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Stop the Presses: Richard Schickel Slams the Blogosphere

I suspect (and certainly hope) that everyone who reads Dawg Sports also visits Sunday Morning Quarterback on a daily basis, so this posting may be superfluous, but, at the risk of being compared to John Barth, I would like to call your attention to a particularly strong entry in which SMQ took to task Los Angeles Times book critic Richard Schickel for his condemnation of the blogosphere as being insufficiently reminiscent of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. (Who among us has not had that bruising imprecation hurled at him in the course of a barroom argument?)

Argues Schickel:

[Sainte-Beuve] was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: "Just characterization."

That "just" did not mean "merely." It meant doing justice to the work at hand and to the culture in which it appeared. Another way of putting that is that he wrote with a blogger's alacrity but with a thoughtful critic's sense of responsibility to, yes, "the great tradition" the author aspired to join. . . .

[B]logging is a form of speech, not of writing. . . . The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Let us leave aside the almost comically ignorant vanity underlying such an assertion when made by a man who writes for a newspaper that publishes an on-line edition yet somehow seems to presume that his readers are more sophisticated if they happen to get ink on their fingers while perusing his work. If Schickel truly believes his own rhetoric, he is as out of touch as the former A.P. poll voter who couldn't figure out how to learn the outcome of a game that ended too late at night for the final score to be published in the morning paper.
If only the blogosphere enjoyed the level of credibility possessed by newspapers. . . .

What, precisely, about Richard Schickel's book reviews imbues them with more of the characteristics of "logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement" than the work of the best webloggers? If I make a bold statement upon a subject about which you have an opinion, you can respond in a lengthy comment thread or post a diary in reply. What "serious engagement" does Schickel suppose takes place---or even can take place---between a reader and what has come to be known (in a turn of phrase reminiscent of "analog watch" or "acoustic guitar") as the "print edition" of a newspaper? Working the crossword puzzle, perhaps?

I do not know what sorts of cocktail parties Schickel is attending, but I, for one, have a healthy respect for the virtues of speech; as someone who used to spend his Thursday nights debating extemporaneously in Phi Kappa Hall, I am quite convinced that one may make cogent arguments without employing a printing press. At a minimum, spoken communication may rise above the level of a "chat" or "mere yammering."

Besides, D.J. Waldie's claim that "blogging is a form of speech, not of writing" (which Schickel cites so approvingly as "a wonderful point") is simply false, as is obvious to anyone who realizes that the internet is apt to have at least as much permanence as a daily newspaper.

Perhaps Waldie was attempting to make a point similar to that raised by respected literary critic, University of Georgia professor, and honorary member of the Phi Kappa Literary Society Hugh Kenner at the 1978 Yoknapatawpha Conference held at the University of Mississippi. At that time, Professor Kenner offered the following observation, which was reproduced in the 1983 anthology edited by Richard H. Brodhead as a sequel to Robert Penn Warren's 1966 collection of critical essays about William Faulkner:

Though written, this is not writing, not by the criteria Stendhal taught us, or Flaubert, or Conrad, or Joyce. Not merely are its sentence rhythms those of oral narrative (rhythms Conrad eschewed despite his fondness for oral narrators; rhythms Joyce in synthesizing them beautifully in "Cyclops" nevertheless interrupted thirty-two times with interpolations from the domain of print): not only that, but it requires the reader to play the role of hearer, participating in the "now" of "any time now" and in the speculation about where Flem had been. Not the sentence rhythms but the role forced on the reader will serve to discriminate what is radically written from what is radically oral. The reader-as-listener must pretend as listeners do that he does not confront anonymously the anonymity of print, that he is acquainted with time and place and genealogy, that he knows people who are barely named, that characters and their pasts need not be cunningly "introduced" because knowledge of all that attaches to a name is part of the communal stock which includes the storyteller and of which the bounds are indefinite.

If that was the contention Waldie was making when offering the dismissive throwaway line upon which Schickel so opportunistically seized, perhaps he has a point; whenever I criticize the preferential treatment given to Notre Dame by the B.C.S., I am assuming that my readers understand (as, doubtless, they do) what the abbreviation "B.C.S." denotes and that I am referring to a college football program in northern Indiana rather than a cathedral in France.
Hopefully, this photograph won't get me a "cease and desist" letter.

If Schickel's citation of Waldie was intended to offer the same critique of the blogosphere that Professor Kenner offered of Faulkner, I will take the compliment and await the inevitable deconstruction of, say, Every Day Should Be Saturday that assuredly will be forthcoming from, for instance, Stephen M. Ross. I suspect, however, that the self-righteous Schickel was not making a point even half so sophisticated and nuanced as that . . . or perhaps I, being "a busy blogger" with nothing more to offer than the "hasty, instinctive opinions" I provide "without standards" and "without oases of intelligence or delight," am just too much of a dullard to apprehend the work of an artist so refined that he writes book reviews for mass consumption in the popular press.

It's not that I mind Schickel's elitism in principle . . . he just happens to have the wrong standards for distinguishing the elite. (Such standards are not infrequently subjects of discussion in the blogosphere.) Schickel advocates an artificial aristocracy based on nothing more impressive than the receipt of a paycheck from Tribune Co. (and, presumably, Gannett Inc., although he fails to define the full parameters of his elitism); SMQ, by contrast, takes the Jeffersonian view that the natural aristocracy is distinguished by virtue and talents:

One of the goals of this site, loosely defined, is to be a sort of "football critic," to understand the game responsibly, to "bring to the party...disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge" within the limits of my experience. Maybe it works, maybe not. So am I a blogger or what? Is Bookslut? There would seem to exist a very precise definition of the form that differentiates the opinions of bloggers from, say, the opinions in the online edition of the L.A. Times, whose journalists remain, after all, mere citizens (I think). Richard Schickel is writing about books. He's been writing about books for a very long time and certainly must be pretty good at it. I write about football, and am far less experienced in a public forum. It's not exactly the same, maybe not at all, unless one is willing to equate the difficulty of relating to the prophetic surrealism of Don DeLilo with reading hot routes against the zone blitz. But I also read the college football sections of a couple dozen newspapers every day, and of every mainstream outlet with an online vehicle (which is to say, every mainstream outlet). That includes best-selling cross-over artist Mitch Albom, and Sports Illustrated. I also read a couple dozen blogs on the subject, and on a few others as time allows. And when it comes to standards, oases of intelligence and delight - oh man, especially delight - let's just say that I am not turning to Stewart Mandel.

My point: Yammer, peons, yammer away, and paint the walls erected by your money-grubbing media forebears, and over one another's splatters, and erect new walls, and fight about it, until somebody new comes along to the table so you can rage against their impertinence, too. Same as it ever was.

In short, while I believe wholeheartedly in stating one's credentials, SMQ is right: the proof is in the pudding. (By the way, SMQ's gracious decision to link to Dawg Sports on the word "standards" is one of the great compliments I have ever been paid, ranking right up there with the time an opposing attorney told me after the settlement of the case: "You give new meaning to the term 'zealous advocacy.'" I am much obliged.)

As Dan Shanoff has noted, the blogosphere is a meritocracy in which readers are drawn to particular writers because of the quality of their content; as Orson Swindle put it, college football is too important to be left to the professionals. Schickel, by contrast, would have us defer to the paid punditocracy on the strength of such sterling credentials as those listed in Tom Dienhart's biography. And Dienhart's qualifications are superior to, say, mine . . . why, exactly?

Does Richard Schickel sit around with holes in his socks and work on his weblog during holidays? No? Well, then he ain't got nothing on me.

Fortunately, some in the mainstream news media see it differently. Dan Steinberg put it best:

If there's one thing I've learned from reading all these blogsters, it's that they know as much if not more about the big picture than Big Media, and that they probably have more time to watch their favorite sport on TV than Big Media, because Big Media is always taking plane rides and driving around in rental cars and going to press conferences and raising young Johnny and Susie Media, and often, if Big Media does have some spare time, Big Media really doesn't feel like watching yet another sporting event on television. So fine, the AP poll should be merged, or maybe taken over, by the BlogPoll. I'm cool with that.

Steinberg is right and Schickel would do well to pay heed. It is to Steinberg's credit that he is able to make a living doing something about which he is passionate, but Steinberg is influential in the blogosphere because his work is respected. That would be true irrespective of the source of his paycheck.

There are two definitions of the word "professional" and one has nothing necessarily to do with the other. Just because you get paid to do something doesn't mean you do it more ethically, more responsibly, or better than someone who does the same thing without financial compensation . . . as evidenced by the fact that amateur webloggers' awards aren't named in honor of paid purveyors of scandal and sensationalism.

Can anyone claim that, when I attempted to offer a constructive criticism in a respectful manner, Zach Landres-Schnur's response was anything less than reasonable and professional, even though neither of us makes his living at sports blogging? Regardless of one's partisan affiliation, does anyone suppose that this Congressional candidate and paid political operative is behaving more professionally than Georgia weblogger Doug Gillett? (Also, while we S.E.C. homers may speak ill of other conferences, at least we aren't casting the sorts of aspersions appearing in newspaper headlines.)

One of the lessons I learned from my first year in "The Dawgosphere" was that what Warren St. John wrote in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer was right. What Warren learned during the season he spent with the Crimson Tide faithful who traveled to all of Alabama's games in their R.V.s was that impassioned sports fans usually are equally intense about other aspects of their lives, as well. Rather than being narrowminded and obsessive, bloggers, at their best, are well-rounded individuals who bring the same enthusiasm to bear on their outside interests as on their jobs and families.

Just to clarify, I'm not counting posting pictures of Kristin Davis on the internet as an "outside interest" of mine.

Not only is amateurism no impediment to success in this endeavor, it oftentimes operates as a distinct advantage, providing an unsullied freshness to a writer's perspective. (Shelby Foote, a novelist by vocation, was an historian only by avocation, yet he wrote the definitive work on American history's definitive event.) Remember the lesson of the movie "Jaws": Hooper had the book learning and Quint had the practical experience, but Brody killed the shark.

Schickel, I am sure, would look down his nose and sniff at anything so gauche and plebeian as athletics, so I suppose I should raise this back to the level of the literary. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Tom Wolfe:

Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Zola, Ibsen, and Shaw, not to mention Mark Twain, all of whom were enormously popular in their own day---Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Zola published their novels serially in magazines---Ibsen and Shaw gloried in their box-office appeal---all would have been highly amused by this attempt to place literature here on this side of the fence and entertainment and popularity over there on the other.

Wolfe notes in that same essay that actual content, rather than abstract credentials, determined the success or failure of the great novelists: "Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner probably didn't have four years of college between them." Those were Wolfe's words at the turn of the millennium, and they are of a piece with what he wrote roughly a quarter-century earlier:
In 1974, in one of his last speeches, the late Lionel Trilling, who was probably the most prestigious literary critic in the country and had been a professor of English at Columbia for thirty-five years, made what falls under the heading of "a modest proposal." He suggested that the liberal-arts curriculum in the universities be abandoned for one generation.

His argument ran as follows: Children come to the university today, and they register, and they get the student-activity card and the map of the campus and the university health booklet, and just about as automatically they get a packet of cultural and political attitudes. That these attitudes are negative or cynical didn't seem to be what worried Trilling. It was more that they are dispensed and accepted with such an air of conformity and inevitability. The student emerges from the university with a set of ready-mades, intact, untouched by direct experience. What was the solution? Well---why not turn off the packaging apparatus for a while? In time there might develop a generation of intelligent people who had experienced American life directly and "earned" their opinions.

Is it really so preposterous to suppose that intelligent readers who consume books because of an insatiable appetite for learning might be as competent to review works of literature as professional critics with personal grudges, political agendas, and ties to the publishers who provide them free copies of books to review and to the other authors who will be reviewing books of theirs?
No one is as unbiased as a professional, right?

By the same token, is it really so absurd to imagine that the fans who are in the stands because they have loved their team for as long as they can remember are as knowledgeable and capable of intelligent and insightful commentary as the reporters in the press box who are on the job, under a deadline, separated from the actual action, handcuffed by oftentimes artificial impartiality, and bound by the stylistic guidelines imposed by their corporate employers?

Consider the testimony of one witness, who came to the press box by way of the bleachers:

My love affair with college football began innocently enough. In the fall of 1965, Ms. Lois Cheves invited a group of seventh graders to make the thirty-mile trip from our home in Union Point, Georgia, to Athens to watch the University of Georgia play football. . . . [W]hen I arrived at Sanford Stadium the next Saturday to watch Georgia battle Vanderbilt, I was already a little excited and very curious. That day, something inside me changed forever.

In 1965, the capacity of Sanford Stadium was only forty-five thousand (today it is over eighty-six thousand), but the energy in that place was unlike anything I had ever felt before. There were bright colors. There were bands. There were pretty girls---lots of them. . . . On the way home, I couldn't exactly put my finger on what it was I had felt, but I knew I had witnessed something special.

So wrote the man known as Mr. College Football in the acknowledgments of his fine book, Southern Fried Football. Schickel would argue, no doubt, that Tony Barnhart is able to offer enlightened commentary on college football because he is a professional journalist; I believe Tony Barnhart is a professional journalist because he is able to offer enlightened commentary on college football. There is no question in my mind which qualification preceded, and gave rise to, the other.

Richard Schickel has a newspaper column and (presumably) some formal training that renders him competent for such a post. Good for him. If he thinks that makes him inherently better suited to the task of commenting intelligently upon subjects about which he cares passionately than an unpaid, self-educated weblogger, he is sadly mistaken and will continue falling increasingly behind the curve until he is lapped by the field and left by the curb.

The revolution will not be televised and it won't get smudges on your fingertips, either. If Richard Schickel refuses to realize this fact, that's his problem, but he should not wonder why the eight-tracks he is recording are not selling as well as the podcasts the blogosphere is producing.

Go 'Dawgs!