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Why Literary Criticism Still Matters

[clock] 4-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: May 23, 2013


Which of the following constitute objective, literary criticism? Which constitute literary marketing? And which are neither of the above?

•  A bookseller writes a book review for a major national newspaper
•  A book reviewer accepts money from a publisher to promote a specific title after reviewing the book
•  A book blogger accepts a free bag of books from a publisher and schedules reviews of those books
•  A journalist writes a book and gives it to a colleague who promotes it on the air
•  A book blogger publishes a review that is verbatim copy of the book’s press release

The first situation is often considered fair, but there are publications that eschew it, just as they would the reviewer in the second situation, believing that a person who promotes a product cannot fairly review the same product. Yet the remaining situations are almost always overlooked. I have seen book reviews written by people who have dined with the author just days prior to the review’s publication; we’ve all seen examples of what Spy magazine used to call “Log-Rolling In Our Time,” as one author praises a novel and then the author of that novel praises the first author’s book, and so on.

Where does book reviewing end and book marketing begin—and does this question even still matter to the business of publishing? As review pages shrink, publishers’ PR and marketing departments may not feel the impact, as other forms of recommendation become more prevalent and possibly impact sales far more—such as user reviews, word of mouth, and social-media recommendations. In a world of recommendations only, we don’t have to worry about conflicts of interest. Books are not pharmaceuticals or food; we don’t need a federal agency to vouch for their contents or effects. (Imagine if we had one—that’s another column, and probably for McSweeney’s.) No one is going to get hurt if a book recommendation is based solely on the recommender’s love for the author.

However, no one is anyone going to get the best experience, either. Think of it in terms of restaurant reviews. The chef’s sister-in-law may tell you a great deal about the restaurant, but she’ll probably leave out the bad stuff—and she may not even remember to tell you about the thing (wine list, handicapped accessibility, pork fat in the butter) that might be most important to you. It takes an unbiased (and therefore, in restaurant world, often anonymous) reviewer to give a balanced account of what is going on at any given restaurant. Similarly, book reviewers and critics strive for an unbiased, conflict-free approach so that they can tell you both the good and the bad. Sometimes there’s more of one than the other; sometimes the praise and blame is balanced.

A significant disadvantage of the world of book recommendation is that we never hear about books that don’t live up to their promise. The bad books. Yes, I’ve heard the “We don’t have time for bad books” argument, and while that works for recommending titles to genteel associations, it stinks when it comes to creating and maintaining a lively culture. You see the problem, I hope: If we only have positive “recommendations” for “good” books, then those cheery recommenders are somehow, somewhere along the way weeding out books that don’t “deserve” recommendations.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for publishers. Publishing is a business, not an arts collective. This is a problem for authors and readers. If we want to have a balanced and literate literary culture, we have to be ready to name good books and bad books—and even to name the good and the bad within a single book, which is what the best book critics do on a regular basis.

Showing that books can contain good and bad but still be worth reading is just one of the ways in which critics benefit the reading public, and they also help readers place books in context. Is this book the next Holy Bible? The next Great American Novel? A blockbuster thriller? Yes, no, maybe? And why? What makes it so?

If we don’t have reviews that tell us the truth—alongside recommendations that provide enthusiasm—then we have less information about how to spend our wild and precious reading lives. You can’t read every book, but even the small bits you read about as many books as possible increase your worldview.

Those small bits (even when reviews are relatively long, they’re not that long) constitute part of a dialogue with the book and its author. In the world of social media, one might argue that any reader can have a dialogue with an author about her book, any time. Yes. That’s the proper place of literary marketing, allowing readers more access to books and authors—but that immediate (and sometimes, let’s admit, breathless) back and forth isn’t the same as a considered dialogue.


About the author: Bethanne Patrick (@TheBookMaven) is a writer and editor focusing on books and culture. Her work has appeared in AARP, O: The Oprah Magazine, and The Washington Post. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.


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Amanda McKee's picture
I think that this is a very important discussion to have, especially in the digital age where anyone can post a review about anything, and in fact, there services out there that you can pay to fluff up your book’s ratings on sites like Amazon. Some of them may have looked at the book, others not. So even if you try to engage with the author and their work, genuine criticism/input can easily become lost in casual conversation.
David Y.B. Kaufmann's picture
All the points are well-taken, but I think there’s one point not spoken (or written): what qualifies a person to be a critic? We know recommendations come out of personal preference; we accept recommendations from those whose preferences we know or trust. Yes, the mass of book recommendations that drive e-b00ks come from people we don’t know. But if there are enough reviews or recommendations, we get an aggregate sense of the book. I agree that the critic still has a vital role to play. The criteria-based review, the curative process, of which criticism may be the last stand, contributes to the “balanced and literate culture.” But, as Alexander Pope noted, it requires training to be a good critic. Maybe his poetic essay should be required reading for any would-be critics. And to paraphrase another author, “who critiques the critics?” Thanks for an important, thoughtful essay.
Taye' Foster Bradshaw's picture
I do literary reviews specifically about black female literature and I write about the good, as well as the bad. I do not write about the publishing worlds’ fixation on the soft-porn of urban fiction that is passed off as black contemporary fiction. It was my own journey as a bibliophile to discover works of authors beyond the known works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. My reviews are available at Taye Foster Bradshaw’s Bookshelf. http:/ I recently reviewed Benilde Little’s book, Who Does she Think She Is? I try to be objective, not give the story away, and leave the reader with the answer if they will engage with the book or not.

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