Sunday, September 23, 2007

peer review indeed

As some of you may know (and as all who know have complained about at one point or another), we here at Stevereads have taken to spending time with all the pretty young people (like ourselves) over at Open Letters Monthly. Not all our time, mind you - oh, don't get us wrong, it's a fine site, the best arts & literature review website anywhere in cyberspace, and we're proud to contribute our widow's mite to its content. The only problem? It's such a (echh) DEMOCRATIC place, where problems are often as not solved by (echh) MAJORITY VOTE and where people OTHER than ourselves are sometimes praised, despite their non-Steve statis. Needless to say, a little of such nonsense goes a long way, and so we're always drawn back here to Stevereads, where the trains always run on time and all your little squaajes know your place.

Still, we can't help but feel a comradely pride at the continued and expanding success of Open Letters. Strange and gratifying indeed, to be part of a website that has established itself to a point where it can refer to the mighty Times Literary Supplement as a SISTER PUBLICATION.

And in the case of this week, a somewhat laggardly sister publication. In the latest TLS, Paul Duguid reviews Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur," which, as all of you may know, was already ably reiewed in Open Letters by our very own grumpy Greg Waldmann.

Duguid's review, it must be stated up front, is simply not as good as grumpy Greg's. Part of this is outside Duguid's control: few indeed are the review organs that give their reviewers the space and support to do books the justice Open Letters does. And to a certain extent, Duguid and grumpy Greg agree, as when Duguid points out the obvious:

"...before summoning the Feds, we might notice first that Keen's bill of complaint is not particularly coherent."

But Duguid takes some low shots from which grumpy Greg refrained. For instance, in order to maintain the deceptively highbrow level of his condemnation, grumpy Greg makes no mention of most of Keen's more egregious howlers, which Duguid dutifully pounces on:

"When he [Keen] approaches the foothills, he is unsure: HIGH FIDELITY, for example, was not written by Hornsby. As he climbs, he stumbles more: THE DECLINE AND FALL was not written by Gibbons; nor did Dickens go on a reading tour of America in 1842."

As we said, the two reviewers tend to agree on the big-ticket items. Duguid's most damning summary reads very similar to grumpy Greg's minus, well, the grumpiness:

"Furthermore, while Keen deplores the cult of the amateur for it's 'superficial observations', seen as replacing 'deep analysis' with 'shrill opinion,' he himself is not free from these failings. As he acknowledges in his conclusion to 'The Cult of the Amateur', he too is an amateur, and by the time we get to this concession, we do not feel either that his argument is profound, or that his tone is calm. As bloggers generally draw on much the same stock and use it in much the same way, Keen's approach works more to vindicate them than to damn them."

This is a tea-and-crumpets version of the bare-knuckled hammering Keen's book gets from grumpy Greg on Open Letters, and the plain fact is, it's less fun to read.

In one sense this is terrfically jarring: the TLS has been presiding over the literary landscape of the West for more than a century, Open Letters is less than a year old, and yet on this particular book, the works speak for themselves - the TLS is simply out-reviewed. For a moment, it's sobering - until we all remember that this isn't a competition, and that the emergence of another strong voice of cultural criticism enriches everybody.

Of course, sometimes the thing is just deserved: shame, shame on the TLS for printing Richard Dawkins' snide, fawning vanity-notice of Christopher Hitchens' "god [sic] is Not Great," and entirely justified, the heat their taking for it in their current letters column, with writers excoriating the free pass thus given to a book that richly deserves all the criticism it's got coming to it.

Dawkins gives the book a free pass, but as some of you will know, Open Letters serves it up on a silver platter with its legs still kicking, courtesy of Amanda Bragg in the June issue. Her excoriation of the Hitchens book remains the most thorough we've yet read in the non-religious press, and it is so only because the TLS handed the job over to a bunkmate of Hitchens. Their shame adds to Open Letters' fame.

A fame that grows apace! It's a sweet enough thing, and the smart boys and girls over at that site are suffused with the quiet joy of it - you can see it on their faces in their dumpy little waterfront office, full of cardboard boxes and second-hand Ikea furniture (and something resembling food which they referred to as 'Chinese take out'). Why, on more than one occasion, we've returned from an editorial huddle in those dank confines, had wide-eyed porter boys take us in our private elevator to our office suite overlooking the teeming bullpen that is the working heart of Stevereads, with harried stringers and incompetent interns constantly scurrying to and fro, and we've caught ourselves wondering if we're missing out on something, foregoing the spit-and-bubblegum scrappiness of a site like Open Letters for the ducal splendor of our own little corner of the Internet. The massage-sessions with Theo Epstein? The all-night theologizing with Peter Gomes? The constant pleading calls from Tom Brady, seeking guidance? The VIP passes to everything, everywhere, at all times? Sometimes we wonder if we've sacrificed too much to achieve the indoor wave-pool, the daily jen-situ lessons, the helipad ...

But no! Such a life, though filled with a kind of Grub Street glamor, is not the stone-cold super-hottie way. At least, not all the time. And in the meantime, here's to Open Letters Monthly! A newborn player on the big stage!

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