‘The All-pervading Brain: A Review of “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online”, Edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters’, by Barnaby Smith

OR Books

In 2006, I interviewed the British author and journalist Jon Ronson in a North London café as part of my dissertation for an MA in Journalism. At one point, we talked about the critical reaction to his 2001 book Them: Adventures with Extremists, with Ronson expressing his delight that the book was featured as the lead review on the website Salon.

This was the first time I had experienced a notable literary figure celebrating the prestige of an online book review. And I admit that, with this awareness coming in 2006, I may have been a little late to the party (the actual Salon review of Them was published in 2002), but it was thanks to this exchange with Ronson that I began to see online literary criticism as something to be taken seriously and which could offer similar analytical standards, intellectual rigour and stylistic richness to print reviews.

In the opening essay of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, The Quarterly Conversation editor Veronica Scott Esposito cites 2002 as the year she became aware of a number of literary blogs that discussed books and literature in "deterritorialised" ways, and in 2004 she started a blog of his own, which she credits with launching her career. In her essay, editor and critic Sara Veale describes 3:AM Magazine , established in 2000, as the world’s first literary webzine, while Review 31 senior editor Marc Farrant in his refers to the near-legendary humanities portal Voice of the Shuttle, which began life positively in the Jurassic era, in 1994.

Do the dates matter that much? Perhaps it is useful to pinpoint what happened when, given that the internet, in its many iterations and evolving social and commercial capacities over the decades, has wrought such immense change for readers and reading, writers and writing and publishers and publishing – and arguably even redefined what exactly literature is. This book attempts, as set out in the editors’ introduction, to investigate the “pitfalls and possibilities” of “a revolution occurring in literary life made possible by new technology and networked culture”. The book’s three editors represent a number of the major players in this revolution, including 3:AM and Review 31.

The seventeen contributions range from essays on personal experiences in online publishing to insightful para-academic analyses of the economic structures of online publications and the sociological remapping of culture brought about by social media and the blogosphere. Among the editors’ most impressive feats is how these essays converse and interact with each other: one will lightly contradict the next, another still will develop or expand on some topic, while a cluster of essays will hover around an overarching subject, with each remaining distinct and focussed at the same time. The authors range from the well-known, such as Will Self and the brilliant Joanna Walsh, to various doyens of online literary criticism and a couple of writers ensconced in academia.

In his essay ‘Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take’, American critic and theorist Louis Bury sums up how plenty of us might regard the online echo chamber. He writes of:

the proliferation of vacuous think pieces; the race for immediacy of response; the endless patter of Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads; the clickbait headlines; the indignant witch hunts and sensationalist bonfires; the nutritionless listicles.

Many TLB Review of Books readers will recognise, and perhaps give a sigh at, all of these things. Yet this book shows that such a bleak summary of online literary culture is too simplistic (and Bury, in his essay on the exaggerated timeframe in which critical consensus is reached today thanks to Twitter and the rest, offers compelling complications on the matter).

For example, the idea that the freedom and ease of publishing online has democratised and brought egalitarianism to literary culture ripples through The Digital Critic. In her foreword, Cambridge University’s Kasia Boddy remarks on “the utopia from which mediating gatekeepers have been expelled, where expertise no longer entitles and where free democratic debate has finally become possible”. Farrant, in his essay about the changing parameters of literary theory in the digital domain, explores how the web “topples the previous hegemony of theory” and allows the populist to fruitfully merge with the elite and esoteric. Veale believes that the proliferation of small, non-profit internet journals allows “digitisation to democratise access to a historically exclusive sphere and to carve out niches where there were previously no markets or available platforms”.

This levelled playing field was our shared dream for the internet, was it not? Yet, as The Digital Critic shows, this idea was never going to be that simple either.

“Poetry is the social act of the solitary man” – WB Yeats

Among the most fascinating ways in which The Digital Critic illuminates the consequences of literature and criticism moving online comes in its exploration of how isolation is now absent from the literary experience. In a networked culture the text itself, the author who creates it and the reader who reads it cannot function without endless context, the whole spectrum of social and political interpretation and our increasingly pathological need for more and more information. The book’s introduction invokes Italian critic and publisher Roberto Calasso to make a stark point about how solitude, integral to the literary experience, is being eroded:

the secret, impenetrable, separate, discriminating, silent thought of the individual brain that reads has been replaced by society; an immense, all pervading brain consisting of all brains, whatever they are, provided they operate and speak through the web.

Calasso’s description truly is the stuff of nightmares, but it appears this is what we’ve got. As readers, our response to a text is no longer formed by things like our accumulated personal experiences, previous reading and political and aesthetic inclinations. As a result of an overreliance on and overabundance of networks, we now respond with a kind of ever-expanding hive mind, an “unrelenting background noise…crowded with meanings” as Calasso writes. The reader cannot find his or her own, let’s say, ‘authentic’ response amid this dense fug of interpretations.

The text, also, cannot now exist on its own terms. Emerging critic Theodora Hawlin’s essay, ‘The Re-Birth of the Author’, explains how in the digital age the author becomes a key character in the lifespan of a text, almost to the point that an author’s internet presence is part of the work itself. An author’s existence, she writes, “continues beyond the page in a way Barthes could never have dreamed”, the writer becoming “a central character in the continual making and remaking of their own text”. Hawlin’s excellent essay is a grim analysis of the contemporary fetishisation of the author figure, and how commercial imperatives ensure a certain author image is constructed, on social media predominantly, to complement and support a book’s publication. Such is the promotion of this persona that the text cannot possibly find its way among readers on its own. Hawlin takes particular aim at the empire of nonsense created by JK Rowling to build upon and sustain the commercial behemoth that is the Harry Potter books, reflecting upon, in a haunting encapsulation, how “the author has died and has been resurrected as a mythical deity, a god that the consumer worships”.

Of course, combining a book’s publication with a very strong online presence, replete with regular outpourings on social media, also has the potential to make the more curmudgeonly members of the literary community (and there are a few of us) recoil. On multiple occasions, the self-promoting bleating of authors and journalists on social media has only served to turn me away from their writing.

Self’s essay, ‘Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Longform Fiction’, also brings together a number of ideas regarding isolation, or a lack thereof, in the digital age. He begins by stating that the writer “cannot write while having a conversation” and that our always-connected existence is the enemy of solitude and mental clarity, so vital to the creation of literature as we know it. Yet he goes on to suggest that as technology changes, so will our literary mediums, and that this very connectedness will give rise to new interactive, dialogic forms of writing that make this rather old-fashioned notion of the secluded writerly life redundant. I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s condemnation of the “pretentious, universal gesture of the book” – the Frankfurt School thinker surely would be excited by the direction in which Self sees literature going.

Self himself doesn’t seem entirely thrilled about these possible changes, yet describes the creative writing students who will usher in this new age as “adorable”, “bright” and “engaged”. He does, however, lament, with similar sentiments to Calasso, the inability of young people to stay within a text as they read:

it’s staying isolated with a text that students find particularly difficult. What they also find difficult, because they no longer live within the intellectual culture that gave rise to a book, is staying within the text intellectually. Now those of us with Gutenberg minds, we read a book and we expect to stay in the text…

I did not stay in the text whilst reading The Digital Critic. This may be a bad example with which to illustrate Self’s point given that this book is an eclectic collection of stimulating ideas that frequently prompts curiosity, but I regularly stopped reading to google a journal, look up an author or read about some event or controversy. Certainly, it was not just this book I was reading as I turned its pages; I read horizontally. And here I was thinking I was still hanging on to my 'Gutenberg mind’.

“In the future, everyone will be an online TV/film critic for fifteen minutes each night after their actual bill-paying job.” – Ryan McGee

Editor, critic and author Robert Barry’s essay, ‘A Media of One’s Own: The Future of Criticism, in Retrospect’, presents a brilliant dissection of the myth of self-publishing online and the dubious economic structures that prop up social media (Laura Waddell’s equally good ‘Digital Currency’ does a similar thing, and it is worth noting that had this book been published after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, the tone of these two essays may have been decidedly darker).

This multi-layered piece debunks the idea that our blog, website or social media handle allows us to “have our own printing press”. Barry uses MySpace as an example: he signed up in 2003 but then noticed major changes to the platform when it was purchased by News Corporation in 2005. Ads began to fill 'his’ page without his permission (and he never received his cut), and then in 2011 when the old version of MySpace was put out of its misery, ‘his’ page disappeared. We have no proprietary agency over our online publishing platforms, however much we might cherish our own personal ‘outlet’ or ‘mouthpiece’. As Barry points out, “to speak of having…a media of one’s own suggests infrastructure”, of which the casual online critic – certainly those posting for fifteen minutes in the evening as identified in the McGee quote above – almost always has none.

In essence, the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are merely publishers, reliant on users for their free content, which is then monetised. As Waddell outlines, this amounts to “commercialised user-generated content and data-driven personal profiles”. Any criticism that takes place on these platforms, with their market-driven priorities and mercantile raison d’etre, inherently lacks integrity. “For now”, Barry concludes:

criticism as a compulsory activity carried out by all people equally is inextricable from the circuits of consumption and exchange. Online, everyone is a critic – but only insofar as everyone is also a consumer.

The economic playing field of online literary criticism is also discussed by Veale in her essay, ‘Economics, Exposure and Ethics in the Digital Age’, with an emphasis on digital journals themselves more than issues surrounding social media. Veale adds nuance to the always-vexed question of writers and critics working for free, making the valuable distinction between ‘Big Guys’ and ‘Little Guys’. Certain profit-making Big Guys, such as The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and The Atlantic, according to Veale, “call upon unpaid commissions to boost their bottom line”, creating a stark imbalance of power that is exploitative and ultimately unforgivable. On the other hand, the Little Guys (Veale selects online journals 3:AM, The Literateur, Review 31 and Berfrois as such) are often entirely made up of editors and contributors who all work voluntarily. In lieu of money, writers for these publications receive quantifiable social media exposure, a sense of community and the opportunity to break new critical ground as the possibilities of digital platforms expand.

Veale’s essay implies that these non-profit, non-paying journals are essential to literary culture, and it’s hard to disagree. But one does wonder how such journals might one day remunerate their writers in a climate where government funding is increasingly difficult to come by. One thinks of Island magazine in Australia, which has benefitted from millionaire and owner of MONA, David Walsh, regarding it as a “trophy journal” and involving himself with its production. In the future, might progressive philanthropists bankroll innovative online journals? They would definitely lose money, but you could certainly call it arts patronage, so why not?

“The greatly increased mass of participants has a produced a change in the mode of participation. The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator.” – Walter Benjamin

The shadows of a number of influential authors loom large over The Digital Critic. Indeed, it is often impossible to discuss the impact of the internet without mentioning Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (from which the above quote is taken) or Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story, ‘The Library of Babel’. References to Benjamin, and ideas and views that clearly correspond with his, reflect The Digital Critic’s firmly liberal slant, while the daunting concept of textual 'superabundance’ (dealt with most thoroughly in an essay by author and researcher Michael Bhaskar) strongly recalls Borges’s inconceivably vast fictional library.

As well as channelling such prescient literary figures, The Digital Critic also contains some extremely fine writing, in which critical and creative writing converge (a hybrid form given new dimensions by the digital sphere). Jonathon Sturgeon’s poetic, personal and self-deprecating reflections on the frustrations of writing by rote for commercial reasons in ‘The Oeuvre is the Soul: Confessions of a 21st-Century Hack’ is along these lines, as is Joanna Walsh’s ‘Book Lovers: Literary Necrophilia in the Twenty-First Century’.

Many essays, cautiously and with conditions, acknowledge the potential advantages of literary criticism moving more and more online as we approach the century’s third decade, yet only one can be said to be wholly positive about what the web has done for literature up until now: Ellen Jones’s ‘Digital Palimpsesting: Literary Translation Online’. Using the example of the estimable journal Asymptote, Jones provides an intriguing explanation of how digital publishing has revolutionised translation by allowing for multi-media presentation. At journals like Asymptote, the original text is often published alongside the translated text as parallel columns, along with an audio recording of the original, a translator’s accompanying notes and even video of both author and translator giving a bilingual reading. The internet has brought about open-access discussion and illumination of a process, translation, which had previously been somewhat closed off to the general reader.

Each of the essays in The Digital Critic is an engrossing inquiry into some aspect of literary culture that many readers may not have considered, be it economic, political, aesthetic or otherwise. Some, such as those by Barry, Hawlin and Waddell, might alter a few opinions or even behaviour regarding social media and data sharing. Anyone who edits, reads or writes for an online literary publication will find this book rich in erudite analysis and topical relevance. That said, there are a number of areas I was hoping the book might explore, but did not.

One of these is non-text-based criticism. By this I predominantly mean podcasts. A podcast like the US-based PoemTalk (curated by The Poetry Foundation, Kelly Writer’s House and PennSound) has been a magnificent addition to the poetry criticism landscape since it began life in 2007. It is highly accessible and impressively diverse, its only drawback being that a new one is posted just once a month. In Australia, The Garrett and Penmanship have made valuable contributions, therefore some examination of the rise of the podcast, and its unique characteristics, would have been welcome.

Two more topics that might have earned more discussion are lightly touched upon by Granta online editor Luke Neima in ‘Fragmentation and Aggregation: The Future of Criticism’. The first is the endangered species that is the negative review. The disappearance of the bad review would be disastrous, and it seems to me that the phasing out of negative criticism stems from two things: one, the commercial concerns of journals and the need not to upset publishers who might advertise or partner with them. Secondly, because critics exist in networks and are constantly interacting, posting and engaging without isolation or anonymity, you might as well be reciting the bad review in the author’s face. It is understandable that critics are reluctant to pull the trigger on a terrible book when they know the write-up is likely to be read by the author if it is widely shared (especially if the author is of a younger generation). But a well-written, persuasive bad review is a thing of immense beauty and it would be a shame if it vanished from our screens altogether. Moreover, to discuss a work’s perceived flaws in depth often shows engagement with a text and offers it a kind of respect that the ubiquitous positive review, which at times feels written by automation, can lack.

Neima also briefly alludes to the fact that online reviews appear to have embraced the first person pronoun with gusto. Not long after the Ronson interview I interned with music paper The Stool Pigeon, and I recall an occasion where I was rightly scolded by the editor for using 'I’ in a live review. I have not quite stuck by the principle of never using the first person in critical writing (as this current review proves) but whether to take this plunge is always an important consideration. Neima writes of how networked publishing models demand charm, friendliness and suspense in their critical prose more than expertise or complexity of thought, and using the first person is perhaps the key ingredient in this compulsory relatability. Taking a more withering tone, Sturgeon puts the widespread employment of the first person in literary reviews down to our “mania of identification”.

Perhaps these topics can be taken up in the second version of The Digital Critic, which there will surely have to be one day given the pace of technological change and the new questions that will inevitably arise.

In the meantime, I suppose I’ll go and tweet this review to my precious seventy-odd followers.

Barnaby Smith is a writer, critic, poet and musician currently based in northern New South Wales. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Australian Book Review, The Quietus, Southerly, Cordite, Best Australian Poems and many others. In 2018 he won the Scarlett Award for art writing. www.seededelsewhere.com.