Writing with Rational Humility

Matt and I agreed upon the name Reasonably Moderate for this site because it captured a tone of rational humility that we hope to exhibit in our posts and exchanges. I’d like to take a closer look into how this will affect what we’ll be writing, as well as how our work links to a larger debate over critical authority.

The blogging platform is an egalitarian model of culture that emphasizes mass commentary and peer-to-peer recommendations. Blogs represent the distillation of one man or woman’s opinion to a (comparatively) small group of readers, and the aggregation of these recommendation networks forms the basis for cultural prominence. Hugh Howey’s recent acclaim for his Wool books comes to mind as an example of this.

This broad-base method of recommendation has clashed with the other main model of critical analysis, that of the hierarchical and top-down institutional approach. This is the traditional model that we see in most major publications: a professional critic, widely knowledgeable in his given field, provides commentary on the quality of a given item. Many of these publications write with absolute authority, as if they are the last remaining protective bastions of their respective cultural milieu. The worst of these organizations are those that post one or two paragraphs of vague commentary along with a numerical rating, the weight of their review entirely dependent on the strength of their brand name. (Rolling Stone comes to mind as a frequent and particularly egregious offender.)

The increasing dichotomy between blogging and institutional criticism represents a powerful shift in how we consume and interpret information. The ways in which we experience art and content of all kinds are an offshoot of these how we learn about their existence and quality, and the debate over how people review content has implications for our organizational cultural structures in coming years. Sir Peter Stothard, editor of Britain’s Times Literary Supplement and judge for the Man Booker Prize, recently argued that blogs dilute the quality of literary commentary and that professional critics provided better judgment for artistic standards. “It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same,” he says. “Eventually (blogging) will be to the detriment of literature. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.”

D.G. Meyers echoes this attitude in a critique of how the Los Angeles Review of Books has decided to forgo reviewing poorly written debut novels because, in the words of editor Evan Kindley, “most authors’ careers fade away on their own, and… it’s easy and not that interesting to eviscerate first-timers.” Mr. Meyers views the reviewing process as a means of protecting the core canon against inferior prospective entries: “If I am to be an assistant, however, I will be an assistant not to book-buyers, but to literature.”

In writing for Reasonably Moderate, I plan to write in accord with Mr. Stothard’s argument though not with his soft pomposity. I reject Mr. Meyers’ assertion entirely for the purposes of this site. Commentators and reviewers should act as companions to their readers rather than enforcers of a set hierarchical order of quality, a gentler Virgil to the purveyor’s Dante in a midst of cultural purgatory. They need to explain why they believe what they do in relatively extensive detail, laying out a clear and vivid case to support their opinions. In this sense, Mr. Stothard is correct in saying that a definite distinction exists between professional critics and bloggers, but I believe the two fill mutually exclusive needs. Neither is deleterious to how people consume media and ideas.

I’m not interested in trying to define or defend a given order of quality or status as Mr. Meyers asserts. The most successful media organizations in the future will be the ones that make the most effective and rational case for why their pieces can make your life, his life, her life, or their lives better. This utilitarian view of art is admittedly not all-encompassing, but I adhere to Plato’s belief that the wise man knows he knows nothing. The goal here is not to defend a hierarchical order of quality, which can be left to critics with a far broader base of knowledge that will yield more expansive insights and contrasts.

The opinions and critiques published on this site will be in the spirit of Plato’s insight. Thoughts and analysis will be a starting point for further debate and discussion rather than of brash assumptions of ultimate authority. Strong criticism will be incorporated when justified, but this criticism is delivered in the frustration of seeing the potential quality in the work go unrealized. It is not meant to be an indictment of a creator’s person but rather the specific choices he or she made that detracted from ideas they did not effectively convey.

In contrast, positive criticism will serve as enthusiastic advocacy of why a given creator or cultural actor has created something that will make the consumer better in some way. Emphasis will be given to how a creator has tapped into a channel of innovation and distilled it into a powerful theme, argument, paragraph, melody, or image.

This is pretty straightforward stuff that most writers and bloggers implicitly manifest in their work. But it’s important to emphasize the importance of this tone to what we’re doing. As the cultural models of recommendations and analysis continue to develop and clash, it’s beneficial to strike a middle ground and explicitly acknowledge the benefits and drawbacks of your analytic approach. We hope the aforementioned writing style will help yield strong and nuanced discussions down the line.

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