Divide and conquer: the future of online criticism

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online – a review

OR Book Going Rouge

Originally published on The Art of Criticism project website.

‘Online, everyone is a critic – but only insofar as everyone is also a consumer.’ A cynical, but prescient quote from Robert Barry’s essay in the 2017 collection The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online which dives into ‘the changing conditions of criticism in a digital age’. The seventeen essays in this book raise important questions: What impact has the internet had in the field of criticism? Has the internet age brought out any truly new forms of critique, or does it all just come down to marketing? Does criticism still exist at all?

I: Blurred lines

Who’s the critic today? Surely not the grand old man passing judgment from high up above, deigning who’s allowed into the pantheon and who’s not. There may still be figures like that, but they are not the future of criticism, nor do they present a sustainable model for criticism at present. What’s true for the whole of the cultural context – which nowadays is saturated in media and digital technology – is true for cultural reflection as well: roles blur, hierarchies crumble (a bit), as Luke Neima shows in his contribution. Critic, author and reader are able to change places whenever needed. Neima writes: ‘there are now more readers writing reviews of books than critics. Furthermore, authors (…) must now step into critical roles to promote their latest books, or to offer reader reviews.’

If everyone’s a critic, then what is the problem, why are we talking about this? The current situation presents something of a double-bind. On the one hand, the bar is low when everyone’s a critic and every opinion voiced starts to count as critique. On the other hand, no-one wants to return to the image of the grand old man, and even if you would want to go back (presuming you are a grand old man), you couldn’t anyway. No, the values of inclusivity and openness are here to stay. But do they come at the price of a certain quality? Let’s hope not. But that means not to stop short at the first step – opening up and including other voices. Anyone can open a twitter account and start a blog. Yet, the second step is even more important: the one that takes us from voicing an opinion to meaningful and purposeful reflection.

II: From ‘critic’ to ‘critical cultures’

The question of the public remains rather implicit in The Digital Critic. Is it because the roles have blurred so much that it seems that, so to speak, there is no such thing as a public anymore? Is it the New Normal that goes unnoticed? But then what about the people who still ‘just read’ and do not do critique, except maybe for an occasional tweet or a ranking on Goodreads. This more or less silent reading public – which is damn important for book sales! – peeps in from the outside world. Then there are the readers who make themselves heard, through tweets, blogs, or customer reviews. The ones who aspire to a career in publishing, the ones who write themselves. Those roles are not set, people shift from group to group – not just ‘up’, there’s also the professionals who might tweet personally, the writers who deliver blurbs. There is a need to conceptualize this notion of different kinds of publics, with different scales of ‘participation’, a multiplicity of publics that relates to the critical domain.

Let’s think about these publics as ‘critical cultures’: different publics that fluctuate, change composition and dimension over time and have different purposes and demands. Critical cultures are multiple by definition. They are not just characterized by profession or discipline. They might also differ along other lines like ideology, gender and age. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be sitting in their own little walled garden, on the contrary. One of the challenges for the future of (online) criticism is how to make sure that we don’t end up with a ‘balkanization’ of critique. How can we breed a critical domain that really fosters multiple voices and perspectives and doesn’t slide back into a new hierarchically structured, top-down, paternalistic, fenced-in, closed-off, inaccessible, hermetic walled garden – or a mosaic of such gardens?

III: The new gatekeepers – marketeers?

There are new roles emerging. Aggregators and curators are becoming key figures, they are new gatekeepers who decide who gets noticed, promoted and thus who reaches the much sought after audience. Not by writing an elaborate piece about this one novel that’s important or disappointing, but by acting like a kind of human search engine. They link people on their feeds, commission articles or interviews, program events and panels. In his contribution the publishing studies scholar Michael Bhaskar points out that publishing in itself is already an act of criticism. Publishers critically decide who get to enter the market. Bhaskar stretches this idea of publishing-as-criticism so far that in the end even marketing and communication seem to count as criticism. This doesn’t strike me as a very helpful exercise – at least not when you want to think about the value of precisely criticism for the literary scene or the art world in general. Criticism should distinguish itself from marketing. Sure, the digital domain in itself is marketing, criticism and interpretation conflated. Each post on a platform functions in the context of buying and selling, and if the post is not an ad by itself, then it becomes ad material because it generates valuable data that can be used to make other ads. Publishing is a commercial field, ranging among the business disciplines – but is that also true for criticism? Reviews may have gone hand in hand with valuable ad space in the newspaper too, but that’s not the whole story. Art criticism is closely related to the conviction that reflection has cultural value in the public sphere, and grew into a lively field many people want to belong to, even if stats and pay are low. Marketing may often have the last word, but is that what we actually want?

IV: The new gatekeepers – tech companies

We need a thorough critique of the technological context in which criticism itself operates. No one in the publishing domain is naive any longer (or can allow themselves to be) about the power held by tech giants such as Facebook and Google. These companies are at the heart of the publishing business – and criticism is not something that sits easily with the make up of these platforms, per se. It’s necessary to critically assess these technological infrastructures into whose arms we are driven – and have driven ourselves. We need to point a reflective gaze, not only at the productions at hand – the book, the film, the album – but also towards the applications, outlets and tools used to make and spread these criticisms. Robert Barry even states in his essay that the tech companies with their infrastructure (cables, service providers etc.) can be seen as the new gatekeepers. These gatekeepers may come across as ‘transparent and immediate’, but they are nothing of the sorts: ‘try posting a nipple on Facebook or searching for free mp3s on a Virgin Media connection. The immediacy of new media may be their greatest ideological trick.’

However, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Anyone who has started out writing on the web has experienced the ample opportunities it offers. I remember very well the enormous threshold in place upon trying to enter the literary field in the Netherlands in the early 00s, for those who lived outside of the capital or didn’t know the right people. A personal blog, a twitter handle, an online magazine run by volunteers can make all the difference. By now, starting a career in the publishing world at home on your own blog has become completely normal. Joe Esposito’s engaging essay in that regard rings many bells for me. ‘It’s no exaggeration to say that my blog – much more so than my first job in publishing – has been the cornerstone of my life in letters’ – I second that. He signals how openness and accessibility have changed over the years in a negative way (although they haven’t completely disappeared). This means that the challenges that technology poses for criticism are different from before: the ‘death of the critic’ is like a meme from pre-meme times. An example of such a change can be found in Sara Veale’s essay. There still are many independent, experimental and often volunteer-run journals and writing platforms out there, as she takes the time to establish. These smaller outlets shouldn’t get mixed up with the self-interested commercial publishers. However, Veale signals a ‘vast imbalance of power’ between the two. Both have a stake in the precarious nature of the critical profession, but what matters is the goal that’s pursued: large corporations profit from the abuse of writers’ ambitions, while the independent outlets cherish them.

Laura Wadell offers another interesting perspective when she explains how the so-called open nature of online criticism has its own hierarchies and privileges, for example when it comes to review copies. Publishers are keen on activating a buzz and some of them use a divide and conquer strategy: ‘a casual onlooker may assume that an Amazon Kindle bestseller got there by merit when it requires appeasement of an algorithm where spending money on distributing digital proofs through services such as Netgalley are followed by generating enough reviews to be eligible for Amazon promotions in the first place.’ Here too we see the deep connection between marketing and criticism. Such developments lead to a field that is highly precarious in nature. Wadell calls out the ‘pay to play’ model, which ‘is not always visible in either digital review environments which appear fan-driven or those which appear to retain critical integrity.’ There always were, and have been, hidden agendas, but now they are heavily quantified, backed up with data, and feeding off writers’ hard-earned but low paid reputations.

V: Quick take

All of this seems to collide in one distinct form of online criticism, described by Louis Bury: the ‘quick take’, a variation of McLuhan’s hot media. Time is a funny thing online – we can even speak of the acceleration of everything, which fits in with the historical development of continuous speeding up of production and the obsession with news. It’s the doom cast by breaking news. Bury shows how the same happens in criticism. For accelerated critique too the most important thing is to be the first and fastest: ‘The form’s ideal, whether individual critics aspire to it or not, consists in getting shared widely enough, fast enough, so as to become the de facto authoritative take, the one that sets the terms of debate for the many other takes and counter-takes to follow.’ In a case study of the commotion around Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy report of Michael Brown, Bury gives a detailed insight into how online criticism can work nowadays. The debate unfolds so fast that it’s hard to keep up at all. Some contribute merely by a tweet or aggregate a link list. Everyone knows that none of their readers will actually follow all of those links and thus the reason for presenting them is merely decorative.

As Jonathan Sturgeon points out, accelerated criticism will prove a difficult issue, especially in the literary field, since literature itself just takes a lot of time to take in (you will still have to read the book). Sturgeon talks about ‘the monetization of hermeneutics’ – which seems to inherently lead to an impasse, as it is a contradictio in terminis. Literature will always lose out when it comes to the acceleration of content production. There is no speeding up reading or writing time. Or will the practice of ‘distant reading’ be the only thing left in a bit? Bots reading books written by bots to inform other bots writing book reviews?

VI: Artistic technology in post-digital practice

A critique of the technology available to the critic should offer a vision of what kind of technology would be (more) useful. We need to find out what the tools that we use imply and in what direction they tend to push us, and next to that, think about what we would want and how technology could help us reach that point. In artistic practices, as well as in art criticism, this is a viable question. While it may not always seem that way nowadays, art and technology have always been interrelated, pushing each other forward, testing out each other’s boundaries. Technology hasn’t always been about start-ups and monetization. What I would like to propagate therefore is something like ‘artistic technology’, a technological practice that recognizes and reinforces its strong alliance with art and that as such manages to push both of them into new territories, not for marketing’s or money’s sake, but for the sake of other, cultural values.

One focus that is essential here and that doesn’t really come about in The Digital Critic is the hybrid nature of digital criticism as it has evolved in the post-digital age. There’s no such thing as ‘digital criticism’ anymore, I’d be tempted to say. We don’t go online to do one kind of criticism and then read a newspaper afterwards and it’s a different thing. In the post-digital era societal, cultural and critical practices form a hybrid, they take place both online and offline and all at the same time. This also means that ‘online criticism’ is too narrow a phrase, as if it’s just there on the ‘world wide web’, accessible anytime and anywhere. Critical cultures are also very much spatial, embedded in local scenes, happening at events where people gather ‘in real life’ while talking and tweeting, without separating the two. Technology plays a part in this spatiality, this locality – but how exactly? How can technology aid the vividness of such events and perhaps tend to the archiving of it? It is not self-evident that this happens or works out at all. An idea of a hybrid practice is needed to support these interactions of critical spaces with technology and to pursue a ‘good way’ of dealing with them, stimulating them, massaging them.

VII: From reader review to the para-academic

Apart from the quick take, there are insightful visions in The Digital Critic where criticism might be heading. Two new formats seem to be blooming in the digitally situated literary field that are almost two extremes on a scale. On the one hand the reader’s review and on the other forms of ‘para-academic’ critique. The first retains a largely a-political stance towards literature; the other seeks to embed critique in a political discourse. Anne Kiernan writes about online readers’ reviews and their profound lack of criticality. Such reviews usually focus on characterization and not on themes or potential societal meanings of a story. Criticism in that case often turns into a personality contest, or rather, into gossip. It’s mostly about the ‘likability’ of characters. A more positive connotation is the connection of such criticism to the age-old phenomenon of the book club. The book club discussion often steers clear from critical evaluation and argumentation, but at least offers in-depth contemplation on the different aspects of a literary work.

The question remains why it would be a problem to shun criticality. If the register of the book club is the only one left in the public discussion about literature we end up using only the register of personal connection to character rather than reflecting on underlying themes and societal or historic contextualization. In case we succumb to the book club logic, we lose the distinction between what John Crowe Ransom neatly phrased as ‘appreciation, which is private, and criticism, which is public’.

The para-academic is mentioned in both Lauren Elkin’s and Marc Farrant’s essays. While the online reader review and the book club seem to dumb down criticism, the development of para-academic criticism goes in the other direction, explicitly highlighting theoretical and political dimensions of a work. The para-academic is a form that has blossomed online, while it’s most notably recognized in successful novels such as The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A reason why the para-academic functions well in the digital context, can be because it seeks by definition the ‘outside’ (para) – and the online still offers, for a large part, such an outside. ‘Criticism wants to go outward,’ Elkin concludes. Marc Farrant explicitly links this outward looking view to the diversity and multiplicity in critical voices that is championed by the para-academic. Zooming in on ‘online theory’, he states that this form doesn’t care about boundaries, whether of genre, form, style, or medium. It seems to be a truly promising road to follow. The question then should also be how technology can aid such writing.

VIII: Decentralize and connect

After having established an online domain where every voice can make itself heard, the next step to make leads towards a meaningful reflection that dares to be critical without the paternalistic or authoritative side-effects. This involves technology from the start. Can we come up with criteria to which what I have called artistic technology should apply? In my vision a technological future stimulates a multiplicity of critical cultures and an experimental stance towards ‘artistic technology’ calls for technology that’s decentralized, but interconnected. It calls both for decentralization and against balkanization. Seeing critical cultures as a progressive track might help, starting at the local (decentralized) level, connecting further on a regional level, then the national, the international and even global levels. Different spaces should be able to operate independently – that is, not be dependent on a tech giant, for instance – but should also have access to each other. This would be a way to deal with the blurring of roles, to strengthen the debate about local literatures and cultural productions (we’re not all American, let alone English-speaking), even to reformulate the divide of the public and private so aptly stated by Ransom. Exchange of appreciation: yes. Critical argumentation: absolutely. And as is custom in the arts: the medium that’s used should not be allowed off the hook. There’s no such thing as the New Normal.

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters, was published by OR Books in 2017.

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