesting to read as they could or should be. I’m questioning the decisions that are made about who ought to write about books in either the daily or Sunday section, and about which books are worth discussing. I’m questioning whether Siegel’s book is a book worth discussing, and whether Maslin and Lanchester were the right people to discuss it.

    None of which are questions that involve charges of conspiracy. Simply questions that involve judgment calls on one hand, and on the other, expressions by this reader of dissatisfaction not just with this review, but a number of reviews in the NY Times, largely on grounds of whether I enjoy reading the reviews themselves, or learn much from them.

    Next point. There is a New York-centered, and somewhat inward-looking, literary culture with a long history, sometimes glorious and sometimes not so much. Are you seriously questioning that this is true? Or claiming that the Times is largely unaffected by it? To my mind, that would be like saying that the WaPo isn’t affected by its Washington connections in the way it covers national politics as if it were the local sports team. I’m not saying that the NY Times somehow needs to be completely walled off from the New York literary scene, but I am saying that it sometimes very perceivably affected by that world in the decisions that get made about which books matter, and about why and how they matter, in its decisions about to praise, flatter or insult certain books. I’m sure that the editors of both sections know very well what the likely result of certain assignments will be in that respect. If Lee Siegel had been a bilious critic of online discourse writing out of Seattle or Austin or Miami, I don’t think he would have gotten the attention that he got as a person very well known to the NYC literary scene. Because the book is just that banal. Are you telling me that the NYC literary scene isn’t or hasn’t been self-involved, inward-turning, self-promotional, etcetera? As you say, this does indeed happen at Swarthmore and Berkeley: I know it very well. Perhaps that’s why I recognize it in the history of literate discussion in NYC, because it’s a very parallel kind of world to academic discourse and its many petty and incentuous qualities. This is where it would help if you’d know a bit about my track record as a blogger before dropping in here and thinking you’re scoring points on me by implying that I have been looking at the beams in other eyes while ignoring my own. I think scholars often do a very poor job as stewards of relevant conversations that have public importance. The NY Times is or should be America’s newspaper for educated readers, so I think even more than us, you guys have a higher standard to live up to. Not just for making good, interesting choices about reviewers, but for thinking beyond the NYC bubble for determining which books are interesting and worthy of discussion.

    As for whether the NY Times is wary of online discourse. First, let me note that I’m talking about a wider kind of hostility among the literati towards online writing, which Siegel gives a certain kind of (crude) voice to. Second, you want to talk about “paroxysms of rage”, which I don’t think is a good description of the emotional tone of my essay above, then I feel I can talk about what I see as the emotional tone of your own response–the hot scorn, the lack of engagement with the conversations you’re dropping into, the characterization of this blog as a “death spiral” that prefers a “sledge-hammer” style. I’m not exactly impressed with your open, welcoming view of online writing.

    I think you may have more “grumpy colleagues” than you let on, moreover. There is a huge difference between dropping huge sums into publishing a newspaper online and accepting the longer-term implications about how online writing is changing what newspapers publish, and about how it should change what they publish. I don’t think conventional op-ed punditry offers much added value as long as it draws from the same narrow band of conventional wisdom and punditry, and I think cultural criticism is going to have to figure out how to go beyond the relatively self-confirming, inward-turning logic of old literary cultures to achieve its relevance.

  5. Doug says:

    Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I worked for a large independent bookstore in Atlanta, which went out of business a few years after I left. In good years, we did more author events than any other store in the conutry, drawing top-sellers of the era such as Anne Rice, icons like Jimmy Carter and Carl Sagan, mid-list authors too many to mention, and rising stars like John Grisham. To get these signings, our promotion department had to be very well plugged in to the publicity sections of the various publishers, which they were. I lay this out to suggest that when I’m talking about publishing, I’m not just whistlin Dixie on Broadway. My experience may be out of date, but then someone will have to lay out some facts on what, structurally, has changed.

    Because what I saw of the industry is pretty precisely as Tim lays it out here. The Times book review section was orders of magnitude more influential than any other. (I would say that Oprah is now more influential than the Times, but she only tackles one book at a time, compared with what the Times examines every week.) I don’t have first-hand knowledge of how Times editors handled that influence, but it is inconceivable that they were unaware of it. It is equally inconceivable that they are unaware of how certain reviewers are likely to react to particular books. There may be a surprise now and then, but by and large, they would have known what boundaries they were putting on a debate. They would not, in all likelihood, had Bill Kristol review Bill Clinton’s autobiography; nor would they have had Richard Dawkins review John Paul II’s latest. The Times shapes debate about books in the United States. Full stop. If that’s not a fact, then everyone in bookselling is wrong. It is by no means a monopoly, but it is a singularly influence.

    Similarly, publishing is insular and New York-centric. Name a large trade publisher that does not have its headquarters in New York. Ok, there’s Thomas Nelson in Nashville, and, well, that’s it. The history of HarperSanFrancisco shows the trajectory of an attempt to do things differently. (Ditto, as a side note, magazine publishing, with Wired as the key example.) Literary agencies I don’t know so well, but I strongly suspect that they are concentrated where their clients are: New York.

    The more I think about it, the stranger this exchange appears. It’s as if a writer for Variety showed up to deny that (1) moviemaking is centered in Los Angeles, that (2) local connections that were not transparent to outsiders played any sort of role in the development of movies, that (3) Variety’s editors had any idea whether (1) and (2) were true, and that (4) the internet is likely to have an impact on any of these conditions. Weird.

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