Everyone’s a critic (and that’s not such a bad thing!)

Yesterday I came across this article reporting on a discussion among four author/critics about the state of reviewing and where they think book reviews are heading. Although I’m sure that the discussion covered more than the article could report, one theme emerged:

Professional reviewers are not happy with Amazon. Not one bit.

Morris Dickstein, professor and literary critic, said this:

“The professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor’s exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated.”

And this:

“[L]iterary reviewing . . . demands taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument. Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence. The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing.”

Dickstein is a distinguished scholar and critic. But where does it say that he and other professional critics get to own the conversation about books? When I taught English, my goal was to get my students excited about reading and writing. Talking about books was a good thing.  It was exciting to hear students talking about books outside the classroom. Writing down your thoughts about books was a good thing, too. The whole point, as far as I was concerned, was to get students to pick up books, read them, and think about them. And then keep doing that: Lather, rinse, repeat.  Conversations about books are an extension of what teachers do in the classroom. They show those that teachers are having an effect.

To the critics taking part in the discussion, the fact that those conversations are written down, indexed, and saved seems to be part of the problem. To be fair, book reviewing as a profession has been on the decline for some time, as major newspapers (also declining) have scaled back on book reviews or even canceled their review sections. Readers don’t need to go out of their way to find one of a handful of professional reviews of a book when they can find scores of reviews on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, Library Thing, book blogs, and other review sites. But again, this strikes me as a good thing. I’ve read some fascinating discussions of books on these sites. No, they don’t adhere to the standards of argument that pertain to writing a paper for credit, but I don’t see this as a problem. If someone makes an unsupported point, another reader often steps in to question it and give a different point of view. This is what we used to do in my classroom when we talked about books.

Author Cynthia Ozick, who won the National Book Critics Circle award for her criticism, was “disheartened” by the tastes of Amazon reviewers:

“First, a book, whether nonfiction or fiction, must supply ‘uplift.’ Who wants to spend hours on a downer? And even more demandingly, the characters in a novel must be likable. Uplift and pleasantness: is this an acceptable definition of what we mean by literature? If so, then King Lear and Hamlet aren’t literature, Sister Carrie isn’t literature, Middlemarch isn’t literature, nearly everything by Chekhov isn’t literature, and on and on and on.”

That’s true. And I’d hate to lose the great works of literature from the past. But is “literature” the only kind of book worth reading? It’s always been true, I think, that most stories don’t survive their own age. From campfire stories that were never written down to political satire that’s lost its sting with time to sentimental novels popular a century ago, most stories get lost as the world moves on. We don’t decide what’s “literary” from our own time; it’s the job of the next era to decide what we’ve accomplished that’s worth saving. Anyway, not all stories aspire to be literature. Stories that offer excitement or uplift or pure enjoyment offer real value to the people who read them now.

The reviewers these critics complain about are out of school. They get to choose their own books, to define their own criteria. They don’t have to read at all—there are plenty of other distractions to keep people busy. Complaining that Amazon reviews are leading to the “decay of reviewing” is merely shouting into the wind (as Lear did on that stormy heath).

Besides, people have always talked about books. They did it in book clubs, over coffee, in casual conversations. The only difference is that now those conversations are saved and made available for others to read or participate in. Conversations last longer; they get broader. More voices chime in. To me, this is exciting.

I think there’s room both for traditional, academic literary criticism and for everyday conversations about books. For myself, I like to read a professional review after I’ve read the book, so I can follow the analysis better. If I’m looking for something new to read, though, I’ll read book blogs and reviews on Amazon and sites like Goodreads. One is more like listening to a lecture (I’m a recovering academic, so I enjoy that); the other is more like getting a recommendation from a friend. Both are valuable.

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About nancyholzner


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