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.

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

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

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

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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