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Long live the book review

A public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses it cultural memory. Art for art’s sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilized life itself.

Northrop Frye- Anatomy of Criticism

Attitudes and actions that are tolerable and sometimes even endearing in young people are almost always insufferably egotistical and boring in adults. To find examples, you need not look any further than what passes for literary criticism today: writing that is, for the most part, postmodernist obscurantist nonsense or navel-gazing political polemic disguised as analyses of literary texts. That’s depressing enough. But most of that writing stays confined to academic literary journals, and thus doesn’t have much influence (one hopes, at least) on those outside of academia. Unfortunately, though, these childish attitudes, especially the idea that, when it comes to discussions of and analyses of texts, one’s feelings and ideological grudges matter much more than a thorough analysis of the merits of the text itself, have spread outside of academia. They can now be found in many mainstream publications, often accompanied by proclamations that the book review is dead, and that its supposed death is something we should all delight in.


Take, for example, this recent n+1 article, called, quite simply, “Against Reviews“. In it, Elizabeth Gumport makes a very disjointed, confusing, and strange argument, which can be summed up as:

1) Centuries ago, poets wrote for their patrons, not for a “general audience”. Gumport believes that these “[p]atronage relationships spilled into erotic ones”.

2) The growth of literacy led to a larger market for books. More books were published, and along with these books came book reviews. And, according to Gumport, “[t]his unprecedented outpouring of reviews meant that for the first time an author’s fortune was determined by the general public rather than by a private patron”. This proliferation of reviews, Gumport argues, left authors feelings confused and asking themselves how they could “seduce” the public. In other words, the eroticism that Gumport believes was a part of the relationship between poet and patron was no more.

3) “[Book] reviews are inherently conservative. Space constraints inhibit speculation and dissent, which is why even elegant reviews tend to be dry, aimless, and unmotivated.”

4) With few exceptions, no one reads book reviews anymore.

5) “Why do we prioritize some imaginary “public” over people we actually know, and who read our work? Why don’t we want to write, and read, for our friends? Perhaps we fear our freedom. If we could read and write anything we wanted, what would we read and write? Probably not book reviews. Choices would have to be made.”

6) Then back to the erotic thing. Um, I don’t even know where to begin with this, so I’ll just let its ridiculousness speak for itself: “[a]ffection, attraction, admiration, rivalry, resentment: all are aphrodisiacs, and heighten our interest in what’s before us. Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them? If the privacy of pure patronage is impossible or undesirable, the traditional courtship can be replaced by the orgy”.

7) Again, book reviews are bad because they’re not sexy enough, or something: “[i]f we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing—and reading—reviews. The old faiths have passed away; the new age requires a new form”. I guess she wants a sexed-up form of reader-response criticism? Reader-orgy criticism, perhaps?

8) And, to finish up, she makes it clear that it’s all about her, and that careful literary analysis must always take a backseat to personal feelings and anecdotes and orgies, etc.: “[i]nstead of prostrating ourselves before the future, we should give our own experience its due”.


Here’s the thing: if you want to write a review for only your friends to read, or one that is orgiastic (I’m still confused by that) and focuses solely on your own experiences, it’s easy to do that at Goodreads or on any social networking site. If you want to write a piece about how much you can personally relate to a book, why not start a blog? What’s stopping her from “writ[ing] and read[ing] for [her] friends” or “giv[ing] [her] own experience its due”? What’s preventing her from “read[ing] and writ[ing] anything [she] want[s]” to? Nothing.

Gumport wants to replace the traditional book review with what is already widely available on the internet: the opinions of all sorts of readers, most of whom do, indeed, write reviews that only their friends will read. Her stated goal contains the not-so-implicit assertions that all voices are equally credible, that expertise and earned authority are no longer valuable, and that personal feelings should always be prioritized over a careful analysis of the text. In other words, to Gumport and others, this “new form” of book review should focus on the reviewer, not the book.

Although Gumport would deny it, there’s a reason why many of us still read publications such as the The New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books: we hope to find expert analyses of the merits of literary texts. The simple truth is that some voices are more credible than others. I strongly believe in the democratization of knowledge, but not in the devaluing of earned authority and expertise.

I do hope that there’s some way to combat this trend that has begun to spread into even the most mainstream and well-respected of publications. Considering how easy it is to buy into faux-revolutionary and shallow arguments like Gumport’s, though, I doubt that will happen any time soon, sadly enough. So, for now, all I can say is this: long live the book review.

  1. I seem to be the only on in my little comment screen here so I doubt a slow-clap will be catching. Here it is anyway.

    There’s one way to steer this in a direction amenable to you (and me for that matter): you could write reviews and submit them . . .

    I’d read them. =^_^=

    August 3, 2011
    • Thank you :) & I should get in the habit of writing about the books I read. For some reason, I rarely do that.

      August 4, 2011
  2. I do envy the cozy coteries that existed during the European Renaissance, in which authors would write poems and songs and stories to be shared only with their closest friends and allies. Something like Facebook or Twitter is somewhat comparable, although people don’t tend to write at any great length with these mediums. People who take the time to write anything substantial will usually, and understandably, want it to reach as wide an audience as possible. Many coterie members throughout the Renaissance, however, simply had to ensure that only a select few would ever actually read what they had written, as much of their writing was politically and socially subversive, and far too dangerous for them to publish with their name attached to it.

    I don’t see what Gumport’s problem actually is, though; why would anyone want to write anything of substantial length and quality that is only going to read by a small amount of pre-selected people? The coteries of the past are no longer required due to the fact that people are now free to write or say whatever they want without the fear of being reprimanded, and so, as Miranda says, what’s stopping Gumport from just starting a blog if writing unfiltered personal experiences and musings is what she feels we are missing?

    August 3, 2011
    • Oh yes indeed, those coteries do sound lovely. & Yes, I really don’t get her argument at all. I tried to be as charitable as possible towards it, but it just doesn’t make any sense. I mean, “Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them?” Really? That is silly and inane on so many levels.

      August 4, 2011
  3. Thanny #

    Some time spent reading Amazon customer reviews should disabuse anyone of the notion that professional reviews aren’t worth bothering with.

    As an aside, since this topic kind of touches on it, I’d just like to offer my opinion of the best movie cameo of all time: Kurt Vonnegut in Back to School.

    Rodney Dangerfield’s character, a rich middle-aged man who goes back to college to encourage his son to not drop out, pays people to write his papers for him. Said son asks him at one point, who is he going to get to write his soon-due paper on Vonnegut? He then opens the knocked-on door to reveal the author himself, who simply introduces himself and says he’s looking for Dangerfield’s character.

    Later in the movie, the English professor verbally shreds the Vonnegut paper, correctly deduces that it was not written by Dangerfield’s character, then declares that whoever did write it doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.

    That about sums up my view on virtually all interpretation of literature in American education.

    And for the record, I’ve read every book Vonnegut ever published. My two favorites are Galapagos and The Sirens of Titan. I so wish the latter would be made into a movie (competently).

    August 3, 2011
    • Oh thanks for mentioning that cameo! I hadn’t thought of it in years. It’s great.

      & I was lucky enough to see Kurt Vonnegut speak a few years back, shortly before he died. It was a really lovely and wonderful experience, something I’ll always remember.

      August 4, 2011
  4. Love this. I particularly love the opening quote. That will be going in my “quotes file.” It seems to me you and I are waging the same battle on different turf (mine being music).

    Those whose approach to the arts takes this postmodern tack are in the curious position of trying both to assert and decry authority. They argue for their naïve egalitarianism and pay lipservice to the notion that “anything and everything goes.” But they also cling to the idea that the arts are just so esoteric, only certain people (read: them) will have the penetrating insight necessary for full and real appreciation. Therefore, listen to them! They’re right!

    I’d be very interested to read about your take on actual content, that is, on the literary art that’s being produced these days.

    August 4, 2011
    • Thank you :) & Yep, you’re spot-on regarding the postmodernists. They present “arguments” that are both circular and meaningless. And thank you- I really should write more about books on here. For some reason, I tend not to.

      & I wrote some music reviews “back in the day”. They’re not great or anything, but it was a fun thing to do, and definitely a learning experience.

      August 4, 2011
  5. I fucked a stranger while I was reading this. And then, afterwards when she was all sweaty and giving her own experience due, I read her my review of “Green Eggs and Ham.” She loved it. No but on a more serious note, this argument seems like it was fleshed out on the back of a napkin. I’ve been writing for a long time, and not once have me or my friends ever gotten together for a literature orgy. I’m not even sure what that entails, besides a lot of paper cuts and awkward glances. I tend to “prioritize the public”, as reviewers and yea, ALL writers do because well, I need to eat too. I can’t make a living off of making my friends feel great. If I could, I’d buy a big field, put a bounce house in the middle of it, and charge all my chums to experience the wonder of overcoming gravity. Steering away from being objective analyzers of the media we come into contact with everyday is ridiculous on so many levels, I won’t even begin to take it apart. Especially when you try to be edgy by adding sexy talk that makes absolutely no sense.

    Before this turns into a full on text wall, I’ll stop. Great article all around.

    May 9, 2012

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