What seems to be missing, I think, from these accounts of the current state of book reviews — as well as in the responses to them, like Christian Lorentzen’s in Gawker — is any discussion of what, ultimately, the purpose of book criticism is or ought to be. If, in fact, book reviews are on the whole too positive, as some suggest, does this mean that the purpose of book reviewing is to sniff out what’s rotten? Or, if book reviews are too negative, does this mean that public-facing literary criticism’s purpose is to highlight what’s worth reading?
Here is Lorentzen’s answer: “Negative reviews are simply the expression of displeasure,” he suggests, and even if you don’t find this or that expression of displeasure palatable, “evaluation isn’t the ultimate point of criticism, though in the crude slipstream of social media it’s usually taken to be.” Meaning, I think, that the purpose of book reviewing isn’t just quantitative scoring and is something closer to the public representation of a certain reaction, a performance of taste, an aesthetically pleasurable expression of a writer’s unique personality. But this can’t be entirely right. It’s not clear to me how expressing displeasure isn’t itself a form of evaluation, even if the performance is powerful. Sure, it’s not necessarily “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but it’s still an evaluation of something: the novel’s politics, its style, what it asks of the reader. Further, some of the most famous hatchet jobbers are quite explicit about their belief that their reviews aren’t just personal expressions but rather accurate assessments of something that is real and truly present in the work. Lauren Oyler says as much when she admits to “this kind of optimistic hope that everyone will be like, ‘Spot on! I’m not mad about that at all!’” after reading one of her negative reviews.
And so back to the unasked questions: What’s the point? Who are book reviews for? Why do we need them? These questions are made even harder to answer when we think about the multiple different audiences who might engage with public-facing book criticism. Some audiences might want to experience someone’s displeasure, particularly if the displeased person is able to present their frustration in a compelling way. But other audiences might actually want more traditional or straightforward forms of assessment, especially if they’re primarily interested in worthwhile questions like, “Will I like this or not?” Many organizations — like my city’s library — offer multiple ways for readers to find and share these opinions through star systems, organized book clubs, and live staff discussions. There is surely space for the critic whose displeasure is pleasurable, as Lorentzen suggests, but there is equally, I believe, space for criticism focused less on an individual author’s style than on accessible evaluation.
We need, in other words, a way of talking about criticism that is as pluralistic as possible, one in which criticism is never reduced to only one activity and one that acknowledges the needs and methods of certain circles and online communities without mistaking them for the needs and methods of all readers. Joseph, for all his nuanced work exploring the hatchet job from the perspective of both its perpetrators and its victims, remains mostly attuned to the frequencies of a small group, locating his analysis within very particular spaces and communities. Hatchet jobs, he says, tap into the “gossipy, backbiting quality of online discourse,” which is “mean, sure, but also terrifically entertaining”; Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, in its display of painful self-awareness, holds up a mirror to the “online frenzy of capital-D Discourse.” When he writes about his experience with Rooney’s newest self-reflective narrator, he recognizes that “it is clearly Rooney, herself, speaking to not only her critics but to all of us in this literary ecosystem. Reading this, I felt ambushed, as if someone I’d been cheerfully gossiping about for years suddenly confronted me on the subway.”
While reading this, I found myself asking: Whose discourses are these? And whose spaces? And if Joseph is right that hatchet jobs can be “terrifically entertaining” and so might be shamefully great fun in some cases, how online does one have be to get anything out of them? It strikes me that, while some readers might speak the language of “capital-D Discourse,” it’s also a phrase that is potentially meaningless to some readers and, quite frankly, potentially embarrassing to others. Simply put, these online discourses are not representative of every reader’s engagement with literature — not even close. Yet their ubiquity is an unspoken assumption of Joseph’s argument. When he writes that Rooney is speaking “not only [to] her critics but to all of us in this literary ecosystem,” it’s hard not to want to pause and ask, “All of us? In this ecosystem?”
The point is that if literary criticism is to remain relevant and useful to as many as readers as possible, it should expand what’s meant by “us,” and should commit, as it were, to improving the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Of course, it’s possible that such a commitment, however well intentioned, will simply reinforce the divisions that already exist. If we simply acknowledge that every form of criticism deserves a place in any healthy literary public, what’s to stop everyone from simply retreating back into their private enclaves? Won’t it just be a matter of time before the next n+1 forum on the crisis in criticism?
I do think there’s a way to avoid this, and it’s through doing something that seems counter to the whole spirit of pluralism: acknowledging that some types of criticism are in fact better than others. Wayne Booth called this the “theoretical paradox” of pluralism: to be as open as possible to different purposes, values, and methods, you need to have some nonnegotiable and overarching value that supersedes all other purposes, values, and methods. But it’s a paradox that just has to be embraced. If we really want a healthy literary culture — if we really want criticism to aid reading rather than limit it — we need to accept multiple purposes, values, and methods even as we emphasize that some ways of doing criticism make the whole thing work better than others.
And which ways are those? One way of illustrating them is by comparing two works of criticism on the same author: Christopher Hitchens’s review of John Updike’s Terrorist and Patricia Lockwood’s review of Updike’s Library of America editions. Both are negative reviews. Hitchens recounts throwing Updike’s novel across the room “in a spasm of boredom and annoyance,” while Lockwood shares some of her marginalia: “what the … WHAT.” Both could easily be described as hatchet jobs, with Lockwood outright admitting she knows what the London Review of Books was up to: “I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.”
But Hitchens’s negativity is, I think, fundamentally different from Lockwood’s. It’s the type of negativity that casts the reviewer as some sort of judge delivering an irrefutable verdict. “Updike has produced one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events [9/11] he has so unwisely tried to draw upon,” Hitchens writes. This is because Updike is “some considerable distance behind the story, giving the impression of someone who has been keeping up with the ‘Inside Radical Islam’ features in something like Newsweek.” Even further, there’s ultimately a right way to write about religion, one that provides “knowledge to be won from the portrayal […] and some imaginative sympathy,” and Terrorist simply does not provide those things. But nowhere does Hitchens suggest why this kind of portrayal of religion is better than another, or what distance, exactly, is the right one to have from “the story,” or how he came to decide these things. Those standards are taken for granted truths of Hitchens’s ecosystem, and since Hitchens can assume that all of us in this ecosystem know how Islam should be represented in a novel, all he has to say is that this particular novel doesn’t meet that standard. Jury dismissed.
The issue is not that Hitchens is negative; the issue is he’s unproductively negative. There’s no conversation to be had, no space for further thinking. Hitchens is merely measuring the novel to a critical yardstick he’s already built. Lockwood, alternatively, shows us how she made the yardstick. What’s presented is not a final judgment but an account of trying to make a judgment: “How am I to write about all of him, see him from every angle? It is helpful to visualise a globe: here are deserts of incomprehension, and here glaciers of stooped sympathy, and here a warm hometown seen right down to the brushstrokes.” We read about a journey from expectation to encounter; from prejudgment to reconsideration; from empathy to anger and back again. Lockwood makes room for more conversation — makes her criticism a pluralistic activity, in other words — by revealing how and why her evaluations emerge. These aren’t verdicts delivered from a bench; they aren’t sacred truths. Readers can identify her motivations and first principles and can figure out where their own motivations and first principles might differ. And so, when Lockwood asks a question like, “If he is a minor novelist with a major style, as Harold Bloom has it, then what is style?” a reader might be able to actually imagine answering back.
It is not tone or attitude or conclusion that separates these works — it’s method. And the great thing about method is that it’s portable. You can practice the same method in a review on a library website and in a 2,000-word polemic. Preserving room for as many critical voices as possible doesn’t mean we abandon any sense of what makes criticism “good.” But it might mean we stop thinking that for criticism to be good it must be irrefutable. Instead, we can think of and practice criticism as an act of productive persuasion, an invitation to readers to respond and to think further and to have that thought aided, but not overdetermined, by our claims.
This isn’t a new idea; as Merve Emre suggests in a recent profile of Elizabeth Hardwick, many critics, Hardwick included, have viewed criticism as “an act of persuasion, not coercion,” one that relies on “convincing readers that one’s judgment was not merely a permissible opinion but a universal truth.” But it’s that last bit — “universal truth” — that trips me up. I prefer Wayne Booth’s formulation: criticism is “more a way of living with variety than subduing it.” Which is another way of saying that criticism shouldn’t really be about discovering the “truth” of anything. It can instead be about making arguments that can convince other people and, more importantly, give them a chance to make their own arguments. Meaning that being right as a critic is less about what you say and more about what you make possible for your reader to say. Less an art of verity, really, than an art of variety.
With thanks to James Phelan and Fox Raud.
Antonio J. Ferraro lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches and studies at the Ohio State University, serves as the outreach coordinator for the International Society for the Study of Narrative, and the editorial assistant for its journal Narrative, and works at the Columbus Metropolitan Library.