This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. —Dorothy Parker
Two months ago, the New York Times began an enticing kerfuffle by devoting most of its Sunday book section to a survey called “Why Criticism Matters.” The editors rounded up “six accomplished critics, each well versed in the idioms of the moment but also steeped in the older traditions of literature and criticism,” then asked them to “explain what it is they do, why they do it and why it matters.”
The shock waves from this discussion have yet to subside. I ended up reading so many responses to the Times pages that I’ve only just got around to the real McCoy. Turns out this is a thought-provoking debate and not just the Times defending its turf.
“The age of evaluation, of the Olympian critic as cultural arbiter, is over,” says writer/professor Stephen Burn. “Less than six weeks after Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was published, Amazon offered more than 300 frankly polarized customer reviews.”
Uh oh. Does this signal the end of the traditional book reviewer, or, as Katie Roiphe asks, “has the critic become a quaint and touching figure engaged in an irrelevant, positively medieval pursuit, like monks illuminating manuscripts?”
New York magazine critic Sam Anderson explains that this tectonic shift may not necessarily put reviewers and critics out of business:
... sustained exposure to the Internet is changing the way many readers process the written word. Texts are shorter and more flagrantly interconnected, with all kinds of secret passageways running into and out of one another. This has already changed the way we produce, read, share and digest our writing. Inevitably, it will also redefine what it means to practice book criticism, at least for those of us who aspire to write for something like a general audience.
I like to think of the new world order (the iPocalypse, whatever) not as a threat to criticism—or not only as a threat—but as an opportunity. It will cure critics, of necessity, of some of our worst habits. For one thing, we can no longer take readers’ interest for granted. This should create a healthy sense of urgency—it should prevent critics, in other words, from producing the kind of killingly dull reviews that seem intended for someone trapped in a bus shelter during a giant rainstorm, circa 1953. This is not an approach we can get away with today, when every reader is half a second away from doing 34,000 other things.
I wasn’t the only one who thought some of the NYT critics’ stuffily formal responses might be part of the problem. Describing the essays in a guest post on Critical Mass, National Book Critics Circle member Reamy Jansen used the word “pompitous” (last heard on a Steve Miller album ca. 1973, but glad to see it’s back in use!), and hinted at too many “quotes from Caucasian Males No Longer with Us: [Alfred] Kazin, T.S. Eliot, Randall Jarrell; Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman, Lionel Trilling, and, finally, Oscar Wilde.”
Some far more down-to-earth and succinct ideas about the state of reviewing can be found in a recent survey of 20 critics by Anis Shivani at the Huffington Post. I liked National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabattari‘s ideas about added context:
From my perspective as a reviewer it boils down to a couple of basics. First is voice. No matter what the platform—print, online, podcast, video—an engaging, witty, passionate, knowledgeable and distinctive voice is crucial. This may be why there is such a rage for the hybrid personal essay/criticism form. It helps if reviews give some context (the book as it fits into the writer’s work, or into the literature of a particular country or genre). If possible, I think it’s also helpful to give a sense of what it feels like to read the book (and perhaps comparisons to other books). And to offer as fluid a range of cultural references as feels right….
I just reviewed the new Charles Baxter collection, Gryphon. On the snowy weekend when I was working on that review, I was also rereading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, toggling between the two. I liked the Baxter better, for a lot of reasons. A review that explained why might be more interesting than a straightforward review of the Baxter.
In her answer, writer and editor Stacy Muszynski quoted a reader she’d polled as an example of what a book review should aim for: “When I walk away from a book I want to see the world differently. I look for hints of this in a review. I know I can read old novels and get blown away, so why would I waste time on some new novels?”
“Indeed,” adds Muszynski. “Short answer: To be relevant, yesterday, today, forever, be catalytic.”