The Standard of Literature – Gatekeepers or Critics?

Dan Green has an interesting post up at The Reading Experience on The Standard of Literature.

Responding to a piece by Alison Walsh on Why writers still need gatekeepers, Dan argues that what is needed is not more gatekeepers but more critics:

Editorial gatekeeping is at best a hopelessly subjective and uncertain enterprise that encourages the editor who has often arbitrarily been granted power over a writers fate to project his/her fallible judgment as the “standard of literature.” At worst it jettisons such a standard altogether in favor of commercial potential or the belief that the target audiences expectations must be met.If anyone could be said to plausibly have a gatekeeping role it would be the literary critic although the critic who actually calls him/herself a gatekeeper deserves whatever mockery might ensue. Indeed, what the literary world needs now is not more editors and publishers pretending to be upholding “the standard of quality” but more critics willing to expend the effort to study literature and literary history which certainly does not require any sort of academic degree so that judgment is grounded in some degree of knowledge, to consider works of literature comparatively, and to pay the kind of attention required to apprehend and describe what a seriously intended literary work seems to be attempting.

I agree. We don’t need more people deciding what deserves to be published, we need more people helping us understand and wrestle with literature. I tend to prefer a more intentional and intelligent debate with free flowing information over a hierarchical structure designed to keep information in or out.

Even in dealing with more popular culture oriented books and reading we need less a gatekeeping attitude and more of a “joy of discovery” – to use a corny phrase – attitude. We need aggregators and people to help us find reading we enjoy and explore areas we might learn to enjoy.

And as Dan notes above, this doesn’t have to be tied directly to either the business of publishing or academia. Technology and access to information certainly make it possible for authors, readers and critics to find themselves in debate and discussion outside formal boundaries of guilds, businesses or higher education.

Publishers can pursue the balance between profit and quality as they see fit. Readers can use their judgement as to who is providing value, and spend accordingly. And everyone can seek out critics and readers/writers that help them engage with literature and the joys of reading.

Idealistic? Perhaps but more likely to produce quality than the gatekeeper perspective of Alison Walsh in my opinion.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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