The Stagnation of American Book Reviewers, Critics, and Short Fiction Outlets

Mark Athitakis at American Fiction writes:

Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

Athitakis seems to suggest (by Bookbreads reading at least) that readers are responsible for their knowledge of critics as people, even though it is getting harder to do so nowadays. But by this logic, apparently the critic never need know of the reader. Readers subsequently face an ever-increasing “knowledge gap” concerning critics.

The Solution:  Readers must fortify their wits with additional biographical data of the critic in question in order to understand that critic in order to understand the writer/text the critic is discussing.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that critics are writing for a single readership.  But who are those readers? People possibly interested in books? (In that case we should call them pre-readers.) Is the critic’s readership other experts in criticism? Is the critic’s readership book readers? Then how much recommending is needed?

Can it not be possible that one reason newspapers and magazines are cutting their book sections is that those particular sections are no longer profitable? And are they not profitable because an ever-decreasing readership is interested in the specific information the book sections and their critic-reviewers have to offer? Athitakis certainly highlights how mere reviewing has evolved online into a shopping decision involving “Consumer Reports” kinds of data—and it is evident that even before the internet, customers wanted to hear what other customers had to say about the products they shared an interest in. Currently the analysis, teaching, and educating of others about books are products that book critics can still offer readers without stretching a simple “thumbs up or down” on a book into five paragraphs.

Bookbread has never come across a critic as somebody you know well enough. I may feel that Harold Bloom is one of the most influential teachers in my life, but I have never met him, and I don’t feel that I “know” him. Athitakis, (or my reading of him) seems to be confusing knowing a person with knowing their writing—as with primary sources so with secondary.

Bookbread is interested in the critic’s critical texts, not critical moments of the critic’s biography.  There is no gnosis needed for the reader when it comes to critics.  Or to reverse the argument:  Just because I empathize with someone’s life story doesn’t mean I sympathize with their writing.

Athitakis links to John Fox, who comments that for critics:

They have an inverse relationship, it seems—as word-of-mouth finds more avenues of dissemination, book reviews tank in relevance and power.

“Power”?  Where are the all-powerful book reviews?  Where is the definitive THIS BOOK REVIEW CHANGED LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT among American critics? (Henry James and T.S. Eliot were too ashamed of their roots to be called “American” critics.)

Fox continues:

I do know that book reviews should have more importance than merely telling me whether or not I should read a book. They also perform the critical role of judging books. But to survive in this new media landscape, book reviews need to do what only they can do: describe the book well, connect the book to current books, the canon, trends, and make insightful interpretations that many readers might have otherwise have missed.

The issue seems to be the role critics play in their interactions with readers.  An example of the current role of the critic might be to comment on what writers are not writing about rather than vise versa, as a recent example from Ted Genoways at Mother Jones shows:

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq.

Genoways concludes with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with the call for abusive criticism, and equally applicable to our country’s book critics:

I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

[NYRNicholson Baker, Brian Turner]


2 Responses to “The Stagnation of American Book Reviewers, Critics, and Short Fiction Outlets”

  • Mark Athitakis Says:

    I didn’t say that readers needed to know biographical details about a critic. What I said was that it’s helpful if a reader gets to know “over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes.” By that, I meant that a reader can be more engaged with a critic if that reader recognizes the critic’s byline over a stretch of time, getting to know that critic’s likes and dislikes. I know, for instance, that James Wood doesn’t much like postmodern writing (so I’ll probably like Richard Powers and Paul Auster more than he does); that Michiko Kakutani tends to be harsh toward books (so her raves, being rarer, are more attention-grabbing); that Roger Ebert tends to be soft toward movies (so when he hates something, it’s really saying something). I know these things about all three critics because they have a regular outlet for which they write often; that way, I can have an understanding of them as critics, even if I don’t know much about them as people. (As it happens, Ebert is very open about his personal life, and Kakutani is very reclusive, but one isn’t a *better* critic than the other.) Fewer and fewer critics are afforded such an opportunity to build that relationship with readers, at least in print outlets.

    Who are those readers, you ask? As I told somebody recently, “somebody who knows a little about what you’re talking about, but who would like to know a little more.” That’s general, but it’s enough to prod a writer to work to be clear about both the subject at hand and their opinion about it. It may make more sense to say who you’re *not* writing for: You’re not writing to please your friends, or to curry the favor of fellow critics, or to cynically grab the attention of the kinds of people online who react to button-pushing. Just be clear, sensible, and interesting.

  • Christopher Says:

    I completely agree with your definition of the book critic’s readership as: somebody who knows a little about what youre talking about, but who would like to know a little more.

    I completely agree because I completely fit that definition.

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