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.”
In an interview with Bookslut.com, Ron Charles, book reviewer at the Washington Post, brings up a distinction between critics and reviewers that has a lot of bearing, I believe, on the current debate:
In my mind, reviewers, like myself, are looking at books that are out there and trying to help you decide what you might enjoy reading. Critics are trying to lay down some sort of literary principles and see how they are being applied in literature; it’s a little academic, and much more for the ages. Some very fine reviewers do blend these two very effectively. James Wood of course, but he does seem more of a critic than a reviewer to me.
You’ve talked about cultivating delight, and maybe that has something to do with it.
Yeah, that’s important. Too many critics—of course, there are not that many critics left, so who am I talking about?! When there were critics around, and I would be with them, they were just too hard to please. I thought they had lost their capacity to be delighted in the way that I see in some of my friends who are movie critics (not at the Post). They were just totally burned out. They just don’t like movies anymore and I don’t blame them because so many movies are awful.
But for the book critic, there are just so many more books. If you’re constantly seeing books you don’t like, or if you are constantly disappointed, you should probably just take a break. You can easily find 52 good books a year to enjoy. Especially when the field is under such stress and we’re all being weeded out. It ought to be more about delight, it ought to be more about celebration. There are great puritanical standard-bearers out there who would take offense at that, but there’s a role for them too. But maybe not at newspapers.
And I was almost done with the whole thing when I found this perfect definition in the comments section following Shivani’s piece. It says exactly what the whole dialogue left me thinking:
Great post. I think we should distinguish between “Book Critics” and “Literary Critics”. Here is how I would explain the difference.
A book critic is someone like Michuko Kakutani. Her job is to look at new books, and basically give the reader an assessment. Just like a restaurant critic or movie critic, her job is to help people make decisions. Should I read this book? Will I like it? Does the author do a good job with such-and-such thing? To make book criticism more relevant, critics should broaden the type of books they review. They should review popular novels, literary novels, non-fiction, poetry, biography, etc, etc. At the end of the day, they are just like consumer advocates, so they should review whatever it is that people are reading.
Literary critics are different. A literary critic is someone like James Wood or Zadie Smith (when she’s not writing fiction). The job of a literary critic is to engage intellectually with the world and explore ideas in literature. The best literary criticism should stand alone as art. It should be exquisitely written and beautifully argued. It should not be about providing a judgment about a particular book. It should be about telling us something deeper about literature, about society, about ourselves. This kind of criticism will always endure…. (Leviathan21 08:38 AM on 1/31/2011)
No literary work should get off easy after a debate of this magnitude. Hooray for McSweeneys’ Sean Walsh, who subjects Goodnight Moon to a rigorous literary analysis, concluding with tough essay questions like this one: 1) Analyze the scene in which the bunny says goodnight to the lighthouse in relationship with the rest of the book. Cite textual evidence whenever possible.
Ding-dong-the-Witch-Is-Dead category: Though I’ve been snapping at people who say “I’m sorry to see them go” and “I really liked Borders,” I feel a bit hypocritical and even ambivalent. It’s a complex issue, beginning with the fact that I loved Borders’ enormous inventory and used to shop there—so there, that’s off my chest. Also because their near takeover of the shopping center that housed the indie where I worked for 20 years still pisses me off, and finally because the loss of any bookstore hurts communities that have relied on just one store for their books. On the bright side, maybe the ailing public libraries will fill the gap in some neighborhoods left by the bankruptcy-declaring chain.
Coming soon: Thoughts about Kevin Brockmeier’s latest, Illumination. That is, if the fireworks it caused in my head ever stop going off. And three great food memoirs any aspiring chef/food writer and all foodies will savor: Kim Severson’s Spoonfed (almost finished with it and already thinking of people to give copies to), Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter, and As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. (Later this spring, Severson and Hamilton will both be taking part in A Cappella Books‘ popular “Restaurant Eugene” author dinner series.)