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.