Critical Mass

by Steve

Men reading the paperBeing the navel-gazing/thoughtful (delete as appropriate) guy that I am, I often think about the role blogging can, might and should play. The medium has progressed from mere online diary to something more substantial and worthwhile. But it is still ripe for attack from blogging sceptics.

However, there doesn’t seem to be enough recognition of the similarities between blogging and other media. So, it was refreshing to read a compelling argument for the parallels between journalism’s ideology and blog culture. While there is much distrust from either ‘side’ it is evident that they hold much is common, in terms of aims, delivery and ethics. It is yet another argument for the online world not being something completely new, but rather being a new interpretation, or presentation, of older, traditional media/ideas/discourse/etc.

Without veering too far into Straw Man territory, there does seem to be a continuing argument that blogs lack quality, as the writers are generally unpaid, and so “unprofessional”. However, it is easy to conjure up examples of poor paid work, along with examples of good unpaid work to dispel this notion. One can be a good/bad writer whether you get paid for it or not. The market doesn’t weed out the rubbish, and amateurism need not hold back talent.

But how to blog well? Let’s narrow the question down to the field of criticism/reviewing. This is a key area for blogging/bloggers. It is also an area ripe for scorn from those mean old non-digital paper huggers out there (admittedly, there are probably standing right next to my Straw Man).

The recent essay from Charles Baxter, Owl Criticism, takes online reviewing to task, but also offers a constructive and meaningful framework for improving criticism, so that we don’t fall into the trap of stating, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.” I think it offers something quite valuable to us bloggers.

He argues the importance of placing reviews/criticism in a cultural context:

“I am making the claim that a good review, if it is to serve any purpose at all, has to take the trouble of telling us where a poem or a novel or a book of stories fits into our cultural life, and then has to tell us how its content is located in its form. If it doesn’t do either, it’s not a good review.”

The worthwhile review is an informed one. If we are to review anything, we should have an understanding of where is sits in the wider cultural world, as well as have an understanding of how that art form is constructed, and how what we are reviewing relates to that. In some ways this makes reviewing a pretty intimidating prospect (“I actually need to know what I’m talking about, I can just run my mouth!”). On the other hand, it stops us just saying something is boring, or wonderful, which is essentially meaningless.

Baxter does take the (online-led) “Age of the Imperial Self” to task, with reference primarily to Amazon reviews. While he doesn’t take pass judgement on blogs explicitly, this is a criticism they could easily face too, obviously sometimes rightly so. What is more of a temple to the Imperial Self than the blog?

But, whatever the medium, amateur critics (or “people” as I like to call them) have always (and will always) discuss and critique the world around them. This is not really some new “Age of the Imperial Self”, people have always had their opinions and articulated them. It is just that the internet has given them a much wider forum to do so than the dinner party, the bar stool or the letter to the editor.

But it is easy to forget that the internet has the added benefit of an immediate and very public “right to reply”. The best Amazon reviews reach the top. You can argue against a blog post in the comments (and please do!).

Bad criticism can be quickly corrected, or at least argued against. The best work generally rises to the surface, the less useful reviews will go unread. Naturally, this won’t always work, just as it doesn’t in the paid, traditional media. But with the functionality offered, and with Baxter’s advice, perhaps we can all reach a higher standard, and be of more benefit to others.

Image from the US National Archives via Flickr