WRITING ON THE ETHER: Let’s Review Criticism

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Table of Contents

  1. More Critics Than You Can Shake a Fist At
  2. Art vs. Entertainment / Criticism vs. Reviewing
  3. Why Ask Why?

More Critics Than You Can Shake a Fist At


Do you follow tennis? Observe the shaking of the fist.

Most of the world-class athletes at the All-England Club right now (including those being sent home alarmingly early) are not fistfight folks. But have a look: fist pumps.

In almost any Wimbledon match, male or female, you’ll find the players shaking their fists, normally after winning points. As if at any moment, they might deck their opponents or punch out the ball kids.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

This compilation of shots is from ESPN’s Facebook page, June 26, 2013. Fist-pumping indicators added.

Nobody follows these athletes more happily than I do. But that pumping of the fist looks showy at best on these immaculate, gifted, hard-working, smart people. It’s largely a ritual, a mannered iteration of a once-genuine gesture. It’s what you do with the hand not holding the racket. On one, it looks more like he’s shaking dice. On another, it looks like she’s grabbing fireflies. And, hey, it looks no better on the fans in the stands, these lovely, mild-mannered, bespectacled, brolly-toting rain dodgers…fist pumping?

It’s a cultural affectation. The shaking of the fist.

Could that be what’s become of literary criticism, too?

A significant disadvantage of the world of book recommendation is that we never hear about books that don’t live up to their promise. The bad books. Yes, I’ve heard the “We don’t have time for bad books” argument, and while that works for recommending titles to genteel associations, it stinks when it comes to creating and maintaining a lively culture.

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Bethanne Patrick

In Why Literary Criticism Still Matters at Virginia Quarterly Review,  Bethanne Patrick begins asking some important questions to which we’re paying too little attention these days.

Think of literary criticism as a round robin of matches being played on the outer courts of the big tournament. The industry! the industry! is fixated on its Centre Court melodrama. While we watch traditional major players slip and slide, fall on their grass and suffer mortifying injuries, we aren’t focused on what’s happening to literary criticism.

Patrick’s good questions lie under the header “Internet democratization.” Many good things have accrued from the digital dynamic. But the recommendation culture, in and of itself, may not be one of them, not entirely, if it’s allowed to replace real criticism.

Patrick, a critic, herself (as am I), writes:

This isn’t necessarily a problem for publishers. Publishing is a business, not an arts collective. This is a problem for authors and readers. If we want to have a balanced and literate literary culture, we have to be ready to name good books and bad books—and even to name the good and the bad within a single book, which is what the best book critics do on a regular basis.

Let’s look at a couple of changes that you and many others might have noticed only in sidelong glances on our way to the larger, central debates of the disruption.

Back to Table of Contents

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One of VQR’s “instapoem” collection being curated by Robert Lee Brewer

Art vs. Entertainment / Criticism vs. Reviewing


It’s not uncommon for some readers to be adamantly put out with me when I bring up entertainment as distinct from what I call more “serious” work.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookI’m perfectly happy for you to dive now to the comments section to tell me off, simply for having raised the topic.

I might as well have just yelled “pull!” on a skeet shoot. The next sound you’ll hear is the guns going off and clay pigeons exploding.

It may help if I offer you a graphic provided by Jane Friedman, the former Writer’s Digest publisher who now is VQR’s digital editor and host of Writing on the Ether.

In teaching university media studies courses, Friedman has found it useful to include this diagram from the textbook Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication by Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos.

The intent of this diagrammatic representation of various influences in culture is to flatten them onto one plane, so entertainment-oriented elements are no “lower” than elements that might be classified as classical, “serious” elements. This view categorizes cultural inputs as “familiar,” “unfamiliar,” “comforting,” “challenging,” “conventional,” and “innovative.” It has some useful points of connection for those who normally chafe at suggestions that one cultural influence is more valuable or “higher” than another.

And if you want to hold your fire, however, I’ll tell you a bit more of what I mean and why I bring it up.

  • By “serious,” I mean material intended to help us explore meaningful, life-defining elements of our experience. Most of the time, I prefer serious work in all forms, from television to film and books and music, visual art, dance, the works.
  • By “entertainment,” I mean material the primary purpose and intent of which is to create a feel-good experience—perhaps through humor, pathos, nostalgia, etc. It usually trades in populist values and idioms. One reality show begets five others.


There was a useful phrase used for many years around Broadway theater. A musical comedy was said to be “for the tired businessman.” And it was entertainment.

This was an age in which tired businesswomen were woefully overlooked, I’m afraid. Hence the gender reference. But the understanding was that the tired business person was the primary audience for long lines of beautiful women wearing fishnet hose and singing “We’re in the Money’ while kicking their right legs in perfect unison. And the crowd loved it.

Next door, a usually smaller Broadway house might have a production of Medea. The people attending that one, provided it was Eurpides’ doing of the story, saw the titular character kill her own children as an act of vengeance against her feckless husband Jason. The tired business person, it was assumed, would either be asleep by the time the kids were tossed over the parapet, or, if awake, would want to be next door watching women kicking their right legs instead.


Over time, let’s say since the middle of the last century, there has been a trend in all forms, not just theater, toward more entertainment, less serious work. Many exceptions everywhere, of course. But in time, and in virtually all media, the drift toward more entertainment-oriented work has been bolstered by the digital dynamic.

As I’ve written many times, digital is about distribution. Its energy seeks the widest distribution possible, through new-media technology. And this is one reason why entertainment offerings usually find bigger audiences than serious-art offerings: there’s a wider audience for the distribution of entertainment.  

A couple of decades ago, a parallel turning point arrived for criticism. Those of us who were working in news media as critics were asked to start using star ratings, thumbs up or down, cartoons of little people jumping up and down or sulking, whatever—graphic representations of the gist of critical reviews.

This was the digital dynamic arriving in criticism. Just as art and entertainment were starting to grow farther apart, real criticism and “reviewing” began to divide.

“Reviewing” became heavily consumer-oriented. How many thumbs up?


Critics found, of course, that many readers stopped reading their reviews. They just counted the thumbs “way up,” the stars, etc. Reviewers were asked to tell their readers to “go” or “don’t go” to a film or concert, to “read” or “don’t read” a book. 

Actual criticism never seeks to tell users what to do. Instead it takes the work at hand and analyzes it in terms of what its creator(s) intended to do. What did this author mean to achieve? Did he or she achieve it?—how? how not? how well?. VQR As Bethanne Patrick writes, emphasis mine:

Showing that books can contain good and bad but still be worth reading is just one of the ways in which critics benefit the reading public, and they also help readers place books in context. Is this book the next Holy Bible? The next Great American Novel? A blockbuster thriller? Yes, no, maybe? And why? What makes it so?

The user of criticism is then left to decide whether the analysis makes the work worth looking into. And he or she then decides whether the work is “good” or otherwise. Criticism asks you to think for yourself, not be told to “read this” or “don’t read that.” Of course, this is why some people don’t care for it. They like others to do the thinking and tell them what to do.  

Much as our culture neglected to nail the distinction between a “cinema” and a “theater”—and thus we talk of going to a “theater” to see a film—we didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing criticism from consumer reviewing.

In the same way that some authors rankle when told they’re working in entertainment while another set of authors is closer to art, there are consumer reviewers who don’t care for a clear understanding of what they do and how it differs from what true critics do.

I believe that what Patrick is writing about in her piece, “Why Literary Criticism Still Matters,” helps us acknowledge a more recent and different divide opening up at our feet: criticism/reviewing vs. recommendation.


Patrick seems to pull critics and consumer reviewers closer together: they’re both surrounded, after all, by the recommendation culture. I think the functions of critics and reviewers remain different.  I do think that she has an important point to make about the recommendation culture: It is unrelievedly biased toward the happy, the upbeat, the enthusiastic.

And it seems to be forming a third energy. As usual, we’ve eschewed giving this the clear terminology we need. We’re calling people of the recommendation culture “reviewers,” too.

If the tired business person provided his or her opinion of Medea’s Greek chorus or the sequins on the synchronized legs’ shoes, would we name those tired business people “reviewers?” Probably. We’re like that. We wouldn’t want the tired business people to feel they were any less deserving of a career title than someone who’d actually made a career of it—even though they were less deserving, of course. And we’d never think of going the opposite direction and calling critics business people.  

So now we have three things, all called “reviewers.” They are:

(a) literary critics;

(b) consumer reviewers; and

(c) recommend-ers, the customer-appraisers.

Patrick writes:

If we don’t have reviews that tell us the truth—alongside recommendations that provide enthusiasm—then we have less information about how to spend our wild and precious reading lives. You can’t read every book, but even the small bits you read about as many books as possible increase your worldview.

What she’s describing—aside from “our wild and precious reading lives,” which I love—is the fulfillment of yet another old line from “legitimate” criticism: “Everybody’s a critic.”


Thanks to that Internet “democracy,” everybody can (and on many days, it seems, does) weigh in with his or her opinion. About everything. Everything. The usefulness of the customer recommend-er is perfectly clear.

The patron who has tried the vacuum cleaner and gives it some stars and adds comments that only another vacuum cleaner shopper could love is performing a community and retail service. There is a genuine place and purpose for the customer’s appraisal, the recommendation culture at work, no question. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Many see hope in the Amazonian acquisition of Goodreads because the problems Amazon has had with falsified customer reviews in the past may be, to some degree, ameliorated if Goodreads-vetted reviews from that avid community of 18 million recommending people are surfaced onto Amazon sales pages (with each member’s permission, of course).

Customer appraisal is all but required for decent online sales. It has a place and purpose. Nothing except sock puppetry need be held against it as a cautionary concern. It’s also about as far from actual literary criticism as my frolics around a badminton net are from what those fist-pumping tennis pros do at Wimbledon.

Back to Table of Contents  


Why Ask Why?


So, to review, we seem to have managed to divide all this galling opinion-slinging into three parts:

(a) literary criticism;

(b) consumer reviewing; and

(c) recommendation, customer-appraisal.

That being the case, one of the most disturbing issues Patrick’s piece raises is found in this question:

Where does book reviewing end and book marketing begin—and does this question even still matter to the business of publishing?



For her, this is the fundamental issue, and it’s a good one. What is one form of reviewing or another, and what is merely salesmanship?

For me, however, the real question in her addendum is this: does this question still matter to the business of publishing? 

If anybody’s putting together a list of Worst Moments in the Digital Disruption, I’d vote for the long, slow realization for journalists that diluted and starred reviews were just fine with the public, along with glitzy, hairsprayed “Live-Action Eyewitness (as opposed to Earwitness?) News You Can Use.” The dumbing down of current affairs.

Many of us in the news media once believed that the population supported fair reporting and in-depth investigation. So, as our corporate executives reconfigured our newsrooms to respond to the Live-Action Nosewitness commercial interests of advertisers, we watched the windows, waiting for the pitchforks. Many of us felt sure the users would soon rise up, toss the hairspray over the parapet after Medea’s brats, and liberate us to return to journalism’s traditional separations of editorial and advertising. With this rescue, we felt sure, would come a restoration of rigorous literary criticism.

The cavalry never came over the hill.


We learned, in fact, that the wider public, for the most part, were not concerned about the principles of genuine journalistic performance. There’s a good chance, we know now, that they never even understood the concept of a truly free press.

And as digital news-you-can-use shallowed out into chit-chatty info-tainment, we had to concede that the public, in fact, doesn’t care. Info-tainment is “good enough.” Just make a fist and shake it bit, and that’s “good enough” as a faint reflection of what once was a fight.


In book publishing, what Patrick is asking gets at the worrisome center of the same issue: do readers today care whether they have access to criticism? Or even to consumer reviews? Or is the recommendation culture “good enough?” She writes:

In a world of recommendations only, we don’t have to worry about conflicts of interest. Books are not pharmaceuticals or food; we don’t need a federal agency to vouch for their contents or effects…No one is going to get hurt if a book recommendation is based solely on the recommender’s love for the author.

She’s saying, then, that fair play and the disinterested stance once prized and protected by critics, their editors, and, surely, a handful of discerning readers, no longer are a concern.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Jacob Silverman

In his earlier VQR piece, The Art of the Negative Review, Jacob Silverman wrote that self-assigning critics are automatically likely to produce positive criticism because they’re choosing works they feel are valuable to bring to their readers’ attention. He includes, for example, Time magazine’s Lev Grossman, writing:

Grossman pointed out that he is the books desk at Time magazine—no one else writes or edits books coverage there—so he feels a sort of obligation to champion good literature and chooses his review subjects accordingly.

And regardless of how reviews might be assigned, the best news is that in some cases, real criticism, of course, still is published at all.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Emily St. John Mandel

I’m always glad to recommend the work of Emily St. John Mandel at The Millions, not only because her voice as a critic is so amply informed by her experience as an author, herself, but also because the character of her review work is distinctive—given to the work at hand, yet set within the context of a thoughtful point of view.

Update on Friday, June 28: The Millions has just posted Mandel’s latest criticism and you couldn’t ask for a better example of what I’m describing here.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookIn The Bulldozing Powers of Cheap, she is critiquing Edouardo Nesi’s highly regarded Story of My People. Mandel describes the book as “a microcosm for the decline of the Italian textiles industry and, more broadly, for the decline of manufacturing in the first world as industry has turned to cheaper labor markets elsewhere.”

Watch how seamlessly (sorry), Mandel crosses into and out of Nesi’s material, using her own experiences in apparel manufacturing and retail and drawing Elizabeth L. Cline’s Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion into her essay, on “the changing nature of fashion, itself.”

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookCoincidentally, Publishing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Edward Nawotka has just recommended Story of My People to me.

So not only are we talking about a work getting a lot of strong attention, but also some fine critical evocation, as we read here from Mandel:

Where Story of My People succeeds most brilliantly is as a vision of what a creative and ethical model of capitalism can look like. Nesi describes moments of exhilarating creativity: gathering with colleagues in the factory after hours, the conversation turning to the fabrics worn by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Nesi rushing to bring the books out of his office, designers peering excitedly at the clothes worn in author photos, a week later those same fabrics lying before them on the table. In the years before he sold the company, Nesi lived something of a double life. He was a manufacturer who wrote novels, and it shows in his prose.

And here is where I’ll disagree, respectfully, with Bethanne Patrick. When, in her first line, she writes of “objective literary criticism,” she’s naming a unicorn.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookNo journalist is objective, least of all the critic, whose job it is to form and promulgate an opinion. I’m guessing Patrick means fair. Experienced critics are adept at giving work a full hearing, at starting from what the author intends and evaluating the results on the terms of the attempt. They’re never objective. They’re trained, however, to be fair. You can see this at work in the critical writings of Mandel, too.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Kyle Minor

Or see Kyle Minor’s criticism of the critics, Today in silly book reviews: Let’s all fight about Alice Munro at Salon. In that piece, bisected as it is by a Drugstore.com ad, Minor writes:

The critic of the sainting sort might shower the writer with unqualified praise, declare her a genius, and ignore or explain away the writer’s shortcomings — or declare them to be virtues. The other kind of critic might decide that the surest path to deflating the balloon of hyperbole isn’t merely letting a little air out the bottom. No, it might be more satisfying — and attention-grabbing — to spray it with a flamethrower.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookThis is critic-on-critic action, rhinos clashing on the veld, the sweaty and purposeful shaking of a ranking fist at another. In fact, Minor gets in some jabs at just about all of us. For example:

Martin Amis, in a New Yorker review of a story collection by Don DeLillo, said: “When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.”

By the time you finish Minor, Wimbledon will be over. (The Salon piece is longer even than an Ether post, I’m pleased to tell you.)

But you’ll know more than you did when you started, about literary criticism, its zip-line way of sailing down one theme and back up another, its pile-ups of preferred phrasings, an art performed on an art. You’ll know a bit more about what we’re losing, about what’s being given away in our shrugging acceptance of terms, like “reviewing,” applied to marketplace jargon and shopping-cart flattery.


And most of all, you’ll know a bit more about the lack of consciousness that characterizes so many changes in our culture on digital drive-time.

We’re generally unaware of these cultural slips and slides on the grassy court of our progress—this value brought to its knees, that tradition flat on its ass, something important retired in early-round competition. It doesn’t matter, get out of the way. We’re mobile. We’re social. We’re subscribing. And we’re trying to get a few more “likes” onto the page before somebody drops a one-star in the locker room and runs.

If you asked one of these tennis champions I like so much? He might not even remember. “Shake my fist? I did? Come on. Show me the tape.” 

One of the things literary criticism does—hell, consumer reviewing might even manage from time to time—is  make us aware of a trend, a surprise, a turn taken, a discovery made.

But mostly, we just shake a little recommendation at it.

What do you think? Is that really good enough? 

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Main image: iStockphoto – BuddyM

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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Guilty. I only write reviews for books I love because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I do tell friends when and why I don’t like a book, but it’s not in me to be a public critic, so I’m not. On Amazon, I pump my fist for my favorites. I do enjoy a spot-on critical review though. I just don’t want to write it.

Porter Anderson

@Darrelyn Saloom:disqus Hey, Darrelyn, These are very helpful things you’re saying here, in that some people have never wanted the role of public critic. While it’s generally true that most people never tire of telling you what they think about something, lol, there are folks who don’t seem to have that instinct — you being a great example — and in that case you do what you’re doing: review when and how you feel right doing so. In professional practice, no critic wants to hurt people’s feelings. On the other hand, the higher allegiance is always to the work, as… Read more »


Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a tough review and admire those who do it well. Btw, I’m not a tennis player, but my middle son played college tennis and now coaches juniors. Love to watch the game.

Jamie Chavez

I’ve long said there’s not enough time in my precious life to read everything I want to read (so I like Patrick’s phrase too). But you keep writin’ these, I’ll keep readin’ ’em. Love this one. And I enjoy literary criticism, though I’d never get any work done if I read it as much as I’d like. For my own blogging, I’m with Lev Grossman: I mostly like talking (blogging) about the books I liked, and I can’t bring myself to apologize for it. That’s what *my* audience is looking for.

Porter Anderson

@jamiechavez:disqus Hi, Jamie, Many thanks for finding the time to read the Ether — always honored that you choose to put that into your busy schedule. More and more, we’re all having these problems, of course, of what to read, when, how to budget the time and keep up with the best-laid plans. Between my Kindle Fire and my print books, the stack must be up to the ceiling, and I find I do better on the Kindle because I dip in and out of several books at once. An no need to apologize for your blogging preferences, that’s what… Read more »

Linda Paul

I really appreciate the discussion of serious art vs. entertainment.

Porter Anderson


Thanks, Linda,

Great to have you and thanks for dropping a note, much appreciated!


On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

Jessica Rydill

I enjoyed reading this piece. A long time ago, I did an English Literature degree, at the point when the F.R. Leavis idea of quality and the idea of ‘the canon’ was moved aside to accommodate literary theory. Literary theory was never concerned with ranking books according to their serious nature or value – at first site an advertisement was given the same serious consideration as Shakespeare. But thinking about it, they did have a concept of value, with books that exhibited ‘narrative closure’ being disapproved of to some degree. However, as often happens with the distillation of ideas into… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@jessicarydill:disqus Hi, Jessica, You make a very cogent point here and that is that much self-published work — anything moving to market outside the traditional-publishing channels, has almost no hope of getting the kind of mainstream critical review attention you speak of enjoying in newspapers and other locations. This is not, by the way, always an effect of disapproval for non-traditionally published work. It also has to do with the huge volume of material being produced outside the major publishing routes. Critical outlets are simply overwhelmed, and many who would like to do more are also nonplussed as to where… Read more »

Jessica Rydill

Thank you, Porter. I think you are absolutely right, that critics are already inundated with book from traditional publishers.

There are many impressive reviewing blogs, some of which will review indie books. I hope that when the music stops, some new means of reviewing will emerge that can avoid the one-to-five-stars approach.

Dave Morris

One of the best recent book reviews I’ve come across is Kathryn Schulz’s “Why I despise The Great Gatsby” (http://www.vulture.com/2013/05/schulz-on-the-great-gatsby.html) which, as the title suggests, is as far from objective as you can get. But it is not a “do not read” piece. In fact, I’m sure that Kathryn would want people to go away all the more fired up to take a look at the book. I did.

Porter Anderson

@disqus_gjh5IRwg5y:disqus Hey, Dave, That, in a nutshell, is exactly what the best critiques and reviews do — they make a reader want to compare his or her reaction to that of the critic. I used to write this suggestion into my reviews, esepcially when they were fairly negative, asking readers to give whatever work was at hand a chance and let me know what they thought. We are, each of us, our own best critic, after all. Nobody knows what you like or don’t like and getting another’s careful, fair input frequently not only reveals a lot about how we… Read more »


Lord Stanley’s cap has inspired quite a bit of fist-pumping here in Chicago, Porter. There’s no stopping it. It feels good to do it, but looks silly. I review books on my blog and on BroadwayWorld.com. I get to choose what I review, so it follows that I review books I like – or think I’ll like. I do strive for some kind of fairness (thanks for that word) in my reviews. If I love a book, but the author’s use of the same adjective dozens of times (I lost count) makes me cringe, I’ll say that. If I expected… Read more »


Victoria, I’d welcome a criticism of too many adjectives. It’s funny because I appreciate fair criticism because I grow and learn from it. I just have a hard time dishing it out unless I’m working as an editor. Then I can put on my objective hat (which can turn me into a beast) because they asked for it. And it’s private.

Porter Anderson

@Victoria_Noe:disqus Hey, Viki, Thanks for the input. What you or I may see as a lack of standards is exactly what many others celebrate as a lack of gatekeepers. And yes, the results are exactly as you describe — you can’t tell the motivations behind customer-recommendation. In the era when criticism was performed by professionals who worked for major media, the standards were in place, they were very similar from one venue to the next, they were tested and long-standing and were easy to follow and fulfill. Now, even the highest standards may be missed — or criticized as gatekeeping… Read more »

Lara Schiffbauer

The word “fair” makes all the difference. Many of the negative reviews from the consumer reviews/reader recommendation people aren’t fair, either. The review is written solely on the fulfillment of their personal tastes, and because their tastes weren’t fulfilled, the book must be bad. Totally untrue, and might be why many of the peoplein those two review categories choose to review books they like and don’t mention the books they don’t. Someone else might enjoy the book very much. Because of this, I think having literary criticism is important. Give me a review that looks at the positive, the negative… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@laraschiffbauer:disqus LOL, hey, Lara — Excellent points here. One of the best being that even entertainment-based material can benefit from genuine criticism. When I was with the Village Voice and other papers with my primary beat being theater, modern dance, music, and visual arts as well as books, I wrote up both the Medea productions and the musicals. And you’re absolutely right. As long as the critic begins with what each work sets out to do — its context in the larger picture, its background, its creators, their intentions — then you’re doing genuine, viable criticism. I found it very… Read more »

Tom Bentley

Porter, I use to love to settle in with the New York Review of Books much for the essayistic wanderings, which might be part author bio, part personal lit peeve or pleasure, part parsing of plot and character. But the contagious, helter-skelterish nature of Twitter Time today does seem to deter me from directly seeking probing reviews or reviewers. (Though I never turn away from their reading when I come across any book review in a magazine, online, or less and less so, in newspapers.) There is a loss when the thumbs up/thumbs down take-a-bite-and-move-on “review” supplants the measured, curious… Read more »

Jessica Rydill

Tom, I quite enjoyed some of those literary theory guys. But I’m not entirely convinced to this day that I understood what they were saying. I do recall one of my supervisors proclaiming the death of the novel, in about 1980. Perhaps he was a bit premature!

Porter Anderson

@disqus_z8blEym8w8:disqus Yo, Tom! Good to hear from you, thank you! And yes, the NYReview of Books is engaged, even now, in a just-off-the-campus academic model of criticism, highly prized in some quarters, totally vexing in those “snack cake” quarters you speak of. I worry for it and for other similarly broadly understood centers of critical purview and exercise — and not because I like to read it that much. (There are flights of fancy critical address really not at all worth taking, after all, lol.) On the other hand, we do live in the world of those snack cakes. And… Read more »

Tom Bentley

Thanks Porter. I thought a bit more today about the divide between old-school formal criticism (with its sometimes stifling impenetrability) and the snack-cake recommendation culture, trying to recall instances of delight with the former AND with the latter. I remembered that Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature” was as much a frolic as an edifying tome. He looked at the works of some of the biggest names in 19th and 20th century lit (Dickens, Austen, Joyce, Kafka, et al.), but even when he was discussing structural or technical aspects of the craft, it was never fussy, at least as I remember… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@disqus_z8blEym8w8:disqus Hey, Tom, I think I’m a little less impressed than some by such set-ups as the San Francisco magazine “Writers on Writers.” Those who enjoy it, should do so thoroughly, and, I’m sure, will. It’s OK. To me, it’s a well-meaning stunt. Getting readers to read is certainly the goal, you’re right about that. I’m just never happy when we haul literature in the direction of “fun” … as if it weren’t fun in and of itself. That’s anti-intellectualism in city-magazine clothing. The intent may be genuinely good, too. Nobody wakes up in the morning and announces, “I’m going… Read more »

Tom Bentley

Porter, ugh, the baseball cap story makes me writhe a bit; your disdain was on point. Yuck. Yes, the Writers on Writers piece was a swirl of frothy meringue, but undoubtedly struck an agreeable chord with the mag’s audience, before they turned to the next celebrity chef article. I can’t fault the magazine for that, nor the writers for participating, but I’m in full agreement that such flashy table dips aren’t really in the service of literature, which has so many more intriguing chambers, passages and vaults beneath the table. But me being the shallow sort, I still liked it… Read more »

[…] In Writing on the Ether, Porter Anderson at JaneFriedman.com looks at how literary criticism now is divided into three major camps, none fully effective.  […]

Anne R. Allen

Great discussion of a real problem. But it’s important to note it’s been brewing for decades. Oprah did a lot to get the average woman to read, but she also elevated the sentimental over artistic merit. “Serious” literature came to mean “weepy”. It also meant the most influential critics in the NYT, etc, tended to ignore women writers entirely. I think both factors have added to the disappearance of real literary criticism. I also think a big influence on the current review climate comes from the fact the first Amazon reviewers were young men reviewing video games. These were individual… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@annerallen:disqus Hey, Anne, Thanks for these observations in which you’re putting your finger on something very true about the “recommendation culture,” as I call it — for the most part, these retail-based, non-professional participants in the most rudimentary level of consumer review aren’t prepared to handle products as anything but that — products. You couldn’t ask for a clearer demarcation of how limited the consumer-review and recommendation culture can be than this. The folks who started as gamers tipping each other off — or warning each other — about games and consoles are completely unequipped to critique other material. And… Read more »


How interesting. A few months after beginning my blog on historical fiction, I began receiving requests from publicists and PR types as well as indie authors to review various books. Flattered was my first reaction, after all someone had noticed my little blog. Too busy was my second reaction. What will I say if I don’t like it was my third thought. And I’ll admit that the fourth reaction concerned the possibility that I might somehow make a useful connection. Ultimately, I decided to offer author interviews as a way to generate synergistic publicity. Since that first request, I have… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@A_Writer_of_History:disqus Hi there. Since your Disqus registration provides us with no name, I’m unable to address you by name, as I like to do with commenters, so do forgive me. (You may want to reconsider your handle — we teach authors that the very best thing they can choose as a handle in any social-media formulation is the closest thing they can get to their actual name. Then we know them as people.) Your point about readers liking to talk about reading is very well taken — quite true — but in no way counters our understanding of digital as… Read more »

M.K. Tod

Hi Porter – thanks for your reply and for pointing out that I needed to change my Disqus registration. The first name is Mary .. but I’m publishing under M.K. Tod otherwise Google assumes I’ve misspelled my name and meant to refer to Mary Todd Lincoln.

Porter Anderson

Well, hi, Mary,
And thanks for the change, at least calling you MK is easier than A Writer of History. 🙂
All the best, good weekend.

Mary DeEditor

Years ago I wrote for American Theatre magazine, which didn’t review but did survey new productions of note. The editor, Jim O’Quinn (who’s still there, bless him), gave me some interesting advice. To paraphrase: Most magazine readers will never see the show, but they want to feel as if they had. They want to be au courant, keep up with trends and names. When I later wrote theater and book reviews for other pubs, I kept that in mind. I haven’t reviewed in awhile, but I often scan the fresh reviews, interested in books and shows I may never experience… Read more »

Porter Anderson

Hey, Mary, Great to hear from you and especially to be reminded of Jim O’Quinn, a great friend for whom I’ve written many times at American Theater, he’s a super guy! And of course his point is right (he’s always right, that Jim): people do, in fact, want to feel as if they’re on top of things and I’ve run into a number of people over the years, for example, who would religiously read my dance or theater or music criticism without even considering going to see something. A little weird to those of us who do like to see… Read more »

AJ Sikes

What a great read, Porter. Talk about an overhead smash that scores the winning point 🙂 Kid gloves? Yeah, those things over in the corner next to the tattered, jacketless copy of The Da Vinci Code. Oh my, I do make a point of writing a review, a measured critique but a no-holds barred assessment, of any bad books I happen to read. If the industry! the industry! ever needed knights errant, it’s now. Recommendation is all well and good. It serves a role in our digital economy, and a needed role. There’s just too much good stuff out there,… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus Right, Aaron. There are several levels of difficulty as we see the new recommendation culture rise alongside literary criticism and consumer reviews. You’re certainly right that there’s a place for recommendation and that the mad overwhelm of too much material is making that all the more pressing. Where Bethanne Patrick is right, however, has more to do with the recommendation culture’s love of the enthusiastic response. Unlike your own willingness to negatively critique something, many (even at least one in these comments) is talking of not being able to risk “hurting people’s feelings” by saying something negative about a… Read more »

AJ Sikes

“Literature, like all other arts, grows in honest soil not in fatuous praise or amateur glee.”

You say it all right there. I appreciate the position of the commenter who fears hurting other’s feelings. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but pushed through anyway.

Another reviewer friend put it this way. “I have my integrity as a reviewer to consider.” Reputation, when distilled down to “ranking” or “feedback % positive/negative” gets diluted, almost obviated, by the recommendation culture. That makes it an even more necessary consideration.

Porter Anderson

@f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus Right, Aaron, this reputational point of the reviewer/critics/consumer is what I’m getting at when I talk about what happened as professional critics were told we had to use stars and thumbs up and down and whatnot. Our reputations — certainly those who do this seriously as a career, depend hugely on what we can do en-critique, in searching for that fairness, that fine balance between what works and what doesn’t, that expertise brought in from years of study and experience and observation (so we know the artists, know their work, know their influences, know their capabilities, and — the… Read more »

AJ Sikes

“the critic thus begins to lose credibility and reputation because his or
her arguments just aren’t being played out in the way they were in the

This happens, I’ll suggest, because the range of consciousness has narrowed:


Consumers are pressured by the pace of the digital economy. Everything feels faster now, more urgent. And so we resort to the most expedient action and claim a sense of victory.

“We like it! Huzzah! Now where’s the next funny cat picture in my news feed? Is Godot here yet?”

Porter Anderson

@f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus Precisely, Aaron, that AND — as I’ve just been commenting to Elizabeth — the fact that the consumer reviewer’s main interest IS selfish, the patron’s prerogative, the paying piper feels he gets to diss the tune, whether he’s dissatisfied with the book or the garden rake. Unlike the literary critic, the consumer reviewer just thinks of no need to be constructive or thorough (usually, with some fine exceptions) — his or her main purpose is to say the third button on the left doesn’t work. And as you note, to say it fast. 🙂 Thanks again! -p. On Twitter,… Read more »

Elizabeth S. Craig

Oh, well put. And writers can *learn* from criticism of their books–it’s tough to learn from a customer review (especially since bad reviews are along the lines of: “Didn’t like this book. Didn’t finish it.”) As a reader, I like to see what *didn’t* work in a book I’m considering purchasing…maybe what didn’t work won’t even matter to me. Question for you (and I apologize for going a bit off-topic—you only briefly brought up the issue). While digital distribution has been very good for commercial fiction (I’ve noticed/enjoyed the results), I do think it could be good for literary fiction… Read more »

Porter Anderson

Elizabeth S. Craig Hey, Elizabeth (with that great new photo, love it — and you made the change at Disqus, lol.) Great piece on the picture issue, btw: http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2013/06/author-photos.html You’re bringing up a couple of my favorite issues. First the diss-the-book “review” from a consumer, from which it’s almost impossible to learn anything. Remember you’re in the land of true consumer-review on such reactions, near-anathema to actual literary criticism. If you can ever tie down a genuine critic, the nice thing is that he or she will have been trained never to just say “didn’t like it.” The job is… Read more »

Elizabeth S. Craig

I’m fascinated by this all too, Porter–thanks so much for the food for thought here. This is perfect material for a complete Ether! Yes, my eyes just float over the unhelpful, negative consumer reviews…and I’m always *looking* for those critical reviews so that I can find something constructive to work with. They’re few and far between, for sure. Interesting point–yes, they are self-centered, aren’t they? Hadn’t considered that. Wondering, as you mentioned, if the path for independent literary writers might, after all, be found with Amazon…but you’re right, it would be daunting to persuade them to create a sub-store for… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@8c7ec7376be7df2b0bdcd28e437836b5:disqus Impolite, Elizabeth, you?? Never! No, not at all — I’m still in awe of all you get done in a day while I’m still trying to spell my Twitter handle correctly, lol. The point of so many consumer reviewers being self-centered, by the way, isn’t to say that these are bad people — after all, we’re consumers, too. 🙂 I’m sure you got that, but just to be clear in case someone feels unhappy with that, it’s the purpose and function of the review that changes when it moves into the hands of the customer. The consumer is responding… Read more »


I think of the process as one that has come to equate the critical faculty with rudeness, even cruelty. It happens when readers are groomed to imagine themselves bonded in some way to writers. Social media makes this possible. People who are unlikely ever to meet the author end up high-fiving, liking friending etc. Once the bogus connection is put in place, what’s required of the reader is a show of solidarity, of loyalty to a “friend,” nothing more. This applies largely to light reading, not to more weighty books, and it applies most of all to indie-published books. But… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@923dc3851043320b8856d289f934ce07:disqus Hi, BW, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you find the sampling process useful and are using it — I think it’s one of the best developments that has come to us primarily through Amazon’s arrival in literature’s retail. Before sampling, we were all staggering up and down aisles in bookstores trying to sort out what we wanted and pawing the actual inventory to do it. Unlike many who long for the perpetuation of physical bookstores, I find online sampling a far, far more efficient and telling way to select material, it’s a great boon to the industry. I’m… Read more »

[…] By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson Writ­ing on the Ether: Let’s Review Criticism […]

[…] rolling along recently about the place and purview of the original: literary criticism. In Writing on the Ether: Let’s Review Criticism, for example, a robust comment-chat took up some of the issues around questions of how we’re […]

[…] WRITING ON THE ETHER | Let’s Review Crit­i­cism | JANEFRIEDMAN.COM […]

[…] these reviews beautifully in his Writing on the Ether post last year for Jane Friedman’s blog, “Let’s Review Criticism.”  Porter […]

[…] the meantime, I encourage you to read Anderson’s post, Let’s Review Criticism. He outlines what’s at stake so much better than I can, and he raises questions about culture and […]