Kay Glans Mourns Authoritative Newspaper Discourse

Kay Glans used to edit the literary pages of Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden's main conservative* newspaper, and Axess Magasin, a conservative Swedish arts & social sciences mag that also has a TV channel. The latter's standard is high, and I've been particularly pleased to find repeated staunch rebuttals of post-modernism there. What I don't like much in Glans's oeuvre is a tendency for aesthetic idealism and aesthetic conservatism, of the canon-stroking sort. His writers tend to believe that there are classics that every educated person should read. I'm an aesthetic relativist and accept no canon of literature.

Glans has moved on and now edits Respons, a mag whose entire contents consist of book reviews – think The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. In the current issue of Respons, the canonical perspective reappears. In fact, Glans is now mourning the loss not only of an agreed-upon literary canon, but of a canonical Swedish public conversation. In his editorial, he writes (and I translate):

“The image of people who walk around town, each absorbed by their own little device, is a sign that we are losing both our inner space and our collective space and increasingly live in a kind of gap. … The absorption in a virtual world also changes public space. The distinction between the private and the public is eroding, and so is the distinction between the important and the trivial. … A functioning public conversation is characterised by a hierarchy of attention.

[Lately young people] are well educated and competent within their fields but they do not take part in any public discourse [!], preferring to follow their own paths through life. … It is a consequence of the digital environment that you can dig your own tunnel through the information flow and avoid contact with other information. The great contribution of daily newspapers was that people were exposed to others' opinions and to events and problems that they were not aware of.”

To this I would reply that I have never enjoyed the selective one-way public discourse offered by newspaper pundits. I was 23 when I got access to the World Wide Web, and I took a morning newspaper for at least ten years after that age, so I am quite familiar with the thing. In the main, the literature pages were full of the opinions of people I had no interest in, about books I had no interest in. I am largely a non-fic and genre reader. Rare indeed was the essay about Tolkien, Lovecraft or LeGuin in Svenska Dagbladet. The Nobel Prize for literature has so far proved a reliable criterion to identify writers that bore me silly. And so I have little respect for canonical literature.

Glans complains about people concentrating on a selective digital environment, and erroneously assumes that on-line discourse is somehow narrower than that published in newspapers. The advantage of on-line public discourse over national newspapers are in fact many.

  • Global instead of parochial/national
  • Democratic, two-way – no pundits
  • Specialised – interest groups come together and talk about what they care about instead of reading general newspapers about stuff in which they have no interest

This is of course part of why blogging is one of my favourite hobbies.

* US readers: what we call “conservative”, you would call “progressive Democrat”. What you currently call “conservative”, we call “crazy right-wing fringe”.

More like this

We have had our share of people here in the US for decades who have been complaining about the alleged erosion of the literary canon. As in Sweden, these people tend to associate with the political right. Many of these same people have also been complaining about the decline of the influence of newspaper (and television) pundits.

But at least in the US, there is an excellent reason people have been paying less attention to pundits: they are routinely and repeatedly proven wrong about anything and everything. Just this week, we had the 10th anniversary of the start of G. W. Bush's splendid little war in Iraq. All, or almost all, of the prominent pundits of 2003 were pro-war, and there were substantial professional penalties for anyone in media being anti-war, despite there being many reasons to believe the casus belli was a complete fabrication (which turned out to be the case) and the confident assumption on the part of the US government that their troops would be greeted with flowers. A handful of reporters were performing actual acts of journalism which were buried on the inside pages of the newspapers, but many others reported White House (and 10 Downing St.) claims with no skepticism whatsoever. Most of the pro-war pundits and reporters have paid no professional price whatsoever for being so wrong about this issue.

It was around that time that I discovered the existence of the blogosphere. A handful of people noticed that there were reasons to be skeptical of what the White House was saying about Iraq. These people were mostly right; where they were wrong was mainly in underestimating the incompetence and arrogance of the Bush administration. For instance, they were so convinced of the existence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs that they didn't even bother to bring phony "evidence" to be discovered of said programs.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Mar 2013 #permalink

The first thought that came to mind with the complaint about the focus on the device over the paper copy of the Svenska Dagbladet , was that the device is now offering a plethora of thought that has not been seen since the golden age of newspapers. The example par excellence is Berlin which in the 1920s had a vast array of morning and evening newspapers catering to all tastes with people buying multiple papers of varying or similar content. Even before the internet arrived many cities had shrunk to NO evening newspaper and only one of two in the morning. The proliferation of internet "newspapers" brings us all Berlin's golden age. Every morning one can dip into the NY Times, all the London papers, Le Monde, whatever... Glans should not imagine her poor pedestrian gazing at their screen is merely getting a soundbite from yahoo, they might in fact be reading The Guardian, which 15 years ago they would have had to wait a day or two to get a hard copy of, then have to hunt it down and have to pay a premium price to get it. And the current times are not an improvement??

By Christopher Ec… (not verified) on 22 Mar 2013 #permalink

Eric Lund
Word! (warning, angry rant ahead!)
I have other examples of newspapers (and TV) being wrong apart from Dubya's splendid little war in Iraq.
During the 1990s, American media became obsesed with a perceived flood of juvenile gangsters that was fictional: Juvenile crime was in decline!
Yet, the consensus became that juvenile crime was a major growing problem, and juvenile offenders began being sentenced as adults (probably a violation of a UN rule) and sent to harsh prisons instead of being rehabilitated (young offenders are just about the only criminals where you can successfully turn their lives around, if you provide the resources). So now we have a generation of US criminals who got harsh sentences for oetty crimes once, and became jailbirds for life.
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Goind back to Reagan days; The UNITA warlord Jonas Savimbi got hailed as a freedom fighter even though he was as mean as bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. And the West allied themselves with Khmer fucking Rouge in Cambodia! All this without pundits standing up for decency.
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Christopher Ecclestone
The Guardian is the only British newspaper I bother to read. these days.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 23 Mar 2013 #permalink