Remember when everyone was super upset about newspapers cutting their book review sections? People picketed. People with better things to do and ideas in their heads stood outside of newspaper offices and held up signs and said words through bullhorns and performed other related physical activities. Until, I’m guessing, their feet got tired and they all shrugged and went to Starbucks.
Most of these people’s employment was in some way tied up in the newspaper book review section. Either they were writers worried about their next books not being covered and thereby boosting sales, or they were critics themselves, worried about their paychecks. I point this out to illustrate that there was no big public outcry that book review sections were being cut. A few readers may have written a letter here or there, or strayed into the picket line until their feet also got tired. But as a whole, the cutting of book review sections was met by the general public with a shrug.
This all happened several years ago. More and more book sections collapsed, more and more longtime critics were laid off. And still, no one outside of those inside of the business of reviewing books quite noticed.
It feels stupid to talk about the crisis of book criticism when the entire industry is in crisis. We have no bookstores now—now that Borders bullied so many independent shops out of business and then died itself, now that Barnes & Noble is in death throes, now that Amazon rules publishing and treats it like a British landowner in 19th century Ireland.
“Oh, you’re starving to death? That’s too bad, it’s your own fault really. It’s a shame you can’t have any of that nice food you’ve been growing, because you know that’s ours now. Because we said so. If you could go outside to die, that would be helpful, it makes such a mess when you go, you know.”
Then there’s the no-one-reads-anymore hysteria, the lack of supportive careers for apprenticing writers, the MFA deathtrap, etc. It feels self-indulgent as a critic to say, “But the whole critical structure has broken down, let’s talk about that.” The critic only comes into play when the books are actually produced and put onto the market, meaning their jobs are tied into this whole decaying, rotting mess of an industry. Which is why it’s amazing that the only thing book critics really got exercised about was the cutting of newspaper review sections, not any of the rest of it. Surely there was another point where they could have placed their picket lines to do some good.
And let’s look, for a moment, at what the death of the newspaper review actually meant, because that keeps getting lost in the nostalgic haze of men who remember a simpler time, when literary culture was tied intimately into popular culture and authors could still be rock stars without writing about magicians or vampires or whatever. The death of the newspaper review meant the end of the literary authority who would declare that books by straight, white men are always the best of books. That books by the conglomerate publishing houses are the best of books. That literary culture exists only in New York City. That literary critical culture is a lofty, apolitical space of objective assessment. That is essentially what the critical culture told us for the fifty years of the post-war literature (the peak for literary rock stars like Mailer, Updike, Nabokov, et al.) and its seemingly never-ending influence.
Actually, there are some newspaper book review sections still in existence for some reason, but now the rowdy online culture regularly keeps tabs on them. They count up the number of books written by women and people of color and LGBT writers that are reviewed by the newspapers. Or the number of women, people of color, and LGBT reviewers who are hired to write the reviews. It is always a small fraction of the whole. And that is what all those people on the picket line fought to save: a sexist, racist, elitist system.
Some people still confuse the newspaper literary culture—a small subgroup, almost a fetish really—with literary culture as a whole. Mostly those people are the people the newspaper literary culture is both serving and comprised of, those silly people in the picket lines. White, straight, male New York writers and critics.
I can’t imagine why that might be.
But also alarming is the number of women, people of color, LGBTQ, radicals and weirdos, all the wonderful et ceteras of the world, banging on the doors of the New York Times to be let in. As if inclusion will give them legitimacy. As if there isn’t a fucking cover fee. As if that fee weren’t parts of your human body.
I want to tell them: this world is not for you, you are better without it. Outside the gates, not in. This world was in fact, in part, designed specifically to keep you out. It does not want you. It will not nourish you.
And just because you gain entry for one fleeting moment, do not think for a second that you haven’t stomped all over the even less desirables on your way in, don’t think the system has suddenly become tolerant.
But people outside the city’s walls long for entry; it is the set-up. That is how the city controls the frontier.
More interesting would be to exist outside the walls, and learn how to raid the city for whatever it is you need.
Just to be clear, the Internet is not the frontier in this particular metaphor. Some of it might qualify, but most of it is just suburbs. The most respected, the most quoted and blurbed from, the most prominent and respectable of the literary critical apparatuses online are run by white men. They write about books published by conglomerate publishers. They pretend literary culture exists solely in New York, although MFA programs will also get attention. Other than a few eye-rolls about Amazon hijinks, they too are apolitical.
The city sends the suburbs their goods, the suburbs are grateful. The suburbs praise the city, the city in turn nurtures and feeds the suburbs with advertising dollars, book advances, and entry visas.
People like to think they live on the frontier, that they are pushing boundaries and living rebelliously. Nobody really wants to be James Joyce, though. When it comes down to it. Totally inaccessible and publishing poison, forced to self-publish with the help of two (inadequately celebrated) lesbians, thought to be a madman, and still cursed to this day. No one really wants to be James Joyce, living in borderline poverty with an insane daughter and a layabout son, quietly changing the world but very rarely, if at all, acknowledged for it. So completely out on the frontier his books were confiscated and destroyed by multiple governments.
But everyone wants to think they’re James Joyce, in their cozy teaching jobs, in mortgaged homes, writing about the same things that everyone else is writing about. They want to think themselves renegades but they still want to be regularly petted by the authority. They look at their surroundings, and they think, I can see grass, I can see sky, this must be the frontier.
It’s not. Check your paystubs, it’s not.
For a critical culture to be vital, it has to be aware of its placement in the system. It has to see that system as broken. It has to respond to its brokenness.
It makes sense to me that when the system goes wobbly, the critical culture responds by saying, “From now on, we will only run positive reviews.” It is a long list of publications and critics who have come out saying this, from The Believer to Buzzfeed to assorted Internet communities.
But that of course is not criticism, it is enthusiasm. And enthusiasm only happens in long form when all uncertainties and unknowns have been weeded out. When expectations are met.
It is a way to regain control. Uncertainty causes anxiety, and when things are already uncertain due to a literary system in flux, it is easier to close off, to shut the gates, to only admit those whose entrance is guaranteed. To, you know, review your friends.
Anxiety’s primary function is to ready the body for action and for change. It is a complicated uprooting process, the gathering together of energy and focus so that when you decide what to do, you are able to do it. But only reviewing positively, closing off the doors of each individual subculture, creating communities of enthusiasm—that is not making a decision. That is the opposite of it. You are shutting all the windows and doors and trapping your anxiety in there. Smiles become forced and plastic-y, and the anxiety becomes, Do I really belong here? Do they want me here? How can I ensure my placement here?
Give a person absolute freedom and probably what they will do is just copy the person closest to them. The anxiety of making a decision under absolute freedom is too much to bear. There is surely only one way to do things right, and all of these other ways to do things wrong. It’s why the Internet culture is just a copy of newspaper culture, but with a few fucks and shits thrown in.
The removal of the newspaper book review and the rise of the Internet literary culture gave us all absolute freedom. So we all just basically recreated newspaper culture, because it was easy to replicate and had worked for them for so long. Surely it was the right thing to do.
It’s hard to say what value the literary critic provides to the larger culture. And I say this as someone who has spent the last twelve years of her life engaged in this activity. Don’t think there weren’t nights where I woke up with the thought “My entire purpose in life is to help people make decisions about which books to buy; I am simply part of someone’s marketing strategy,” chilling me to the bone.
There’s the value that the literary critic can provide, but it is so often buried under needs of that critic to tend to one’s career, to boost friends’ books, and that burning desire to make one’s opinion heard. That value is, thinking a thought out loud, following it through centuries of other people’s thoughts, synthesizing it with your own thoughts and experiences. Books are vehicles for ideas, but ideas have no purpose until they are forced into contact with minds and bodies and experiences. Critics can put ideas into action, through the juxtaposition of idea and world.
And books are deeply personal things. Wept over, treasured, passed along. Not external objects, their function is to become internal. Sometimes the fit needs adjusting, that is another thing that the literary critic can provide.
Literary critics have value. And yet sitting here I cannot come up with a single name of a critic who has played some sort of role in my life. Elizabeth Hardwick? But really only for her fiction, her essays never did that much for me. Jenny Diski? But really only her personal essays. I am struggling here. And yet surely there have been some.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t remember a name. There were books that got into my hands thanks to critics, and there were books I was able to think my way through thanks to some assistance. It is probably right that they disappeared in that act, their identities dissolving so that the author could take their place. One should probably distrust someone who tries to make their name as a critic, someone whose goal is to be known for performing this act.
I am trying to remember what dragged me into this role to begin with. Books had served me, I wanted to serve them back. It must have been as simple as that.
If all we are doing as book critics is propping up those in power, the conglomerate publishers and the unthinkingly celebrated, we are failing at our jobs.
If all we are doing as book critics is pretending there is such a thing as objective assessment of literature, we are failing at our jobs.
If all we are doing as book critics is assisting people in making a choice as a consumer, we are failing at our jobs.
If all we are doing as book critics is looking at the book and not the system that it came out of, we are failing at our jobs.
I am a self-hating book critic who is failing at her job, daily. But the act of failing, and trying to understand that failure, is an interesting one to me. So I will keep at it, never quite getting it right.