Construction Literary Magazine

June 2019

Roundtable Discussion: Journalism and Criticism in the Age of Cyberspace

Roundtable Discussion: Journalism and Criticism in the Age of Cyberspace

Photograph by Alejandro Armas

Should writers be social or anti-social in their professional lives? This was, in some ways, the guiding question of last Thursday night’s roundtable discussion at BookCourt, hosted by Construction and moderated by Masha Udensiva-Brenner.

The writer, alone in a room, untangling his thoughts and research and memories is a romantic ideal, one that panelist Emily Witt said should be the preferred method to achieving critical, lasting work—though she noted her belief in the rigors of classic, on-the-scene journalistic reporting as well. On the other end of the spectrum lies the satisfaction and accomplishment found in blogging, which is how panelist Maud Newton established her reputation as a critic. Newton’s online platform, which began in 1997, charted new territory for bloggers, who had previously been regarded by the literary world as fluffy or even “dumb.” The act of reaching out to an imaginary public of mostly friends became an acceptable way for a writer to make his or her entrance into the literary and journalistic world.

A decade-and-a-half later, that act has become part of an ever-ballooning world of online media forms and forums that can be equal parts useful or wasteful, depending on how they’re used and whom you ask. In Slate, a pioneer in the online magazine world, panelist Stephen Metcalf, who left academia and became a writer, as well as the host of the magazine’s popular Culture Gabfest podcast, has found a home for public intellectualism that did not exist for him in the Ivory Tower, though it took Adam Begley, his editor at the New York Observer, “[squeezing] the last ounce of grad student out of me.” And Metcalf’s appropriation of the intellectual world afforded to writers by cyberspace calls to mind those who take the opposite approach; it was only recently that D.T. Max, anticipating the publication of his biography of David Foster Wallace, four years in the making, came to Twitter with a shrug, tweeting, “Well, I guess I had better start using this thing.”

But it was perhaps panelist Jacob Silverman’s article “Against Enthusiasm” that had convened the roundtable. The article, published in Slate two months prior, was more than a polemic; it struck a cord with writers everywhere because it demonstrated the need for literary criticism to remain strong in the face of the hyper-friendly ethos of social media. This argument exposed an additional writerly undercurrent revealed during the discussion—the idea that enthusiasm and social media in the writing world are corollary to the problem of loneliness; the sense that a reader, a writer, or a critic is alone in his world while everyone else is connected, social, viral, followed, and “liked.” While Maud Newton pointed out that “it’s important not to make everything like a big slumber party”—a behavior Silverman had accused critics of in his article—she was just as appreciative of value in the Web as a kind of salon for debate. Then again, sometimes there is, as Witt said, simply “too much noise.”

Editor’s note: Full transcript and podcast coming soon. All photos by Alejandro Armas. 

(L-R) Maud Newton, Jacob Silverman, Masha Udensiva-Brenner, Emily Witt, Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf

Maud Newton

Jacob Silverman

Emily Witt

Masha Udensiva-Brenner