Criticism in Cyberspace

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online
Edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry, and David Winters
OR Books, 2017

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As they should, the essays collected in The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online offer a mixed assessment of the literary culture the Internet has both transformed and distorted. By now it is clear that online literary culture is no longer seen as an appendage to the “real,” more serious and authoritative culture originating in print but is now a fully functioning source of both literary writing and commentary about that writing—it might be argued, in fact, that it now provides the largest and most significant part of the latter. While The Digital Critic is not focused on making such an argument, nevertheless the range of issues discussed makes it clear that, for better and worse, the futures of writing, reading, and publishing are inextricably tied to the ways in which everyone involved adapts to the possibilities and the limitations of cyberspace as a communications medium.

Only a few essays in this anthology attempt to appraise the value of the literary criticism now to be found on the literary websites devoted to book discussion and literary news, but it seems to me, at least, that the most important consequence of the migration of literary culture to its online residency is that both the quantity and the quality of serious literary criticism has in fact been enhanced. Certainly there are more outlets for both book reviews and longer-form criticism than existed when the critical space was monopolized by print publications, but I would maintain that a judicious survey of the criticism appearing in many of these web journals, and even still in some of the more thoughtful literary blogs, would unavoidably conclude that on the whole digitally-based literary criticism as represented by these sites is more substantive, more fully considered, and less dependent on the formulaic conventions of literary journalism than were the sorts of book reviews and occasional criticism found in most of the newspapers and the handful of magazines discussing books prior to the development of the literary cybersphere.

At first, of course, the corner of the then less expansive World Wide Web concerning itself with literature and literary criticism was known more specifically as the “blogosphere,” the connected network linking sites using the self-designation “literary weblogs,” commonly shortened to the more informal “litblog.” Of the contributors to The Digital Critic, Scott Esposito, whose essay “The Upside to Being an Avatar: Communities on the Web” is the volume’s first, has the deepest and longest-reaching ties to the blogosphere in its initial manifestation, as his blog, Conversational Reading, can be counted among those that first brought attention to the blog as a medium for the serious consideration of books and writing. (I should add that my own blog, The Reading Experience, dates to this time as well, and that the experience Scott Esposito relates concerning the reception of his blog and its ultimate influence on his subsequent literary activities to a great extent mirrors mine.) Esposito’s essay emphasizes the way in which his increasingly visible presence in “literary culture online” (his career as a writer essentially began with his blog) sowed multifarious seeds that blossomed in a multitude of unforeseen places, ultimately providing him with a literary career he could never have planned.

But it was the blog that nourished the ground that would make these blossoms fruitful: “Simply because I started a blog and began tossing out opinions, I was able to become known to people of power and influence in my industry, some of whom down the line would be in a position to open doors for me. There are certainly few—if any—similarly powerful leveling mechanisms in the modern history of publishing.” Esposito exaggerates for rhetorical effect in describing his activity on the blog as “tossing out opinions” (although tossing out opinions was one of the things a blog was good for). If skepticism about the merit of literary discourse in the first wave of literary blogs often focused on the lack of a certain kind of quality control—which presumably was what print publications still had to offer—what distinguished many if not most of these blogs from “mainstream” literary coverage was not the casual way in which opinions were sometimes offered (print reviews could be just as opinionated, but they were acceptably cloaked in journalistic customs), but the objects of those opinions, which tended to be not the usual literary fiction by unofficially certified authors but works by lesser-known writers, often published by independent presses. In Esposito’s case in particular, he became especially identified with translated fiction, on behalf of which he is now one of the most prominent advocates in American literary culture, both as critic and publisher. 

Blogs no longer dominate literary discourse online because they have been supplemented and to a degree replaced by web-based critical journals and book reviews. These sites are the direct descendants of literary blogs (literally so in Scott Esposito’s own journal, The Quarterly Conversation) in that they too often focus on independent presses and less well-publicized writers, although now online literary criticism and book coverage have been sufficiently integrated into literary culture more generally that there is no longer much of a divide between book discussion as it is conducted online and as practiced in “mainstream” print media. Online criticism and literary journalism have become the mainstream. Thus in addition to these web publications devoted to avowedly serious literary writing (which would include such journals as Review 31 and 3:AM Magazine, the former of which was founded by Houman Barekat, one of the editors of this book, the latter co-edited by David Winters, also one of the editors of The Digital Critic), other book-related websites such as Electric Literature and Literary Hub have appeared to take on a more populist role reporting on the literary scene more generally, as well as publishing critical pieces and columns spanning genres and implied audiences.

Beyond Scott Esposito’s account of the way his eventual emergence as an editor and critic literally became a possibility because of the parallel emergence of online literary culture, The Digital Critic doesn’t really attempt much analysis of the implications of the victory of online criticism in establishing itself as a credible endeavor. Is literary criticism still adequately equipped to carry out the tasks traditionally assigned to it: to sort out the diverse practices of writers soliciting our attention, to assess their efforts using justifiable standards, to assist readers in their own efforts to more fully integrate the reading experience? Is literature itself affected by a digitized literary culture, not just through the existence of online literary magazines that publish creative writing but simply because of the particular ways literary discussion occurs online, as well as the ways in which information about books, new and old, is disseminated? I would argue that the answer to all of these question is “yes,” but while such questions are periodically raised by the contributors to The Digital Critic, the book as a whole finally doesn’t really offer a synoptic perspective on the implications of the real, tangible changes in both the publication and critical reception of literary writing the internet has brought about. (This is an observation about the book’s scope, not a judgment of its quality, which on the whole is very high, the included essays providing a broad survey of the general subjects of writing and publishing online that readers should find quite useful.) 

One essay that does directly address these changes is Sara Veale’s “Economies, Exposure, and Ethics in the Digital Age,” which takes a contrarian position on one of the most frequent complaints about the way online literary culture has literally cheapened book reviewing and other forms of literary journalism: the widespread practice among most literary websites of publishing writers without paying them for their work. Veale, citing her own experience doing both paid and unpaid writing, makes a distinction between those websites that deliberately exploit writers and those that are simply trying to make a contribution to literary culture, usually “manned by voluntary contributors side-stepping channels of publishing and creating their own in-roads to the field.” Writers appearing in these journals frequently do go on to gain a higher profile through other, often paid, jobs, while others might simply prefer to contribute to publications attempting to “broaden the literary establishment’s borders, using digitalization to democratize access to an historically exclusive sphere and to carve out niches where there were previously no markets or available platforms.” Many of these journals have in fact enlivened and enhanced literary culture in general by featuring the kind of longer-form, well-considered literary criticism (in the form of reviews as well as stand-alone critical essays) that in the era of print dominance could be found, when at all, only in a few “intellectual” magazines. It is not only that, as Veale says, “without these outlets, a great deal of excellent writing would go unwritten, or at least unpublished,” but that this kind of writing, done for its own sake, and the sake of literature, might not exist at all.

The judgment that the online medium implies the possibility of a certain kind of altruism in its potential for circulating knowledge and instruction as goods in themselves is reflected in Lauren Elkin’s “The Digital Critic as Public Critic: Open-Source Journals, Paywalls, and the Nature of Criticism” and Marc Farrant’s “Theory Online: A New Critical Commons?,” both of which reflect on the way the online availability of serious writing—in Elkin’s case, “scholarship” generally; for Farrant, critical theory—affects the nature of that writing. Elkin is an advocate of “open access” scholarship because “research should be available to all who wish to consult it,” but she also opposes the paywalls blocking access to literary criticism in more general-interest publications as well, which also block critics from access to the animating spirit behind the  “free-ranging, genre-defying criticism” that can be found online. Farrant examines the rise of the “theory blog,” which, he maintains, “at their best, were neither esoteric nor popular, and were more accessible than conventional modes of academic writing.” Theory blogging has become more and more indistinguishable from academic work itself (often bringing the nascent theorist his/her first exposure to an audience) but not so much that blogging doesn’t retain its insurgent potential:

If the humanities are sometimes guilty of being inaccessible or elitist, forgetting their public role in society at large, the accessibility and dynamism of online theory is of a different nature to institutionalized “interdisciplinarity,” primarily because it doesn’t merely serve as a means to an end, but is an end in itself.

Of course, there is much online discussion ostensibly about literature that by no means is so scrupulous in its intentions as the literary-critical web at its most admirable. Louis Bury’s “Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take” considers what is perhaps the least valuable, but unfortunately perhaps most ubiquitous from of literary commentary online, the hot take. Bury uses the controversies stirred up by conceptualists Kenneth Goldsmith and his “The Body of Michael Brown” and Vanessa Place, with her Twitter project tweeting the text of Gone with the Wind, to examine how social media, especially Twitter, has accelerated the process of critical response to literary works, obviously in so doing also reducing literary debate and commentary to Twitter-sized bits. Bury does not take a position on these controversies, merely attempting to give as thorough an account of their trajectories as possible, confessing that finally his inability to really do so serves as illustration of his overall point about the need for more patient deliberation in criticism and concluding that “the endpoint of a literary critical culture that values speed, blind declaration, and immediate answers above all else would constitute the op-edification of that culture.”

It is hard to disagree with this assessment, although there are still few signs that “twitcrit” actually threatens to usurp the authority of more careful criticism online. Moreover, the phenomenon of the topical quick take is surely not confined to literary discourse, and despite the prevalence of the incendiary or self-interested hot take, there exists a community of literary Twitter users who regard the medium not as a replacement for more deliberate critical thinking but simply as another way of engaging in discussion of literature or criticism, one that has its own protocols but that ultimately exists alongside other forms of critical engagement, not as their substitute. Bury is certainly correct that to the extent the kind of topical criticism enabled by Twitter ultimately “conditions audience expectations and authorial sensibilities” it would reduce literary culture to just more noise in the social media din, but truly serious literary scholarship and literary criticism have always been drowned out by the topical and the trivial, and it hardly seems likely that shifting from a dispensation in which print inherently had the potential to distract us from the important tasks of analysis and understanding to one in which digital technology does so will result in the complete abandonment of those tasks.

Likewise, although the account Jonathan Sturgeon gives (“The Oeuvre is the Soul: Confessions of a 21st-Century Hack”) of his time spent as a “literary hack” seems entirely accurate as testimony to the particular form of drudgery online literary journalism demands, but is this situation of finding oneself “indentured to daily literary concerns” so that other, more ambitious literary goals go unfulfilled finally all that different from the conditions prevailing on Grub Streets of yore? Granted that on the virtual street online the writer or editor is compelled to work “at speed,” which in Internet time can be fast indeed. Still, coping with the hyperspeed of the literary web seems mostly just the current dilemma facing those who attempt to eke out a living in the literary trade, a dilemma that surely has recurred in different forms throughout a literary history that has never made it easy for anyone feeling a call to write—especially a call to write criticism—to answer it in anything like comfort and security.

None of this is to deny the genuinely existing problems posed by online literary culture delineated by many of the contributors to The Digital Critic. It is true that much book discussion occurs in a context of “fragmentation” and “aggregation” as described in the essay by Luke Neima, where more opinions are expressed by more people than ever before. Still, it seems to me that the possibilities of aggregation in overcoming the inevitable fragmentation of response induced by the Internet, at least if separating worthwhile, appropriately exacting criticism from the mass of noisy pronouncements is a goal, have not yet fully been explored. Michael Braskhar addresses the more general problem of “superabundance,” in this case focusing specifically on the oversupply of books that inevitably can’t find readers, but his suggestion that publishers have themselves become critics in the way they “manage” this abundance seems instead precisely to underscore the need for informed, dedicated literary critics to sift through what publishers are offering, through these efforts trying to reckon with these books in ways that take advantage of the flexibility and accessibility of the online medium rather than yielding to its worst tendencies toward haste and facile conclusions.

Both Robert Barry and Laura Waddell are undeniably right as well to caution us against taking the Internet itself for granted, the possession of those who have cultivated it as a medium for free expression or more simply claim it through habitual use. The blogosphere and its immediate successors in sounding out the possibilities of the web as a forum for literary discussion may have been able to do so when the Internet still offered a space somewhat independent of the commercial imperative, where a certain degree of idealism could help to determine the terms and scope of the critical conversation, but that time has obviously long passed, and we are indeed in the era of data harvesting and digital “influencers.” Literary critics can hardly ignore these circumstances and can only acknowledge that the medium through which they wish to offer their studious analyses of literary style or insightful scrutiny of concealed cultural forces is also offering shallow consumer gratification. Surely, however, the latter doesn’t have to preclude the former. In fact, that readers eager to shun the worst excesses of online literary culture can easily find many examples of attentive, lively, insightful digital literary criticism if they follow the right links is undeniable, and the very best evidence that the transition from print-based to web-based discussion of books and writing has enhanced literary discourse, its inevitable misuses notwithstanding.

Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb, published by Cow Eye Press, and his website can be found at: