Short Saturday: More Criticism, Less Liking

This article in Slate has been on everyone’s Twitter feed this last week. It’s about the disappearance of literary journalism/criticism.

It starts out with the social media-ization of book promotion:

You’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.

But it moves on to something I hadn’t even considered: that reviewers simply don’t spend their time writing about books they dislike. This article even mentions an article I pointed you to a couple Saturdays ago.

But the atomization of literary journalism—and the attendant problem of getting paid for it—has led to its being seen as embattled. Reviewers have responded by circling the wagons, apparently thinking that they will catch more readers (and institutional support) with honey than with argument, dissent, or flair. Editors are complicit too, as some publications don’t publish negative reviews at all, treating even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time’s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time, NPR.org’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged; critical voices have since slowly seeped into the site but are still rare. Other outlets milk page views (and Amazon affiliate fees) from slideshows, listicles, and guest posts from famous authors that read like repurposed jacket copy. Each of these is a victory for a publicist, but not for readers.

Food for thought. I’ll confess, I haven’t read the New York Time Book Review in years. It was an addiction, and after months of relapsing, I managed to tear myself away from it for good. (The fact is, if I read the NYTBR every week, I would never get anything done. And I have a mortgage. And, you know, felines who must be fed.) However, I recall reading negative reviews there, once upon a time.

But here’s the thing. I enjoy talking about books I liked. It’s less probable I’ll bring up books I didn’t like, although if you ask me, I’ll tell. This doesn’t mean I’m avoiding the issue of bad books or trying to “protect” my industry; I just read more of what I prefer. I’m not a professional book reviewer, though.

What do you think? Should literary criticism be revived? Or are you OK with Shiny Happy Book Reviews? Read this article and let me know.

Tweet: More criticism, less liking: should literary criticism be revived?
Tweet: Bad books: don’t ask, don’t tell.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. By Quitting While You’re Ahead on 20 February, 2013 at 11:01 am

    […] been badly or barely edited, I can tell; you probably can too. **It’s interesting, also, that she avoids negative reviews. Although I understand it; when I’m excited about a book (see: Wolf Hall) I want to talk about it […]

  2. By How Did This Book Get Published? (Part 1 of 6) on 24 October, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    […] I prefer raving about the books I liked rather than complaining about the ones I didn’t. And that seems to be a trend. Lev Grossman at Time won’t write negative reviews, for example, and elsewhere the death knell of […]