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'A vast, expanding ocean of words'

Thats how Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, in a wide-ranging interview,characterizes the amount and type of writing being generated through social media (including Twitter and blog posts). He seeks a way to talk aboutthe kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities:

My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, claritythen these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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It seems to me that Silvers is confusing written conversation with literature. His exorbitant estimation of the value of language seems to me to be at his basic problem.

Critics have traditionally given the bulk of their attention to the rare works that can claim classical stature. Anything below that level receives negative criticism in ephemeral reviews. That is as it should be. The droolings and drippings of casual talk do not merit any critical attention. But of course the idiocy of Cultural Studies has misled many into thinking that it is elitist or imperialist to recognize the gulf that separates great literature from the everyday circulation of mere words.

Joseph, that was the response of a crank, so I don't want to respond in length, but I will say that even the most staid, least critically-minded historian knows that your fourth sentence is pure bunk, so Cultural Studies doesn't need to figure into it. If you rely only on a culture's elite literary evidence, you will have a bizarrely stunted understanding of that culture. That doesn't mean that Juvenal stays on the shelf, but it does mean that pottery shards with "Dear Father. Send me money" and so forth scrawled on them need to be sorted out of ancient garbage heaps, as well. And the same holds true for later times. The challenge now is how to handle the hyper-literacy and production of today.

Much of the prose in tweets and blogs qualifies as drippings and droolings, even some of that which appears in comments, and I imagine Silvers takes that as a given. But just as a language and method for subjecting television to serious critical analysis (and film and nonfiction and criticism itself) have come into being, why should we discount the possibility of what Silvers positsor its potential value? Plenty of poems in the literary canon qualify as brief reactions to complex realities, while some of todays digital, brief reactions to complex realities can be read as poetryor fully realized works of fiction (, or philosophy. Why shouldnt there be a meaningful mode of assessing the ways that many peoplewith serious intentare using these media to confront and consider the world?

Dominic ==There's the problem -- serious intent. Conversations with serious intent are rare. Sure, there will be some bon mots and a few words of wisdom. And, Yes, there are very short poems of high quality, for instance, haiku, but they aren't just tossed off. They even have their rules.

Dominic ==Looks like I have to take that back. The Pope now has 5 million friends on Twitter, and surely his tweets aren't trivial

Ann ... do you seriously think that Francis actually tweets/twitters/whatever himself? Did B16?Somehow I doubt this very, very much. I do hope that the many has a lot more pressing problems and matters with which to deal than 140 word sound bites!

Completely agree with Silvers. The reality is that the development of multimedia and the internet has created another form of representation of art and literature.Prior to the development of the printing press with Gutenberg, there was little in the way of development of form criticism, etc. It required a critical mass of literature reproduced in order to gain the attention of those who were literate.Also, there were other forms of representation. For example, stained glass windows and stations of the cross existed in per-literate societies to, among others, help people become literate in scripture. In the Eastern tradition icons are said to be written and not painted. Implicit in that is that icons are therefore "read", in the way text is read.As we move to a new form of representation, corresponding critique needs to occur. Consider the poet Suheir Hammad. Her poem "Into Egypt" was explicitly written and represented in a multi-media format. The images are as much a part of the poem as text. point is, that Silvers is absolutely correct.The development of the internet, twitter, etc. is having as profound an effect on our world as when Gutenberg first developed he printing press.

Jim McC --I believe his aides who say he approves the tweets, and the sayings seem to be based on the things he says in his speeches, many of which do include aphoristic thoughts suitable for Twitter. He has a gift for the short and sweet.

I thought the whole purpose of criticism was to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you know what's "classical" ahead of time, I have a Kentucky Derby bet I'd like you to make.

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