The Critic in a Digital Age

So I saw Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Geordie Williamson at the Opera House earlier this week. It was, as many people who saw it with me agreed, a complete train wreck. But it underlined a really interesting distinction between old and new media that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

Williamson is the chief literary critic of The Australian, and is obviously a very intelligent, thoughtful and interesting individual. However, when it came to interviewing someone like Franzen in front of an audience of fans in a venue like the Opera House, his questions went down like a lead balloon. They were heavy, dense and literary – focused on the social themes of the novel in general and not the novel in particular (in particular Freedom, Franzen’s latest tour-de-force). Franzen kept trying to steer Williamson on to gentler currents, but the critic either wouldn’t or couldn’t change tack.

It would be simple to dismiss this as nervousness, or just an unlucky, bad interview (particularly as Williamson managed to accidentally call the author ‘James’ Franzen during his minutes-long opening monologue). And I’m sure it was both of those things. But I also think there’s something else going on.

Literary criticism has been losing ground to the internet for years, along with the rest of the standard newspaper. And by ground I mean audience share. People are more willing to listen to each other through social media than they are to experts. They are more willing to engage with amateur critics through blogs. The tools that the web has made available turns anyone into a critic and gives anyone a voice that can be heard anywhere in the world. Literary criticism alone no longer has the audience share by dint of the standard newspaper’s distribution network.

I’m sure most critics would probably deride this as a loss of literary objectivity with an audible sniff. And to an extent, that’s true. The internet is a shallow place at times, and most armchair critics probably aren’t delving deeply into the social conscience of the novel. However, blogging and other social media gives something back to criticism that has always been lacking from the art form. Bloggers are forced to engage with their audience. The humble comment form is a feedback loop that is capable of creating the most banal stupidity on the internet (see just about any YouTube comment thread), as well as some of the most fascinating, engaged critical thought I’ve come across.

Watching Geordie Williamson dig himself deeper and deeper into a literary hole on Tuesday night, I could almost feel him losing the audience. Audiences raised in a digital age are used to being paid attention to. It was clear Franzen could see it. But Williamson either could see it and didn’t care or couldn’t see it at all. Either way, that’s not a good thing for us or for him.

My question for you all today, if you feel like chiming in, is about the role of the critic in a digital age. Are they entirely irrelevant? Do you trust online reviews? Are you interested in the reviews in mainstream newspapers, or do you seek out the niche online? Sound off below and let us know.

7 thoughts on “The Critic in a Digital Age

  1. Could have had other things on his mind too. On that Tuesday it was announced that the Australian is shutting up shop on the ALR. Not sure if Williamson is involved in that publication, but being an Oz critic and ALR an Oz publication he must surely.

    • That may be true, but I don’t think he was distracted or underprepared. He just wasn’t paying attention to what the audience wanted.

  2. Interesting issues you raise, but I’m not sure you can make quite that big a leap from one poorly conducted interview. There’s lots for print critics to learn from the way readers engage with books in digital media, but I’m not sure it’s fair to argue that Williamson’s weakness as a ‘live’ interviewer is due to difficulties print critics have in engaging with their audiences. I’d argue that a lot of critics are thinking more about their audience than they are about the authors of the books they’re critqueing/reviewing – wanting to alert readers to excellent books and steer them away from overhyped rubbish. It may be that any difficulties Williamson had were more due to the fact that he usually engages with books/literature over a longer period – when you’re writing a review, even if you have a short timeframe, you still have the time to work through your ideas and how you will present then to a reading audience. If that’s your MO, it’s not going to translate well to a situation where your in front of a live audience and you have to think on your feet and engage directly with the author rather than with the book. More than any guide to where digital media is stronger than print media, it’s more likely just a really bad choice of convenor for the Franzen session.

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  4. It’s clear now that Williamson wasn’t a good choice, but I don’t think it’s unusual to see a senior newspaper critic take the stage with a prominent author in that way, so it’s reasonable to expect him to do a good job of it, even if it’s not his primary role. It’s fair not to expect him to be good at thinking on his feet, but I think the reason the interview was a train wreck was more the result of being overprepared than underprepared. He’d clearly spent a long time thinking about his arguments, and about Franzen and his work (and probably about impressing Franzen with his questions). What he hadn’t thought about was the audience. He didn’t need to come up with his questions on the fly, he had plenty of time to prepare. He just didn’t think about us very much before he went in there.

    Whether this is related to him being a literary critic for a newspaper rather than an online literary critic is a bit more ambiguous, I grant you. After all, the line between print media and digital is blurring, and plenty of critics move effortlessly between them (just as readers do). Geordie Williamson, though, is old school (though not by any means old). He is not an interactive critic. I do think a critic with a bit more experience interacting with a readership might have done a better job preparing themselves for an interview with an author in front of a live audience.

  5. I actually disagree with you about the night. Although the questions were at times long and difficult, I thought the ideas discussed were exciting and full of potential, and a welcome break from the usual ‘to what extent are your characters based on your own life?’ questions commonly cropping up for writers. It’s interesting how writers like Franzen are asked to comment not only on writing but the ‘state of the nation’. It’s a difficult position to be put in, sure, but I thought he managed it with intelligence and grace, and also had the humour just to dodge the question if he thought it was too much, like we all do.

  6. Wow I would have loved to be in that audience. In terms of critics, the general rule I’m finding is if the critics bag it, it’s a runaway success. Freedom is a very difficult and deep novel, it takes a chunk of time to read and then it resonates, for weeks and months. I find on my site http://cliffnotebooks.com visitors come to get the gist of the story, I throw in some comments about whether I think it’s a good read, but mostly people just want to know what the story is about and don’t have time to read a lot anymore anyway but want to keep up with what everyone is talking about