The annual Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival is one of my favourite things about living in Oxford. So many wonderful speakers, so little time. OUP always has a few events lined up, and the first happened last night. To celebrate our soon-to-be-relaunched Oxford World’s Classics, we put together an event called Blogging the Classics, which pitted professional literary critics against literary bloggers in a debate about who offers the best kind of guide to books. It is, as you can imagine, a subject close to my heart – I couldn’t wait… and I wasn’t disappointed.
The evening was chaired by John Carey, Professor of English at Merton College, Oxford, and author of The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good Are The Arts? Meanwhile on the panel itself was John Mullan, author of How Novels Work, Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBook, and Lynne Hatwell aka dovegrey reader. Dovegreyreader Scribbles is one of the most popular book blogs in the UK, and I encourage you all to stop by and say hello.
Mark kicked things off by giving basic definitions of what blogs are, what the blogosphere is, what RSS feeds are, and so on. He also made the excellent point that while it is easy for some to write off the blogosphere, there are literally hundreds of millions of blogs in the world – you can’t made a general comment about all of them. Yes, some of them are gossipy, and shrill, and badly written, but there are also a great many judicious, intelligent, and well written blogs (of which OUPblog is of course one!). He used the example of a newspaper mentioning his blog and pulling out an example of a post he had done on the Top 10 Drunk American Writers. “Yes,” said Mark, “but the post before it was on Kierkegaard”. Those posts can sometimes be very conveniently ignored.
John Mullan was pitching a stance that was not so much anti-blog, as pro-critic. He made the point – articulated well by the Torque Control blog this morning – that academic critics have certain specialist knowledge that general readers do not. Critics should in general tell readers three things: (1) Explain the design/structure of books, how they work; (2) Take a long view (be widely read and be able to bring that knowledge to bear); (3) Articulate, make clearer the half-understanding the reader has in their head already.
Then it was over to Lynne Hatwell, who gave us a history of her and her blog, what it grew out of, and why she does it. She has been a health visitor in Devon for many years, and listening to hundred of people’s narratives made her re-evaluate her own reading and writing. She also did an Open University English Literature course over 6 years, so that she could deepen her understanding of literature, but at the end of it felt that it had been “training for nothing”, as her mother would have said. “At the end of the day,” she said, “the view out of my window was no different.” Literary criticism to someone outwith a university setting seemed inaccessible. Academic books can sometimes be prohibitively expensive, and the normal members of the public don’t have access to academic libraries.
She is, she says, a general reader, who wouldn’t call herself a critic, or even a book reviewer. Blogging about books is all about starting a conversation about what you love, with people all over the world. Lynne also wondered whether the professional critics were somewhat caught unawares of the bloggers, and didn’t quite know what to make of them, thus going for the easy option of painting us all with the same “shrill” brush.
It really was a fascinating debate that provoked lots of interesting questions from the audience, and has made a wonderful contribution to the bloggers vs critics debate at large. What a great event!