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.