“Gatekeeper”: Still Not a Dirty Word

One of my first gigs as a freelance writer was covering concerts for the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly in Berkeley, California. Mostly I attended folk shows or enormo-dome concerts nobody else wanted to write about, but every so often I’d get assigned to go to 924 Gilman, the warehouse space at the center of the East Bay punk scene that spawned Green Day and the like. I had fun at the shows and got a lot out of the music, but I was still there more as a reporter than a fan. So I took it a little personally when I showed up one evening and noticed that somebody had spray-painted something on the wall behind the stage:

MEDIA OUT OF MY PUNK ROCK

The message definitely wasn’t meant for me and my 450-word squibs in the back of the Express arts pages; it’s just that it was 1996, 1997, and the scene was still sensitive at how it had been commodified. (And somebody was probably mad at Gina Arnold, the paper’s lead rock critic at the time; back then, somebody always seemed to be.) Still, I was sensitive to the accusation, so I brought the graffiti up with a friend, voicing some youthful anxiety about being an interloper, cultural appropriation, etc. She cut me off: “Punk rock is a medium.”

In other words, the bands at 924 Gilman were trying to make a coherent statement about the world as much my newspaper was. We could debate whose worldview was more informed and legitimate, but one didn’t automatically earn the high ground over the other. That sentence popped into my head reading a post by Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, describing a recent panel about the future of book reviewing that included Stothard, Michael Dirda, Jessa Crispin, Steve Wasserman, and Sam Tanenhaus. At some point the conversation turned to the role that Web sites, blogs, and/or newspapers have as gatekeepers:

Another issue was whether we should we be ‘gate-keepers’ for the literary culture that we like, letting in what we considered of quality and worth and excluding what we did not? Jessa Crispin does not want Bookslut to be a gatekeeper or anyone else to be one either. It seemed desirable to me that another word for the principle of gate-keeping might be desirable for the rest of the afternoon.

The question baffles me a little, because whether Crispin, Stothard, or anybody else wants to be a gatekeeper or not, it’s the gig they’ve signed up for: Bookslut, like any book publication, online or otherwise, is in the business of picking and choosing what stories it feels are most important to the audience it would most like to cultivate. To behave otherwise is madness—letting any old thing in and deeming it worthy of attention. When people get mad at the word “gatekeeper,” I suspect it’s because they imagine a cranky troll minding a very narrow gate. Or the troll is easily paid off by some minion of the publishing industry. In an essay published on the Washington Post‘s Web site last year, Crispin dismissed newspaper book reviews as echo chambers, talking about the same damn five or six big books every week: “But most of the reviews are dead weight anyway, creating nationwide echo effect: ‘That Junot Diaz book sure is good, don’t you think so?’ ‘Oh yes, certainly.’ ‘And I absolutely think the world needs more superhero-derivative adolescent-boy sagas, alongside the occasional magical realism written by white male Ivy League graduates, don’t you?’ ‘Oh yes, yes. Quite right.'”

Note the prissy, tea-at-two tone of the conversation that Crispin imagines: Her complaint isn’t so much about “gatekeeping” but with thoughtless cultural elitism and a reflexive embrace of what’s new and popular. Those are reasonable complaints to have about literary culture and book reviews, but framing the discussion around the word “gatekeeper” doesn’t get a debate started about those issues. The bookers at 924 Gilman did just as much selective picking and choosing as the booking agents for those enormo-dome shows; they just took a smaller fee, if they took a fee at all. And Bookslut does just as much gatekeeping as the Washington Post, which is what Bookslut’s readers prize about it. Stothard writes that he’s looking for a different word than “gatekeeper” to define the issue, but even if he landed on one that’s more polite and agreeable (“curator”?), it wouldn’t address the bigger issues that Crispin addresses.

7 responses to ““Gatekeeper”: Still Not a Dirty Word

  1. Every one of us who blogs about a book that not everyone else has already read is, to some extent, a gatekeeper. My gate just happens to be extremely tiny, one which is only large enough to admit ants or extremely skinny newts.

  2. I think what really jars me about this whole “gatekeeper” discussion is the image of a gated community – not only do book reviewers control what comes out of the community (what books are reviewed ie what so many read) but also who comes into the community. Bloggers can be territorial and like how papers were once the battle ground for news, the blog is a new stage in the war. Infighting seems like a natural step forward. Who will dominate book reviews in the web 2.0 age? “Gatekeeper” insinuates a community where the commoner voice is no longer allowed. This has always been the Internets appeal; the ability for everyone to comment. At the same time quality is kept high with “gatekeepers”. It is not an easy word to let go of.

    • @Daniel I think you’re right to point out that readers still perceive something of a two-tier system: Newspapers, which carry more perceived authority and wider reach, and the Web, which is less restrictive and has a better chance of serving your own particular interests. To borrow a bit of Steve Jobs’ marketing language: Like fiction in translation? There’s a site for that. Like paranormal romance? There’s a blog for that. And so on and so on, endlessly. It’s much harder for a reader today to say that his or her interests aren’t being served, and in some ways the Web beats newspapers—there’s no question that learned more about the new Nobel Prize winner in literature, Herta Mueller, from following litblogs. More interesting questions, to me, than “Should we be gatekeepers?” are, “Will Web sites and blogs ever supplant newspapers’ traditional role as leading cultural arbiters? And, if they do, how will they avoid making the same mistakes that newspapers made in projecting that authority?”

  3. To some extent, the only real gatekeepers are those with the ambition to get people to perform some form of action… Directly or indirectly, to that extent – we are somewhat responsible

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  5. I think the hand wringing should stop so that reviewers can begin taking the helm as far as serious literary review is concerned. There are a lot of fine review blogs out there. I might be a bit rash in saying this, but, the longer the online community pines away about the death of the newspaper, instead of seeing it as an opportunity, the easier it will be for the traditional model to sneak up on us again, boxing us out of their community. There is a chance to innovate here.

    Rash perhaps, but sometimes passions speak the truth.

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