There's been a recent dust-up in the lit blogs over some criminally stupid things that n+1 printed about literary blogs. This after Keith Gessen's previous inflammatory remarks on the subject. One of the things they're on about lit blogs about is being publicity shills to the publishing industry, which is a bit ironic considering that emails published by the Elegant Variation reveal that Gessen was in fact trying to use the lit blogs for just that same purpose himself. But this hypocrisy is simply one way of underlining the obvious: n+1 is run by a cadre of pretentious, arrogant assholes with strange and insupportable ideas about literature and criticism, with Keith Gessen chief among them.
Let us not forget that n+1 is the organ that thinks normal people go on $130 dinner dates, get paid $40 an hour for copy-editing, and sleep with 10 people on a "busy but not extravagant Spring Break." But then n+1's essays always seem to follow a similar pattern: a mildly valid critical thought is blown up into Iraq proportions, and then addressed with a rapidly escalating series of inane and insupportable conclusions. This is true of the dating article (the notion that dating can be a pain in the ass is valid enough, but n+1 shines that through a perverse and distorted lens, projecting something alien and somewhat nauseating). Likewise with the Elif Batuman's article on the short story, which takes the problem of workshop fiction and somehow deduces that the problem with these stories involves too many proper names and implied familiarity—again, a perplexing, weird conclusion. And, of course, this is true with their criticisms of lit blogs.
People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough.
The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction - "The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!" - or displeasure - "I shit on Dante!" So man hands on information to man.
Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic][pointed out by The Millions] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits - by their clicks you shall know them - and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses - fillips of contempt, wet kisses - aren't criticism.
Now, it's one thing to say that a lot of lit bloggers write shallow things, and certainly we see enough of "This book is SO great, you have to read it right now!" from certain quarters I won't name. But to then imply that the lit bloggers are somehow in the pocket of the publishing houses just because those publishing houses send them review copies, and give them recognition simply doesn't follow. In fact, that argument is better applied to profession newspaper and magazine reviewrs, such as n+1 editor Marco Roth. After all, they not only get free books, they get paid to write about them by giant corporations, who themselves get advertising money from the publishing houses. Blogs aren't on the payroll of publishing companies, and there is no more incentive for a lit blogger to print a positive review of The DaVinci Code than there is for printing one of Everyman, Black Swan Green, or the kind of small press books that blogs are known for championing like Stranger Things Happen or Home Land. Indeed n+1's attitude, including and especially the statement "responses aren't criticism," strikes one as a kind of petulant childishness, like a little girl sneering at a more popular girl and saying, "what a bitch!" Not just because there's plenty of good criticism in the blogosphere if you care to look, that's entirely beside the point. Blogs are not always meant to be literary magazines, and bloggers don't have to be critics. Bloggers are bloggers, and one of the things that separates a blog from a literary review is that in the medium of the blog a blogger can chat informally about books if she wants to. Complaining that blog posts aren't long and rigorous enough is kind of like complaining that some motorcycles don't have four wheel drive. It's not just stupid, it's bizarre.
Like The Elegant Variation, I too had an email correspondence with Keith Gessen, though I'm too much of a gentleman to print it. But I will report that among the things he said was that I was somehow "freeloading"* off his content by reading it when he put it up on his own website instead of buying the magazine. Keith Gessen is a weird little man and n+1 is a weird little magazine, and not a very good one at that. Frankly, you shouldn't buy it or read it or otherwise bother with it, and we'll all be better off when it (inevitably) goes under.
* This originally read "stealing." Keith Gessen wrote to point out that he had accused me of "freeloading" and not stealing. Looking back through the emails, this is correct.