making the case for the critical tongue

Thursday, August 16, 2012


This morning, I turn your attention to Dwight Garner's New York Times essay on criticism, and why the world needs more of it.  You can find the whole here.

My own blog post is not in need much set up.  The following two excerpted grafs (which do not run contiguously in the essay) put Garner's case squarely on the line. We need critics to tell it as it is, he says.  And we need people to understand what criticism is.
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star. 

Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human. 
Garner makes good points, though I'm not in utter accordance with them all.  My own stance on the matter is this:  I read, often, dozens of books each month.  On this blog I only talk about the ones I love.  I didn't love, say, THE HELP or WILD—which puts me in a distinct minority—and so I do not write of them here.  I choose, instead, to write about that which inspires me, or heartens me.  I choose not to add darkness to days, choose not to hurt if it is not required.  When days go by without my blogging about others' books, that is because I've not lately fallen in love.  Those would be those sweeps of time when you get, on this blog, fine domestic prattle, say, or precipitous news about my being named Most Pathetic.

But when I am asked—by the Chicago Tribune, by the Pennsylvania Gazette, by various other publications—to give my opinion about books I have not chosen, there is no walking away.  I have an obligation, a responsibility, to tell it as I see it then, and often I'm not loving what I find.  I was not, for example, a mega fan of AMERICAN DERVISH, and said as much in the Tribune.  It may not in my nature to be cruel, but it is in my nature to be decisive about books.  And so I aim, always, to criticize constructively, to speak of a book's perceived flaws as I would about the work of a beloved student.... to suggest, to query, to wonder out loud, to ask, Could more have been done?

We go about all of this in our fumbling ways.  Later today I will be cross-posting the official review of a book I did genuinely love.  (And I'm not alone in that.)  When you read that review know that I meant it, true.  That I was not cowering, not going small.

11 comments:

Serena said...

I have to tell you that reviewing books as I do on my blog, I try to walk a very fine line between criticizing and simply being mean. And I hope I'm successful, but I don't really know for sure.

Its a hard line to walk.

patti.mallett_pp said...

Truth is always needed. Fluff is well blown away, but too often it remains and overwhelms the senses (and buries the important stuff).

I appreciate your method of praising vs. silence.

patti.mallett_pp said...

But sometimes we must admit that our silence is more yellow than golden. (My friend, Robin, often reminds me of this.)

There is a place for both. Knowing that place the secret. I'm guessing you do that well.

Jody said...

Excellent and so thought-provoking that it made me dash off my own blog post on the subject. I provided a link to you here! (I doubt you'll agree with me, but that's what discourse is all about, right?)

The1stdaughter said...

I'm much like you. It's a rare thing for me to share an excessively critical and negative review on my site. My reasons behind that are heavily selfish in that without fail, every time I write a negative review I feel physically ill after I'm finished. Who wants that? Not me and certainly not the author.

Having said that, I always try to walk that same line Serena mentioned. Even in my positive reviews I try to examine books with a fine tooth comb and incorporate those small details into a larger picture of what the book meant to me.

Do people really have time for the negative? Why do we need more of it? Sure, as humans we all want to become better people, but at what expense? Isn't the publishing process critical enough? Why should I add to it when, on the flip side, I could add a voice of encouragement to those books and authors I love? I think the readers that come to me for recommendations are doing just that, looking for recommendations and not a public flogging of an individual's flaws.

Sorry...I'm off my soap box now. ;o)

The1stdaughter said...

Oh my. Now I'm reading that and it sounds terribly negative. Ugh. See what I mean? This topic is not good for me. Sorry!

Jody said...

@1stdaughter: I disagree. I was so impressed by your reasoning that I went right to your blog! Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like my new mystery is right for your reviewing needs, but you were thoughtful and intelligent.

Amy said...

I...do not hesitate to share why I may not like books I read because others may also be interested in these reactions. I don't do it to harm the authors, but tbh, I blog primarily for readers and as a journal for myself. Critical assessments of books help me be a better thinker as well. I'm not talking about shouty negative reviews, but times when bloggers go into more specific detail about what worked and didn't in the story, the implications for society and social justice by the way things are framed, etc.

I don't write about every book I don't love, by any means but sometimes I have something to say about a book I didn't like just as much as I might have something to say about a book I loved. I feel neither of these opinions are in the end authoritative and because it is the internet there are plenty of other opinions to be found.

However, I feel you are in a much different place as a author in a social media space and your stance certainly makes sense and seems like a wise decision for you.

The1stdaughter said...

@Jody Aww...thank you so much! It's a hard subject for me to tackle and so I'm glad you were able to appreciate it. If you ever write a children's book feel free to get in touch! :o)

Joanne Fritz said...

Beth, I read more than 100 books a year, and I certainly don't talk about that many on my blog. Like you, I only discuss the ones I love.

My reasoning is different, though. I don't feel right criticizing a published author when I'm not yet published myself.

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