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.
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.