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Are Dull Book Reviews Killing the Literary Genre?

British critic and literary editor suggests that one of the reasons for the shrinking print media coverage of books in the US is the dull book reviewing.   William Skidelesky says “book reviewing in [Britain] is in fairly robust health . . .   A lively chatter surrounds the British book scene, of which newspaper review sections are a central part.”

Via Media Bistro.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

13 Comments

  1. (Jān)
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 00:58:07

    LOL, we should all, for one day, post lurid and sensationlist reviews. With lots of exclamation points! We could do it about classics like Hamlet.

    “Dear Will,

    Something fishy in Denmark? Maybe it’s all those corpses lying around! Murder, suicide, incest and murder! And to top it off, you stole the story!!!!”

    Hmm. Maybe he’s got a point. I kinda like it. ;D

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  2. Karen Scott
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 02:25:55

    I don’t read NY Times style reviews, so I couldn’t possibly comment, but I do like reading the ones in The Guardian. I find those reviews very entertaining indeed.

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  3. Jia
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 05:03:46

    Jan: We should do that on April Fools. ;)

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  4. Jane
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 08:07:27

    Jan, what a great idea. Hmmm. What classic should I choose …

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  5. Meriam
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 10:18:22

    Like Karen, I mostly read The Guardian and I enjoy its weeklyReview. I recently picked up The Independent and was pleasantly surprised by its Books section – nice and long and interesting. I’m glad we’re still doing okay in Britain, but Skidelsky is right when he says “Newspaper review sections should work harder to make themselves both highbrow and populist…. review sections should also strive to be less herdlike and more idiosyncratic.”

    I thought the full article by William Skidelsky was fascinating, disregarding its sniffy attitude to bloggers for a moment. It brought to mind what Sarah Frantz recently said about reviews vs literary criticism. I’d be interested to hear what the academics have to say about this bit:

    But if literary journalism is increasingly feeding off itself… that is largely because academic criticism has withdrawn from the field. In the last two decades, English literature has both tangled itself up in arcane and inaccessible debates about theory and emasculated itself by allowing itself to become a handmaiden to other disciplines, through its embrace of historicism and cultural studies… the more Eng lit tries to prove that it is “rigorous,” the more it cuts itself off from aesthetics-’the original source of its attraction.

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  6. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 11:39:58

    I'd be interested to hear what the academics have to say about this bit

    Well, I’m not really qualified to respond to what’s happened in the past few decades with regards to the study of English literature, since I didn’t study English at university. I was in a Spanish department. But I think I can respond to this bit: “the more Eng lit tries to prove that it is ‘rigorous,’ the more it cuts itself off from aesthetics-’the original source of its attraction.” I disagree, but that’s because I’ve never considered aesthetics to be “the original source of [...] attraction” with regards to the academic study of literature. I think the appeal of the aesthetic has got a lot more to do with why someone might want to read (or review) literature. I’ve always been attracted to the study of literature because of how literature expresses ideas, attitudes and emotions through characters, symbolism, settings etc. I’m sure other people have other reasons for being attracted to literary criticism, but that’s mine.

    I don’t think that rigorous academic analysis has to be “inaccessible,” though it often is.

    And I think Skidelsky’s using an interesting metaphor there. Academic English Lit has “emasculated itself” and “become a handmaiden.” Ah. So somehow the discipline of English Lit has undergone a sex-change operation and was more manly when it was attracted to beauty. Then theorists (and I’m going to have to assume he’s including feminists and queer theorists among that group, as well as other theorists who have challenged the primacy of “dead white male” authors in the literary canon) came along and brought its identity into question and the result is that English Lit as an academic discipline is no longer virile enough to enter “the field” (the jousting field? the battle field?) and champion the best and most beautiful of novels and poems.

    He’s got related metaphors elsewhere in the piece which make it clearer that this is indeed how he’s thinking of the academic study of English literature. Earlier he mentions 2 quotations in which reviewers were accused of being impotent:

    The Irish playwright Brendan Behan likened critics to “eunuchs in a harem; they know how it is done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” [...] More recently, Martin Amis mercilessly ridiculed the figure of the hapless book reviewer with the character of Richard Tull-’embittered, impoverished and sexually inadequate-’in The Information (1995).

    Now, according to him, “A battle for authority is being waged between the printed and the digital word, and this explains both the chippy, combative tone of many bloggers, with their talk of ‘people power’ and it being ‘our turn now,’ and the defensiveness of many print journalists.” Note the use of “people power” and, later, the term “the new commentariat.”

    Skidelsky clearly thinks that academic literary criticism should be a virile and authoritative knightly figure willing to ride out to fight alongside the print reviewer in defense of aristocratic rule, but unfortunately the knight has become emasculated and is now merely a handmaiden.

    However, as an academic doing literary criticism of texts which are part of popular culture, I’m not going to leap to Skidelsky’s defense on what he chooses to think of as a field of battle. I’d much rather sit down and negotiate, and think about what all sorts of different novels have of value, even if their aesthetic qualities aren’t ones which attract Skidelsky.

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  7. Meriam
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 12:27:19

    What a fantastic response, Laura. I am now in complete agreement with you! With regards to this:

    Eng lit tries to prove that it is “rigorous,” the more it cuts itself off from aesthetics-’the original source of its attraction.

    For me, the aesthetics is the original attraction (but then I’m primarily a reader and I want to be entertained).

    What about this bit:

    Across fiction reviewing generally, in fact, there is considerable scope for improvement. This is, after all, the area of criticism where aesthetic judgements are not just desirable but necessary...Reviewers rarely attempt more than a plot summary and some perfunctory reflections on style. Trends are rarely analysed.”

    I noticed in your critique of VS,BK, you didn’t mention whether you enjoyed the book – obviously you don’t think your personal enjoyment of the text is pertinent to the literary criticism of a novel. Why?

    Also, what do you think of this (seeing as you straddle both worlds).

    But blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

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  8. Jane
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 12:33:55

    I am not sure why he assumes that reviewers for internet media don’t ruminate about the reviews itself or is he referring to comments to the reviews themselves? Since print media doesn’t have a real source for interaction, I am left a little befuddled at his point here.

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  9. Meriam
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 16:18:32

    Yep, I think what he says about blogging is based on assumption, snobbery and a lack of real experience or knowledge of the media. And what about genre fiction, particularly romance, which never gets the attention it deserves in print?

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  10. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 18:03:59

    I noticed in your critique of VS,BK, you didn't mention whether you enjoyed the book – obviously you don't think your personal enjoyment of the text is pertinent to the literary criticism of a novel. Why?

    My personal enjoyment (or otherwise) might help me to identify issues in the work which I’d find stimulating to write about but other than that, from an academic point of view my personal enjoyment doesn’t really matter much. My focus, as an academic, should be on the text, not on myself (although I should never forget that my personality and biases will affect my interpretation of the text).

    It really doesn’t matter if a particular novel made me laugh/cry/throw it across the room, because my emotional responses aren’t very interesting unless someone knows me personally. My enjoyment is almost certainly going to be based on very personal factors and writing about them would distract attention away from the book. Lots of readers collectively can be important e.g. if you’re analysing why a text became popular, and what that popularity might tell us about attitudes in the period during which it was written. But I’m not an academic who’s particularly interested in doing work on readers. I tend to be interested in what a text can tell me: it’s themes, how it’s constructed, how it fits into a literary tradition etc.

    blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

    This is true if people write blog posts quickly and then post them almost immediately. It’s not true in cases where someone spends a lot of time writing and thinking about their post before they publish it online. I think different bloggers have different methods, and different posting rates, and that’ll affect their writing. He’s making a vast generalisation about blogging.

    As for what’s required to produce “good criticism,” compared to the years I’d spend writing a book, or the months I’d spend writing an article for a journal, the time a reviewer spends writing a review is probably going to seem rather short. I might well observe that newspaper deadlines and the pressure to publish reviews while a book is still new on the shelves means that there isn’t time for lengthy reflection, detailed examination and the slow maturation of ideas. That wouldn’t be fair, because reviewing requires different skills to literary criticism, and reviews tend to be much shorter than works of literary criticism. But it’s the sort of dramatic and sweeping statement I could come out with, were I wanting to make myself sound superior, and I think Skidelsky would be wise to avoid making similar generalisations.

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  11. Meriam
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 19:00:06

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Laura. As a new blogger and a sometimes reviewer, the issues are interesting. I’d never really thought about these distinctions until the whole mass-review thing and Sarah’s subsequent comment on reviewing vs literary criticism.

    It goes without saying that I love TMT and the articles you produce.

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  12. veinglory
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 20:20:31

    IMHO as a person who used to read quite a lot of literary fiction and is now down to 2-3 a year I would say it isn’t dull reviews that are the problem. Although I am plenty sick of anti-populist, pretentious, rightous entitled-sounding literary reviewers whining that they have trouble getting full-time paid positions writing reviews no one reads about books no one reads. What is killing the literary genre, to the extent it is actually mortal and expiring, is dull books.

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  13. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 05:39:47

    It goes without saying that I love TMT and the articles you produce.

    But thank you for saying it anyway. It’s nice to feel appreciated ;-)

    As a new blogger and a sometimes reviewer, the issues are interesting.

    I think so too. It was something I was thinking about while reading a couple of Jane’s comments earlier in the week. First she wrote this:

    Some people think that we at Dear Author (probably me specifically because I write most of the opinion pieces for the blog) have some kind of agenda to do something with the romance industry. I don't

    and then she modified her comment to this:

    I suppose you are right Bev that there is some kind of agenda. Maybe I should have said I don't have a nefarious agenda, but again, the adjective before agenda could be different from person to person.

    All of us who write have agendas, if by that we mean “reasons for writing, and outcomes we hope to achieve by doing so.” And different types of writing/revealing certain personal prejudices/preferences might help move forward one type of agenda, but might not be appropriate if a person had a different agenda.

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