Saturday, June 02, 2007

Reviewing: Good and Bad

Two weeks ago on May 20th, the LA Times published an op-ed by Richard Schickels, entitled "Not Everybody's A Critic". The point of his piece (as I read it) was that formal book criticism was an elevated activity that should not be left to amateurs lacking the proper credentials. His main target were bloggers and he took some cheap potshots, equating the activity with finger-painting and desultory chat. The piece has gotten some attention because others (thinking they ought also to defend the importance of book review sections in newspapers) have quoted from it and added their concerns about the fate of "formal" literary criticism. Schickels comes off as arrogant, essentially suggesting that the only opinions worth listening to (with regard to books) are those of the educated literary critic who participates in the "Great Discussion" of years, even centuries.

Bloggers, such as Mental Multivitamin, have shot back. Persephone Books' May 30 letter essentially reiterated Schickels' point, but Karen and Elaine have responded so well that I won't try to gild that particular lily. Update: Vanessa over at the Fidra Blog has chimed in this morning.

A couple of things are swirling around in my head that I don't think have been explicitly stated and I want to see if I can briefly isolate them for consideration:

Newspapers are cutting back on book review sections which causes consternation to those who see that channel as an important way to disseminate educational and thoughtful assessments of published works to the broadest possible population of readers. To the business people who are responsible for a paper's financial viability, however, the pages given over to book reviews and the staff responsible for those pages are too expensive to continue. They are not philistines necessarily; they are just running a business and they cannot justify the costs. Book reviews will continue to disappear from newspapers and the recommendation to critics is that they seek out other venues from which to deliver their thoughts. There is a strong school of thought among book critics that society at large will suffer from this move. It's a change from THE WAY THINGS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN DONE IN LIVING MEMORY and they worry we're throwing the baby out with the bath water. Certainly, it is possible that the change will have unforeseen results but that doesn't mean the death of the formal book review.

Reviews are a two-edged sword. They can help sales or they can hurt sales, particularly if published in major market media. Publishers tend to play both sides of the fence -- using positive reviews as a selling tool and finding some way to disassociate their product from the bad reviews. That's why there is a need for thoughtful consideration when offering up an assessment of a title.

What the formal literary critics do not often admit however is that reviews have frequently contributed to the "ghetto-ization" of specific genres and by extension, specific populations of writers. Science fiction is the most obvious instance, but romance novels and a large portion of the mystery and suspense genre have also been dismissed as unworthy material. The problem with this is that by so doing critics have effectively silenced legitimate expressions by other voices. I refer readers again to Joanna Russ' work, How to Suppress Women's Writing, which articulates just how generations of male critics have effectively sidelined the work done by women writers.

Ultimately Schickels, his colleagues, and his supporters have failed to understand that their expert filtering of quality has in many instances created a potentially destructive bottleneck that thwarted those of us looking for a book that resonated with our understanding of human experience. The Web publishing environment allows us to open up that bottleneck. That's a threatening idea to them; it eliminates (or at the very least seems to negate) their chosen vocation. Criticism is their contribution to the world and it appears that the audience is shrinking.

Schickels believes that he can help all of us become better Readers if we will allow him the opportunity by virtue of his professional education and training to do "justice to the work at hand". I (and others of my ilk) agree that an educated selection of reading material is a desirable thing, but there are many reasons for selecting a book to read and his assessment of "a good book" may not include all of my criteria.