Today’s literary culture—especially, it seems, on the Internet—parallels the culture at large in placing a high value on the mere act of having an opinion. To have an opinion—on anything—and to be free to express it seems to symbolise for many the fundamental freedoms of a liberal society. But to be a scholar takes more than being opinionated. Anyone can form an opinion; a book was recently released that promises to teach readers how to form opinions about books they haven’t read. It is the ability to defend one’s opinion—both to define it and to justify it—that separates the critic from the reader, the professional from the Amazon customer who scrawls, ‘Great read! 4 stars!!’ The inability to approach one’s opinion analytically leaves critics with only two options: relativism (the black hole of rational thought), or internecine war. In Internet discussions one sees plenty of both. Thus critical debate is replaced with the occasional skirmish between opposing fan clubs.
Critics should thank James Wood the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him. Of course he is not always right. But his greatest value to literary culture is not that he is always right, but that—to quote everyone’s high school maths teacher—he shows all his work. He uses no cheap rhetorical trickery, only a transparent chain of logical reasoning; and unlike sophistry, whose purpose is to quash debate and negate thought, the well-reasoned argument invites rebuttal. Like a scientist exhaustively detailing his procedure for his peers, Wood appears to say, ‘You don’t like my results? Repeat my experiment and prove me wrong.’ By doing so, he encourages us all to rise with him to a higher level of literary discussion: to discuss, to define, to risk one’s beliefs in the hope of reaching, through the give and take of rational debate, a more intimate knowledge of truth.
The insults, slurs and misrepresentations of these bloggers should be seen as attempts to reverse this process, to drag Wood down with them to the schoolyard. Ultimately this impulse is rooted in laziness. The Internet being, to all intents and purposes, infinite in capacity, there is no particular reason for online book reviews to be confined to a few paragraphs in length. In their (frequent) discussions about the relationship between print and online criticism, literary bloggers are noticeably reluctant to admit that criticism might be a profession with specialised requirements. But criticism is work: if you want to state an opinion, you must be prepared to defend it; and if you are going to argue with someone, you must do them the honour of reading them properly first. Wood himself made this very point when he responded to some poorly researched criticism at The Reading Experience:
I know that bloggers do everything at breakneck speed—the hermeneutics of multi-tasking—but you should read people a bit less rapidly, and—hey, what a notion!—think before you write.Hallberg’s essay is, as far as I am aware, the first attempt by the online literary community to rise to Wood’s level of rational debate. It represents, therefore, the first step towards a more mature level of critical debate on the Internet, and opens the door to the possibility of consensus between two very different ideas about the nature and function of fiction. One can only hope that Hallberg’s peers will follow him.
UPDATE 10/3/09: It has recently come to my attention that the best of the blogosphere’s James Wood-defaming power has been refined into a new blog entitled Contra James Wood, whose author accuses the critic, among many other things, of insidious right-wing propagandising and racism (one post is entitled ‘The Critic as Cracker’). How strange that it’s always the bloggers, and never the published writers, that resort to childish name-calling...