Reviews — From the December 2007 issue

Among the Reviewers

John Updike and the book-review bugaboo

Lately, manifestos on the matter of book reviewing seem to be cropping up all over. “The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers,” wrote Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review this fall, just months after Cynthia Ozick, lamenting in these pages the decline in popular conversation about books, declared, “What is not happening is literary criticism.” Nor is such exasperation confined to our more seasoned commentators. In the new literary journal n+1, dissatisfaction found a specific target, The New Republic: “Its method was wholly negative… indiscriminately so.” And a 2003 essay on reviewing and its discontents in McSweeney’s offshoot The Believer found editor Heidi Julavits observing that “a lot of books are reviewed by people who don’t read books unless they’re reviewing them.”

Differing somewhat in their ultimate points—some saying that too much criticism is mean-spirited and rude; others offering that it’s softheaded or too content to mollycoddle—all took pains to acknowledge earlier manifestos, thereby suggesting the problem wasn’t new. Thus Wasserman quoted similar assessments of reviewery by Jay Parini in 1999 (“ill-considered opinion, ludicrously off-the-mark praise, and blame”), Edmund Wilson in 1963 (“The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only made us realize it had never existed”), and Elizabeth Hardwick in 1959 (“Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns”). Julavits cited Orwell in 1936 and Wilson in 1944. n+1 name-dropped Wilson, too. Apparently, one can’t not. Fair enough. Here, then, is an even earlier excoriation, vintage 1928, from Wilson’s “The Critic Who Does Not Exist”: “When one considers the number of reviews, the immense amount of literary journalism that is now being published in New York, one asks oneself how it is possible for our reviewing to remain so puerile.”

Yes, very clearly: one asks. What is curious, though, about this run of failing grades sent to generations of critics is how few serious suggestions are made for remediation; these critics of criticism are stern teachers with high standards, but it would seem they have little practicable curriculum to impart. Julavits tells us, for instance, that “there exist many able reader-critics to write about [books], people whose main qualification is that they seriously care about books”—“caring” the policy that would ensure “both fairness and rigor when assessing the success or failure of an author’s project.” Or, as n+1’s editors maintain, “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them.”

Let us concede them their points, such as they are, while not failing to note that the more functional and specific traits that any of these advocates would wish a work of criticism to exhibit are left unqualified. What criticism might practically entail—what tactics, what techniques, what fine tools—is left unelaborated except in the most amorphous (to care, to think) terms. And so, when Zadie Smith tells us, in her own recent 8,000-word manifesto on these matters, “What I am imagining is, I hope, a far more thorough reader,” what is one left to suppose but that the true critic, like a unicorn or a yeti, must reside in the imagination?

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 6
Download Pdf
Share

More from Wyatt Mason:

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content