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