(Snooty) Literature Critics Criticize Reader's Literary Criticism

05/13/2011 04:56 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

There is an interesting piece at Book Beast about "The Future of Book Reviews: Critics vs. Amazon Reviewers." It reports on a panel discussion sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle which, unsurprisingly, included four prominent 'professional' reviewers but no one representing the casual reader/reviewer, who the pros all, unsurprisingly, kicked around. Too bad, because while many of the criticisms of the armchair critic were valid, a much more important point was missed. The flaws of customer criticism notwithstanding, the ability of readers to offer their feedback into the great public discussion of literature contributes significantly to an interest in reading, and writing... which is one of the goals of literary criticism in the first place.

The criticisms of the proletariat reviewers who publish their views on Amazon and elsewhere were predictable. Such reviews are "often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated," sniffed Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English and Theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who added that such reviews are often lacking in "taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument." Take that, "I'mAnAvidReader" (see all my reviews)" Amazon critic! Author Cynthia Ozick said she found it "disheartening" that the most committed readers are Amazon customer reviewers. Participants lamented the way sites like Amazon offer "If you read this, you might also be interested in..." suggestions that threaten to narrow the breadth of what readers read. As French novelist and commentator Herve Le Tellier put it, "If you follow that advice, you will always read the same book, maybe not written by the same person, but the same book."

And Dickstein offered this; "The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing." Well, that depends on what your definition of reviewing is, doesn't it? And more important, what your views are about the purpose of reviewing.

So that my cards are on the table... I have written two books, the first of which got a few nice reviews, the second of which got one three-sentence trashing by a 'professional' reviewer who may have "taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument," but apparently hadn't actually read my book. (This opinion was universally shared among my colleagues and friends who read both my book and the shallow 'banal... blankly opinionated' review.) I am also, I shamefully confess, only a casual book reader and a minimal consumer of book reviews, though I devour all sorts of other written material.

With those meager credentials, may I humbly suggest that the way these professional literary reviewers see reviewing is more than a wee bit effete, and narrow. May I suggest that the democratization of reviewing, as much as it certainly does give voice to all kinds of awful writing and thinking, is important precisely because it gives readers that voice. They are now participants in discussing the world of literature that reviewing, in its broadest sense, exists to encourage. Their ability to chime engages them in reading. (Writing, even.) The online world is a giant book club, which is generally good for books.

The democratization of reviewing provides an encouragement to authors as well. Few things will do a book as much good as a professional review in a high-profile publication (now that Oprah's leaving, of course), but the wider opportunity for favorable buzz about your work, not only from customer reviews but the proliferation of online book review sites which allow reader input, is liberating. An author with no name (me), no established body of work (me), no contacts among the literati (me), faces severe barriers-to-entry to the professional reviewing world that can mean so much. But now, that world is not the only way to get one's work reviewed and discussed.

Here's something else the critic's comments seem to have overlooked. While the wide-open conversation about what's good and what's bad, what's recommended and what's not, may not meet the highest standards of professional literary critics in terms of thought or erudition, or satisfy the more intellectual function of the classic literary review, not every reader wants a review for that kind of erudition and thought. Sometimes we just want to know what a book is about and whether it's good read, and why. And we can get a sense of that from the Amazon and online reviews.

Finally, pardonnez moi, Monsieur Le Tellier, mais a lot of people like one sort of book more than others. Readers of history like reading history, not sci fi. Sci fi readers are more into books like Dune (read it) than the Public Orations of Demosthenes (didn't). Most readers have preferred genres or topics, so the "If you liked that, you might like this..." recommendations at Amazon and elsewhere (mercenary as they are), don't narrow what a reader reads. They expand it, by making readers aware of books they might not otherwise know about.

Remember when President Bill Clinton said, "That depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is?" This kerfuffle has to do with what the meaning of literary criticism is. Ms. Ozick captured a more liberal definition, which provides room for the sort of reviews written by readers for Amazon and elsewhere, when she said, "Not only are they willing to buy books consistently, not as a now-and-then event; they also are intent on evaluating them in a public way, and they devote time and effort to fashioning a response. In short, they are serious about the meaning and effect of books, exactly what we would call a literary point of view."

It seems like the reflections of people serious about the meaning and effect of books qualify as a valuable form of literary criticism. It seems "blankly opinionated" to suggest otherwise.

David Ropeik is author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts (eight reviews at Amazon... so far!)