Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Reviews Debate Rages On

Have you been reading the critics' debate between negative book reviews and positive book reviews? A few weeks after this blog's interview series on The Art of the Book Review began, a fervent and fertile discussion of the ethics, the art, and the state of book reviews started raging through online journals and across the blogosphere. (And they say nothing happens in the publishing world in August.)

Because my blog is currently focusing on book reviews, I thought I'd offer an annotated timeline of the highlights:

July 16, 2012 on the blog, Jacob Silverman:
Jacob Silverman, "Some Notes Against Enthusiasm"
A pre-cursor to THE essay heard round the lit world. "Somehow criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read,...they exhaust themselves with outbursts of praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary twitter-sphere....Some of these people have backgrounds in book-selling, publicity, or marketing, so their enthusiasms are understandable. But I’d rather have a culture in which people can establish distinct critical personas."

August 4, 2012 in SLATE:
Jacob Silverman, "Against Enthusiasm"
This is THE editorial that sparked a month of debate. Silverman writes, "…if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you'll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue, and it's having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page."

August 3 [sic], 2012 at Emma Straub's Life in Pictures:
Emma Straub, "In Celebration of Enthusiasm"
"I am not a critic. I am a fiction writer, and a bookseller. It is not my job to point out the flaws in other writers’ work. It is my job to help draw attention to writers whose work I adore."

August 4, 2012 in The Washington Post:
Ron Charles, "Has Twitter Made Book Reviewers Too Nice?"
Charles warns about the slippery slope of criticism as publicity: "…[A]t many publications, only the most oblivious — or principled — freelance critics could fail to notice the relative popularity of their own positive reviews. When you really, really like a book, your review appears on the front of the Arts section and high on the Arts homepage, and a link to it gets tweeted around the world, and people 'like' it — in every sense of the word.... And a few weeks later, you see your name appearing in blurbs in [The New York Times], and a few months after that, there’s your name on the back of the new paperback edition….
     "But try telling the truth. . . . You cannot fathom the silence that greets an unenthusiastic review of a mid-list literary novel."

Ron Charles wrote an earlier post, "Arthur Krystal: The Excuses of a Mean Book Critic," on March 23, 2012 at the same WaPo blog. He writes, "As a reader of many, many reviews, I have to admit I’m more alarmed by the number of dull ones than the number of unkind ones."
And, “I can’t quite accept [Arthur] Krystal’s complaint about negative book reviews, but I’m all in favor of his concluding advice to writers: ‘Make noise. Call attention to the offending review. In fact, write that letter to the editor that everyone enjoins you not to write and in a few deft strokes outline the reviewer’s bias and how he or she misread, obfuscated, and distorted your work.’" 

August 6, 2012 in SALON:
Roxanne Gay, "Twitter Isn't Killing Books"

Gay writes an astute rebuttal to Silverman, with too many strong points for me to digest in a short space. She writes, "If literary culture is a school, serious criticism can be found in the classroom. Social networks are the cafeteria — what you find there will be loud and gossipy, amusing but not very satisfying." 
     She adds, "I’d also suggest, and I don’t want to belabor this point, that only a white man would believe that the online literary culture — or anything on the Internet — suffers from too much niceness. If you’re a woman, person of color, or member of the LGBT community, the online literary culture is, more often than not, far less hospitable and criticism is directed to the person rather than the person’s ideas."

August 15, 2012 in The New York Times:
Dwight Gardner, "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical"

"[Karl] Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human."

August 15, 2012 in SALON:
Laura Miller, "The Case for Positive Book Reviews"

"Today, the average work of literary fiction appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked. Even the novelists you may think of as 'hyped' are in fact relatively obscure....The idea that more negative reviews of such books...will somehow benefit readers in general and 'make for a vibrant, useful literary culture' strikes me as misguided."

August 21, 2012 in HTML Giant:
Johannes Lichtman, "William Giraldi's Review of Alix Ohlin: A Failure in Four Parts"

"An Honest Review," writes Lichtman, "basically aims to tell the reader three or four things:
1.) What the book is about, 2.) What the author is trying to do, 3.) How well the author succeeds in doing what s/he is trying to do, and 4.) What the book’s place in the larger conversation of literature is (part 4 is often omitted in shorter reviews)."

August 22, 2012 in The New Yorker:
Richard Brody, "How To Be a Critic"

"Enthusiasm should be more or less the only thing that gets a critic out of bed in the morning, except in the case of ghouls who are aroused by the taste of blood....Certainly, in the online discussions about movies, invective, endorsement, (often superbly trenchant) analysis, and personal discussion all blend together into a remarkably vigorous and enlightening virtual conversation. Are things really that different in the world of books?"

August 25, 2012 in The New York Times:
David Streitfeld, "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy"
This was an article, rather than an essay, which reported on a man who runs a service for authors to buy positive book reviews--and makes $28,000 a month.

August 28, 2012 in The New Yorker:
Daniel Mendelsohn, "A Critic's Manifesto"

"I thought of these [critics] above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments....More largely, and ultimately more importantly, the glimpses these writers gave you of their tastes and passions revealed what art and culture are supposed to do for a person."

August 28, 2012 in The New Inquiry:
Subashini Navaratnam, "Nice Book Reviews"

"Let’s acknowledge that this discussion about book reviewing/criticism that’s taking place on the world wide web is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.)... The discussion around enthusiasm or positive reviews, whether for or against, seems to assume that all this takes place, in the words of Michelle Dean, 'on a level playing field.' "

August 30, 2012 in The New York Times
Margalit Fox, "Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67"

In an obituary for this celebrated then reclusive writer/artist, Fox wrote, "The crush of attention, positive and negative, that [Firestone's] book engendered soon proved unbearable, her sister said. In the years that followed, Ms. Firestone retreated into a quiet, largely solitary life of painting and writing, though she published little."

August 31, 2012 at Frances Farmer is My Sister:
Kate Zambreno, "One Can Be Dumb and Sad at Exactly the Same Time"
Author Zambreno publicly rebutted (on her blog) a negative review (in a high-profile journal) of her forthcoming non-fiction book, HEROINES. She writes, "There has become such a taboo in our literary culture about writing or venting when we receive a bad review. But the thing is, and I've spent some time thinking about whether I should write about it, this wasn't just a bad review, it was a dangerous, mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest review, and the irony is, it was a review that was not aware of itself as committing the same sort of critical crimes against a woman writer, the same sort of shaming and silencing and disciplining, that is itself the subject of the book." 

September 4, 2012 in The Paris Review:
Caleb Crain, “How Is the Critic Free?”

"Is it possible to shift the question [of rudeness in book reviews] toward ethics? What if we ask: How free should a critic be? An idealist might wish to answer that the critic should be completely free in the exercise of his essential function, but what is the critic’s essential function?"

September 11, 2012 at The Millions:
Darryl Campbell, “Is This Book Bad, or Is It Just Me? The Anatomy of Book Reviews”

Recapping some of the above debate, Campbell writes, “I enjoyed all of these essays, but the one thing that struck me was that they were all essentially negative, in the sense that they set out to describe how things were going wrong or why things ought not to be the way that they are. What they didn’t do a very good job of was describing what criticism or book reviewing is, or what it should be.” Campbell proceeds to dissect what a book review is made of.


Did I miss any interesting essays in this thread? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

1 comment:

Karen Lillis said...

Michael Davidson (author of AUSTIN NIGHTS) wrote in INDIE AUTHOR NEWS, June 20, 2012, "How to Avoid Bad Book Reviews":
Davidson writes about the challenge of getting his self-published novel reviewed, thinking outside the box for review venues, and learning the lesson of doing your homework on reviewers: