There’s no rea­son to be fear­ful – crit­ics still mat­ter

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Rose­maryGor­ing

An ar­ti­cle by the Rus­sian mem­oirist Elif Ba­tu­man in last week­end’s New York Times opened with a crush­ing anec­dote – crush­ing, that is, for any­one who has ever writ­ten a book re­view.

In con­ver­sa­tion with a critic who had made sen­si­ble com­ments about Anna Karen­ina, Tol­stoy, be­low, replied: “ Your judg­ment ... is true, but not all of it. That is, it is all true, but what you have expressed does not ex­press all that I meant ... It is one of the true things that can be said. If I wanted to ex­press in words all that I meant to ex­press by the novel, then I should have to write the same novel as I have writ­ten all over again.”

This poses a thorny prob­lem for crit­ics. If, with­out re­gur­gi­tat­ing word­for-word an en­tire novel, a critic can re­flect only a frac­tion of what a book is about, what’s the point? This and a sea of equally stormy ques­tions about the sig­nif­i­cance of the mod­ern book critic are the sub­ject of six es­says in the New York Times, as some of its finest re­view­ers try to ex­plain why crit­i­cism still mat­ters as much as it ever did.

That sub­ject has been ad­dressed over the years in this col­umn and, across the decades, in count­less oth­ers. An ev­er­green topic, it’s per­pet­u­ally re­freshed by changes in technology and so­ci­ety that seem ex­pressly de­signed to keep nov­el­ists and re­view­ers in a state of per­ma­nent anx­i­ety about their worth and their wages.

The rea­son why so many big guns have been rolled into place in the New York Times to con­sider it afresh on the cusp of the new year, how­ever, is noth­ing more alarm­ing than fashion. Watch­ing with un­ease the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of such me­dia as Twit­ter and tweet­ing, e-books and Face­book, some literati have con­vinced them­selves that new me­dia are threat­en­ing to steal read­ers; and of the dwin­dling num­bers left, many are grow­ing so at­tuned to the quick­sil­ver at­ten­tion span new technology en­gen­ders that their minds are turn­ing into the hu­man equiv­a­lent of an amoeba – barely in­tel­li­gent, let alone ca­pa­ble of re­spon­sive or cre­ative read­ing.

It is with great re­lief, then, that I can re­port that the New York Times’s re­view­ers re­fute all rea­sons for fear. In­deed, it was im­pres­sive that while they are pas­sion­ate about books, they don’t dis­par­age any­one’s taste. It’s still a big world out there, they say, and there’s room in it for ev­ery­thing – twit­ter­ers and book­worms, nov­el­ists who write long­hand and e-book devo­tees, chick-lit fans and blue-stock­ings (and none of these camps is in­com­pat­i­ble).

In fact, one of the six re­but­ters is in­fec­tiously up­beat. Katy Roiphe, a well-re­spected bi­og­ra­pher, is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of writ­ing, and by ex­ten­sion of crit­i­cism: “ We could view the sight of a well-dressed busi­ness­man in a hound­stooth suit read­ing Gary Shteyn­gart’s Su­per Sad True Love Story on an iPad as he waits in the beige an­techam­ber of the doc­tor’s of­fice as a sign not of the death of the book, but of the ir­re­press­ibil­ity of lit­er­a­ture.”

And just as lit­er­a­ture will sur­vive for so long as hu­mans ex­ist, so will crit­ics. There are many rea­sons why we read re­views. Some­times it’s to learn what’s just been pub­lished, and what it’s about; some­times it’s to see if a book is deemed good or bad. Some­times it’s be­cause the re­viewer is a writer we’d read no mat­ter what the sub­ject. In my opin­ion, those re­views are the best. You may think dif­fer­ently (es­pe­cially if you’re an author).

What­ever your view, though, crit­i­cism mat­ters. Whether it’s a re­view in the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, The Her­ald, or on Ama­zon, ap­praisal is part of a con­ver­sa­tion about books that mur­murs con­stantly, as if in a base­ment be­neath the writ­ers’ floor. With­out that di­a­logue, writ­ers would no doubt still con­tinue to write, though they might find the si­lence un­nerv­ing. Read­ers, how­ever, would find it a lot harder to dis­cover the finest books. Like chil­dren aban­doned in a fairy­tale for­est, we’d soon be hope­lessly lost.

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