Quite frankly, I bought the latest print issue of Harpers because the online site has a paywall and I wanted to read Caleb Crain’s “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms.” (I decided that if I had to pay I’d rather have a paper magazine.) Though I was less impressed by the issue’s other content, particularly a commentary in praise of bloodsport (falconry) and an article that damns with faint praise the Affordable Care Act, I found Crain’s piece on literature in the digital age to be very worthwhile reading.
Crain begins with a description of a “new kind of disenchantment [that] has come over literature” that affects how people determine which works deserve to be considered literature and which should endure. Then he describes the “revolutionary advance in counting,” by which he means computerization, that has led to algorithms that claim to be able to recommend appropriate reading matter to you, depending on what you say you have read (e.g., on Goodreads) or what you want to buy (e.g., on Amazon).
After taking a quick look at counting — and literature — in a historical context Crain discusses how we see things we judge to be countable, such as “likes” on Facebook or the number of stars in an Amazon review. We tend, he says, to see instances of a countable thing as interchangeable, and when we apply this interchangeable status to works of literature, why should we chose to read one work as opposed another? Why should one single instance of a countable thing matter more than another? Asking such questions can lead us to “equate the value of a thing with the popularity of it,” as the number of clicks or views seems to indicate the worth of an online article or video.
Some say that paying attention to what is popular is more democratic than adhering to a rigidly determined canon of great literature, which was extant when I took my first Survey of English Literature course in the 1970s. And in fact present-day readers are more open to a diverse array of voices partially because the canon is no longer sacrosanct. But Crain says, “The canon is a mystical sum, which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts./ This myth of unknowability is being replaced today by an illusion of certainty.” And that certainty is based on quantifiability, such as the Amazon sales rank of a book or how many stars it got in reader reviews.
But if the internet, at least in theory, gives everyone a voice, who are the influencers in the internet age? And why should we value the opinions of critics at the New York Times, for example, over other voices and opinions? Crain says, “It’s impossible for a critic to judge a book unless she holds it to a standard, which may take the form of a rule, such as ‘Language should be no fussier than what’s needed to convey its message,’ or of a personal touchstone, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. But where does the authority for the standard come from?” He notes that in the past a critic appealed for her authority to her shared community, i.e., those who regularly read the publication she wrote for. And if she no longer reflected their views and tastes, she would no longer be able to influence them. Now, however, readers of reviews aren’t necessarily readers of publications and are more likely to find reviews on Twitter and Facebook. (And in fact, though I’m at least occasionally a part of the Harpers readers’ community, I came upon a link to Crain’s article on Twitter.) Crain says that, though most critics are cut off from their community of relevant readers, new communities of “critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful” could be just the thing to help literature survive.
Though I prefer the term “reviewer” to the term “critic,” I’m heartened by the implication that community is more important to the future of literature than either saving the canon or bowing to inevitable algorithms. In fact I usually choose what to read based on reviews in trusted sources or on recommendations of friends whose tastes I share, so for me community is already the most important influence. And that community does not usually include an unknown group of people posting reviews on Amazon, whose values and point of view are otherwise unknown to me.