Tuesday, September 1, 2015
(Wait. Did that sound critical?)
This week the New York Times Book Review asked Charles McGrath and Adam Kirsch the question: Is Everyone Qualified to Be a Critic? It's a question I often ask myself. A question I've been asking myself for the past 20 years, in fact—throughout my reviews of many hundreds of books for print and online publications, my jottings on behalf of the competitions I've judged, and my meanderings on this blog.
What makes me qualified? Am I qualified? And do I do each book—whether or not I like it—justice?
I do know this: If my mind is dull, if I am distracted, if I feel rushed, if I've grown just a tad weary of this trend or that affect, I won't review a book, not even on this blog, where I own the real estate. Writers (typically) work too hard to be summarily summarized, falsely cheered, unhelpfully glossed. Reviews should only be treated as art (as compared, say, to screed or self-glorification). It's important, as McGrath notes, that we reviewers keep reviewing ourselves.
It’s surprising how much contemporary critical writing is a chore to get through, not just on blogs and in Amazon reviews but even in the printed paragraphs appearing below some prominent bylines, where you find too often the same clichés, the same tired vocabulary, the same humorless, joyless tone. How is it, you wonder, that people so alert to the flaws of others can be so tone deaf when it comes to their own prose? The answer may be the pressure of too many deadlines, or the unwritten law that requires bloggers and tweeters to comment practically around the clock. Or it may be that the innately critical streak of ours too frequently has a blind spot: ourselves.