Book Reviews: A Tortured History
Why do lovers of literature take so much pleasure in criticizing critics?
Lamenting the state of book review has been the literary world’s favorite pastime ever since Edgar Allan Poe revised for Graham’s Magazine in the 1840s. From Henry James to Heidi Julavitis, writers seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the shortcomings and inadequacies of book criticism.
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A popular complaint is that book reviews are just a by-product of the publishing industry and therefore reek of mediocrity, elitism, nepotism, or all three. In 1846, Poe wrote that book reviews (and the publishing industry) were a sham and riddled with nepotism: “We unhesitatingly lay on paper a tissue of flattery, to which in society we could not express , for our lives, neither blushing or laughing outright.” In 1917, H. L. Mencken lamented the “inconceivable complacency and conformity” of journalistic criticism. Forty years later, Elizabeth Hardwick echoed those sentiments when she said of the review: “Sweet, bland kudos fall all over the stage; a universal, if somewhat brainwashed, accommodation reigns.”
Another criticism is that book reviewers lack intelligence. In 1891, Henry James, the ultimate aesthete, complained that we publish too many journals and none of value. The criticism, wrote James, was all presumption and chatter and lacked “concrete literary fact”—that is, specific references and examples drawn from the work under review. In his 1928 trial “The critic who does not exist”, wrote Edmund Wilson in much the same way: “It is astonishing to note, in America, in spite of our floods of literary journalism, to what extent the literary atmosphere is not conducive to criticism. “This line of criticism continues today: In 2007, Steve Wasserman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review“The pabulum that passes for most critics is an insult to the intelligence of most readers.”
A recent trend among literary hipsters (and aging literary hipsters) is to complain that reviews are “too mean.” This part of the book review emphasizes the need to protect and support “the artist”. In 2005, the literary magazine N+1 protested against the reviews published in The New Republic to be totally negative. In 2001, Zadie Smith, former New Books columnist for Harper’s magazine, published a response to reviewer James Wood’s a review of White teeth in The Guardianentitled “That’s What It’s Like to Be Me”. She asked critics to behave “more like teachers”: “I sometimes wonder if critics shouldn’t be more like teachers, giving a gold star or a black cross, but in any case accompanied some sort of useful advice.” In a manic 2005 article on the “The Age of Teflon Criticism” Heidi Julavitis veered off on many tangents – including a New York Intellectuals hagiography, a James Wood-Zadie Smith review recap, a bit about movies and TV, a defense of workshop fiction, an attack against anti-intellectualism, a clumsy confession about his “intellectual crush” on James Wood (an anti-intellectual movement in itself), and a declaration of his belief in the “intrinsic value” of literature – before concluding that Book reviewers should never be mean and never, ever “sarcastic.”
But the problem with book reviews isn’t that they reek of mediocrity, elitism, or nepotism; are not smart enough or are too pretentious; or are too negative or too positive. It’s that they come from a source—a human being—and sometimes we forget to take that into account.
The other problem is that these sources are not necessarily “experts” in the field of literature. Fiction and poetry reviews are not usually written by professors of literature or academics; instead, they are written by freelance writers or columnists, some qualified and some not.
But what makes someone qualified to critique contemporary poetry and fiction? Contrary to what many people may think, these qualities are neither elusive nor innate. In fact, the talents and abilities a critic of poetry and fiction should possess are reflected in the techniques of some of our finest (deceased) journalistic literary critics of the past two hundred years: Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, HL Mencken , Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick and John Updike. None of these critics were “classically” trained in academia. Fuller was a populist and romantic in the German tradition who signed her reviews anonymously with an asterisk and believed that her purpose as literary editor of The New York HeraldTribune in the early 1840s was to promote reading as a form of self-cultivation and self-knowledge. Poe, the consummate outsider/insider, saw his reviews and column in “New York Literary” Posted in The Lady of Godey’s Book as an opportunity to expose the nepotism that plagued the American publishing industry in the early 19e century as today. (The column’s caption was “Random honest opinions respecting their merits of authorship, with occasional words of personality.”)
In the early 20th century, HL Mencken, editor of The smart set and American Mercurydespised the academic penchant for “Critique of Critique of CritiqueHe rose from the smoky dens of Baltimore newspapers and wrote book reviews that were all with style and enthusiasm. He attacked some books and defended others. Mencken was salty, iconoclastic and surprisingly cheerful. – bah his refusal to take literature seriously.) The goal of Mencken’s reviews was as much to impress the reader as to evaluate the book in question.
Edmund Wilson, alternately literary journalist and editor of vanity lounge, The New Republicand the new yorker, reiterated James’ criticism of book reviews. He was against schools of criticism but wrote historical reviews that analyzed and contextualized a work. Wilson set out to reveal the inner workings of a book and place it in literary history.
Elizabeth Hardwick approached criticism as a creative enterprise, a necessary complement to the art world. In a 1985 interview published in The Paris reviewshe says, “…[I]Reading books and considering writing about them, or maybe just reading certain books, you start seeing all sorts of things not quite expressed that the author may not have been entirely aware. It is a kind of creative or “possessed” reading. In her reviews, Hardwick could be “snippy,” but she was also true to the text and always dignified. She described book review as “a natural response to existence in the world”. of works of art. It is an honorable and even exalted enterprise. Without it, works of art would appear in a vacuum, as if they had no relation to the spirits who experience them.”
In general, John Updike favored the kind approach to book review, one that favored and pampered the author and limited the reviewer. He had a set of standards—his revision “rules”– which clearly stemmed from his experiences as an oft-reviewed author. They go something like this: 1) don’t review books you have a personal connection to; 2) cite the book; 3) cite the book; 4) no spoilers; 5) cite the book; 6) criticize the book, not the author’s reputation; 7) rent bluntly; 8) setting aside tradition, schools of criticism and political/social ideas; 9) remember that books are meant to be enjoyed, 10) quote the book.
There are other journalistic literary critics – Van Wyck Brooks, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Cyril Connolly, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe and many others – whose ideas and approaches are worth considering. This is just a start. As we turn to old book reviews, we must also look around us. Too few newspapers and magazines regularly employ columnists and book reviewers. This is done in the spirit of egalitarianism, but in the digital age, where anonymous and poorly written “customer reviews” influence readers, we need to build relationships with our literary critics. We must trust them as “experts” hired and trained by the publications that employ them or self-taught and trained as book bloggers or “hobbyist” reviewers with their own websites. Either way, we can get to know the tastes and mannerisms of the reviewer and make a more informed decision about the book being reviewed. In today’s mosh-pit of book review, it’s nearly impossible to know where the freelance book reviewer you’re reading is coming from. Including, perhaps, this one.