CULTURE & ARTS

Book Critics Don't Exist To Flatter Your Taste

Calling critics sexist for disliking a book doesn't fix the problem of gender inequity in literature.

“Unlike critics who write about film or food or music, book critics are rarely required to engage with popular material,” Jennifer Weiner wrote in The Guardian on Tuesday with blithe confidence.

Like anyone who engages in book criticism professionally, I imagine, I bridled at this opening salvo. How dare you, Jennifer Weiner! But maybe she had a point. Unlike all those food critics penning thoughtful meditations on Applebee’s and Hot Pockets, perhaps I and all the other book reviewers out there were living in a fantasy world, an ivory bubble floating far above the real, earthy reading landscape.

Swallowing my pride, I soldiered on. In the article, Weiner argues that book critics are entirely divorced from what the majority of readers -- most of whom are women -- actually read and enjoy. Not only that, but when a critically acclaimed book does somehow achieve enormous popular success through word of mouth, she says, prominent critics hasten to “take back” the earlier approval through what she calls Goldfinching.

“It’s the process by which a popular and previously well-regarded novel and, more importantly, its readers, are taken to the woodshed,” Weiner writes. (Donna Tartt’s 2013 smash hit The Goldfinch is a prominent example and the namesake.) 

This phenomenon, she suggests, is bound up in our culture’s disdain for what women traditionally enjoy and create. Critics focus on what we deem literary fiction -- for the purposes of this piece, fiction that doesn't conform to the tropes or formulas of specific genres, and that generally aims to be artful or experimental in its prose and structure. On the other side, traditionally, are genres: romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, mystery.

Genres typically follow templates and employ familiar archetypes and tools, such as romance's surly bad boy who needs a good woman's love. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this; it means that readers know how to find exactly what they're looking for, just as I know to look for Katherine Heigl's face on Netflix when I'm in the mood to chill with a rote rom-com. (No shame.)

Readers, Weiner argues, who are mostly women, are not paying any mind to literary fiction. They're reading... well, genre fiction, presumably. In practice, the best-selling single adult genre is romance, but the bestseller lists are reliably a mix of literary and genre fiction of all types. 

Weiner isn't so sure. Books that cross over from critical acclaim to real-world popularity are, she insists, rare. When they do, she says, they're not only universally written by women, they will be taken down for sexist reasons. “First: the book’s writing will be blasted as sloppy or sentimental. [...] Next, the work will be dismissed in specifically gendered terms,” Weiner says. The current target: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which she notes was initially well-reviewed, but has recently seen snide reviews.

Weiner’s piece arrives shortly after Claire Vaye Watkins roiled the literary world with a long, thoughtful piece examining the white and male privilege that silently governs the canon and the book community. Weiner references Watkins’ piece, glancingly, but absorbs little of its self-reflectiveness or subtlety.

It’s understandable that the chauvinism of her field infuriates Weiner, but her polemic doesn't lend clarity to the situation. Instead, in the course of lambasting the entirety of the profession as a sexist, pretentious cabal bound up in ensuring nothing a woman ever likes be allowed to stand, Weiner makes several claims about book criticism and literary fiction that are demonstrably false or misleading.

Book critics rarely need to engage with popular material? What then of the Mary Gaitskill review of the smash hit Gone Girl, which Weiner then complains Gaitskill shouldn’t have written if she didn’t enjoy the book?

True, reviewers are less likely to write in-depth reviews of straightforward genre reads, as readers will seek them out regardless for their formula components. But there's more to literature than obscure avant-garde fiction and formulaic mysteries, and both reviewers and the public tend to pay attention to books that fall in between. The Girl on the Train, a literary thriller published in January, was widely reviewed and instantly became a mainstay of the bestseller lists. If certain authors become popular enough, even perceived lack of quality won’t shield them from critical attention. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin even reviewed E.L. James’ artistically disastrous but popular Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey As Told By Christian.

What’s more, Weiner entirely dismisses the possibility that positive book reviews might increase the popularity of certain books. “Critics ignore the books that people are actually reading; readers ignore the critics and the books they tout; everyone goes home happy,” she states glibly. Instead, she attributes any correlation to a hidden wave of “word of mouth” that sweeps certain well-reviewed books onto the sunny beach of success.

Word of mouth isn’t so easily separable from book reviews. What is a good review from Michiko Kakutani but a recommendation directly from a reader to hundreds of thousands of her closest non-friends? As with word of mouth, it’s tough to measure the impact of a glowing review on sales numbers. Still, one study showed that reviews do influence libraries’ purchasing choices. Another suggested that New York Times reviews swayed sales. In 2010, GoodReads pulled charts showing massive spikes in certain books’ activity after the books were reviewed or recommended on major platforms.

It’s easier to quantify the effect of another form of critical selection: book awards. And major book awards -- like the recent National Book Awards -- often do result in a significant bump in sales.

Of the evidence that exists, it all seems to point to this conclusion: Readers don’t simply read whatever critics tell them to read, but it’s a factor, and a factor that can be significant for certain books. For books that won’t simply be devoured by genre faithful -- experimental books, books that redefine the borders between genres, books from small presses with fewer publicity resources -- strong review attention can mean the difference between being ignored and hitting solid sales benchmarks. (An NPR story from last month pointed out that, for literary fiction, solid sales might mean only 20,000 copies.)

 

Do critics hate these books because women love them?
Do critics hate these books because women love them?

With so many books being published every year just in the U.S. -- well into the thousands -- it’s counterproductive to ask critics to fulfill the same functions that well-funded publicity machines, book clubs and genre-of-the-month roundups do so well. Readers have no trouble finding the latest Patricia Cornwell or a steamy new romance, or the type of book that their best friend happens to also enjoy. Besides, as art critics and food critics also know so well, criticism of formulaic work -- Thomas Kinkade, Olive Garden -- is boring and generally pointless; there isn't much, if anything, new to say about what's being done, and the audience already knows whether they want the product and why.

What critics can do, and should do, is look at another side of the book industry, one that might offer something more surprising, more difficult to get into, perhaps more challenging. There are far too many books out there for Christian Lorentzen and Mary Gaitskill to carefully consider them all. Their task is to pull out the books that might otherwise escape the readership’s attention. It's all too easy for books, even very good ones, to be entirely lost in the fray.

Or, possibly, to reconsider the merit of books that have continued to linger in the ether. If The Goldfinch had fallen into the publishing world with a deafening thud, there would have been no tasteless Vanity Fair article musing on whether the book even qualified as art, complete with Lorin Stein’s atrocious quote suggesting that even readers who thought they liked it, deep down, didn’t. (Sorry, Mr. Stein: I really did.)

Yanagihara’s A Little Life earned some glowing early reviews, and some more mixed, but later reviews necessarily reacted to the growing award buzz (it was a finalist for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker) to question whether it merited such glorification. The purpose of a critic is, after all, to examine culture critically, not simply to reiterate what’s going on out there. (“People really like A Little Life, you guys!”)

Weiner’s assessment of which literary books have become hits seems selectively geared to fuel accusations of sexism among critics. The Goldfinch, A Little Life: “Those juggernaut books have a few things in common,” she says, one of them being that “they’re written by women.” But it seems more that she’s choosing to look at the ones written by women. Plenty of literary books find popular audiences without female authors. What about Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which received rapturous reviews (and some critical teardowns) and hit the bestseller list, as his books tend to do? What about Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, which still lingers around the list well over a year after publication, despite being a critical darling? What about Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, a hefty, challenging read, which hit the paperback bestseller list after winning the Man Booker Prize in October?

When, she says, these books become popular, "some highbrow critic will announce that they are not literature at all but, in fact, sentimental trash." Well, we’re still waiting for the critical savaging of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are selling like hotcakes, or of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a buzzy novel that’s drawn love from critics this fall as well as hitting bestseller lists. When Celeste Ng’s literary thriller Everything I Never Told You came out last year, it got raves from critics; it’s currently on the paperback bestseller list.

As for that “juggernaut,” A Little Life, it’s hard to argue that it’s far outside the norm for a literary hit. In October, NPR listed its sales numbers in the U.S. as between 15,000 and 20,000 -- roughly the same as A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Weiner, as always, has a point -- the same one Watkins did: The literary world still has a huge problem with women. The critical treatment of Tartt’s The Goldfinch and of A Little Life have been troublingly disdainful at times, most notably in the thorough trashing literary critics gave The Goldfinch in Vanity Fair

She also critiques reviews that target the self-harming, delicately lovely and culinarily gifted hero of A Little Life, Jude. “You can smell the subtext, like burning cornmeal gingersnaps: real literature does not wear oven mitts, and real literary heroes do not spend large portions of a long novel baking gougères or bleeding in bathrooms,” writes Weiner. “That’s what girls do.”

But criticism of books written by women -- especially ones that have risen to cultural prominence -- is fair game. A character can be deemed, by a critic, over-the-top for being a talented patissier, amateur vocalist, lawyer and tormented self-harmer just as he might be for being a motorcyclist, amateur bullfighter, bounty hunter and given to taciturnly promiscuous behavior. (Personally, I find both a bit absurd as character sketches, but strict realism wasn't exactly Yanagihara's imperative.)

What The Goldfinch and A Little Life largely have in common is not popularity, or length, or even having been written by women: it's a very distinct fairy-tale-esque quality, an exaggerated reality with heightened highs and deepened lows. It's not an approach that appeals to everyone, and there may very well be a gendered aspect to the dismissal of the narrative style. But many women write in other styles, and the conflation of these two authors with "women writers" serves no purpose. It doesn't teach us anything about what's really going on with these books, or why people love them or hate them.

Rehashing these easy generalizations about critics and literary fiction might feel satisfying, but the real problems here can't be diagnosed in such satisfyingly black-and-white fashion. Watkins' personal, nuanced essay on her struggle with writing to a white male audience not only touched on a more true, profound point, it also provoked a larger discussion about the tangled mess of privilege and bias and silent prejudice that still infests the book world. Other women writers, women of color and white women shared experiences that differed from Watkins, that brought new concerns to the fore.  

Marlon James's own reaction suggested there's a complex interplay of racial and gender politics at work in the book world. His provocative take was prompted by Watkins' own essay but would be entirely foreclosed by a simplistic women vs. the world approach like Weiner's.

If only the problem with the literary world were so simple as "the critics are out to destroy women." It's not. Reducing the myriad class, race and gender issues of the industry to such a simple theory -- one that, by the by, entirely ignores the historical function of the critic in every field -- unfortunately leaves us with no more answers about how to make the book world more welcoming for everyone. 

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