The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online – Tristan Burke

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online
Eds. Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters
New York: OR Books, 2017

digital critic

I suppose, when I write in this capacity, as an occasional reviewer for Minor Literature[s], I am a digital critic, though I’m not sure what that is. Is my writing markedly different from the sort of writing I’d be doing were I published by the London Review of Books or a broadsheet newspaper’s books column? And not just my writing, but everyone else who writes for Minor Lits, 3:AM, Berfrois, Review 31, the LA Review of Books and the rest of them – is their writing markedly different? Aside from one or two exceptions, often experimental writers or artists, I’m not sure the writing of the digital critic is so different. If anything, rather than a forward leap into the great unknown, what is published by these platforms harks back to previous models, especially the modernist journal. The writing of the digital critics I read is ‘long-form’ (as the current parlance puts it), confrontational, unashamedly intellectual and often outright difficult, and with a limited coterie of readership. Indeed, even what marks it out from the venerable print publications often seems more of a throwback to a previous incarnation of literary criticism: the embrace of the experimental and the refusal of the anodyne equivocations of the broadsheet that have substituted for the rigorous discrimination of quality.

And yet, even on these platforms, which I believe to be rather conservative in a way worth championing, the nature of criticism is changing. Remuneration models are different; I’m not being paid to write this, and nor would I expect to be; this sort of critical work is a labour of love until audiences widen, precisely because it stands in sharp opposition to all the formal and stylistic imperatives of digital capitalism. Even if it is read by a coterie, the nature of that coterie is changing – it is interconnected, global, in rapid communication feedback loops. And the new literary works being championed are also changing, still rooted firmly in the legacy of European modernism but (thankfully, finally) evolving formally as a result of this technological change and global interconnection.

The Digital Critic is edited by three of the key figures in the development of the online, highbrow, coterie magazine: Houman Barekat, founding editor of Review 31, Robert Barry, an editor at Review 31 and The Quietus, and David Winters, co-editor in chief of 3:AM. The contributor list is similarly strong, featuring the actually famous (Will Self), the emerging famous (Lauren Elkin, Joanna Walsh), and the online-in-this-clique famous (everyone else). However, the book is disappointingly uneven. Perhaps the editors didn’t want to criticise or edit their friends too much. There is rather too much of the self-congratulatory “I was here first” narrative. Scott Esposito, whose essay opens the collection, subjects us to fourteen smug pages of his rise to stardom peppered with humblebrags about travelling in Latin America, and statements like “I immediately realised the immense potential here to drastically reduce the amount of my life I would have to spend at careerist get-togethers making enervating small talk. All I had to do was keep blogging,” which is exactly the sort of thing people at careerist get-togethers say. And Esposito is not the only one guilty of this in the collection. There is also rather too much thoughtless regurgitation of the clichés of the internet, which adopt its own marketing speak – of connected worlds, democratisation, influencers and so on. It would also have been nice if this papery codex, this edited collection, this book that resists the form of digital criticism, had had running heads with the contributors names on. It would certainly have helped digital criticism of it.

In spite of these gripes, there is still much that is valuable in this book. By virtue of its resolutely old-fashioned editorial form, there are a few clear, though interconnected, themes which run through the book: the rise of “popular reviewing” and changes in literary taste; criticisms of the effects of the digital on literature and culture more generally; the new economics of writing; and changes in literary form in terms of both criticism and the works it criticises. I propose to tackle these in the order I’ve set them out, but will, of course, draw connections between them.

Very few of the writers in the collection observe that the most potent form of literary criticism online is not the intellectual and considered writing that is represented by their own work, but the influence of new forms of literary populism. Laura Waddell’s essay, Digital Currency, tackles this straight on. Her contribution considers the influence of websites such as GoodReads on literary culture, observing that “user-generated content takes the relationship between consumer and advertiser to a strange new place”. At its most extreme, this manifests itself in publishers embracing “digital ‘influencers”, who Waddell describes as “compelling communicators” whose “personalized, profile-driven” output is “an extension of norms formed on social media, [meaning] that many also cover lifestyle topics and other products as well as books”. Apparently, this sometimes results in “more prominent social media personalities [ending] up headhunted by publishing houses for their flair in generating appealing book-related content and for their existing popularity with communities of reader-fans”. This is big business, but it’s also a literary world I barely recognise. No doubt Zoella publishes books, but it may as well happen in a parallel universe.

In paradoxical contradistinction to the usual image of the internet as a place of connection and democracy, there is also the internet as a place of extreme compartmentalisation and stratification, where, ironically, what may seem democratic (non-traditional voices being published, wide readerships), is the most highly marketed aspect of the literary world by big publishing houses. However, many of the purported discoveries of highbrow digital criticism, whose names appear repeatedly through this book, Elena Ferrante, Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, have only received the attention they have by concerted marketing efforts by traditional publishers to make the perceived difficulty of their writing palatable for an easy sell. While digital criticism may depict these figures as non-traditional voices making experimental work, this is certainly not how they are sold. Indeed, the marketing strategies trade off an online buzz (as opposed to criticism), that depicts these writers as lifestyle choices and social media sensations.

And perhaps we might go further here, and suggest that highbrow digital criticism is even part of the problem here. In being too quickly self-congratulatory that it has found non-traditional voices rather than critiquing its own assumptions, it plays into the marketing strategies of the publishing houses and big bookshops, who are able to offer something perceived as marginalised without ever having to attempt to challenge its own prejudices against, for example, writers from the Global South.

Indeed, Waddell warns of the dangers of the integration of all levels of digital criticism into the publishing marketing machine. As she points out, “the trail of money and value is difficult to discern, and, in a landscape marked by commercialized user-generated content and data-driven personal profiles, this culture will continue to evolve down […] emerging paths”. These emerging paths are complex and seem to draw strict demarcations at certain levels whilst marketing models are repeated across these levels at other points. As Deleuze and Guattari imagined the future, this is a world of blocks, series and intensities, which on the one hand offers market totalisation whilst on the other envisages sudden accesses of escape.

Coexisting conflicts in digital criticism and marketing is similarly taken up by Jonathon Sturgeon’s essay, The Oeuvre Is the Soul: Confessions of a 21st-Century Hack, which describes his time churning out content for “an online publication with an unfortunate name”, which saw him writing 150,000 words a year with no memory of what he’d written the day before. On the one hand, this saw him publish “territory mostly abandoned by others: left-leaning politics, academic works of literary quality, translated fiction, and poetry,” and on the other, “10 Plague Novels That Will Not Help You Deal with the Ebola Virus”. Despite the glimmer of emancipatory possibilities encoded in a form that allows the radical beside listicles, Sturgeon goes beyond many of the writers in this book. His missive, direct from the face of the content mine, suggests that ultimately the accelerating vectors of all online writing, “the reduction of editorial time, the automation of writing, the elimination of working memory” will lead to the loss of literary criticism altogether. In fact, he goes even further and suggests that this might be the fate of literature at large, equivocally observing that “All literary writing […] could tend toward automation, and by this I don’t mean the workmanlike fortitude that allows Nell Zink to write several novels a year, or that spurs Knausgaard to produce twenty pages in a day. Though, on the other hand, it’s not obvious to me that either case is separated from the exigencies of literary production”.

Sturgeon’s essay is one of the relatively few in the collection that is willing to outright criticise the effect that the internet is having on literary production at large. Most writers here are content to state the situation as it is, offer utopian possibilities of change or stay within the radical confines of their niche work. The essays which do out and out criticise the internet are amongst the most interesting in the book.

Will Self’s contribution deals specifically with the internet’s effects on consciousness. He argues that the loss of isolation attendant to a constant, interconnected technology suggests a major change in the existence of the novel, not that “the novel [will] die” but that it will “enter a kind of care home, where it [will] be looked after”. Self is ultimately ambivalent on this. He mourns the lack of isolated concentration needed to both write and read novels, criticises creative writing courses for attempting to artificially preserve this conception of the novel even as the culture needed for the existence of the novel disappears, and retains faith in the possibilities of some sort of new form of the novel, though doesn’t specify what this will be.

More unequivocally negative is Louis Bury, who also takes up another aspect of the loss of isolation caused by the internet. Bury examines the “cultural logic of the quick take” through a long, careful reading of online responses to the American poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s controversial poem, The Body of Michael Brown, “a slightly altered transcription of the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the African-American teenager shot and killed on August 9, 2014 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri”. Bury makes no attempt to enter the debate about the poem itself, but rather examines the structure of the conversation around it, concluding that “the perceived cultural imperative to be responsive, posthaste, derives not, as would be expected, from a social pressure to remain connected and in touch at all times, but, rather, in ways at once beneficent and frightening, from an epistemological pressure not to dwell in ‘unknowing’ one moment longer than necessary”. He is particularly concerned by the fact that the internet’s pressure to publish a response as quickly as possible causes a form of cultural amnesia. In his example of Goldsmith, he observes how tweets were picked up by blog posts which were picked up by online articles in more established publications with print and online platforms, but, throughout this process, little to no attention was given to a more complex background of both academic and non-academic articles dealing with the complex history of race and avant-garde poetry which had a direct bearing on this controversy, but which was not taken into account due to the acceleratory pressures of the quick take. The risk of this is the risk of “‘content’ – as opposed to ‘ideas’”, which, Bury points out, will have a severe effect on literary culture. One might also point out the problems here with political change. Online criticism along these lines follows “the general news cycle’s pattern of headlong response and then headlong indifference”, a perfect example of what the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has recently described as “the shitstorm”, a flurry of online opinion sharing that is ontologically unable to intervene meaningfully in the public sphere.

If Bury is concerned about the gap between the belief held by online critics that they are intervening in the public sphere and the ultimate effect of their actions, Robert Barry’s essay, A Media Of One’s Own: The Future of Criticism, in Retrospect, questions the economic conditions under which this sort of online intervention is even possible. In one of the strongest essays in the collection, Barry questions the received idea that with the internet’s new media “we [are] in charge now”. He punctures the grandiloquent claims of journalists such as Jeff Jarvis who state that their blog posts are essentially self-published and self-owned free interventions in the public sphere: “the question of infrastructure is curiously absent from panegyrics to the liberating force of the net”; the “million dollar undersea cables as thick as a Coke can” and “warehouses of a million square feet, stuffed to the gills with servers that eat daily the same energy as a small town”, go unmentioned. As such, Barry perspicaciously observes, “the promise of our media […] quickly dissipates into the fiction of no media at all”, or as he puts it in a smart simile, “Like the ‘ether’ of Victorian spiritualists, the net promises a fantasy of perfect communion, a medium that does not mediate”. Rather than the vaunted disappearance of “gatekeepers”, “the web quickly turns out to have produced an overwhelming profusion of new kinds of gatekeepers”: “domain name registrars, search engines and search engine optimization companies, recommendation algorithms, ad servers, content discovery platforms, online identity managers, and social networks”. These gatekeepers are perhaps even more censorious than the traditional ones, not least because they “appear perfectly inert and transparent – until you try posting a nipple on Facebook or searching for free mp3s on a Virgin Media Connection”.

Barry contrasts this situation with a little known and fascinating narrative of media history, the ‘zine scene that emerged in the 1920s within American science fiction. These mimeographed publications were perhaps more open than the internet: they were less reliant on monetised media infrastructures, required less technology and were less beholden to the demands of the market than Instagram or Facebook are today. There are two lessons here for Barry. One is that of media archaeology: that the internet is less new than it may seem. The second is of the nefarious effects of the internet: “For now, 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 effects of the internet on criticism are a theme taken up by several other contributors, though the other contributions are less incisive and insightful than Barry’s. Sara Veale draws a distinction between different types of online writing, justifying the importance of writing for free for platforms that encourage genres, forms and styles that are resistant to monetisation, though the essay itself suffers from the self-congratulatory tone that besets many others in the book. Lauren Elkin makes a strident though familiar defence of open access academic publishing and widely available “para-academic” writing for the good of a healthy public sphere. Though I was frustrated by her uncritical condemnation of the obscurity of academic prose (apparently it “sucks”), supported by a reference to arch-conservative Steven Pinker.

It’s my firm belief that academic writing is difficult and sometimes obscure precisely because it has to carve out new forms, new modes of thinking, new distributions of the sensible, to describe radical new ideas, and these wearing criticisms of it do not help radical thought in academia and push it towards conservative blandness.

Academic writing’s faults, including, according to Elkin, “hedging” and the “inability to conceive of ideas in a non-abstract way” are actually its strengths. Having writing that refuses to commit to fixed viewpoints is what allows academic writing to be open and enquiring. As for abstract thinking, one need only look at the anti-intellectual screeds against the difficult levelled by the proponents of twenty-first century capitalism to see why abstract thinking must be defended. Certainly, these criticisms would never be levelled against difficult literary writing.

The forms of both critical and literary writing under the influence of digital media is the final key issue explored in this book. Sustained discussion of this is rather thin on the ground, however. There is a lot of gesturing towards the sense that something has changed without any real description of what those changes might be or where they can be found. Esposito is typical here in his claim that “we possess the means to form deep esthetic schools unbounded by geographic location, and we are seeing the first generation of writers to harness these powers to create truly de-territorialized literary esthetics”. Similarly claims are made throughout the book, but what this aesthetics looks like or who practices it is a question left unanswered. Esposito suggests László Krasznahorkai and César Aira, but both these writers’ work is very grounded in post-war European modernism rather than the potentials of new media. The other key reference points throughout the collection are a broad selection of essayists and novelists who write various (sometimes para-academic) autofictions: Maggie Nelson, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Wayne Kostenbaum, to offer a small selection. I’m not so sure that these writers are developing a markedly new formal aesthetics either. The insistence that they are often invokes the historical cultural amnesia that Bury described in his essay; there is a line of genealogy from the Romantic essayistic autofictions of Thomas de Quincey, William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, through Carlyle, Ruskin and Emerson, and into the theoretical play with autobiography present in Barthes, Derrida and the rest of them. This recent work is not a break but a variation on a form definitively developed as a legacy of Romanticism and frustratingly under-referenced in discussions of these recent writers.

A clearer sense of how the internet has changed the formal properties of literature is offered by Ellen Jones’s essay Digital Palimpsesting: Literary Translation Online, who writes of the practical alterations of the translated text online as well as changes to translation practice. The changes to translation practice: better access to advice and broader sources of reference are no doubt the sort of resources translators have always dreamt of or found elsewhere. More interesting are her descriptions of the publications of hyperlinked multilingual parallel texts with embedded video and audio content. Undoubtedly, this is a marked move from the form of the codex.

The challenge for criticism will be to find ways of discussing this work not just as a composite work but as an aesthetic whole in its own right.

The two highlights of this collection discuss changes to literary form in more theoretical terms. One conceptualisation of digital form is offered by Legacy Russell in an interview with Russell Bennetts. Russell describes her theory of Glitch Feminism, though frustratingly it isn’t fleshed out much in the interview, which seems to presume a prior knowledge. She describes Glitch Feminism as the “use of the digital as a means of resisting the hegemony of the corporeal”. I’m not sure that the corporeal really does hold such a hegemony, but Russell’s conception of the glitch offers an exciting avenue for literary criticism, particularly the notion of “reclaim[ing] the initial ‘error’ of the glitch” to “reconsider what it means to dismantle the vehicle of critique within the literary world”. I’m not yet sure how we can harness this logic of error to write radical criticism, but I’m intrigued to follow developments of the notion.

The most far-reaching theoretical speculation of new forms of literature and criticism in response to the digital comes from Joanna Walsh’s essay Book Lovers: Literary Necrophilia in the 21st Century, in which Walsh describes new affective relations between readers and writers. However, she does not go down the easy path of ascribing these relations simply in a supposed greater access to the author on social media. Several essays in the collection rather lazily speak of the return of the author online, suggesting that Roland Barthes’s essay The Death of the Author is out of date. Walsh takes the more challenging, more fruitful step of putting this view in relation to Foucault’s response to Barthes, “What is an author?” Foucault insists that the death of the author is simply another mutation of a historically mutable “author-function”, and as such “the author is […] the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning”. Effectively, claiming the death of the author is another way to control the proliferation of meaning by channelling critical reflection in certain directions.

For Walsh, the autofictional author function that appears on social media is just another character that the author creates in order to control the reader’s voracious love for the book. In the past, this was mediated by the distance that the author could maintain from the reader, and thus mediated through traditional media channels, photographs, author profiles in magazines, correspondence by mail, perhaps. According to Walsh, the control function that the author now operates on social media to maintain distance from the reader is “fak[ing] themselves, drawing up accounts of themselves as digital objects”. However, by making oneself an object, rather than a distant subject, the author-object is brought into “a series of associated objects across different media, in this case crucially beyond the limits of the text”.

In an audacious, speculative leap Walsh then connects these associated objects to the objects in programming, “anecdote[s]” made up of “a set of data, plus method […] its characteristics, plus how it is used”. Authors then are not autofictional representations of the self but programmed author-functions, whose objects are “useless in [themselves] until [they demand] our response”. As she sums it up on a passage of intellectual bravura:

“Textual meaning is best located in the author-space into which can be put any number of possible anecdotes (aka digital objects) hinging on seemingly 3D anecdotal objects such as croissants, teaching suits, and fancy French reds. The burden of fakeness shifts to the reader. Now it is possible to fall in love with a croissant as a book. And I mean the word ‘croissant’”.

Thankfully, in Walsh’s conception of the programmed object-oriented author function, the author stays dead and new forms of literature spring up which experiment with this new programming language (in a Twitter exchange Walsh recommended Christine Brooke-Rose’s computational literature as a good place to start). This new literary form also demands new forms of literary criticism attentive to objects and, perhaps, the philosophical study of object-oriented ontology would be one place to start, as would (always), Walter Benjamin’s uncanny constellations of objects and quotations programmed into the Arcades Project.

What is clear from both Russell’s and Walsh’s more strongly theorised conceptions of digital arts and criticism is the extent to which they are not being practiced yet. With the exception of these two artists themselves, this book, The Digital Critic, contains no digital criticism. My work is not digital criticism. Indeed, I don’t know of anyone writing digital criticism. Perhaps changes in the form of criticism follow changes in the forms of its objects of study. I’m not sure. I do believe claims that a great shift in literature or criticism are premature. Two precious contributions to this book chart a way forward. Many of the others offer us warnings for why we must make this way forward ourselves rather than waiting for an evolutionary process to occur. We must resist literature and its criticism’s capture by the media gatekeepers of the online world, far more nefarious and powerful than in the traditional media, if only because they are near invisible and the technological complexity of their tools is difficult to understand. It is one thing to idly claim that a de-territorialized literature exists. On the evidence of this book, our work of making a de-territorialized literature is only just beginning.

Tristan Burke has a PhD on nineteenth-century novels from the University of Manchester. He has written about literature, cinema and critical theory for 3:AM Magazine, The Manchester Review and the Everyday Analysis Collective

The Digital Critic is available from Or Books here