Monday, May 21, 2007

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Name this law!

Critic Richard Schickel clearly thinks his life is too boring:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism and its humble cousin, reviewing is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.
Mark Kleiman does the public service of critiquing Schickel's critique. In the process, he names a law that I had heretofore simple called the Law of Crap:
All of this reminds me of Sturgeon's Law, named for the great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon, who was supposedly accosted at a Greenwich Village literary party by someone who said to him (I'm quoting from memory), "Sturgeon, how can you stand to publish in those science fiction magazines? Ninety-five percent of the stuff in them is crap." To which Sturgeon calmly replied, "Ninety-five percent of everything is crap."
That said, I do find it extremely ironic that Schickel's essay -- essentially a critique of the literary blogosphere -- fails to follow its own dictum. His piece provides zero evidence that he has either the training or the experience to perform this critical task (this is not to say Schickel is a bad film critic; on blogs, however, he is clearly a victim of Sturgeon's Law).

There's a small part of me that wishes media critics would abide by Schickel's stringent criteria before tackling the blogosphere, as it would make posts like this irrelevant. However, as Matthew Yglesias points out, this is not a likely outcome:

Strident blog-haters seem to me to mostly discover blogs by reading a random sample of blogs that have recent posted hostile things about something the discoverer wrote. Naturally, one's tendency is to find such fare uncongenial, and even if you richly deserve the criticism the odds favor many of your critics being genuinely not worth reading. Under the circumstances, it's easy to convince yourself that the whole thing deserves to be tuned out. This, though, is obviously the wrong way to go about things. One doesn't learn the day's news by looking at a random assortment of "newspaper articles" drawn from wherever; as with anything, you need to know what you're doing for it to be worthwhile.

[What's the deal with this post title?--ed. Here's a blog law that's worth naming: the phenomenon of reading something that warrants a blog post, procrastinating the actual writing, and then discovering that some other blogger has managed to post your precise feelings on the matter.]

posted by Dan on 05.21.07 at 03:22 PM


Wouldn't you know it, Dan! We blogged on the same article -- Schickel's L.A. Times op-ed piece (and so did a few others, as you mention in the post). I liked his argument -- as it applies to perhaps millions of unrefined blog commentators on the net -- but I noted that the article's one more in a line of dismissive, high-brow criticisms routinely attempting to downgrade the power of the blogosphere. Not to build you up, but I cited your page as an example of "a good, literary-ish blog, commonly filled with sharp, pithy, and humorous posts." (I also point out that I often disagree with many of your published writings in my own posts, ha ha!)

Here's the link:

Well then, good work -- and perhaps be a mensch and stop by and leave a comment for once, even though I'm sure you're likely to disagree with many of my neoconservative rants. (Plus, I'm not among the pool of elite bloggers you mentioned in your Foreign Policy piece a few years back, or elsewhere, so I won't hold my breath, in any case.)

Take it easy!

posted by: Donald Douglas on 05.21.07 at 03:22 PM [permalink]

Just to nail down a trifling inaccuracy: the operative word in Theodore Sturgeon's famous saying is 'crud,' as in "Ninety percent of everything is crud". The 1950s were a less vulgar time.

posted by: David Blumgart on 05.21.07 at 03:22 PM [permalink]

Blame Dr. Douglass for me stopping by, he had kind words about you. I also believe that this is the pot calling the kettle black. Had he done some research himself or {gasp} had a blog of his own I think he'd be typing a different tune. A critique is an opinion nothing more, and who says that parts guy isn't a good judge of prose anyway?

posted by: vegas art guy on 05.21.07 at 03:22 PM [permalink]

I retain some fondness for Schickel, given the fact that in 1970 he pointed out that all broadcast news -- by its basic physical nature is "incapable of covering any subject in more depth than an issue of 'My Weekly Reader'." It's for this reason that the main effect of the Triumph of McLuhan has been the further dumbing-down of the population.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 05.21.07 at 03:22 PM [permalink]

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