Friday, April 06, 2007

Critic Woes

In the recent issue of Publishers Weekly, editor-in-chief Sara Nelson talks in her regular column, Foreword, about the state of reviewing books in the general market. Seems a certain novelist has written an article in Harper’s that bemoans the lack of real literary criticism. According to author Cynthia Ozick, Nelson reports, “publishing and the public are awash in book chatter, thanks to book clubs, the Internet, the trade, the consumer press, not to mention publishers themselves.” But where, laments Ozick, are the real critics?

Nelson doesn’t totally agree. She does point out that the reviewers tend to be “na├»ve and untutored.” But, she asks, so what? “No serious reader” takes reviews as valid literary criticism. These reviews merely reflect what the reviewer does or does not like to read.

Does the lack of literary criticism matter? Nelson asks. Well, yes, to those who want to “view literature in the larger context.” But to most readers? No. Nelson points to an upcoming Oprah interview with the author of her next “Oprah Pick” (Cormac McCarthy, The Road). Oprah may not do a highfalutin’ literary criticism of the book, but just ‘cause she likes it—it’s gonna sell tons. In fact, to meet the expected demand, PW reports, the publisher has fast printed 950,000 paperback copies.

Nelson’s ending: “Oh, that hoi polloi: they may have trouble placing authors in the literary landscape, but they’re pretty good at putting them on the map.”

My, my. And I thought CBA fiction held the rights to such angst.


J. Mark Bertrand said...

I'm going to have to hunt down these articles -- sounds like interesting reading. It's always seemed to me that the literary critic is like a philosopher whose subject is books. He wants to meditate on them and interpret them, to argue about them, to build theories around them, and while the review may be a vehicle for doing this, a literary critic isn't just a reviewer. (Which is frustrating if what you want from him is a thumb's up or down on a particular book, as he's likely to springboard away at any moment.)

The dearth of literary critcism now probably reflects a general lack of interest in thinking about books. To the extent that books still have a purpose, they are a means, not an end. It's hard enough to read a book without trying to read a book about a book. Film and TV studies, which seemed a little laughable when they first appeared on the cirriculum, now seem plausible thanks to the public interest in those media.

There's no question literary criticism is waning in the mainstream, for better or worse. I can't see that it has ever existed in the evangelical market. (Maybe sociologists have written books about evangelical books, as a way to analyze us, but I don't think we have many homegrown critics thinking about our books.) It seems like a bad thing to me, if only because so many of the authors we admire from the past were discovered, preserved and interpreted for us by critics. Who is going to do the same service for future generations?

Nicole said...

In a way, I understand Mark's comment. After all, based on someone's astute critiques, there was created a curriculum of books for high school and college readers. The classics were borne out of some highly held opinions, and the past American contemporaries were decided upon by critics/reviewers of the written word.

However, the whole "culture" of education has changed for the most part. There is a tremendous amount of propaganda being taught in all aspects of public education, so it will probably be eventually reflected in literature as well, making genuine reviews from a strictly literary/analytical and overall literature-savvy scope less probable and possibly even less acceptable.

SolShine7 said...

As far as I know there's no official Christian literary critics group but there is a film one called Faith and Film Critics Circle at - Jeffery Overstreet (of Christianity Today) started it up.