The question of what exactly a book review is and what it should do comes up often on the internet. So far I’ve tried to avoid it, because it’s a big question that requires a big answer. But the question is impossible to avoid this morning, with two particular articles getting lots of mention on various book-related blogs and on Twitter.
Although Peter Stothard, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement, is a blogger himself – and praises literary websites such as the Complete Review – he expressed fears that the burgeoning amount of online opinion about books could be damaging to the future of writing.
“If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics … then literature will be the lesser for it,” he said. “There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion.”
Literary criticism, said Stothard, needs “to identify the good and the lasting, and to explain why it’s good. You don’t read a literary critic to explain why a new Ian Rankin is any good – the people who know about him don’t need that explaining. If we’re going to keep literature and language alive, we have to be alert to the new, the things which aren’t like what’s been before. And as Howard Jacobson said, this may be unpleasant, it may be that we don’t enjoy reading it, but it might matter hugely to the future of literature.”
To this piece in the U. K. newspaper The Guardian, the Huffington Post offers this reply by Foz Meadows:
There’s something rather satisfying about using the Huffington Post, a venue built on blogging, to respond to Peter Stothard’s alarmist claim that book bloggers are ruining literature. Rather than being hypocritical, the fact that Stothard is himself a blogger actually serves to underline the true clannish elitism of his point: it’s the democratic accessibility of blogging as a platform that distresses him, not the platform itself, and though he makes a pass at arguing in favour of literary change — “If we’re going to keep literature and language alive, we have to be alert to the new, the things which aren’t like what’s been before” — it’s clear that this is not a sentiment he’s willing to extend beyond the parameters of his existing taste, let alone to new methods of criticism.
Because despite his assertion that “to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste,” Stothard’s taste in both literature and criticism — and, by extension, the traditional taste of the literary establishment — is exactly what’s being discussed. Exalting the necessity of exploring books which “may be unpleasant… that we don’t enjoy reading,” for instance, is not the denial of taste that Stothard seems to think it is, but rather an assertion that a particular taste should be cultivated even against our initial inclinations; or, read differently, an exhortation to readers to persist with books they might otherwise disdain, provided those books are deemed to be of literary merit. Couple his belief that “great art for the most part resists [readability],” with his fear that “literature will be harmed” if “good page-turning stories” are deemed literary, and his anxiety over book blogging is made all too plain: that literary criticism and the taste it serves will somehow be overrun by the sudden, unregulated influx of plebian preferences into the literary world.
These two articles are today’s newsmakers, but they illustrate the point that the discussion about book reviews always comes down to: a contrast between “good” or “real” literature and popular literature—sometimes referred to as “mere genre literature.” And, as Meadows puts it, “all this concern over popular reading habits is almost painfully ironic when you consider the extent to which the literary establishment prides itself on being distinct from popular taste — exclusive, exceptional and elite, rather than common and well-known.”
A little over 30 years ago—in what was truly a different lifetime—I completed the coursework though not the dissertation for a doctorate in English and American literature. Lots of factors contributed to my decision not to continue, but one of the big ones was the attitude of elitism that permeated the academic study of literature. I heard colleagues speak of people who say “I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it.” And it took me a while to realize that, when my colleagues said this, they were scoffing at those people.
I happen to believe that many people do know art, or at least literature, when they see it. The main difference between those people and us graduate students in literature is that we have been trained in how to analyze and describe how a literary piece works. (For a description of how readers interact with texts, see my review of The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work by Louise M. Rosenblatt.)
Therefore, my aim in Notes in the Margin has always been to demonstrate the process of and provide the vocabulary for discussion of these interactions between readers and literary texts.
What do you look for when you read a review of a book?
Leave a note in the comments section. And thanks for listening.